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Breaking Down the 8 Limbed Path — The Yamas

The Yamas, the first of Patanjali's 8 Limbs of Yoga, explore our external relations and outward ethics.

The first of Patanjali's 8 Limbed Path of yoga, Yama, is the most external step of the path. It's all about our ethics toward others, our relationship with the world around, and our ability to communicate and cooperate with other people.

Has not a failure to observe the basics of Yama/Niyama brought many a modern God-man’s reputation crashing?

BKS Iyengar's book, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, is a beautiful exploration of the Yoga Sutras and he truly captures the completion of the idea behind yoga, the practice of yoga and the art of yoga.

Each limb of Patanjali's 8 Limbed Path works together. It's represented well by the image of a wheel. A wheel doesn't have a beginning and end. It simply rolls continuously from one spoke to the next — round and round and round. The 8 Limbed Path is the same. While each piece works from the outermost layer of being to the innermost, they all inform each other.

As Iyengar puts it, it doesn't matter how holy you are if you aren't treating yourself and the world around you with respect, love and an ethical purpose.

And that's the Yamas — the ethical treatment of the world around us.

The 5 Pillars of Yama

Patanjali gives us a guide to these ethical practices. He breaks them down into five main pillars — ahimsa (harmlessness, non-violence), satya (real, genuine, honest, virtuous, truthful), asteya (non-stealing, non-misappropriating), brahmacarya (continence, chastity, religious studentship) and aparigrahah (without possessions, without belongings, non-acceptance of gifts).

It's fairly straightforward really and it's behaviors and characteristics that are taught as right ways of living across cultures and belief systems. It's the Golden Rule — treat others as you want to be treated.

Don't do harm.

Be honest and truthful.

Don't steal (the translation of asteya as also non-misappropriating is interesting considering the history of colonization, spiritual bypassing and appropriation surrounding yoga, but we can talk about that more later).

Practice spriritual studies and self-restraint.

Don't be greedy. I love how Iyengar explains this..."absence of greed for possessions beyond one's need." We, as humans, obviously have needs. We need food, water, connection. But here it's a differentiation of knowing our limits of need. Again, we can go into that more another time.

"Yama develops the art of living in society honestly."

Practicing the Yamas

The practice of yoga goes far beyond the physical postures that we all see on Instagram every day.

Fun Fact — those physical postures, or asana, only make up about 2% of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras.

To truly be a student of yoga we must take our practice beyond the mat. We must engage. Yoga is the practice of social justice. Yoga is activism. Yoga is political. No matter how much we want to think otherwise.

And that starts in the Yamas. Learning to treat the world around us with love and respect is the first step on the 8 Limbed Path, but what's inside also informs how we treat the world around us. It's the wheel. It's the cycle. It's the whole.

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