The 8 Limbs of Yoga: What are the Yamas?

Updated: Jul 17

The eight limbs of yoga, as described by Pantanjali in The Yoga Sutras, make up the foundation of yoga and help us escape from suffering. Asana, or the yoga pose, is the third limb of yoga. But what about the other seven? This blog series is going to focus on the eight limbs of yoga, based on Ashtanga Yoga by Gregor Maehle and The Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali (translated by Sri Swami Satchidananda), beginning with the first limb—the yamas.


What are the 8 limbs of yoga?

Photo by Alex Shute on Unsplash


The Yamas: Ethics We Live By

The first limb of yoga—called the yamas—refers to our ethics or right way of living. It's the way we view the world outside of ourselves and how we control our impulses or reactions. In The Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali the five yamas, sometimes called restrictions, are described as:

  1. ahimsa (non-violence)

  2. satya (truthfulness)

  3. asteya (non-stealing)

  4. brahmacharya (abstinence)

  5. aparigraha (non-attachment)

We are not going to change the whole world, but we can change ourselves and feel free as birds. We can be serene even in the midst of calamities and, by our serenity, make others more tranquil. — Pantanjali

Ahimsa

Ahimsa, or non-violence, is how we treat ourselves and the world around us. Whether it's the way we talk to our bodies ("You look terrible today!"), how we react to others on social media, or the thoughts we have when we're driving or standing in a long line ("OMG, you're so slow!), The Yoga Sutras teach us to show up with more non-violence or compassion, no matter how triggering an event or circumstance may be. It may be that you're treating your own body with violence by wearing socks that don't protect your feet like I did yesterday, snapping at your kids or ex in a moment of exasperation, or quietly cussing out the guy in front of you for cutting you off in his truck. Ahimsa teaches us how to show up with more compassion and forgiveness for ourselves and others in every moment.


Of course, no one is completely non-violent all of the time, but through ahimsa we learn to regulate our thoughts and actions and over time we might even alter our behavior when we view all forms of life with the same level of non-violence. Some people may become vegetarian or others may alter the way they shop or treat the environment based on their practice of ahimsa.


As a cancer survivor, I found that I had a lot of violent thoughts and emotions when I got cancer that I didn't necessarily act upon, but they lived in my body, and I sometimes wonder if they got trapped there, causing disease and chaos throughout my cells. Yoga poses and meditation gave me a long pause so that I could better monitor my violent thoughts and reactions.


Satya

Satya, or truth, is the lens through which we want to view the world. Whether it's how we speak our truth or live through truth, this yama teaches us to let go of our illusions and projections and to start seeing things the way they truly are.


But it takes time and practice for our projections to fall away, and when we do begin seeing the truth in the world, it's important to have the practice of non-violence already in place, which is how the two yamas build upon one another. Otherwise, our voice can cause more violence in the world.


When we can show up with honesty and compassion for ourselves and others, we can begin to let go of our suffering and accept the world for the way it is, rather than how we want it to be. And that's how we can make true changes in the world. The Yoga Sutras say, We are not going to change the whole world, but we can change ourselves and feel free as birds. We can be serene even in the midst of calamities and, by our serenity, make others more tranquil.


Asteya

Asteya, or non-stealing, isn't merely about stealing others' possessions. When we show up in the world, we want to show up without stealing others ideas, resources, or respect. Non-stealing can be about misusing the earth's resources or interrupting others. It can be about taking away others' patience or kindness. Are we being too controlling or demanding? Are we stealing others' time?


By delving deeper into our practice, we take on more and more responsibility for the way we live in the world, whether it's how we treat the land we live on or the animals and trees who inhabit it. We may even go deeper into this yama and see ways we steal from ourselves, whether it's through bad habits, self-denigration, or procrastination.


Brahmacharya

Although brahmacharya generally refers to our fidelity, we can also view abstinence by allowing ourselves to take periodic breaks from all pleasures in life, whether it's through fasting (from food or social media and news) or from sex.


Brahmacharya teaches us to live with balance and equanimity and to not take more than we need or fill up our senses incessantly through occasional practices of abstinence. Maybe we need to turn off our phones or our TV? Go on a two-day fast? Take a break from coffee or Netflix? Leave abusive relationships or be more mindful of our sex lives?


Aparigraha

Building upon abstinence, aparigraha teaches us to let go of our attachments, whether it's our attachment to our belongings, our age, our health and hair, our relationships, or our comforts and pleasures in life. We grow accustomed to certain patterns and possessions and aparigraha reminds us that this state is temporary. Life is about letting go of everything over time (or as Shakespeare writes, "Last stage of all is...sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.")


This is the ultimate goal of our practice: To let go of our lives and bodies with grace and ease. If we can use our cancer journey and our yamas to accelerate letting go of our attachments, we will find less suffering and more joy in our lives.