As we begin our exploration of Patañjali’s 8-limbed path, it is important to take a moment to honor who Patañjali was and consider why his work of the Yoga Sutras is a foundational study of Yoga. The sage Patañjali is thought to have lived somewhere between 500-200 B.C. Most of what we know about him comes to us through legends and lore. Patañjali has written on various topics, including medicine and grammar, but his culminating and most well-known work was the Yoga Sutras. The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali are 196 verses or aphorisms, divided into four books (padas), which lays out Yoga’s path to spiritual enlightenment. Although it is complex, and there are many rich translations of the text, it is also a simple methodology that can provide significant guidance to any practitioner. Patañjali’s 8-limbs are set in the text, and they build upon, yet at the same time intersect each other, creating a framework that can lead to the unification of mind/body/spirit. The first five limbs deal with our efforts, while the final three bring us into union with a higher power such as The Divine, God, The Universe, and ultimately, your true Self.
In this first blog post and the coming ones, we will examine each limb to deepen our understanding of the Yoga Sūtras.
Patañjali’s First Limb of Yoga Sutra – The Yamas (Abstinence)
The Yamas are the first of the eight limbs, and they are essentially our moral values and rules of conduct. The Yamas reference our relationship with the world around us, and they guide us towards self-restraint and ethical action in our lives. Practicing the Yamas requires awareness and diligence to release judgments of ourselves and others. The Yamas are comprised of five’ vows’ or components that practitioners should try to follow unconditionally, even (and especially) when challenged in difficult life situations. Practicing the Yamas creates a strong foundation upon which the rest of the limbs can build upon.
One: Ahimsa or Non-Violence and Compassion
Ahimsa in Sanskrit means non-violence on every level. This means not hurting ourselves or others physically, verbally, mentally, or emotionally. Ahimsa is to live with a sense of cooperation and harmlessness globally, including treading lightly on the Earth we walk. We know that violence, anger, and judgment only incite more of the same. We can see that clearly in our country’s current political climate. But Compassion, kindness, and forgiveness also radiate, so as we cultivate ahimsa within ourselves, it will naturally seep out into the world around us. Significant shifts begin to happen at the micro-level, and ahimsa is a seed to be planted. Ahimsa requires the courage to live life compassionately.
Two: Satya or Truthfulness
Satya or truthfulness is the second of the five Yamas. The practice of honesty and consistency in mind, speech, heart, and action. Satya is to be genuine and authentic. For example, if you say that you are content in a work situation where you are not merely to appease your boss, your innate body wisdom on a cellular level, and your heart/gut, know that this is not true despite what your mind and words might say. Satya is to admit when you are wrong, have difficult conversations when necessary, and deeply reflect upon your values to move honestly through the world. It is the expression of truthfulness from the inside out. This goes hand in hand with working thru difficult emotions – if we cannot be honest with ourselves about the feelings we are holding within, it can lead to disintegration or disease. Satya is to honor your truth, no matter what others think or feel about it. This Yama requires reflection so that we can decipher what holds true for us personally. Then, like ahimsa, our truth will radiate out into the world powerfully. When ahimsa and satya are practiced together, you then have built a strong foundation on your path of Yoga.
Three: Asteya or Non-Stealing
Patañjali states in the Sutras II.37 “When abstention from stealing is firmly established, precious jewels come.” Non-stealing may seem evident on the surface level; do not take what does not belong to you. Most of us learn this as a life lesson when we are young children. Taking credit for someone else’s work is stealing. Giving something to someone with the expectation of getting something in return can be considered a form of stealing. But to go a bit deeper here and in relation to Yoga, the appropriation of Yoga’s practice is stealing as well. Yoga has an ancient, intricate lineage, but much of what we see practiced here in the West has been diluted into something barely recognizable. To practice Yoga without a sense of reverence, respect, and knowledge of the lineage from which it comes goes against is against asteya. Undoubtedly, we must acknowledge that Yoga does not equate to a thin, fit person dressed in expensive clothing doing physically challenging postures. It is a much more in-depth practice, and if we do not honor the roots of our Yoga, we are very likely not in alignment with the third limb, asteya or non-stealing.
Four: Brahmacharya or Moderation
I like to think of the fourth yama, brahmacharya, as overall balance in every aspect of life. It is the conservation of energy and limiting distractions to deepen one’s spiritual nature. Brahmacharya is often translated as restraining our sensual or sexual urges or even practicing complete celibacy. But it needn’t be about depriving ourselves of pleasure, instead channeling our energy beyond the physical/desirable towards something more profound. We live in a saturated world with pressure to accumulate material possessions, and we so often look outside of ourselves for fulfillment. When we firmly realize that more does not equate to better and begin to shift our gaze within – this is brahmacharya. We begin to withdraw our attention and senses from the many distractions that swirl around us every day and begin to use our energy to cultivate and sow the seeds of inner peace.
Five: Aparigraha or Non-Attachment
Aparigraha is the fifth yama on the pathway to spiritual enlightenment. Simply stated, aparigraha is the acceptance of change as a natural part of life. It is the acknowledgment that our fulfillment cannot depend on external circumstances. To release the need to grasp outside and instead, look within ourselves for contentment – that is aparigraha. I believe the current pandemic has clearly shown us the importance of the fifth yama. With the global pandemic crisis of 2020, many of us unfortunately never saw our best-laid plans come to fruition due to unexpected circumstances created by the pandemic. This proves the profound truth that nothing is ever entirely in our control. We can stay scared and feel helpless with the unpredictable change, yet we can also learn to embrace change as a constant force. This goes hand in hand with surrender. Our breath is an example of the beauty of change and transition. When we inhale deeply, we have no choice but to exhale it out, letting it go as we move into our next nourishing round breath. The breath is a beautiful metaphor of aparigraha.
I hope that this has been a helpful step into the first limb of Patañjali’s eight-fold path. Please stay tuned for my next blog post, in which we will explore the second limb, the niyama (observances).
By Nadia Bubtana-Crabtree
December 3, 2020