Updated: Nov 4, 2019
The blog “What is Yoga Anyway?” posted March 1, 2019 introduced the eight limbs of yoga based on the ancient Yoga Sutras of Patanjal in general terms. Now that we have explored the koshas (also read our blog “What Are the Koshas?” posted on September 3, 2019 and our Instagram posts from September 1 to October 13, 2019), it is time to dive more deeply into the eight limbs:
· to define and explore each practice with curiosity and intention
· to understand the central principles of each; and
· to understand how to apply each practice in day-to-day life, both on and off the mat.
The eight practices of yoga move us from outer lifestyle and ethical commitments toward mindful ways of being in our bodies and with our emotions. These grounding practices then catapult us to inward toward exploring our mind, wisdom, and human potential. Ultimately, the practices lead us to a greater purpose to which we devote ourselves with an open heart, an open mind, and no expectations for a particular outcome. The practices allow us to discover – and rediscover – our center, our truth, and our shared humanity. The main take-away of this series of blogs about the eight limbs is clearly that yoga is not a single practice – it is a comprehensive set of lifestyle choices that have a profound impact on how we live our lives, how we understand ourselves and others, and how we choose to be in the world.
In this blog, the second of four (the first being “What is Yoga Anyway?”), we explore Limbs One and Two, conceptualized as the lifestyle limbs of yoga. The practices in these two limbs guide the life choices we make every moment of every day. The principles and practices contained in these two limbs of yoga are considered foundational to all others. They require commitment, ongoing mindfulness, and daily practice. They are the limbs that ground us in community and ethical ways of being, ensuring that as adults we nourish our communities and ourselves with clarity, altruism, and joy.
Limb One: Life Choices for Ethical Living
This foundational values practice of yoga (called the "yamas" in Sanskrit) encourages us to engage in values clarification that serves to guide our moment-to-moment choices in thought, speech, actions, and relationships. It is a practice of first-person ethics that invites choices based on discernment and mindfulness to result in values-based thought, speech, and action. The limb contains five central principles, each of which has clear and definite applications in day-to-day life for our many layers of the self. Each principle applies to each kosha – our body, emotions, mind, and wisdom as applied in relationships and communities; each principle affects our capacity to access joy and a sense of being part of a greater meaningful whole. Each principle reminds us of the interconnectedness of all things – that what we send into the world ripples through everything. Each principle underscores the need for each one of us to be ethically and socially responsible and to make choices that cultivate conscious, loving, and compassionate communities.
It should be noted that this limb outlines a set of aspirational first-person ethics. The emphasis on the word “aspirational” means that this limb offers us guidelines for ethnical living to which we aspire and that we know we will fail to heed … Yes, you read that correctly. We know that no matter how hard we will try to follow these guidelines, we will not always do so. There will be moments of failure – and that is perfectly fine. We are human and we are not infallible. The best we can do is to set an intention to do our best to bring these principles into our relationship with ourselves and with others.
A second important note about these principles that will guide our ethics and values is that they interact with each other. As you read their definitions below, you will realize that sometimes these practices and principles may lead us in different directions – following one, may result in compromising another. When we encounter such situations, we make conscious choices about which principle to prioritize. For example, if you are struggling with telling someone the truth versus being kind and non-violent, which way will you go? Of course, there is no single answer to this conundrum. Each individual occasion may require a different answer to this question.
So, it is important to realize that yogic ethics are not a simple prescription for how to behave. Instead, they are a way of inviting conscious inquiry about how to life our life ethically in each moment. They are a way of teaching us how to weigh the consequences of each intention, thought, decision, action, and relationship. Only once we have weighed the consequences, can we make a fully informed, optimal choice for any given moment in a manner that strengthens relationships and engages communities. We must not misunderstand this considered choice-making as a way to give us permission to let ethics fall to the wayside. That is not at all what weighing these principles suggests. It simply means that when we prioritize one principle over another, we do so consciously and with full willingness to bear the consequences.
Okay – so what are five principles of Limb One?
· Nonharming – Following the principles of nonviolence and peacefulness toward self, other, and everything, this aspirational ethical guideline invites us to live in a manner that seeks not to cause deliberate pain or harm. It is behaviorally expressed as kindness and compassion toward ourselves – in all koshas – and toward others. It is behaviorally expressed as being kind and peaceful in our intentions, thoughts, actions, and relationships.
· Truthfulness – Following the principle of honesty with oneself and in all relationships and contexts to create authenticity and integrity in day-to-day life, this aspirational ethical guideline invites us to live in a manner that is true to our real and ideal self. It is behaviorally expressed as truthfulness, non-defensiveness, and all-revealing openness with ourselves – in all koshas – and with others.
· Non-stealing – Following the principle of not taking what is not freely offered, this aspirational ethical guideline invites us to embrace a sense of abundance, generosity, and reciprocity that eliminates the desires to take or steal from others or to have more than others. It is behaviorally expressed as appreciating abundance, cultivating contentment, and joyfully recognizing what we already have. It is behaviorally expressed as only taking what is ours to take from ourselves and from others – in all koshas – and in relationship with others.
· Moderation – Following the principle of wise use of personal life energy, this aspirational ethical guideline invites us to be neither indulgent nor excessively restrictive when it comes to habits and desires. It is behaviorally expressed as preserving our energy for what is important in life so that we can honor the true needs of ourselves – in all koshas – and the true needs of others. It is behaviorally expressed as not overdoing, overcommitting, overworking, oversleeping, overplaying, overtexting, overeating – you get the idea!
· Non-possessiveness – Following the principle of not being greedy about possessions, relationships, actions, and other aspects of life, this aspirational ethical guideline invites us to mindfully cultivate gratitude for what life has already provided and to thoughtfully relinquish grasping, desire, and jealousy. It is behaviorally expressed as generosity toward ourselves – in all koshas – and toward others. It is behaviorally expressed by resisting the cultivation of jealousy in relationships, by resisting the urge to hoard possessions, by resisting the need to do, have, want, need … more and more and more.
Okay – so how do we apply the central ethical principles of Limb One?
You guessed it – there is no single way. And nothing, absolutely no single thing, ties the application of these principles to a fancy or not so fancy yoga mat. These principles are lived in every moment. They are applied in every setting and context. Here are a few examples of practices that will hone your application skills of these aspirational ethics:
Sample Practice #1: Peacefulness
Next time you are on the mat, explore whether you are non-violent with your body. Are you accessing the pose you are practicing at a level that is optimal for your body? Is your effort appropriate to the health and wellbeing of all the connective tissue that is being moved? A common observation I make as a yoga teacher is that people love the outer pose more than their inner peacefulness. Explore if this is true for you and challenge yourself to feel your posture from the inside out, being kind and loving to your body, honoring its needs compassionately.
Sample Practice #2: Truthfulness
Tonight, before you go to bed, take a moment to review your day. Was there moment in one of your relationships when you were not entirely truthful? Did you tell a white lie to spare someone’s feelings? Did you fib to yourself about something to make a tough situation easier? Did you make up an excuse to get out of something? Think about the event and ponder your decision-making process? Was a conscious decision even part of the equation? Or did the excuse, white lie, pretense just sort of slip out? Or maybe the white lie really did spare someone hard feelings and was a peaceful choice? Be honest in your assessment and let it inform your actions and speech tomorrow.
Sample Practice #3: Non-Stealing
Review your week in your mind and focus on commitments you made to others to be present for something. How many times did you show up late? How many times did you cancel last minute? How many times did you forget to arrive at all? How many times did you make it to the meeting but were unprepared? Did you do this because you underprioritized your own self-care and then had to borrow time from others to make up for the time you stole from yourself? It is possible to steal other people’s time. When you do, often you also steal from yourself… You steal their approval of you… You steal your own honesty and trustworthiness… Ponder other things you stole by being late, unprepared, non-committal, or absent.
Sample Practice #4: Moderation
Make a list of your typical after- and before-work activities and family responsibilities, maybe by reviewing the past week. Take a look at your list. Sum up how much time you spent in various activities. Does anything stick out in terms of excess use of time, energy, or life force? How many hours did you dedicate to shopping? Television? Devices like your phone? Social media, like Facebook or Instagram? Did you work so much during the week that you felt too exhausted to play or be with your family during your weekend? Or did you play too much to have energy left for work? Did you practice moderation with these ways of spending life energy on the trivial, letting it take time away from the meaningful? Ponder these questions and make a conscious decision to change one immoderate choice next week. Maybe a week without Instagram? Maybe a week with no more than 30 minutes of television? Maybe no phone after 7p? Baby steps.
Sample Practice #5: Non-Possessiveness
The next time someone admires a small possession of yours, consider giving it to them. Someone admired a pair of earrings I own many years ago. My urge was to take them off and hand them over. Then attachment kicked in… They were from a wonderful friend… They were meaningful…. Maybe the person was just saying it to be nice … All these thoughts went through my head. But what is in my heart still today after nearly 20 years, is my decision to be possessive, to cling to these earrings instead of setting them free. Now, they are in my closet unworn, a daily reminder to be non-possessive, not to hoard, cling or grasp… and still I forget …. Can you practice non-hoarding this week and let go of something?
Limb Two: Life Choices for Purposeful Living
This discipline-focused practice of yoga (called the "niyamas in Sanskrit) encourages us to engage in insightful and clear goal-setting and purposeful action. Discipline, as embraced in the principles of Limb Two, helps you create a cohesive change-embracing motivational set that inspires your life plans and trajectories. These principles influence the direction of your personal development in all koshas, including the capacity to access joy and bliss. They move you, ultimately, toward making lasting contributions to the world – hopefully in a manner that adds to the greater good. These principles in their fullest essence inspire us to engage in a practice of mindful self-discipline and intentionality that creates a meaningful and purposeful life.
An important note about the discipline cultivated by Limb Two is that it is a discipline that is balanced. These principles of discipline are deeply grounded in the ideal of finding the middle way in all we do –especially if we are “householders” – humans who live in the real world, not in a cave or on a mountain top. The middle way balances effort with ease, softness with strength, firmness with freedom, commitment with contentment, intent with openness…. I could go on. For each principle, there are two extreme poles of its expression that we will seek to avoid; instead, we seek to find an expression of the principle that is balanced, realistic, self-compassionate, and appropriate for the real world and the real relationships in which we are embedded.
Okay – so what are five principles of Limb Two?
· Purity – This principle embraces simplicity, cleanliness, positive energy, and authenticity in action, speech, thought, and relationships. As a disciplined practice, it invites us to find balance in consumption, clutter, toxins, distractions, and overload in all aspects of life, including food, drink, body care, relationships, media use, work, and play. It encourages us neither to seek excessive fastidiousness (e.g., preoccupation with germs, compulsive cleaning) nor excessive sloppiness. Instead, we seek purity that is easeful, yet boundaried and committed.
· Contentment – This principle embraces meeting every moment from a peaceful center that allows for discernment about how to take calm and appropriate action. As a disciplined practice, it invites us to accept life fully and calmly and to respond to the world rather than be reactive to it. It encourages us to be neither hyper-excitable nor indifferent. This is an important understanding: Contentment (or equanimity) neither means not caring nor approving of horrible things in life. It simply means recognizing the circumstances and not becoming reactive! It means taking a step back; taking a moment to become calm and centered and then move forward from this place of clarity.
· Discipline – This principle embraces leading an impassioned life of determined effort and engaged practice. As a disciplined practice, it leads to the transformation of the self in all its layers, as well as of others. It does so by inviting a commitment to disciplined and conscious – not habitual or disengaged – choices in every moment. This principle encourages us neither to seek asceticism that is removed from the real world (i.e., we don’t have to live in a cave or on a mountain top) nor does it condone sloth or laziness. It means that we persevere in our practice, we apply ourselves with passion, and we make our best and constant effort to engage with ourselves and the world.
· Self-reflection – This principle embraces exploring personal reactions, habits, motivations, and intentions to guide us toward self-knowledge, insight, and growth. As a disciplined practice, it invites us to open up to new learning from outer sources (like books and teachers) and inner wisdom through quiet introspection. This principle does not endorse self-absorbed, narcissistic self-exploration at the expense of pondering other matters. However, it also does not condone never looking at our own motivations, intentions, needs, and inner life. When practiced in a balanced manner, this principle guides us to deeper self-understanding in the context of greater wisdom and guidance from the outside.
· Devotion to a greater good – This principle embraces creating meaning and purpose for self and others through wise discernment. As a disciplined practice, it invites us to surrender ego-driven intentions and committing to positive altruistically-oriented intentions and actions. Devotion in this sense is neither to be confused with infatuation, unquestioning loyalty, or blind obedience – nor with disconnection or lack of caring for a greater good, a larger purpose, a bigger meaning. This principle invites informed, discerning devotion that will improve all our koshas as well as the world in which we live.
Okay – so how do we apply the central ethical principles of Limb Two?
As was true for Limb One – there is no single way to apply these principles. We can practice them on our yoga mat; however, the mat is completely unnecessary and certainly never sufficient. Given that Limb Two is a lifestyle, these principles – like those in Limb One – are applied moment by moment; everywhere, with everyone. Here are a few examples of practices that will hone your application skills of disciplined action:
Sample Practice #1: Purity
Set aside a day next week to clean your home, your office, or a cluttered area or room that has been bugging you. Sometimes your yoga practice may be doing the dishes! Engage in the chosen task as a cleansing ritual and let it become your yoga practice in that moment. Engage in this task as a cleansing ritual. Consider before and after pictures to help yourself really see how transformative an act of purity can be. Find a balanced approach – don’t kill every germ with bleach; but also don’t just sweep the dust bunnies from a corner under the bed.
Sample Practice #2: Contentment
Pick a time this week for a special activity, either by yourself or with a partner. Pick something like a quiet walk in the woods, an hour of sitting in the sunshine, 30 minutes of listening to classical music, or a moment of rest in a special place in your home. As you engage in this special activity, notice your own contentment as you simply attend to and are present for this moment, for this activity. Appreciate the moment for its purity and ease. Notice if you can remain balanced in your contentment. Are you allowing attachment to creep in by wanting more of this type of experience? Are you inviting aversion by complaining mentally about not having time for this type of thing more often? If this happens, gently return to the middle way – find your contentment with this moment, however short or however precious. Allow it in and then allow it to fade.
Sample Practice #3: Discipline
Commit to getting on your mat this week. Make a commitment to a disciplined physical yoga practice this week. Decide beforehand on which days and for how long you will practice. Decide on whether you are practicing on your own, via an online class, or at a studio or gym. Make the schedule and post it somewhere where you can see it. Then stick to the plan with discipline. Find a balanced approach. If your child gets sick, you can take care of her or him and skip or cut down the practice time. On the other hand, don’t just use any idle excuse to get out of the practice (or you need to repeat your truthfulness practice…).
Sample Practice #4: Reflection
A great way to engage in self-reflection is to start a journal. Writing has been shown via research to be extremely therapeutic. It helps you cope better with challenges and it often helps you work through strong feelings. It can even facilitate the development of new solutions to old problems. These benefits of writing or journaling arise from the insight these activities create. As you write about your day, your work, your relationships, your decisions, clarity arises. You gain a new understanding of your own dynamics and you create the space or opening for change. Find a balanced approach. Don’t start writing down every detail and become self-obsessed. But also don’t put off the task by telling yourself you’ll write twice as much tomorrow – because you know you won’t… Write anyway, even if for five minutes although you are really not in the mood …
Sample Practice #5: Devotion
Pick a day this week to pay attention to the reason why you do what you do. With every decision – either in the moment or later in the day when you have the leisure to do so – note why you decided on the particular intention, thought, action, or behavior that you chose. What greater purpose or meaning was behind your choice? What did your choice reflect in terms of what is important to you, what you are devoted to? Why do you make the choices you make? Is there a higher or lower purpose? Maybe link your devotion practice to your self-reflection practice and journal about what you are finding out about your greater purpose (or lack thereof).
There you have them – Limbs One and Two. If you are not yet sure what the next limbs are, stay tuned for the next blog, re-read “What is Yoga Anyway?”, our check out our Instagram posts in October 2019 and beyond.
With amazement about all that yoga has to offer, gratitude for all who have shared their wisdom and insights, awe about the need always to learn more and evolve further, and humility about the possibility of engaging others --
About the Author:
Christiane Brems, PhD, ABPP, E-RYT500, C-IAYT, is the Director of YogaX, a clinical psychologist, registered yoga teacher, and certified yoga therapist. She has practiced yoga for over 40 years. You can read more about her on the YogaX Team page.
PS For those readers interested in accessing the 2000-year old Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, here are citations for several excellent translations:
Hartranft, C. (2003). The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A new translation with commentary. Boston, MA: Shambala Classics.
Iyengar, B. K. S. (2002). Light on the yoga sutras. of Patanjali New York: Thorsen.
Maki, B.. (2013). The yogi’s roadmap: The Patanjali yoga sutra as a journey to self-realization. Scotts Valley: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
Excellent free online version: https://www.swamij.com/yoga-sutras.htm