The first steps on the path to becoming a true yogi begin with some basic principles. There are eight limbs to the Ashtanga Yoga system, the first two essentially laying strong foundations for the later teachings. But you don't even need to be looking at the path of yoga to know that these are universal in their relevance.
The Yamas - Restraints
In a society so intent on "freedom" perhaps we have taken things a step too far. Observing how we can behave and what is deemed acceptable and normal in many places around the world, maybe it is time to hold back our grasping natures and become more controlled beings. It's all about positive reinforcement, you’re not being restricted from doing anything but deciding to do the right thing.
Ahimsa - Do No Harm
Often translated as non violence, Ahimsa is a huge part of our every day lives. From news filled with the destructive acts of aggression being undertaken globally to the casual explosions, gun fights and brawls we witness in movies and television. It's time to end the barrage on our consciousness. The first step is to start from within and apply this to ourselves. Whether it be "beating yourself up" for doing something silly or pushing yourself too hard on the mat, it's about time we started loving ourselves so we can learn to love others more. Doing no harm, universally, is the first step to liberation.
Satya - Truthfulness
Even if you think you're a truthful person, chances are, you're not. We lie to ourselves all of the time. "I'm going to meditate every day" "i will not eat this entire packet of biscuits" "I'm not good enough". Truthfulness affects a huge part of our reality, if you understand the concept of manifestation, then these lies can have a huge detrimental affect on our lives. Start simple, be realistic with your goals and expectations, then stick to your word. Once we begin being truthful with ourselves it's much easier to be truthful with others.
Asteya - Non Stealing
This restraint seems oh so simple. We don't steal... right? Well, whether it be stealing a car or stealing an idea the gravity may seem different but I don't think Karma observes such materialistic ideology. Actually, maybe the things we inadvertently steal from one another on an almost daily basis are far greater in value than something of a material nature. How often do we "steal" the attention from those around us, or when you're late for yoga and you burst in the door disrupting the all too needed peace of fellow yogis, that's not stealing right? Wrong. The restraint of Asteya goes much deeper than the definition of theft we are all raised to believe. Take a look at you're own life and see what you find.
Bramacharia - Chastity
Ok, so here's one that some of us might have a bit of a problem with but I think mainly it is the association. When you say Chastity, people tend to think celibacy or some kind of sexual suppression. This is wrong. What chastity really means is responsibility; being conscious of our actions and how they affect others, about being caring and thoughtful. I don't need to go too deep into this one, we all know what is "right" and “wrong". If you enter into a situation that is not honest, that is not beneficial or productive, then you know that it is probably not the right thing to be doing. It’s up to you to figure out what your own boundaries are.
Aparigraha - Non Posessiveness
Again, so common in our society. Greed is one of the major causes for disruption and conflict, and permeates too much of our daily lives. Think about moments in your life when you could have shared but didn't, when you held back because you wanted more for yourself. I firmly believe that the more you give the more you have to give and I try to practice this as much as I can. But we are all human right? Don't beat yourself up for holding out on the last slice of pizza or deciding to eat that whole bag of grapes to yourself. But look at how you are with people especially. One of the most eye opening things is to notice how greedy we can be when it comes to our loved ones, our friends or partners, sometimes trying to keep them to ourselves. This is greed too and it can have such an impact on ourselves and those around us.
The Niyama - Observances
Some might say the Yama and Niyama appear to be like laws and are in that respect “constricting". I like to see them more as basic moral guidelines. There are things we all expect from one another without having to even say them. These are the things that are laid out in the first two limbs of the Ashtanga Yoga system. It is also interesting to observe one's own reaction to these aspects of Ashtanga, maybe the subjects we find most challenging are in fact the area we need to work on most in our lives.
This is so basic it shouldn't even need explanation. It is true that cleanliness did have more of an impact on people's lives before the invention of say, antibacterial soap, but actually this covers allot of different aspects of our lives today. We all have friends that like to wander around bare foot at the first opportunity, but one problem encountered then for example is the cleanliness of people's feet when they enter the shala. When working in an environment such as this, no one wants to lay their face down against a mat where someone has been stood with heels caked in dirt just minutes before. And no matter how much we all need to work to conserve water, let's face it, nobody wants to be adjusted by someone who even slightly smells of what they had for lunch. Our cleanliness affects more than our own lives, at some point we have to work out what that perfect middle ground is between being overly "conservative", overly "sensitive" and actually being disrespectful and letting our own level of tolerance disrupt and affect those around us.
Santosha - Contentment
This is EVERYTHING. whatever we do in life, to be content is to be happy. How many times have we sought something and when we finally get whatever that may be it's not as sweet as we thought? And then we're off, chasing that golden carrot, seeking greener pastures. At some point we have to turn our gaze inwards, look at why we can never reach "true satisfaction". Maybe the problem doesn't lie with whatever we hope to acquire but with our own perception of it. It's time to be free of constantly searching, grasping, wanting, and be happy and content with the abundance we already have.
Tapas - Austerity
We all have that snooze mode susceptibility. It's all too easy to start putting off until tomorrow what we could do today. To have that lie-in, to go to the next class instead of right now, to not push on but take that short practice because we want to finish a bit earlier. The unfortunate fact of the matter is that this can have a huge snowball effect. What starts as a minor hiccup or "take it easy" moment is usually just the start of something much bigger and longer lasting. And truthfully, we could always put things off, but we only have now to seize the moment. Wake up, don't keep hitting the snooze button.
Svadhyaya - Self Study
If we want to get far in life, studying oneself and self study are essential. And not because we have to, but because we want to. Self study is about finding that fire inside that drives you to learn new skills, new postures, new talents you never knew you had. It should be enjoyable. Any moment that we can utilise for this is a virtuous moment. Apparently learning a new word releases the same amount of endorphins as an orgasm so who knows what kind of chemical pleasure our brain receives when we grasp a new concept, when we open our mind to new philosophy and start to engage with our epistemic self. It is said that Buddha attained all his knowledge of the universe simply by observing himself. We have all the answers within, most of us just haven't looked hard enough yet.
Isvara Pranidhana - Devotion to the Divine
This is quite tricky to discuss as it's completely relative. The sutras talk about devotion and surrender to the divine, but for allot of people this can seem quite abstract. I think of the divinity within, the supreme being we all are and are trying to be. When we find whatever our truth is, within a God or Godess, within the divine powers of the universe, within ourselves - what this sutra asks is to surrender to this. It can be quite challenging. We exist within an egocentric society, we are almost conditioned totally away from this: to be independent, to be self reliant and "strong". This sutra is not about being weak, it is about using our inner strength to know when we have found our truth, to step down from our high horse and devote ourselves to furthering our connection with this divinity. On the mat, it is to listen intently to our body, to our breath, and to look deep inside. To quiet our mind so that the answers can come. To stop striving to force ourselves to the floor and simply follow our hearts surrendering to it.
The Limbs of Ashtanga are completely subjective. No two people will see the same in them. This is their beauty. This is their power. How they speak to each individual is unique and relative. Maybe only some of what is written here applies to your own understanding of the Yamas and Niyama, or maybe most of it does. Whatever the case, the more one delves into the unfathomable depths of knowledge that is Yoga the more one finds their own understanding, their own truth. This is the joinery of the self, and the path to liberation.