Ashtanga Yoga: the Eight-Limbed Path

Our modern Yoga practice comes from the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali. The Yoga Sutra are the earliest known collection of writings we have about Yoga. The word sutra means “thread” or “stitch” and refers to a short, easily remembered teaching. The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali are composed of 196 sutra divided into four books, or pada. In pada two sutra 29 Patanjali outlines Ashtanga Yoga, or, the Eight-Limbed Path of Yoga. These eight practices are ways Yoga is achieved and maintained. The practices are the yama (restraints), niyama (observances), asana (postures), pranayama (breath control), pratyahara (sense withdrawal), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (absorption).

The first two practices Patanjali gives are the yama and the niyama. These are ethical guidelines for how to live a yogic life. The yama are the ways we restrain our thoughts, words, and actions. They are mainly concerned with how we interact with others and the world around us. The niyama are practices we observe to cultivate health and contentment. They govern our behavior towards ourselves.

There are five yama and five niyama. The five yama are ahimsa (without harm), satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (moderation), and aparigraha (non-possessiveness). The five niyama are saucha (purity), santosha (contentment), tapas (persistence), svadhyaya (Self-study), and Ishvarapranidhana (devotion to the Numinous). This year through our Eternal Health Yoga blog we will be taking an in-depth look at each of the yama and niyama.

Yoga’s ethical guidelines: ahimsa.

Ahimsa is the first yama. The word ahimsa can be broken down into two parts: “a” and “himsa”. Himsa indicates “harm” or “violence”. The prefix “a” indicates the opposite of whatever the core word is. Thus, ahimsa means “non-harming” or “non-violence”.

All yoga practices are performed in the light of ahimsa. For example, the second yama is satya, which means truthfulness. If we find ourselves in a situation where truthfulness could harm another person, from a yogic perspective, best to keep it to ourselves. Consider the Germans who chose to hide Jewish people from the Nazis during World War II. It is true that they lied to the Nazis. However, the Jewish people they were hiding would have been killed if their location was disclosed. At times, in order to practice ahimsa, we must abstain from other yoga practices.

Ahimsa is to be applied to other people, creatures, and the environment first. Then we apply ahimsa to ourselves. Some well-meaning yoga practitioners use ahimsa as a way to justify harmful thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors. For example, we may enjoy having a nice piece of dark chocolate from time to time. We may even consider this seemingly harmless indulgence as an act of self-love. However, some chocolate companies participate in practices that harm the environment and do not adequately compensate the farmers and workers. Therefore, the so-called love we think we are giving ourselves violates ahimsa because of the harm it does to others. A simple fix would be choosing Fairtrade chocolate from companies with environmentally ethical practices. When we do harm to others, we do harm to ourselves. After all, Yoga teaches us that ultimately, we are each other!


Ahimsa in practice.

It isn’t difficult to live a yogic life in accordance with ahimsa, but it is different. As complex as our world is, it is extremely challenging to avoid doing harm 100 percent of the time. Perfection is not the goal. Rather, we make the best choices we can. We do not shy away from looking at the darkness. We do our best to lean towards the light.

Here are five meaningful ways ahimsa can inform our modern, Western lives:

  1. Try to eat as ethically as possible. This means different things to different people. Each person must determine the best food choices for them according to their own conscience and budget. It is important for us to consider not only what we are eating, but where it came from and what sort of practices (inhumane treatment of animals, environmental degradation, unjust labor laws, etc.) brought our food to our table.
  2. Consider clothing choices. Many clothing and textile workers are exposed to hazardous conditions and unjust wages. Clothing that has been thrown away by individuals and thrift stores stuff not only landfills, but even our oceans! When we purchase clothing, or anything else for that matter, it is worth considering if we really need the item in question or if it would truly bring us joy. If so, purchase away! If there is any doubt that the item we would like to buy would really benefit us, best to leave it on the shelf or clothing rack. No amount of consumerism, particularly we are consuming at the expense of others, will fill the void within us that is meant for deep and meaningful connection to others, ourselves, and the Numinous.
  3. Seek peaceful resolutions to conflict first. Do not blame, shame, or judge others. Assume that everyone is doing the best they can with what they have where they are at. Approach conflict with an attitude of curiosity. What is it that makes the other person think, feel, say, or do what they do? Perhaps they have something to offer of which we had not considered! Listen first. Then discuss how to move forward. The two parties in a conflict may never see eye-to-eye. That is okay. We are each entitled to our own opinions and tasked to develop our conscience as best we can. However, among numerous viewpoints, we can find a way to co-exist peacefully if we respect others’ autonomy and allow for the fact that we each have the right to live according to our truth.
  4. Be mindful of our minds. The goal of Yoga is the quieting of our egoic, reactive thinking. When our emotions are volatile, we act violently. We may or may not be physically violent, but we could hurt other people through judgmental thoughts, harsh words, and aggressive actions. This in turn hurts ourselves. Ahimsa is a practice for cultivating a calm, steady mind so we may approach our lives from a non-reactive state.
  5. Remember the Golden Rule. Throughout the world, most major spiritual and religious traditions have some variation on the Golden Rule: Treat others the way they would like to be treated, and expect others to treat you the way you would like to be treated. From a yogic perspective, the way we treat others is the way we treat ourselves. The way we treat ourselves is how we treat others. For a few seconds, I may feel particularly clever the moment I react to a friend’s comment with a witty comeback. My friend, however, will likely feel hurt. Furthermore, after a few moments I will no longer be so impressed with myself. I will realize I wasn’t being clever at all, but mean. The guilt I will feel having hurt another person will leave me feeling just as sad as they, if not more so! Practicing ahimsa is a practice of self-love because we release ourselves from the consequences of, well, not.