Eight 8 limbs of Ashtanga Yoga

The Eight Limbs of Ashtanga Yoga Series: The Yamas

Ashtanga Yoga is two things, which have the same name (whether that is to confuse or inspire is unbeknownst to me!). You may be familiar with the Ashtanga Yoga Primary Series: starting with sun salutations, moving on to standing then seated then supine poses and finishing with a delicious Savasana. But you may not be so familiar with Ashtanga Yoga as a way of life. This post is an introduction on Yoga Hero’s take on that way of life, starting with ‘Yamas’, the first limbs of the eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga.

I love the eight limbs of yoga. LOVE them. I’d personally been practicing yoga reasonably regularly; between 3-5 times each week for the best part of two years before I came across these. Just as I thought I was starting to get to grips with yoga: with the pose names, with alignment, and with my body and its tendencies, BAM! There was a whole new world of yoga which had exactly nowt to do with everything I’d learnt so far.

The eight limbs of yoga go beyond the mat. They start to filter into the things that you do and say every day; into the way you present yourself, the way you act, the way you eat… Hence the eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga being a way of life.

The first of the eight limbs of yoga is:   Yamas


There are five Yamas, which are:

Ahimsa – non-harm

In my earliest teacher training, we talked about the eight-limbed path of yoga: I.e. that theeight limbs are a step by step guide, or process, and it blew my little mind that Ahimsa is absolute first. Ahimsa is, theoretically speaking, the absolute first step into the journey of yoga, on and off the mat.

Practicing with Ahimsa: Non-harm as your absolute priority at all times can totally revolutionise your life. Trust me, it really can. This is why many yogis are vegetarians, as well as tree-huggers, people and animal lovers, and we’re proud of all of that! We practice with non-harm, of anything, at front of mind. It truly is a life-changer.


Satya – honesty

Again, I found it mind-blowing that this little yoga thing that I’d been dancing about with for a couple of years, that helped me get through tough days in the office and clashes with friends and maintain a steady weight etc, had *so much* depth to it. Straight after ‘non-harm’ is ‘honesty’. How brilliant is that? Don’t harm, and be honest (but don’t harm first).

As I was learning about the eight limbs, I was also having a right old nightmare at my day job. Looking to the eight-limbed path for answers, I asked our fabulous philosophy teacher, Bridget from Om Yoga Works about that work problem I was having, in the context of eight-limbs. In summary, someone that I respected, and indeed, quite liked as a person, was acting in (what I thought was) a really rather despicable way. I asked Bridget what I should do – as the eight-limbs say that I need to be honest, but by being honest, I knew that I would hurt that person. Bridget pointed out that non-harm comes first… So, ‘not say anything’ I concluded. But, she said, would that actually lead to harm in the long-term? Could I contextualise ‘non-harm’ in both short and long term impact? And could I bring in more context? This person’s actions were hurting others, so by being honest, I could actually reduce the amount of harm in the long run, even though I would hurt that person in the short term.

(I never said this eight-limbed path of yoga would be easy!)


Asteya – not stealing, not taking what others have

Not stealing. It’s one of the 10 commandments, and from memory, this pops up in other religions too. It’s fairly straightforward isn’t it. If it’s not yours, it’s just – quite simply – not yours. This Yama encourages us to work for what we have, and appreciate it. For me, this relates to the Law of Karma also (Law of Karma: Every action has a result. The result is in line with the action. What you sow, you will reap). Nuff said.


Brahmacharya – moderation of all things

‘Everything in moderation. Even moderation.’; I do not like this phrase. I don’t understand it and I certainly don’t live by it. This is probably my least favourite Yama. See, I’m not even moderating my honesty! But I am being honest…. See my confusion!? But I determined to get my head around it and try to understand what it can mean to me and how I can convey the importance to your heroes, so here goes:

Brahmacharya is often referred to as celibacy, and my Philosophy book from the amazing 300hour Vinyasa Flow Teacher Training in Sampoorna, Goa, translates Brahmacharya as chastity. Brahmacharya was a focus for one of our Philosophy sessions, where Sudhir (Philosophy teacher, Guru and all-round lovely guy) explained that the translation from Sanskrit to English can lose some of the meaning, but it’s the principle that is important…

Take the principle that the amount of energy you have is finite. If you spend a lot of it getting jiggy, then you’ll have less to spend on considering your actions (ensuring they’re not harmful), considering your speech and so on. But it goes deeper than this. Sex *can* be used a way to manipulate, and if you don’t know what I mean, think yourself damn lucky! This manipulation doesn’t fit right with the above Yamas, whereas if celibacy, or chastity was practiced by all, no one would be experiencing any negative side affects of sex.

But, (stay with me) it goes even deeper than that! Think about the way a lot of meat is produced currently: using artificial imsemination to produce more meat quickly and cheaply – isn’t this a manipulation of sex?

So can we use Brahmacharya to impact the way we think and act? For me, the importance of Brahmacharya is ensuring that energy is fed into the right place for the right reasons, for you. Let’s take this discussion away from sex and use another example: One example could be getting boozy: we go out, have a great laugh with old friends, drink too much and then the next day we’re too queasy to go to yoga. We’ve fallen off the path – the eight limbed path of yoga. If Brahmacharya – moderation – was observed here, we would moderate the booze, and therefore the hangover, meaning we can practice yoga and we’re still on the path.

*That’s* how it makes sense to me.


Aparigraha – non-hoarding, not having more than you need

A truly wonderful Yama in this day and age and one to really tickle the brain cells. I’m not going to preach on that we only *need* water, food and a roof over our head, and everything else is wants and desires that slow us down and clutter us up. But I *do* know that when I went to India with a seemingly tiny (and not very sturdy) backpack with some yoga clothes, sun cream, make up, a couple of nice-ish pieces of clothing, flip flops and a pair of trainers, I had never felt lighter (mentally, as well as physically! It weighed 13 kilos when full. Don’t ask me how… All I can say is Sweaty Betty’s lightweight leggings must be very, very lightweight indeed!)

It’s a good Yama to have in mind next time you’re out shopping, that is all.


Stay tuned for the next limb, the Niyamas… >

What are your thoughts on the Yamas? We’d love to hear your views – leave your comments below!

Written by Holly