One of the first books written about yoga was one called The Yoga Sutras by Patanjali, who refers to eight limbs of yoga, each of which offers guidance on how to live a meaningful and purposeful life. One of the limbs: Asana is one we are pretty familiar with in the west - the physical practice of movement. We do often touch on the other 8 limbs in Yoga classes, but they aren't always identified by name. Your teacher may have mentioned Pranayama, but what about Pratyahara? Of course, it's not vital that you know about the limbs to enjoy your yoga class, and you might not want to incorporate all of them into your practice. But sometimes it's nice to learn more about the history of yoga.
So I'll guide us through each of the 8 limbs Patanjali, in the order they set forth, the idea being that each limb provided the grounding for the next like rungs on a ladder. Patanjali’s goal for us is that through these practices, we can still the mind and merge into oneness with the universe, or maybe just find a little more peace of being.
The first two limbs that Patanjali describes are the yamas, and the niyamas, suggestions given on how we should deal with people around us and our attitude toward ourselves. The attitude we have toward things and people outside ourselves is yama, how we relate to ourselves inwardly is niyama.
1. Ahimsa – Compassion for all living things
The word ahimsa literally means not to injure or show cruelty to any creature or any person in any way whatsoever. Ahimsa is, however, more than just lack of violence as adapted in yoga. It means kindness, friendliness, and thoughtful consideration of other people and things.
2. Satya – Commitment to Truthfulness
Satya means "to speak the truth," yet it is not always desirable to speak the truth on all occasions, for it could harm someone unnecessarily. We have to consider what we say, how we say it, and in what way it could affect others. Based on the understanding that honest communication and action form the bedrock of any healthy relationship.
3. Asteya - Non-stealing
Steya means "to steal"; asteya is the opposite-to take nothing that does not belong to us. This also means that if we are in a situation where someone entrusts something to us or confides in us, we do not take advantage. The practice of asteya implies not taking anything that has not been freely given; including time, attention and skills.
4. Brahmacharya - Sense control
Brahmacharya is used mostly in the sense of abstinence. Brahmacharya suggests that we should practice responsible behaviour with respect to our goal of moving toward the truth. Practicing brahmacharya means that we use our energy to regenerate our connection to our spiritual self.
5. Aparigraha - Control the desire to acquire and hoard wealth
Aparigraha means to take only what is necessary, and not to take advantage of a situation or be greedy. Aparigraha also implies letting go of our attachments to things.
The Yoga Sutra also describe what happens when these five behaviours become part of a person's daily life. Following the Yamas is intended to purify human nature and contribute to health and happiness of society.