Ashtanga 101: Understanding the 8 limbs of Yoga

By Sherri Melwani

Ashtanga Yoga, first appearing in the ancient text, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, translates to ‘The Eight Limbs of Yoga’. Imagine a tree with eight different branches. Each branch is just as important as the other—yet they all bear their own fruit. Each connects to the tree trunk, making up a collective whole, which is then rooted deep connecting to something larger that we can only imagine. Most people nowadays associate yoga to be stretches and fancy poses, but it is so much more. While asanas, or yoga poses, are surely an integral part of yoga, they are in fact only one branch (the third) of the metaphorical tree.

YAMA (Self Restraint)

Ashtanga incorporates holistic guidelines and practices that lead us towards self-realization, thereby bringing physical, mental and spiritual balance.

The other day, while riding a crowded train in Singapore, I saw a young man unhesitatingly give up his regular, unreserved seat for an elderly man. A few days prior to that, a group of teenage schoolgirls helped tourists carry luggage up some steps without being asked. Once I forgot my wallet in a taxi and the driver somehow tracked me down to return it—without a dollar lost. While waiting in a long queue at the market, someone let me go ahead after seeing I had only a few items in my basket.

Millions of these stories happen every day across the globe. There is a special place in my heart for these small yet monumental acts amongst strangers. It is easy to be kind to people we know, or when we get compensation or attention. But how do we treat people we pass on the streets who we don’t know and when no one is looking? It is this act of choosing to be kind, without expectation, that is the essence of the First Limb of Ashtanga: The Yama.

(Model: Sherri Melwani, Photo Courtesy: Esther Tay Pictures)

Yama deals with one’s ethical standards and sense of integrity, focusing on our behavior and how we conduct ourselves in life. Yamas are universal practices that relate best to what we know as the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” My teacher, Sri Dharma Mittra, once said, “Yoga without the Yamas is like spaghetti without the sauce”. It couldn’t have been said better, although in Singapore, we can perhaps replace spaghetti by Kway Teow!

The Yamas comprise five essential principles, each addressing our interaction with the world around us.

1. Ahimsa: (non-violence) We treat others with compassion. By seeing ourselves in others, we would never hurt anyone.

2. Satya: (truthfulness) We choose honesty in all our interactions.

3. Asteya: (non-stealing) We take only what is ours.

4. Brahmacharya: (continence) We honour others as sacred beings by practicing balance in our physical relations.

5. Aparigraha: (non-coveting) Content with what we have, we take only what we need and practice simple living and non-attachment.

Referring to the five points of Yama, together with the five points of Niyama (the second limb of Ashtanga that refers to discipline), the learned yoga guru Swami Satchidananda said that all spiritual life should be based on the principles held therein—as these are the foundation stones without which we can never build anything lasting.

Patanjali recorded the Yamas to offer wisdom, and help purify and liberate. Practising the Yamas prevents suffering and leads to a peaceful environment. As all the Yamas are interconnected, by following one, we would also be abiding by the principles of the others. For example, by being honest (satya) and not stealing (asetya), we are also practising ahimsa.

Sometimes I close my classes with a special mantra that perfectly embodies the overall theme of what it means to follow the Yamas. “Lokah Samasta Sukhino Bhavantu”. May all beings be happy and free and may my actions somehow contribute to the happiness of all.

Live the life of a yogi; choose compassion always. See the many opportunities to be a yogi off the mat.

“Practice of asana without the backing of yama and niyama is mere acrobatics,”
– Yoga guru BKS Iyengar

Sherriann Melwani is a yoga teacher who shuttles between Hong Kong, Bali and Singapore, and is a freelance writer for Yoga Journal Singapore.
Read about ‘Niyama’ next.