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  • Writer's pictureCaroline Young

Beyond the mat: An interpretation of yoga’s first limb

It’s easy to think that yoga is only physical poses. It makes sense why we would think that, since our society tends to focus on the external. I’m not discounting the physical benefits of yoga — it strengthens the entire body and increases flexibility — and most importantly, it can help us to be more present and at home in our bodies. Yoga is in fact an embodied practice, meaning it is not mindless. It can help us really tune in and connect to our bodies, and feel, release and move through emotions stored there. But yoga goes way beyond the physical. Did you know yoga postures (asanas) are traditionally one-eighth of a complete yoga practice?

That’s right – there are 8 “limbs” or parts to yoga, and asanas are just one part of the whole. The point of the 8 limbs, according to the Yoga Sutras, is “to seamlessly integrate selfless, active participation in life with introspection and contemplation. This exquisite balance is designed to encourage self-knowledge, expand and transform consciousness and culminate in Self-realization.”

I think the yamas (the very first limb) is a great place to start when trying to understand the deeper aspects of yoga … the aspects that easily translate to life off the mat. In short, yamas are ethical rules. I’m not really a fan of “rules” – makes me feel claustrophobic. So instead, I like to see them as ethical suggestions simply serving as a guide.

Below are my modern-day interpretations of the yamas (first in Sanskrit then English), as I believe they can apply to life both on and off the mat, as well as to nutrition. It’s key to remember that it’s all a practice, and perfection is never the goal. That’s impossible anyways – we’re humans.

Yama 1: Ahimsa, or nonviolence

On the mat: Respecting physical boundaries within yoga poses (not surpassing your “edge”), practicing proper alignment within poses to avoid injury… Knowing the difference between discomfort and pain in your practice … Allowing thoughts/emotions to come and go as they will without judgement throughout the practice. … Resting when you need to rest.

Off the mat: The most obvious — not causing harm to others through thoughts, actions and words. The less obvious — not causing harm to ourselves through negative self-talk or destructive behaviors. It’s valuable to remember violence towards oneself or anyone else is a reaction to fear in the mind.

Nutritionally: Eating in a way that nourishes your mind, body and soul. There are extreme ends of the spectrum here – eating fast food all day everyday could be harmful, since it will probably not provide the right nutrients for a thriving mind and body. On the other hand, only eating vegetables or only eating “healthy” foods could also be harmful, both mentally and physically (aka orthorexia). Then, there’s the big picture aspect – keeping in mind how your eating choices impact environmental health (i.e. carbon and water footprints) and making choices accordingly — without rigidity or obsession — can be considered ahimsa.

Yama 2: Satya, or truthfulness

On the mat: Be true to yourself in your poses, meaning let it be a practice that feels right to you. Let it be a practice free from “I shoulds.” If a pose guided by the teacher isn’t right for you today, take another pose or ask for another option. If a pose is painful, do not stay in it – do a different variation of the pose, ask for assistance, use a prop or, again, just do something else.

Off the mat: Honor your inner truth and live it out, even if no one understands. Do not mold yourself to fit into a certain lifestyle, relationship or job if it feels wrong to you. This will inspire others to do the same. Remember who you actually are, without any labels – and that you’re not your thoughts or the stories you tell yourself in your mind.

Nutritionally: Two words – Intuitive Eating (IE). It’s all about the truth- your truth and your body’s truth. We were born as intuitive eaters but most of us lose that ability because we live in a culture that basically applauds disordered eating and diet rules (there’s that word again). … In short, it’s freeing yourself from any restrictive ways of eating, taking morality out of food choices, honoring your true hunger and fullness cues, and allowing food to be just food, so you can live a vibrant life. … Recognizing your true emotional hungers versus your true physical hungers … Read the book to learn more about IE (It really applies to all of these yamas, in my opinion). Also, I see satya in nutrition as receiving your information from credible sources, and not buying into diet fads and letting fear guide your food choices.

Yama 3: Asteya, or nonstealing

On the mat: Staying present in your body as you move through asanas and not allowing the mind to steal away your practice. … I feel the best way to stay present is to bring awareness to the breath and physical sensations — this will often be many times throughout practice, since our minds like to distract us.

Off the mat: In a literal sense, this can mean not stealing from people. It could also mean not stealing ideas from others without giving credit where necessary, or not stealing someone’s time by always showing up late or not being present with them. It can also mean not robbing yourself of your feelings, good bad and the ugly … It’s not really possible anyways, because suppressed feelings are bound to come out in some form or another. Might as well feel all the shit … the upside? Feelings pass. You’ll feel more of the good stuff, too.

Nutritionally: Not robbing yourself of proper nourishment and the pleasure of eating. … Eating consistent, satisfying and (mostly) balanced meals and snacks — in a joyful, non-restrictive way. … Not robbing yourself of valuable mental space spending too much time focused on food. … Giving yourself enough time to enjoy your meals in a relaxing way.

Yama 4: Brahmacharya, or Continence

On the mat: Avoiding extremes in your practice … Finding the middle ground between ease and pain in all of your poses. … Avoiding rigidity within your practice — if you only do heated practices, try some non-heated classes, and visa-versa. … If all you ever do is power yoga, add in some gentler, more restorative practices, and visa versa (depending on your physical ability).

Off the mat: Also avoiding extremes in all aspects of life and investing energy wisely, whether it be sleeping too little or too much, working too much or too little, playing too much or too little, exercising too much or too little (looks different for everyone), etc. … Not spending too much time wrapped up in over-thinking or feeding negative thought patterns. But also not spending too much time trying to be happy, or pretending to be, when you actually just need to let yourself feel sad for some amount of time (goes back to yama 3).

Nutritionally: Avoiding extremes in diet, whether it’s restricting yourself from foods you love or not eating enough nourishing foods. … Including all food groups in your diet (except in cases of medical diagnoses or true allergies) and eating a variety of foods. … Eating with both nourishment and pleasure in mind … Respecting your body’s hunger and fullness cues — aiming to avoid becoming overly hungry or overly full (while compassionately remembering this is a practice).

Yama 5: Aparigraha, or Non-attachment

On the mat: Being in each posture without attachment to the outcome, the way the pose looks or how anyone else is doing the pose … Unattaching from the fruits of your practice and staying present within.

Off the mat: Practicing nonattachment to material possessions and release of physical clutter … Letting go of the fruits of your actions in your work (and not worrying about what other people are thinking) … Not attaching to a person or achievements for wholeness… Releasing control or obsessive planning for the future. … Releasing reliance on externals to fill you up.

Nutritionally: Detaching morality from your or other people’s food choices and unattaching from deprivation- or fear-driven eating. … Clearing your social media feeds from any fear-mongering, restrictive messages around nutrition.

In the midst of the chaos that is life, I forget (often) that a yoga practice is not just the physical poses and need a constant reminder … maybe that’s why I am always telling my students that. It’s so easy to lose sight of yoga’s roots from thousands of years ago, and why we really practice it.

I hope this small insight into extending a yoga practice off the mat helps you on your own path, wherever that may be.




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