Scholé Yoga is rooted in the lineage of Ashtanga Yoga. It’s not unusual to think that “Ashtanga” is a style of yoga class, and it is, but the teachings of Ashtanga go far beyond just asana (posture). Many of the postures we practice in Scholé Yoga do come from the asana taught by one of the fathers of modern yoga, Pattabhi Jois, but the teachings of Ashtanga go back even further to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali written thousands of years ago.
Patanjali wrote about the eight limb path of yoga, “ash (eight) tanga (limb)” – which is different from the Ashtanga vinyasa (flow) yoga we often think of as “yoga” today. Patanjali’s teachings served as guidelines help yogis live a positive, fulfilled life.
Yoga can be just a class we go to for an hour or so. But if you are looking to learn more about yoga, and adopt its teachings deeper into your life, Patanjali’s path provides an excellent starting point for learning. Posture is definitely a part of modern practice and Patanjali’s eight-limbed path, but beyond asana, there is so much more to discover.
Let’s review the first elements of Patanjali’s path, the “yamas.” The yamas provide guidance on how we should interact with others in the world. The five yamas are:
Brahmacharya: Sexual continence
It’s not surprising that the eightfold path beings with non-violence. We’ve all been taught since our childhood not to harm others. Nonviolence extends beyond just our actions and into our thoughts and words, making the practice a little more than it first appears. Today, many people struggle with practicing nonviolence in how we speak to ourselves, and there is a great deal of growth to be found in noticing when we are not gentle and kind to ourselves. For many yogis, the path of Ahmisa leads to vegetarianism, but in the modern world many people make other choices.
Truth can be hard sometimes. If the truth will hurt someone, it is good to recall that the yamas begin first with not harming others. However, sometimes we need to be honest in order to help others grow and to meet our own needs. Speaking truth from a place of compassion and kindness can help us navigate the challenge of communicating information that someone else may not be happy to hear. Satya is an obligation to speak to what is most important to us, and be brave in sharing our truths. It does not mean our truths are the same for others, and there is a grace in upholding our truths while respecting that our truths can differ.
Most children know that it is not right to take what is not ours. Asteya reminds us that we should not take what is freely given, and invites us to consider how this extends beyond our physical possessions. Sometimes we can demand or expect more energy and attention from someone than they have to give. Asteya helps us consider the impact that we make with what what we take from others in any form. We are all connected in life, sometimes giving and sometimes taking. Being mindful of Asteya helps us stay in balance with this interconnection.
Brahmacharya: Sexual Continence
In the time of Patanjali, yogis lived a celibate, monastic lifestyle, and Brahmacharya was a reminder of that choice. In our modern world, we can consider Brahmacharya as a reminder to be respectful of our relationships and partners. We should be mindful to keep their needs in mind while considering how our own needs need to be met.
Aparigraha can help us start to observe many patterns that are possibly even more challenging for us than in Patanjali’s time. In our modern, Western world, we have so much. Yet so few of us are satisfied. We always want more, or something different from what we have. Learning to appreciate what we have, rather than what we do not have, can help us dramatically shift how we see the world.
Ashtanga Yogi BKS Iyengar, another of the fathers of the modern practice, said, “A mind that is not content cannot concentrate.” Observing our endless wants and desires can help us start to soften the grip they have on our minds and our actions. As we notice what we want and how it differs from what we need, we take less from the world. And we might even still – gasp – choose to act on a want, but we’ll do it with awareness and appreciation. In return, we gain so much more space and control over not just how we spend our time, but also on where we focus our thoughts and energy each day.
In practicing the yamas, we begin to experience more of the the benefits of how Patanjali’s saw yoga as a whole, and his goal of helping to foster the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. Indeed, that may feel like a goal out of reach, but even a little more peace and gratitude in our lives can have a profound effect on the overall quality of our lives.