The First Limb


One of the assignments for the teacher training I am now taking is to write a provided list of vocabulary words on a note card, and then provide the definitions on the other side. I already have at least a general knowledge of most of the words on this list, so I have decided to take it a step further. I now have a notebook, with two pages to take notes in for each word, but even this doesn’t feel like enough. On Monday I spent some time researching Yama, the first limb of Ashtanga Yoga, which lays the foundation for how a yogi is to act in the world. What I have always appreciated most about the ethical guidelines of being a yogi is that they “offer an approach to overcoming obstacles, living daily life, and becoming an enlightened being,” (Freeman, 172). I joked with a friend the other day that I am always willing to grow or change my actions and responses to life and relationships, if someone can point out to me a way that my actions are un-enlightened.What’s the point in being defensive when instead I could learn to be more kind, honest, peaceful, good humored?

So what are the guidelines?

There are 5; Ahimsa; Satya; Asteya; Brahmacharya; Aparigraha. So poetic in Sanskrit, n’est pas? It makes it easier to practice these five acts when they are beautiful words with no meaning, but lets see if we can deepen our understanding of these concepts and how they apply to our yoga practice on the mat and our sadhana practice in our lives.


This is the very fist guideline, of the very first limb. So when the yogis of long ago were contemplating what is the absolute first and foremost ingredient that must be present in order to live an enlightened life they agreed that it was Non-Violence. So anytime we are faced with a decision the very first question we can ask ourselves is “Will this cause suffering?” If the answer is yes, then we are not practicing Ahimsa, and even if it is challenging can we rise above and devise a way to act while minimize suffering for our self and others?

I could not emphasize the importance of Ahimsa enough in an asana class. When we are doing postures we must be taking care of ourselves and listening to the feedback from our nervous system so as not to cause pain. Yet, this can of course be difficult. A teacher is telling you exactly what to do and how and when, and she is even telling you when and how to breathe. You are doing your best to keep up with the pace and follow the instructions, you hardly have time to pay attention to that weird pinching feeling in your wrist. It’s easier to ignore it.

This isn’t unlike the challenges we may face in our lives when we’re presented with opportunities to practice Ahimsa. As an idea we can nod and agree and see why practicing non-violence makes sense, but as soon as we land two feet on the ground, where not all people believe in non-violence, and where suffering is perhaps inevitable, this practice becomes much more three dimensional. It becomes a practice – something that we attempt to get better at over time. My best suggestion is to experiment. To make an Ahimsic choice the next time you are presented the opportunity and then observe any possible side effects.

“If the Yamas are practiced, then love is allowed to flow freely and to function right at the center of our lives,” (Freeman, 175).

Satya, Asteya, Brahmacharya, Aparigraha

In brief the remaining Yama: Satya means truthfulness; Asteya means not stealing and conversely it is an understanding that anything material is only borrowed anyways – even the breath and our bodies; Brahmacharya can be translated as neither suppressing nor indulging our desire for union with others; and Aparigraha means to not grasp at things and ultimately to understand that no thing out there is going to fulfill us for we are already whole.  In my opinion this doesn’t have to mean not-desiring, but it does help to recognize that desire is only momentarily fulfilled by the accumulation of stuff, and overtime all of the things we have grasped for and accumulated can just become more to keep organized.

Eka Pada

To go along with the first limb this week we worked on several poses in the Eka Pada, or one-legged, family, specifically Eka Pada Kundinyasana I (See, not even the wooden mannequin can do it! Oops.) 

and II, which are both arm balances where the legs are extending in different directions.

Other postures that relate or can help to teach the work of the legs in these arm balances are Virabradrasana III, Warrior III;

Ardha Chandrasana, Half Moon; Eka Pada Adho Mukha Shvanasana, One Legged Downward Facing Dog; etc.

Why would I couple teaching the Yama with One-Legged poses?

In order to balance on the hands and send the legs out in opposite directions there has to be an understanding of how all of the limbs actually work together. Literally – the limbs of the body. All of the limbs connect to the body through the core. Being a yogi often involves putting yourself into different shapes, but you can’t forget everything you know. Each time you practice you carry with you previous lessons. You learn how all of the poses and the limbs related to one another. The body becomes more conscious and intelligent. So even when we are faced with lifting our foundations limbs, our legs, off of the floor they are still dynamically participating in the posture to help support the manifesting limbs, our arms, as they attempt to bare weight and provide foundation. So even when we are faced with the challenge of lifting our foundation limbs, the Yama and Niyama, of the ground they are still dynamically participating in the postures to help support the manifesting limbs, Asana and Pranayama, as they attempt to bare weight and provide foundation.

For More Information On This Subject:

The Mirror of Yoga by Richard Freeman

Light on Life by B.K.S. Iyengar

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali



About Joyce Englander

I teach weekly yoga classes in New York City, which focus on moving mindfully and gracefully with the breath. I believe that learning yoga is similar to learning a language, and the more you are around it the more fluent you become. This blog is an opportunity to share my thoughts and re-visit lessons from class; to create a bridge for students to translate their classroom experience into real life. I am interested in how practicing yoga can help to improve people's lives and reduce needless suffering.
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