Yoga Philosophy

Yoga On and Off the Mat: Exploring the Yamas as guidelines toward compassion and equality

(this article was first published in canfitpro magazine July/August 2017 issue) 


One of the biggest and often most underestimated impacts of Yoga is its effect on the practitioner long after the class is finished. Those who practice Yoga regularly experience general feelings of calm, clarity of mind, the ability to be more present along with other positive side effects such as: better sleep, ease of physical tension and reduced stress. For these same regular practitioners, it becomes quickly apparent that there is a lot more to Yoga than simply the poses. A certain magic happens when we link slow and controlled movement to breath, and for many the more this is experienced the further we are called to explore deeper concepts of Yoga, such as Yoga Philosophy and the 8-Limbs of Yoga.


The 8-Limbs of Yoga are described by Patanjali, in one of the oldest known texts on Yoga Philosophy: The Sutras of Patanjali. Where the first two limbs: Yamas and Niyamas, are described as a code of ethics both socially and personally. The third limb: the asana or poses, the fourth: pranayama or breathing practices and the last four limbs all describe different aspects of meditation. As our Yoga practice develops beyond our mat, it is these paths that help us along our Yoga journey. As we look to deepen our practice it becomes not just about our physical body but the way we interact both outward and inward. Basically becoming more aware of our thought patterns and how they affect our emotions and relationships, including our relationship with Self.


In looking at the first limb, the Yamas, are the ways in which we interact with our external world. Translated from Sanskrit to mean restraints, the Yamas are guidelines for Yogi’s to follow that are based in compassion and equality. There are five: non-violence, truth, non-stealing, moderation and non-possessiveness. These are practiced as guide posts along our Yoga journey, to have us continually checking in with both our thoughts and our actions.


As with all things there are varying degrees of practice. The following are my thoughts and ideas, which you may or may not share. My suggestion is to continue reading from other authors as well so you can determine the best practices that align with your heart. I’ve also chosen ideas for practice both on our mats, during our Yoga class as well as off our mats as we interact with the world.


Ahimsa / Non-Harming: This describes a path of non-violence. Of extending kindness to all living creatures. Gandhi’s focus of non-violence during the liberation of India was a practice of Ahimsa. Some will look at a vegan or vegetarian diet as other ways to express this path. Providing love and compassion to all beings and avoiding bringing unnecessary pain is the focus here.


On the mat: Focusing on listening to our bodies as we move through different poses, in particular watching ways in which we force our bodies into poses we aren’t prepared for and increasing our chances of being injured.

Off the mat: A little obvious, like avoid randomly punching someone in the face. However, what about watching our words. Harm isn’t only creating through name- calling and blame, but it’s often the sarcastic remarks casually thrown out that create a deeper impact.


Satya / Truthfulness: Satya is often linked to non-harming, as sometimes the truth can also be hurtful. Honesty is a trait that many find important in both personal and professional relationships. However, understanding the varying degrees of truth and what that means to you is important. Does a white lie cause more harm than good? Are you being honest with others about your feelings? Are you being true to yourself?


On the mat: Similar to above, are we being honest with ourselves about how a pose is feeling or whether we should be trying to push ourselves into it. Are we really listening to our bodies in the pose and adapting as needed.

Off the mat: Are we saying yes when we really want to say no? Are we holding back on speaking our truth out of fear of disappointment?


Asteya / Non-stealing: On the surface this seems fairly easy, don’t take what doesn’t belong to you. Yet we steal everyday, we steal time, we steal from ourselves and we steal from the planet. Along with this, is non-coveting and worrying what others think of us. When we compare ourselves to others, we are stealing from ourselves the opportunity to live authentically and on our own terms.


On the mat: Do we steal from ourselves by skipping through the final relaxation or avoiding practices for meditation? It could be said that we are robbing ourselves from the full circle of practice by letting our minds wander off at will through our practice, rather than practicing the discipline of focusing our attention to our breath. Are we present on our mat?

Off the mat: As trainers or teachers, do we steal from our clients by not giving them the chance to find the positioning for themselves particularly by over adjusting and trying to mold them into place. Do they rely on us to be fixed rather than learning themselves?


Brahmacharya / Moderation: Also known as non-excess, this guideline helps us stay in the middle zone while experiencing pleasure and sensual experiences without bingeing and causing harm. Chocolate Cake is delicious, but isn’t one piece more enjoyable than the bellyaches of eating the entire thing. Exercise is amazing and it gives us a ton of extra energy and vitality, however I’m sure many reading this article have also experienced the negative impact of over exercising.


On the mat: In our poses, finding the space between ouch and too easy. Enjoying a powerful flow if that is what we are craving, but then balancing it with a long savasana.

Off the mat: Moderation in all things. Indulge in life’s pleasures but stick to the tasting menu. Look for balance between the things you want to do and the things you need to do.


Aparigraha / Non-possessiveness: We can’t take it with us when we are gone, and yet as a society we are completely obsessed with our possessions and the need to have more. This also falls into our attachments, and how we often place such a stronghold over the things we value most. As Buddha says: the origin of suffering is attachments.


On the mat: It is often when we let go of the need to perform a certain pose and actually just enjoy the pose for what it is that we often succeed in it. Poses like crow or headstand, that once you tick off all the alignment cues the last thing required is an energetic shift. This shift only happens once you surrender and enjoy the process rather than the desperate need to get there.

Off the mat: If you love something set it free. Take inventory of your relationships and ways in which you attempt to control the outcome of experiences. Family dinners never turn out perfectly, and yet somehow they often do. Employ the attitude of gratitude.


Yoga provides the opportunity to create a deeper connection to Self. It is this felt connection that is experienced so often on the mat that it continues to call us back again and again. As we nurture this newfound connection mind and body, and develop a more compassionate relationship to ourselves, we are also able to experience a deeper connection to others. The old saying: To love another, we must first love ourselves. In it’s own subtle way, Yoga not only teaches us what this really means but how to actually experience it. This is Yoga on and off the mat – mind, body and soul. What are you doing in your daily practice to support this?


For further reading – The Yamas & Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice by Deborah Adele is available at The Yamas and Niyamas are also further explored in YogaFit’s Level 2 certification course.


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