On the Mat, Off the Mat

Off the mat / Philosophy

An Introduction to the Yamas in thought and pose – Part 1

Inspired by the abundance of wisdom and interconnectedness in yogic texts and asanas – I have embarked on a journey to introduce my students to think  about more than just the poses they do on the mat.

I believe that teaching yoga should encompass more than just instructing how to do a pose. The subject of yoga is so vast and complex that I feel that it’s my duty as a yoga teacher to share as much as I can into what insights I learn about yoga along my journey. I honestly believe that the more we widen students’ knowledge, the richer their experience will be – on the mat and off the mat. Saying that, however, I’m also cautious about the way in which I share this information as not everyone wants to hear too much philosophy and may very well just come to stretch or for a workout.

Over the past few months, I have started off each class introducing the students to the 8 limbs of yoga. These are explained to us by Patanjali, the sage who compiled The Sutras of Patanjali – the text which describes to us the discipline of Yoga. Interestingly enough, there is no mention of any of the postures in it but rather, it outlines a guide for living life.

Each week for 5 weeks, I began each class by explaining each of the 5 Yamas, which are considered the first limb in Ashtanga yoga. Ashtanga yoga means the 8 limbs of yoga or the eightfold path of yoga. Asana or physical poses are just one limb, the third limb, and quite often students aren’t aware of the other 7. The first limb are the Yamas, which are the “avoid” rules and societal ethics and guidelines by which we are recommended to engage with the world and each other – what not to do to ourselves and others. I personally prefer to take a positive approach to things so I have been explaining these concepts to my students in positive rather than negative terms or as “do nots”.

Starting off with Ahimsa which means non-violence. Non-violence in thoughts, feelings, words or actions towards ourselves, to others or to creatures and the things around us. One may interpret the opposite of this as being love and also as being kind to oneself. Often we are our own biggest critics and judges and love begins with ourselves. If we focus rather on love, forgiveness and kindness towards ourself, then we have the possibility to be more caring and compassionate towards others. In this class, we did standing poses and I encouraged my class to work in these poses without strain and with good effort and release. Often, especially when we are stiff or just starting our yoga journey, we push too hard or fight ourselves to try get into a pose, and since my class in the morning, our bodies are naturally more stiff. Our mind exerts its dominant will over the body to get into a position that we may not be ready for so we need to be alert and sensitive to this. By encouraging my students to practice kindness towards themselves, I asked them to not force their way into the pose and fight against themselves, but to rather move with ease as far as they could in that particular moment. Then, once they were in the pose as far as they felt they could go without strain, to then breathe and pause and find ease and then, only if possible, move deeper into the pose.

The next posts will cover the rest of the yamas.