THE EIGHT LIMBS OF YOGA. The Five Yama Principles

Anatoliy Zenchenko

Many people who started practicing Yoga observed how their lives began to change. Every individual experience is unique, but in any case everything starts changing, including the circle of acquaintances, relationships, the work sphere, the country of residence, food preferences, and even the attitude to a situation when somebody steps on your foot in public transport. And, at certain point, such changes begin to frighten us, we do not accept what has already started to happen in the surrounding reality and in our inner world. Behavioral models and motivations undergo significant transformation within a very short time period, while we are not yet ready to understand and accept it. The reason for this is that we so far are not aware of the laws and mechanisms ruling everything. We need a coordinate system to which we could stick to so as to better understand ourselves, the World and the principles of our interaction with the World.

What is to be discussed below, is not a pure Yoga theory which, as some people believe, “is not to be obligatory learnt”, but an essential information enabling us to optimize the process of our life as well as the process of inward self-perception and development.

It’s very important to understand that these principles do not limit our freedom, but rather show the correct attitude allowing us to develop as effective as possible, having set the right intentions, having established the proper priorities, and not having missed any significant details and aspects.

It’s extremely important to realize that all these principles are, first of all, aimed at acquiring a right attitude to oneself, at cultivating inward self-discipline, inner harmony, balance, purity, peace and confidence.

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali describe Yoga consisting of eight Ashtanga Yoga “limbs” or parts. Not stages, levels or grades, but parts! Eight parts equal in meaning and significance, and supplementing each other. These are the eight parts of a single integrated method, of a way, an algorithm; the eight petals of a flower named Yoga. It’s absolutely incorrect to consider separate parts in isolation from the others. For a full-blooded life, a person equally needs a head, lungs and a heart, and only when all organs and systems function coherently, we can speak of health and harmony of both the body and the spirit incarnated in such body.

In the same way, Yoga will be integrated and effective, if we understand each of the eight principles, perceive their deep correlation, and implement such understanding and perception in everyday practice and life.

We have always been taught to divide a whole into parts so as to understand its structure and operation principles. Now, it’s time to change apprehension and to apply a holistic principle under which everything in this world is interconnected, and, having understood how completely different parts of the whole interact, we shall comprehend the essence of things and processes much deeper than we could comprehend it through separate examination of the parts.

The eight “limbs” or parts constituting Yoga according to Patanjali are the following:

Yama – the five external principles of interaction with oneself and the World.

Niyama – the five inward principles of interaction with oneself and the World.

Asana – the form, the practice of exercises and postures allowing to learn to be aware of oneself and of one’s manifestations at the body level, to gain full control of the body, and to stop oneself at the body level.

Pranayama – control of energy and emotions through control of breathing. It’s a part of Yoga aimed at harmonization of subtle body channels functioning, aimed at purification, energy accumulation, and allowing to stop energy fluctuations and to direct energy to the central “Sushumna” channel. Stoppage at the level of breathing and energy movement.

Pratyahara – withdrawal of senses from their external objects. It’s a state in which any information perceived through senses does not distract our mind from the established direction of our attention.

Dharana – a state in which our mind can hold its attention flow in the given direction.

Dhyana – a state of contemplation or meditation. It’s a state of consciousness in which a maximal interaction between the subject and the object of attention takes place; a state in which there is a maximal energy and information exchange between the subject and the object of attention.

Samadhi – a state of enlightenment. It’s a state of total presence and direct perception. This state is defined as complete merging of the subject with the object.


Five Yama Principles:

AHIMSA means non-violence, lack of brutality and of injustice. It is usually translated as “let’s not do harm to and violence against anyone, let’s be kind».

A rule becomes a rule if applied to oneself, therefore let’s start from ourselves first. Try to become attentive and aware, try to feel how much violence you do against yourselves, how often you offend yourselves, how often you force yourselves to do certain things. We are able to treat others or the World only in the way we treat ourselves, we simply can’t do otherwise. And, if we want to find harmony in our relations with the surrounding World, we must first achieve inward harmony and remove violence from inside ourselves. This does not mean that one should only do what he or she wants to do, not at all, – one should rather clearly understand what he or she exactly wants in life and at this very moment. However, this should be an intention formulated with provision for the interests of all parts of your consciousness, your body, soul and spirit. When they all come to agreement, you have no doubts in the accuracy of the made decision and the chosen way. But it is very important not to deceive oneself, it’s extremely important to be able to be honest with oneself. And here’s where the next Yama principle – SATYA – manifests.

In practice, the AHIMSA principle reveals itself when a person understands that an Asana or any other Yoga technique is only means, but not the goal. An Asana is a natural body posture in space. Thus, no violence in any form is allowed here. A disciple must not be violent against himself while practicing, through is happens quite often when he tries to achieve a false goal – to shape up at any cost as soon as possible. Such zeal results in injuries which take a long time to heal, and sometimes such injuries become permanent reminders of our past mistakes.

Violence can be not only direct and physical; there can also be subtle violence which is unnoticeable at first sight. At initial stages of practice, we obtain enormous energy, but don’t know how to use it correctly. An example of such subtle violence and incorrect use of the accumulated energy is any attempts to manipulate people, situations, events.

In life, the Ahimsa principle is embodied in understanding that any power methods of influence over a situation, any attempts to manipulate the World are grounded on the unconscious manifestation of our ego. If we have to break through on the way to our goal, this signifies that reality is not ready to give us “the green light”, and it’s all because deep inside we are not yet ready to achieve the goal. And, instead of using the energy accumulated during practice to crudely manipulate the space, we need to direct this energy at harmonization of our inner space. If we try to manipulate people and situations for the purpose of attaining our ambitions, it means we fortify the walls of our prison from inside ourselves instead of moving towards freedom.

This is not supposed to mean that social activities should not be conducted at all. We may be very successful in life and in business, it’s just that any attempts to put pressure and to manipulate only strengthen our ego, further fix our false image of ourselves and limit our inner freedom. Well, the World does not really like it when we crudely meddle with its harmony and always finds a way to reestablish balance and justice and to explain us over again that the violence we cause generates violence towards ourselves.

SATYA means honesty, although it’s quite a trite translation. “Let’s tell the truth” – “OK, let's do”.

But, how about trying to be honest with yourself at each and every moment, trying to understand yourself, trying not to forget and not to ignore your soul’s secret impulses, trying to acknowledge the needs of your body and mind? And, now try to do this combining in a single whole dozen sub-personalities who continually and utterly fight with each other for the right to dominate in your consciousness. Do you still remember AHIMSA?

So, for me SATYA is a continual internal work directed at being honest with myself, at permanently seeing myself just the way I am, and not the way I want to appear to myself or to other people. When a person is learning inward sincerity step by step, the World begins to understand such person and gives him or her what he or she really needs to move forward in evolution.

In practice, the SATYA principle is embodied in the ability to feel the state in which we are right now, in the capacity to accept ourselves just as we are now. Then we can move further in our development and in our practice from the point at which we are at the moment. It’s very important to evaluate one’s force and ability correctly. If you underestimate yourself, you wittingly allow yourself to be weak and inert, and evolution in such case goes slowly than desired, if it goes at all. When, on the contrary, you overestimate your force and ability, you may end up with injuries and failures in practice. If you start practicing techniques for which you are not yet ready, you will either have problems with your body or will lose motivation, while motivation may not have been even there, or you’ve had it, but it has been unreal, untrue, fabricated – without SATYA.

If the SATYA principle is realized properly, you always clearly feel which techniques in which quantity you need to practice, you sense the effect such techniques have on you, and such understanding (vision of the situation) gives you a new impulse for further development.

ASTEYA. “Steya” means theft. “A” at the beginning of a word gives it an opposite meaning. So, a common translation is “no theft”.

The principle may be defined as honesty, also fairness. Let’s try to comprehend ASTEYA slightly deeper than understanding it just as “not taking anything belonging to someone else”.

The idea is that we should be honest and fair, and for this we need to not just view a situation from an advantageous standpoint, but to evaluate it aloofly and equitably from a point of view of harmony and appreciation of everyone’s interests. We need to understand ourselves, and, understanding ourselves, we start to understand the others, their feelings, interests, condition, and thus we can harmoniously communicate with surrounding people.

After all, theft can be not only external and apparent; one can as well steal energy, time, attention, ideas etc., and all this can be stolen also from oneself.

Often, we rob ourselves when we trifle away the time of our lives which are not really that long. How much time has already been lost, and how much energy has been spent ineffectively? You may consider that you have stolen all this from yourself and not noticed, for you must have inward SATYA in order to notice.

ASTEYA is embodied when one observes an ideal balance of energy exchange in interaction with the World and in communication with people. Any communication is an exchange of energy and information during which a new vision and comprehension of reality comes into being. If communication goes right, each participant feels he or she is gaining energy. If there is no understanding of ASTEYA, a person is intended only to take not feeling internal readiness to share and to give. Yet, when you only take, no matter whether you take attention, energy or concern, that is when energy flows only in a single direction, please, be prepared for a moment when it will stop flowing at all.

Once we understand that the whole thing is not about taking, but about mutual exchange, and once we start increasing the density of such exchange observing a balance between the given and the taken energy, we shall feel the SATYA principle realization.

BRAHMACHARYA is usually translated as celibacy – sexual continence.

BRAHMA means Existence or Truth, it’s one of God’s names.

CHAR may be translated as “movement”.

ACHARYA is “one who is living”.

A person observing BRAHMACHARYA is the person who moves towards the Truth, whose life is aimed at perception of existence, at perception of God. Many high-flown words, but it appears impossible to avoid them. Here, I believe, a position of observer with respect to your actions, thoughts, desires is crucial. An ability to regard yourself and the World aloofly at the moments of both profound grief and immense happiness. An ability to look through masses of petty desires and fuss of thoughts and not to forget the most important – the essence part of ourselves, the part for which this entire life masquerade is simply useless. Not to betray our spirituality for the sake of momentary benefit, to try to see the essence inside ourselves and the bottom of things happening in our lives, to follow at achieving which goals we aim our efforts. Not to forget who we are and where we go. This sounds so easy and banal, but it’s so difficult to make it a part of our inner world, a part of our lives. Although some people have already realized and accepted it, and their scale of values has started to change accordingly. Such change surely does not occur by itself. It’s a result of practicing. Even the simplest techniques practiced daily can fundamentally transform ourselves, our priorities in life and the life itself.

In common everyday practice, BRAHMACHARYA is implemented as permanent, continual inward observation, as an attempt to feel, to sense the essence, to perceive the Truth.

If we consider BRAHMACHARYA in sexual continence context, the most important point is to control ejaculation. If a disciple can control ejaculation (control means retain sperm inside during coitus), it means he is able to observe BRAHMACHARYA. We are very little aware of ourselves at the moment of orgasm, and if at this moment a full control of sperm and energy movement is achieved, it is one of indications that a disciple does not lose control and does not forget where his movement and his life are directed to. A more profound discussion of this issue will be the subject of one of the next articles.

APARIGRAHA is commonly translated as “rejection of gifts”.

PARIGRAHA means “to take, to seize”.

“A” at the beginning gives an opposite meaning to the word “take” or “seize”.

To me, APARIGRAHA has several aspects: no money-grubbing in all and any form, ability to be satisfied with what is really necessary, without accumulating any useless lumber. No attachment to results of your actions, but actions for the sake of acting itself, for the sake of self-manifestation and total awareness, that is for the sake of creation in its pure form. No possessiveness and no desire to possess.

Aparigraha in life is non-attachment to anything. Non-attachment to things, places of residence, jobs, other people, weather, emotions, fixed ways of thinking and reacting and, in the end, non-attachment to oneself, more exactly – to the image of oneself for the others and to the image of oneself for oneself. The state of non-attachment is Freedom, inasmuch as when we don’t have desires, we have nothing to pursuit and nothing to escape from.

APARIGRAHA in practice is a state when practice is not a goal, but is a means to achieve a result, and the result is a special state – a state of Yoga, CHITTA VRITTI NIRODHAH.

If we are able to practice without attaching to what we know and what we can do better than the others, if the practice acquirements are not the main goal, then everything is OK.

Sometimes, in pursuit of accumulating personal force, disciples forget why they started to accumulate such force and, instead of turning it to self-development and awareness in all manifestations, they simply fuss over having so much energy, not remembering that energy is a flow, and if you shut it off at the outlet, the energy will soon stop coming in.

The aspect of possessiveness shows in unconscious self-association with possessed things which generates internal fixations and fear to lose oneself if one loses such things.

The desire to possess shows in relationships with those whom we love. Not being aware, we start infringing upon their freedom and treat them as part of ourselves or as something we possess, while it’s a total illusion! In reality, it’s a lack of freedom, it’s an attempt to fix the World, the energy, the Life – it’s DEATH.

The inward aspect of APARIGRAHA is non-attachment to the image of oneself, readiness to see new facets of one’s personality, readiness to notice and to acknowledge internal transformations taking place in the process of life and practice. Once you lose attachment to the image of yourself, you no longer have to spend energy on maintaining such image, and your fear gradually goes away because what you were afraid of losing and what you were trying so hard to maintain goes away.

This has been hardly a full description of all YAMA aspects, but I hope this article will somewhat change your attitude to YAMA and NIYAMA as to obscure rules and archaic morals having appeared in Yoga from heaven knows where.

Understanding the deep sense of these principles will enable us to change ourselves and our attitude to the World, and to comprehend the transformations taking place inside everyone who starts practicing Yoga, tries to develop and to become more aware.