At a recent teacher training intensive weekend we were discussing the foundations of Ashtanga Yoga philosophy, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and in particular we talked about the 8 Limbs of Yoga and how the logical progression of practices are designed to guide us in our journey towards greater self-knowledge.

Those Eight Limbs are:

Yama: guidelines for social conduct ie: how we relate to/interact with other people

Niyama: guidelines for personal behaviour ie: how we care for ourselves

Asana: physical postures for health

Pranayama: breathwork/management of life force

Pratyahara: right use of senses

Dharana: concentration of the mind

Dhyana: meditation

Samadhi: consciousness

Yama could be seen as practices that help us to rise above our more ‘primal’ nature and bring consciousness to our relationships; these practices are non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, moderation, and non-coveting.

Niyama could be seen as practices that help to awaken our more ‘spirital’ nature and encourage greater consciousness in our relationship with self.  These practices include cleanliness, contentment, resoluteness, study, and surrender.

During our discussion I posed the question, in this logical progression that is the 8 Limbs of Yoga, why are the Yamas – guidelines for how we deal with others – a practice that comes before Niyamas – how we deal with ourselves?  I haven’t posed this question in class before, but I am so glad that I opened up this discussion because, although I’ve thought about it occasionally, it was hearing the ideas and reflections of this amazing group of teacher trainees that gave me some new and exciting insight into why we might practice relationship and social conduct before we practice self-care.

There were so many rich insights that came from this discussion that I will continue to reflect on, but one of the ideas that I wanted to share was that Yoga in many ways holds a mirror up to Self – when we practice, when we meditate, when we breath, we get to ‘see’ ourselves.  I love that aspect of Yoga and as a self-confessed introvert I will admit that it has been very comfortable for me to practice my personal growth…personally.

However, after our discussion the other day about why the Yamas might come before the Niyamas, I got to thinking about how sometimes mirrors can be deceiving, or oppressive, or can give us backward or restricting images that don’t necessarily show the full picture.  So, maybe it’s important to not just have the mirrors, but windows too.  Our interactions with others and their input, responses, reactions, ideas and feedback might be those windows to look out while we look in…

So, this is what I’ve been wondering lately…maybe Yama is our foundation in yoga so that we don’t get too self-involved or narrow our vision too much on our restrictive idea of “I”.  To avoid turning the world into a hall of mirrors, perhaps we need to have some windows to look out and expand our view.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas on this subject – so if you have an idea, reflection, or question to continue this conversation please do share!  We learn so much about ourselves, our world, and our Yoga by sharing from our unique ‘viewing points’, and, dare I say, peeking in the windows of someone else’s practice.

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