February 28, 2014

Taking Yoga Off the Mat. ~ Monette Chilson

Kuvia Matkalta

This is the second in a year-long series that will journey through yoga’s eight limbs in 2014. January’s piece laid the ground work and introduced you yoga’s first limb, the yama (moral restraints). This month we’ll finish our experiential exploration of the five yama that make up this limb.

Yoga is much bigger than asana, but don’t let its vastness be intimidating.

Taking yoga off our mats sounds like a fine and admirable idea, but what does that look like, short of flash mobs down-dogging on city streets? First we have to remember that taking yoga off the mat isn’t synonymous with taking poses off the mat.

Three-thousand years ago the yogic sage Patanjali codified a very practical guide to exploring yoga’s depths via eight easy-to-follow limbs. It is the very first limb, the yama, which provides five specific guidelines for embodying universal morality and that can help us build our yoga practices into a life practice.

It is these same five precepts—non-violence, non-lying, non-stealing, non-excess and non-possessiveness—that we can use as a moral compass to achieve a yogic presence as we move through our days.

Use this month to learn about these ancient guiding principles and to begin putting them to work in your life. In January, we started our yamic journey with exercises to help you incorporate both the yama of nonviolence and non-excess (or sensual restraint) in very concrete ways. Revisit January’s article for inspiration to write your own manifesto of nonviolence and for permission (as if you need it!) to sit and mindfully eat some fine dark chocolate.

This month, we’ll venture into the other three yama, intertwined mandates that remind us not to take what is not ours—whether words or objects—and to avoiding holding too tightly even to what is.

Non-Lying: Satya 

Like non-violence, the yama of non-lying involves finding our own truth, not co-opting someone else’s idea of the truth. It means questioning the validity of our words and whether they are corroborated by our actions. Are we talking the talk but not walking the walk? Are we parroting beliefs because that we think we should rather than believing them in our hearts?

It is in the yama—particularly in this one—that we examine our own ability to be truthful with ourselves and transparent in our living.


Choose one specific facet of your life. Make it a meaningful one—your faith, your vocation or even your yoga practice. Hold it up to the light of this foundational yama of truthfulness. How true are you being to yourself in this area? Do your actions reflect your heart? Spend some time meditating and journaling about your core values and beliefs as they relate to this arena. Do your religious practices reflect the faith of your heart? Are you able to be true to yourself on the job? Does your yoga practice honor your truest nature?

If you find yourself compromising key truths in the part of your life you’re examining, spend some time reflecting on how much compromise is within your personal threshold of truthfulness. Spend at least a week on this contemplative stage before you try to “fix” any discrepancies you uncover. There is no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater in this exercise. Consider subtle shifts that can help you honor your own truths in your focus area rather than undergoing a dramatic religious conversion, sudden job resignation or shelving of your yoga mat.

In this yama, recognizing gradations help us avoid slipping into black and white thinking. You have dozens (if not hundreds) of choices between one extreme and the other. Explore them all!

Non-Stealing/Non-Covetousness: Asteya

Like a fine wine, this yama is much more complex than we realize at first sip.

Too easily dismissed with shrug and the smug certainty that are we not thieves, we must look deeper. Deborah Adele nails the true significance of this yama in her book The Yamas & Niyamas, saying: “Often, our dissatisfaction with ourselves and our lives leads us to this outward gaze, with a tendency to steal what is not rightfully ours. We steal from the earth, we steal from others, and we steal from ourselves. We steal from our own opportunity to grow ourselves into the person who has the right to have the life they want.”


Take off your literal hat and think of stealing in a more metaphorical sense. What are your attitudes and actions stealing from you? Perhaps you’re stealing your own serenity by taking on worries or problems of others or by trying to manage outcomes that are beyond your control. Maybe you’re stealing your children’s dignity by doing things for them that they would be better served doing themselves. Thinking globally, what are you stealing from our earthly home with unbridled consumption? Could you buy less (or more mindfully), recycle more?

The other, more subtle interpretation of this yama is non-covetousness which, of course, is simply a mandate to avoid the mental machinations that can lead to the external embodiment of thievery. Coveting can damage us whether we act on the impulse or not.

Non-Posessiveness: Aparigraha 

The two exercises on non-lying and non-stealing lead seamlessly into the final yama of non-possessiveness. When we don’t borrow words or take things that aren’t ours for the taking, we begin to trust that what we have will be enough, and our grasping can lessen.  Without realizing it, we begin to live in a less possessive state. This can be true of our belief system in that we begin to be less militant about the rightness of our views. We start to live and let live, respectfully and lovingly, with no conversion agenda.

It can also be true—and easily visible—in our relationship to our possessions. It is into this space we will venture in our final exercise.


Use the old “If you haven’t worn it in a year, throw it out” rule or the adage, “When in doubt, throw it out.” 

Go into your closet and take everything off one rod. Look at these items that you own, that you’ve spent money to purchase. Be honest about each item’s current state of usefulness to you and your actual need of it. Also, consider if it is reflective of who you are now. Put back on the rod only what is needed, useful to you and reflective of yourself at this juncture.

Be mindful in your assessment of each item and rather than internalizing the “throw it out” mentality, shift your thinking to include a vision of another person who could be in need of such an item.

This thinking may make it easier to let go of items that you no longer need. Just do one rod or one section that day. Come back and tackle another rod another day. Be gentle and observe the effect it has on your space and on your psyche. Do both feel more free an infused with breathing room? When you have finished your closet, deliver the items you’ve decided to gift to someone else to your favorite shelter or non-profit organization.

Come back next month to journey into yoga’s second limb, the niyama or observances, that can further reveal all the beautiful, mystical ways that yoga’s philosophy can enrich us spiritually, mentally and emotionally on a daily basis.

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Editorial Assistant: Alicia Wozniak/Editor: Bryonie Wise

Photo: elephant journal archives

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