Why You Don't Need a Mat to Practice Yoga: Breaking Down the First Limb

By Kate Duncan

Most people don’t know that Yoga is a whole intricate philosophy, a complete way of life to follow. Asana, or the shapes we make in tight leggings and a well made Lorna Jane pushup, is just one tiny piece of the puzzle.


In Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutra (one of the more renowned texts on yoga), the path of yoga is called Ashtanga, which literally means eight limbs.


The Eight Limbs set us up to live a purposeful and meaningful life. If diligently followed, they take us down a path to freedom, or bliss. (who doesn’t want a little more bliss in their life?) In this blog, I’ll show you all eight, then break down the First Limb in great detail, to show you that you don’t need a mat to practice Yoga.



The eight limbs


  1. Yama (ethical standards or integrity)
  2. Niyama (self-disciple and spiritual observances)
  3. Asana (postures)
  4. Pranayama (breathing techniques, or breath control)
  5. Pratyahara (sense withdrawal)
  6. Dharana (concentration)
  7. Dhyana (contemplation, or meditative absorption)
  8. Samadhi (liberation, bliss or enlightenment)


As a yoga teacher, it drives me a little batty that most of my students don’t know there’s more to yoga than stretching their hamstrings. I know they can feel it, when their weary bodies collapse into Savasana (corpse pose), but there’s never enough time in class to teach them the whole path. I sneak bits in here and there, throwing little water balloon-like morsels of satya (truthfulness), pranayama (breath control) or ahimsa (non-violence) around,  hoping they’ll hit the right spot and burst.


For most of us modern day humans, getting all the way to the eighth limb could be quite a challenge. Most of us would do very well to just focus on the first 4 limbs. I’ve known way to many yogis that strive for high states of meditation (and wonder why they aren’t getting “anywhere”)  while severely lacking in the very simple ethical standards outlined in the first limb.


So.. let’s start right here, at the first of the eightfold path, the Yamas.


The Yamas


The First Limb, the Yamas,  are the moral and ethical standards that we can strive to live by. You can think about these as our personal standard of integrity.


Ahimsa: non-violence.

When I think of Ahimsa I say to myself, First, do no harm. This phrase reminds me to be kind, and to bring gentleness to all that I do. Ahimsa is about taking great care not to harm others, the earth, or ourselves. On the mat, it means being disciplined to not push or over-try, to know when not to do a pose too deep, and being wise enough to be gentle.


Satya: truthfulness.

Satya isn’t just “don’t lie”, but rather,  how can we strive always for the utmost truth? How can we see the purity in all things? Satya asks us to not only speak truth to others, but seek to know truth in ourselves. On the mat it means being truly honest with what your body is capable of, and not cutting corners to make a pose look like that one you saw on Instagram last week, when really, your body can’t physically go there (while staying true to ahimsa).


Asteya: non-stealing.

The need to take what isn’t yours comes from feeling lack, or that we don’t have enough. You can take this one deeeeeep too: is being first in line stealing from those who are last? Is removing a tree taking from the earth? Is holding back from our highest potential stealing from ourselves? On the mat, Asteya means giving all we have to ourselves in each pose: tapping into the sensation of abundance and not holding back from fear that we don’t have enough energy.


Brahmacharya: continence.

We are pleasure driven beings, and prone to endlessly chasing around that which feels great and dissipating our energy in unwise ways. Brahmachyara asks us to be careful with what we chase, and how we use our energies. Traditionally, this teaching was meant for sexuality, but we can also think about how we use our energy on the mat. Are we being resourceful, like using our powerful core, or large muscles to move us with less effort. I love teaching classes that focus on using our large muscles and core: it feels like more work at first (as does Branacharya), but the payoff is a powerful, graceful parctice, and one in which we end up flowing with ease.


Aparigraha: non-covetousness

We’ve all heard that we shouldn’t covet the neighbours wife, but what does this coveting really mean? It’s similar to stealing, only different in the sense that its root cause in jealousy, or that we want what another has. We have to look inward and see the blessings on our life. Social media is our modern day coveting mad-house, and the best antidote I know for this is gratitude. On the mat, it means not looking around and seeing what others are doing. Comparing inevitably leads to  coveting. Stay where you are, turn inward, and look for your own blessings.



The “modified” practice of yoga (asana) that we perform here in the west has brought millions of people peace of mind, a strong body, and a connection to their breath. But understanding the greater meaning behind yoga philosophy and practicing the Yama’s will deepen and enrich your practice, and your life too.


Take some time to go through each of the Yama’s and find the places you do well, and the places that could do with some polishing. And always remember, you don’t need a mat to practice yoga.


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