Body Acceptance & the 8 Limbs of Yoga: Yamas

During Virtual CurveFest, I gave a talk about the connections between the 8 limbs of yoga (or the path of yoga) and body acceptance. Because to me, the two are incredibly connected. The 8 limbs bring us into a deeper and subtler relationship with our body. So when you’ve had a relationship of disconnection from your body, it only follows that the 8 limbs can facilitate body acceptance and even love.

This is the first in a series of posts I’ll be sharing over the next few months about body acceptance and the 8 limbs. First up (not too surprisingly): the yamas. Before we get to that, though, a disclaimer. I am not a Sanskrit or yoga philosophy scholar. My goal with this series is not to share “the” way to interpret the yoga sutras, or even necessarily a correct way. What I am sharing, though, is my perspective borne through my practice, experience and study. My hope is that this will be an introduction that makes yoga philosophy feel interesting and relevant to your day-to-day life, not something esoteric that is completely out of your reach.


The yamas and niyamas (which will be our next post) are often referred to as the ethical principles or guidelines of yoga. They give us some touchstones on our path. The yamas include ahimsa (non-violence or compassion), satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (sense control) and aparigraha (non-greediness).

Let’s break these down a little in relation to a closer relationship with one’s body.

Ahimsa — Compassion

I love that the yogic philosophical system begins with compassion. How fitting. While this is often discussed in relationship with others, it has to begin with ourselves. We have other examples of this in yoga and meditation: for example, metta (or loving-kindness) meditation. In loving-kindness meditation, we start by extending loving-kindness towards ourselves, and then we gradually send that love to a loved one, a neutral person (like an acquaintance), someone with whom we have difficulty & then all beings everywhere.

In some traditions, though, until you can truly send love to yourself, you don’t go any further. You continue practicing love toward self until you feel ready and able to move on to others. What a heart-opening contrast to what many of us often spend our days with: giving, giving, giving to others until there’s either nothing left for us or until we’re so tired we don’t have to look at the fact that we’re not giving anything to ourselves. Easier to be the martyr sometimes than to look at our own baggage and holes (something I know all too well)!

Satya — Truth

It’s amazing how closely connected telling the truth is with compassion, isn’t it? Here’s a quick example from my life: for years (okay, decades) I avoided the truth about my relationship with food. I thought if I just triedone more diet, I’d finally, finally crack the code and instantaneously lose 100 pounds.

It wasn’t until I started cracking my internal code, though, looking at the roots of my bodily disconnection and my desire to escape my feelings via food that things began to shift. And the shift wasn’t towards weight loss because that wasn’t what was really needed. What was really needed was compassion (ah ha — ahimsa, again!) and honesty about my actual needs — support, feeling my feelings, unfolding.

Asteya — Non-Stealing

This one can be interpreted quite literally — not taking anyone else’s stuff, as well as not disrespecting someone’s trust by sharing something meant to be confidential. When I sit with this and let it sink in deeper, though, I also get an instant image of my own energy field.

To me, asteya means integrity and responsibility for what’s mine. It means doing my own processing in order to be fully present. It means not comparing my body to others’ in the way so many of us do — out loud, but also in my own mind. And when I catch myself doing it internally, asteya reminds me to soften and accept myself — right where and how I am.

Brahmacharya — Sense Control

Ohhh…this one gets into some controversy in yoga circles because it’s often interpreted as sexual celibacy. But I prefer the description of this as sense control — not the Type-A control that many of us dieters & former dieters know so well, but more like productive use of the senses.

Perhaps you’ve had this (or a similar) experience with your body acceptance journey: as soon as you feel you’re making a bit of progress, you “fall off the wagon.” You see a shiny diet and go for it immediately — when looking back, you realize you did this nearly on autopilot, without a pause, a breath, a thought, a feeling. Brahmacharya can remind us to draw in. To pause before acting and to be in the moment with our body.

Aparigraha — Non-Attachment

I think this would be easy to interpret as not being greedy with food — not binging. But I also think there’s something deeper underneath, and that’s the idea of softening and letting go.

There have been more times than I can count in my body acceptance journey that I’d thought I’d finally “got it.” “Hooray!,” I’d think. “Now I can move on from this whole body acceptance thing into more important parts of my life.” Except — oops. Of course, I wasn’t done — far from it. I’d just come to another leg of the journey (which, so far, seems to be endless). Aparigraha helps me anchor into the beauty of process, of not grasping onto a particular state of being but rather opening to whatever comes next.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on what the yamas mean to you in relation to your body acceptance journey. Next up: niyamas!

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  • Toni

    Thank you! This was definitely a beautiful way to adapt these teachings to apply to everyday life…

    • Anna

      Thanks, Toni — glad you liked it! :)

  • eileen

    I’d never heard of the 8 limbs of yoga as I’m very new to yoga so this is very interesting and exciting to me. I look forward to the upcoming posts. thank you.

    • Anna Guest-Jelley

      Oh, fun — so happy to share an intro! Thanks!!

  • Nanci

    I absolutely love this post. Such a good one for this time of year! I want to think about each one of the yamas you wrote about and say at least one thing about them, to further my own understanding of them in how they are applicable to me:

    On compassion, I find it’s so hard to be nice to myself first. I feel like I’m nice to everyone else first, and then me, but after awhile, I just feel like I’m even falling short of the mark there, and am not even nice to anyone, even those I love. I agree, therefore, that being kind to the self first will make a huge difference in how I can then extend that kindness to others around me. I’ll practice this.

    On truth, I have finally allowed myself to see a truth that I thought I’d been able to bury and escape from via food. It is in my power to change this, but it must be done from the perspective of honesty with myself, and then, as you stated, in being compassionate about what that honesty induces in me. I’ll practice this.

    On non-stealing, words are powerful and it’s easy for me to allow negative talk about myself to steal the truth of who I really am. When I steal myself from myself through the betrayal of harsh words and mean actions, I miss being able to connect with myself on a much deeper level. This is something that will require patience and dilligence on my part, to exchange meanness with kindness through words directed at myself. I’ll practice this.

    On sense control, it’s important to remember that I don’t have to always act immediately, and that I can take a breath first, give myself a moment to collect myself and be thankful for progress, even if I’m the only one who sees it. I’ll practice this.

    On non-attachment, and body acceptance, I never quite feel as if I’ve gotten it enough, but that’s okay, there should be no judgement about that. I really like what you said about it: “Aparigraha helps me anchor into the beauty of process, of not grasping onto a particular state of being but rather opening to whatever comes next.” I think that in order to be open to what comes next will go a long way in helping to alleviate some of the fear I may have about changes caused through the process of stepping more firmly onto a body-acceptance path. I’ll practice this.

    Thanks, Anna, again for this post. It was very insightful and thought-provoking…obviously! :)

    • Anna Guest-Jelley

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Nanci! I loved reading through each of your applications. I was totally nodding along as I read. :)

      I was really reminded as I read your reflections just how powerful these tenets are. This really is such deep work.

  • Rachel

    There are so many ways to adapt these teachings to our life. No rights or wrongs, just guidelines to be the best possible versions of ourselves. Thank you Anna for another beautiful perspective.

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