What the Yamas Teach Us About Boundaries

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My yoga teacher greets every student by name.

Those who are into touch get a warm squeeze. She’s assertive and tells people to make room for one another. If someone is talking out of turn, she playfully tells them to be quiet. In the past, she’s gently turned down misplaced romantic attachment from her students. She’s sat steadily when something shivery rises up for a student during asana practice. I call her “Boundary Beth.”

I think she’s a superhero.

Recently, a friend of mine and I had a breakfast fueled by several cappuccinos and lots of exclamations. We were talking about our own progress with healthy boundaries in our own lives. We both love Boundary Beth and were drawn to her as our yoga teacher in strong measure by her lovely embodiment of these fair and kind lines. My friend and I both come from backgrounds of no boundaries: We have tons of stories of friendships fired up on quick intimacy, oversharing, vows for life, and then the slow resentments as we found ourselves giving until we were depleted. We shared the awareness that we’ve built over the years of learning where we end and another person begins. We talked about the healthy and loving relationships we find ourselves in where we both know that ultimately, we’re responsible for ourselves. We stand alongside each other, not somehow weirdly commingled.

Spurred by the shared fireworks of the conversation, I Googled “healthy boundaries” and set the results to images. Holy boundary memes! The interwebs invited me to “examine what I tolerate,” asked if I have the confidence to “politely remind others to respect the rules,” and told me that the person angry at a boundary was the “one with the problem.” Whoa! In this search, the Internet actually felt like a wealth of wonder! There were loads of articles explaining what violated boundaries look like: Where one party feels exploited, overloaded, and overworked, and the other person is oblivious. The articles and memes shared the range of boundary possibilities: Sometimes we have no boundaries and we’re subject to over-give in ways we aren’t comfortable with or can’t sustain. On the other end of the spectrum, boundaries can become rigid and unyielding, isolating us and making us unable to experience true intimacy.

My friend and I both come from backgrounds of no boundaries: We have tons of stories of friendships fired up on quick intimacy, oversharing, vows for life, and then the slow resentments as we found ourselves giving until we were depleted.

I watched my own journey unfold across the screen: I remembered relationships where I felt taken advantage of and misused. I thought of reactive periods where I oscillated to the “too rigid” pole and felt isolated and angry. In recent years, I’ve worked hard to land in the ever-shifting middle. I’ve worked to be open to intimacy and vulnerability, while still feeling self-aware and healthfully self-protective. I thought about how yoga has shed light on the intricacies of relating with others.

Patanjali, the godfather of yoga, tells us that if we want to know the state of yoga, where we feel in harmony with all, we simply need to surrender to our understanding of God or isvara pranidhanad-va. No big deal, right? Well, actually, many of us feel like that is a really big deal. In his infinite generosity, Patanjali then offers Kriya yoga, the three-part path. In it, Patanjali advises us to study yoga scripture and see ourselves within the experience, or svadhyaya. To read the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, and to recognize our own specific journey within the larger archetypes and shared experience. Along with practicing svadhyaya, we must be disciplined and austere in our efforts, a practice known as tapas. And of course, we must surrender to God.

Still too complicated? Patanjali understands. From here, we receive Ashtanga or Raja yoga, the eight-limbed path. This is the list yielding lists path. We are told to clarify our relationships (boundaries!) or Yamas, we fine tune our behaviors with ourselves, or Niyamas (and here Patanjali circles back to Kriya yoga), we do breathwork, or pranayama, we clarify our seat, or posture, also known as asana, we limit distraction, or pratyahara, we learn to focus, or dharana, we find absorption, or dhyana, and maybe—if we're lucky—we experience bliss, or samadhi.

As I wrote, Patanjali offers us lists within lists. Simply, we are told to clarify our relationships with others—and to do this first. Within the Yamas, Patanjali gets increasingly specific: We are meant to not harm (ahimsa), tell the truth (satya), not take more than our share (asteya), not sexually exploit (brahmacharya), and not grasp all the time or seek unnecessarily (aparigraha). When practiced, these Yamas help create healthy, mutually respectful, and interdependent—not codependent—relationships.

What the 5 Yamas Teach Us About Boundaries

1. Ahimsa

Ahimsa is often mischaracterized as not harming oneself: It’s common to hear a yoga asana teacher say, “practice ahimsa—don’t go too far in a yoga pose and hurt yourself.” This is absolutely sound advice, but it’s not exactly correct with regard to the concept of ahimsa. Ahimsa is specifically to not harm others. My yoga school emphasizes our responsibility to not harm other living creatures, like animals, in our diet. In the context of boundaries, I’ve come to see how when I do for others things that I’m not comfortable with, like give more of my time or energy than I’m ready for, I’m taking away their capacity to do for themselves. That’s harmful. We all need to learn how to care for ourselves and self-regulate. I have an aunt who is fond of saying, “if you’re thirsty and I drink water, are you sated?” Nope.

2. Satya

When I allow myself to fall into familiar patterns and not hear my own internal voice, I’m often not truthful or practicing satya. Again, Boundary Beth amazes me in the ease with which she tells the truth. I’ve often heard her say, “No, I won’t be going to that.” When pressed (where I, in the same situation, would make up an excuse) she’ll say simply, “I don’t want to.” No big explanation. No big justification. Just the simplicity of the truth. So freeing!

3. Asteya

Asteya, or not taking more than is ours, is huge. Asteya applies to a range of behaviors. We are meant to be conscious of our consumption. Are we taking more resources from the Earth than we need? That’s obviously unhealthy for the Earth, it harms other beings (circling back to ahimsa), and it creates an uneven and unsustainable need within ourselves. It’s rather easy to see this play out in concrete examples like around a dinner table. It’s unfair to take a bigger helping of the green beans if others won’t get any. That will create resentments, and it’s greedy.

This also plays out on subtle emotive fields: Have you ever been in a group where one person dominated the conversation? It’s usually uncomfortable for most involved. It doesn’t have the ease of a more balanced exchange. The practice of asteya clarifies this tendency. What about in emotional exchanges? It’s often the case that one party has bigger expectations for emotional support than others. To be clear, we all need emotional support and we should be up front about our needs and ask for help (understanding that other parties have a right to decline). Do we stay conscious in emotional exchanges to make sure that all members are comfortable?

When practiced, these Yamas help create healthy, mutually respectful, and interdependent—not codependent—relationships.

4. Brahmacarya

Brahmacarya applies to boundaries set in sexual exchanges. This is a huge one. In the United States an unbelievable number of people suffer sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape. These are all instances where an aggressor couldn’t hear “no” or wouldn’t notice the other’s discomfort and imposed their will on another. The yogic Yama of brahmacharya instructs us to not be sexually exploitative. Do not take advantage of another sexually be it in thought, word, or deed. And be clear about the type of sexual exchanges we wish to engage in. Seek out what is mutually uplifting.

5. Aparigraha

Aparigraha speaks to that hunger within us to quell some sense of dissatisfaction. We get bored or restless and take another class. We feel uncomfortable with ourselves or our circumstances so we travel endlessly, or change jobs a bunch, or keep moving, or seek out new friends. Aparigraha is grasping, grasping, to satisfy that hunger. We are invited instead to get to know our own dissatisfaction and see if we can create a softer, less splashy contentment. Instead of accumulating things, experiences, and people—to just be.

Patanjali, in his infinite wisdom, gifted us a wise and expansive list of suggestions to know our own power and purpose and coexist with equanimity. By being non-harmful, truthful, not taking more than is ours, being sexually responsible, and not grasping all the time, we have the possibility of experiencing relationships that teach us, help us grow, and see the underlying unity of all.

That’s the tricky bit, right? Those of us who struggle with boundaries glom on to that last bit: Underlying unity, the state of yoga. In yogic texts, we hear again and again that this is reality, that this is the true nature. But we are also told to move through the reality of this incarnation. In this incarnation, we have taken on one body in the context of a vast and moving world. We are meant to move through the body to experience essential truth. That means respecting our own limits and the limits of those around us.

We play with limits in the physical practice when we bind. One hand improbably finds a toe, something deep engages within our core, and we find ourselves in a bit of a yoga pretzel. Often, within that contracted space we begin to notice where there is more breath and a steadying of the mind. In much the same way, boundaries in relationships are meant to illuminate that same space. Yoga is fond of paradoxes and the freedom versus limitation dichotomy shows up continually. We adhere to the rules of conduct with one another and then notice how the differences between us seem to melt away. We find how to care for ourselves responsibly, with strength and awareness, and within that have a greater capacity for empathy to extend beyond ourselves.

Recently, Boundary Beth and I talked about boundaries. I asked her: “How are you so weirdly good at this?” In my eyes, she has so much clarity in all matters interpersonal. She’s concise and communicative.

She smiled at me and said: “Boundaries are love.”

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Passionate about healthy bodies, relationships, & communities, Maiga Milbourne E-RYT teaches vinyasa yoga to groups and individuals. Yoga offers so much to each student: physical health, mental well-being, ease, and community. In reflection of the broad benefits of yoga, Maiga has created a range of services to provide to her clients, all seeking to help each one realize their fullest po...READ MORE