The path of the Yogi is not an easy journey. In order to realign with the highest level of consciousness, a Yogi must work constantly to still the fluctuations of the mind and heart, achieve stillness and balance, maintain exceptional health, and abide by moral and ethical principals that serve to help him or her maintain this delicate balance. The world is full of conflict and distraction and things to desire, but the idea behind the practice of Yoga is that all of these material and finite things pale in comparison to the benefit and bliss that is attained through discipline and aligning with the source consciousness in Samadhi, union with the Divine. Through the practice of Yoga, the Yogi feels at peace in life and maintains composure and positive regard in all situations.
Within the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are lifestyle principals, the ethical guidelines by which a Yogi may structure his or her life in order to better still the mind and heart from imbalance and conflict. For Yoga teachers and practitioners in the West especially, the ethical principals are aspects that are not taught as thoroughly as in traditional settings during training. Because Yoga in the West has been stripped of its spirituality, the ethical principals were all but lost along with everything besides the physical exercise. Unfortunately, the lack of ethics in a vast and quickly growing industry has caused some ugly scandals.
The Yoga Alliance is an association of Western Yogis who are trying to unite the industry and place standards on teachers who are registered. As of this moment, the YA is the only organization that is trying to do something like this in the West, although there is a lot of backlash against them for their materialistic and competitive practices, which some consider hypocritical (Yoga Alliance is ruining Yoga, 2015). Traditionally the Yoga practice has ethical standards built in though, and if adhered to strictly a teacher or student may avoid scandal, general upset, and distraction from practice.
According to Maharishi Patanjali, who compiled the Yoga Sutras, conflicts and impediments to a Yoga practice are many and include: disease, inertia, doubt, carelessness, idleness, lack of disciplined senses, erroneous knowledge, lack of perseverance, unsettled state, sorrow, frustration of the mind, unsteadiness, and labored and irregular breathing. In order to evade these impediments to union with the Divine, the eight limbs of Yoga were created. These are the Yamas and Niyamas (the ethical principals we will address in further detail), Asana (the postures and exercises), Pranayama (breathing exercises), Pratyahara (sensory withdrawal), Dharana (focus of consciousness), Dhyana (meditation), and the final stage of Samadhi (Divine Oneness). Each part of the eight limbs focuses on the removal of one or several of the conflicts and obstacles that block the path of the Yogi (Anand, n.d.; Rama, Ballentine & Ajaya, 1976).
In this paper, we will focus on the ethical principals and how they serve to guide a life to a balanced and peaceful happy state, why they’re so important to the practice and in general behavior, and what happens when they are not practiced as they are outlined in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
11.30 Ahimsa Satya Asteya Brahmacarya Aparigrahah Yamah (Iyengar, 1993)
The Yamas are the self-restraints of Patanjali’s Yoga. These are meant to help the Yogi to harmonize social interactions. By abiding by these ethical principals, one may limit interpersonal conflict caused by one’s own actions as much as is possible. According to Patanjali, there are five. There are more listed in other scriptures, such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, but we will stick to the Sutras here. The Yamas consist of Ahimsa, non-violence; Satya, truthfulness; Asteya, not stealing; Brahmacharya, energetic continence/celibacy; and Aparigraha, non-attachment.
The idea behind Ahimsa is to avoid accumulating the type of energy that causes violence, creates enemies, upsets balance, and destroys peace (Anand, n.d.). The universal law of Karma, a force that moves through habit and the direction of thought process and action that is otherwise known as cause and effect, dictates that the generation of a negative energy will be followed by further negativity. Not like a punishment for a crime, but more like the consequence of action is that there will be an effect that has a similar or the same frequency of energy attached to it as the cause. For example, murdering someone will so deeply disrupt the mind and body of the murderer that negativity in general will begin to be attracted to him or her. Negative occurrences will happen due to the projection of negative energy from the murderer’s thought processes and actions. So on and so forth, until the likely outcome is that the murderer will suffer violence him or herself as a consequence of this forward motion in a certain frequency that was triggered by the murder originally. Of course, the opposite is true as well. By practicing Ahimsa one “magnetically and mystically draws into your life non-violent people and events. Your social exchange becomes filled with happiness and pleasure, and there is an effortless intellectual exchange and exploration of human consciousness” (Kriyananda, 1976, p.4).
In Ahimsa, the Yogi not only doesn’t act violently, but also does not think violently. The Yogi does not feel hostility. The practice of removing hostility and violence from the thoughts and actions moves the Yogi towards compassion for all living beings (Vivekananda, 2005). This can be expressed through taking up a Sattvic vegetarian diet to avoid the killing or harming of animals and to generate the sattva guna, or peaceful energy in general. The Yogi must also refrain from using harsh or judgmental language and choose his or her words wisely so as not to cause hurt feelings to another person by thinking before speaking: is it kind, is it necessary/helpful, is it true, is it timely, and is it harmonious? Continued practice of Ahimsa will eliminate defensive reactions to confrontation because it lessens the ego, opens the heart to unconditional love and positive regard for all beings, and makes the Yogi a positive and respected influence (Vivekananda, 2005).
Satya, truthfulness, is the second Yama and also applies to thought, word, and deed (Vivekananda, 2005). Just speaking with honesty is the very basic idea of Satya, but of course it goes much deeper than that. Utter authenticity is the goal. This means that one begins with stilling the mind of passions and inertia in order to be able to see what is truth and what is untruth (Kriyananda, 1976). What is the truth of one’s feelings and emotions? What is the truth of a situation? What is the essential truth of existence? The questions run rather deep in the first step of intellectual honesty. Verbal honesty extends to only speaking when it is beneficial for others. Is it okay be brutally honest if it’s going to hurt someone’s feelings? Well, no. One must revert back to Ahimsa and ask, is it necessary? Only if absolutely necessary should one say things that will harm others, even if it is the truth, and only by saying it with compassion and understanding. Only if by not saying it more harm will be caused later.
Satya also extends to keeping one’s word. If one makes a promise, it must be kept. Only if it is utterly impossible to keep your word can you break it, and only after trying very hard to keep it. If the intention and all efforts to keep the word was made then the Yogi has still kept truthfulness (Kriyananda, 1976). The opposite of truthfulness is Asatya, telling lies. We all know that once a lie has been told, another lie will more than likely have to be told to cover up the original lie, and then it’s possible to forget which lies were told. The lie sits there in the back of the mind and taunts the liar. The stress of being found out always lingers. It creates chaos of the mind (Anand, n.d.).
There is another energetic aspect to always being truthful. There is the matter of energetic manifestation. A lie does not have positive influence. It is unable to manifest anything of power and has no connection to God/source consciousness. The more lies that are told, the more one is removed from alignment with the Divine/Higher Self. This relates to the physical practice of Satya. One must manifest and practice good acts continuously in order to move towards uplifting the energetic currents of the mind and body (Kriyananda, 1976).
The third ethical principal is Asteya, not stealing or coveting. Not stealing with the thought, word, or deed leads to understanding, detachment, forgiveness, compassion, and strength (Anand, n.d.). The Yogi must not think about taking what belongs to someone else, whether that is a physical property or energy or time. “According to many Yogic texts, what you have not earned has not yet been presented to you….anything coming into your life you have earned. It belongs to you and will bring happiness” (Kriyananda, 1976, p.10).
The Yogi must not cheat or manipulate. This is taking another’s energy by causing them to do something or live something they otherwise would not have chosen for themselves. One must also not take another’s energy by being late or keeping someone past the time they would like to leave. The Yogi must not be an energy vampire that sucks the energy out of others when he or she feels low either through inciting pity or asking for favors. The Yogi also must not take another’s ideas and claim them as his or her own. All of these actions are ultimately caused by an essential feeling of lack that signals an imbalance in the root energy and is also a sign of lack of contentment (Vivekananda, 2005), which is another principal we’ll address later.
Brahmacharya is an often-misunderstood Yama. Naturally, people assume it means celibacy only and take that to mean that sexual activity is a hindrance. Although lust most definitely can be, as it is a powerful force that overwhelms the thoughts and brings forward strong sensations in the body, sexual activity is not restricted for a Yogi. Men and women of householder age are understood to engage in sexual relations and should do so with one partner only if possible. Not every Yogi takes the renunciation vows, and many have families. It is also reasonable to be very attracted to a spouse or partner. There is even a whole lineage of teachings that are meant to deepen the bond between spouses, as it is believed that this is one way to experience pure bliss. “ To experience sex in a noble and spiritual manner is to taste of the outer fringes of God’s bliss” (Kriyananda, 1976). One should remain monogamous. One should limit relations to an amount that is satisfying but not indulgent. One should never be promiscuous, as this causes emotional upset in all partners, may lead to illness, and scatters the energy more than any other behavior (Kriyananda, 1976, Vivekananda, 2005).
But Brahmacharya means more deeply the contention of all energy, not sharing one’s energy to depletion, not engaging in sensuality either physically or mentally, not speaking too much, food should not be too spicy or agitating, and basically anything that overexcites the body should be avoided. Naturally, when one ages and moves out of the householder stage, one moves towards a lessening of sexual needs and desires and eventually into celibacy. Only unconditional love and one-pointed acceptance with the beloved in the sexual act will not deplete the energy (Kriyananda, 1976). “Learning to distinguish between important ‘needs’ and more whimsical ‘wants’ enables one to eliminate the wasteful expenditure of time and energy….” (Rama et al., 1976, p. 57)
Bramacharya also, even more deeply, means to keep one’s mind and awareness on God or Brahman by seeing everything as a manifestation of source consciousness, and as such, a direct reflection of God itself. Every action and thought is affected by this awareness. Every conversation a Yogi has should be a conversation with Brahman. Every circumstance, a manifestation of Brahman. Every act, devoted to Brahman.
Aparigraha is the last of the Yamas according to Patanjali, non-attachment/non-grasping/non-possessiveness. Again, this impulse comes from an essential feeling of lack. Hoarding, materialism, needing things to be happy, and acquiring too many things comes from insecurity. Possessions become more important than the people or circumstances in our life (Vivekananda, 2005). The idea is that if one begins collecting more than one needs, another will have to go without or with less. This upsets the balance of the resources on this planet. There should be enough to go around, but many people hoard money and power and by this action subjugate many into poverty and hunger. This inequality causes conflict that can be so deep as to result in wars and revolts (Anand, n.d.). By releasing attachment to worldly goods and only having what is needed, a Yogi is not weighted down and may move freely without worry of losing something. There is no competition with others to gain an advantage. The Yogi only needs enough to live comfortably and safely in order to remain focused on the Path.
11.32 Sauca Santosa Tapah Svadhyaya Isvarapranidhanani Niyamah (Iyengar, 1993).
The Niyamas are the inner observances and disciplines that a Yogi must practice in order to maintain a good relationship with him or herself. The first observance is Saucha, purity of mind, body, and living space. Cleanliness and purity are a matter of self-respect. A Yogi must remain healthy, and this requires exceptional personal hygiene. There are bodily cleansing practices called Kriyas that serve to remove toxins and impurities from the body. Some of these are quite invasive, such as the swallowing of cloth that is then pulled back out again to clean the stomach and esophagus. Cleansing of the bowels, the sinuses, the mouth/teeth/tongue, the ears, the eyes, and the stomach is done frequently. The Yogi must wear clean clothes or robes and fresh undergarments. He or she must not have body odor. Washing with soap and water must be done at least daily, and always after Asana practice (Anand, n.d.). The living space must be neat and tidy always. A cluttered living space reflects a cluttered mind (Vivekananda, 2005). Anything ingested must be pure and non-agitating, sattvic by nature. Clean organic foods (no meat or dairy except for ghee) are preferred if not integral.
After the cleansing of the body and the environment, the Yogi concentrates on the cleansing of the mind, purity of thought. “The mental purifications are the elimination of samskaras from the mind, and form the crux of the early phases of meditation practices” (Vivekananda, 2005, p.184). Samskaras are mental imprints or conditioning that we accumulate through experience and interaction. Each time we experience something or witness an event it leaves a trace energy in our unconscious minds that affects our life forever as long as it remains embedded there silently influencing our thought processes and perspective. We often don’t even recognize that we have this kind of behind the scenes programming going on, but the samskara impressions in our mind influence every aspect of our being: thoughts, behaviors, feelings, and perceptions (Vivekananda, 2005). These can be lessened by choosing to surround oneself with positive influences, situations, people, and environments as much as possible. This is why the ashram environment is so supportive to serious Yogis.
Santosha comes next, and it is a powerfully bliss-inducing practice that is often considered the most vital (Kriyananda, 1976). Again, Santosha is a mental, physical, and verbal observance. Practicing contentment is an act of Karma Yoga, or engaging in actions without the expectation of a reward or recognition. The Yogi is happy with whatever comes along, either “good” or “bad” and does not wish for more or feel any lack (Anand, n.d.). This is also an extension of non-attachment because the Yogi must be resolved to lose anything he or she has without suffering, and also to gain anything as well without becoming greedy or wanting more. The Yogi must not complain, but must work towards seeing the abundance in all situations and circumstances, while striving to maintain a comfortable level of support. If something needs changing, then the Yogi will change it instead of complaining about it or being victimized by it.
This does not mean to just accept anything that comes along, no matter how unjust, but to accept what is and with a clear mind and heart be able to move towards what is the best and most balanced situation for all involved. Loss and gain are inevitable in this life as it expands and contracts, takes and gives, appears and disappears. But if the Yogi is so attached to things and people that he or she cannot accept change, then it stops the flow of energy.
Tapas is the observance of austerity or perseverance or penance. The Yogi must practice the withholding physical comforts in order to not grow attached. The withstanding of the uncomfortability reminds the Yogi that he or she is mortal, yet strong and capable of survival (Vivekananda, 2005). This practice includes fasting, vows of silence, strenuous work, and living simply along with the occasional purposeful imposition of uncomfortable situations to test the will and prepare for possible future hardship. Some Yogis take this to the extreme and endure months of fasting or going naked outside in the elements for long stretches of time. Some even practice self-harming to test the body with pain. This is not necessary. Within moderation, tapas is meant to avoid the type of sloth and laziness that often accompany living in luxury (Vivekananda, 2005). In an Asana class, tapas can be practiced by continuing on when the lazy mind suggests stopping, by pushing through a strenuous sequence using the breath and the will, and by continuing with the daily practice.
Svadhyaya is most often recognized as self-study. Within this observance the Yogi studies the holy books or any wisdom writings to understand better the nature of the “Self” or atman as it relates to God or Brahman. Meditation, chanting, mindfulness, reading and study, and contemplation are all Svadhyaya. Participating in satsang teachings with other Yogis and sharing realizations is a powerful method of self-study. The Yogi must know him or herself fully in order to act with authenticity and one-pointedness (Kriyananda, 1976).
The final Niyama is Ishvara Pranidhana, which means attunement or surrender to God. “There must be an unreserved, unequivocal, absolute, and total dedication of all your actions intellectually, vocally, or physically to your chosen ideal in life (Ishvara)” (Kriyananda, 1976, p. 33). As the practice of Yoga flourished in a Hindu cultural environment, this highest ideal is usually understood as Brahman. But it is just as applicable to place in this position the God of the Abrahamic religions or the Buddha (although Buddhism is non-theistic) or Krishna or Thor or the Higher Self. It doesn’t matter. What matters here is the detachment from lesser things and the focus on an infinite energy that guides the Yogi towards a higher goal within a devotional practice. In Yoga, this higher goal is the directing inwards of the consciousness and the realization that God dwells within. When this is deeply understood, the Yogi finally becomes spiritually mature and realigns with God consciousness in the oneness of Samadhi (Kriyananda, 1976; Vivekananda, 2005).
It is by the dedication of all your actions and the fruits of your actions that purification, simplification, stabilization, and meditation of the mind become possible, bringing you to cosmic consciousness. It is through the practice of the ten abstentions and observances (yama-niyama) that the very foundation of the spiritual life is established, so that you might attain God-realization even in this very lifetime, in this very body (Kriyananda, 1976, p. 34).
Outside of the context of Yoga, these observances and principals have application to the everyday life of any man or woman who is seeking to find more balance and contentment in life. There is not a circumstance where these types of ethics would not be appreciated and helpful, as these practices lead to wisdom and maturity in the individual regardless of spiritual beliefs.
Although at the moment there is no real governing body that enforces ethical standards upon the practice or teaching of Yoga in the West or elsewhere, the practice does have its own ethical standards that any serious practitioner must adhere to if he or she wishes to be a Yogi. It is not possible to be engaged in the practice of Yoga without adhering to the Yamas and Niyamas. A governing body should theoretically not be necessary, because the practice itself requires these observances and self-restraints to function. If the teacher isn’t abiding by the Yamas and Niyamas, the students will quickly find out and lose respect. The teacher will lose the students.
It is quite evident when observing the behavior of a Yogi whether or not he or she is disciplined to the Path. Is he or she happy, blissful, manifesting positive situations and relationships, attaining realizations, and meditating peacefully? Is the body strong, pleasing, and healthy? Are the eyes focused and clear? Is there a smile radiating from within? Does peace follow his or her footsteps? Are people attracted to the Yogi’s positive demeanor, brilliant attitude, and innate wisdom? Is he or she in control of the emotions and feelings that may arise? Is there a deep understanding of purpose and meaning in his or her life? Does he or she inspire others to be better human beings? These are the fruits of the ethical practices. Once the Yogi has established these practices and balanced the fluctuations of the mind and heart, then the real work of Yoga can begin.
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Iyengar, B. (1993). Light on the yoga sutras of Patanjali. Uttar Pradesh, India: HarperCollins Publishers.
Kriyananda, G. (1976). The spiritual science of kriya yoga. Chicago: The Temple of Kriya Yoga.
Rama, Ballentine, R., & Ajaya (1976). Yoga and psychotherapy: The evolution of consciousness. Pennsylvania: The Himalayan International Institute of Yoga Science and Philosophy.
Vivekananda, R. (2005). Practical yoga psychology. Munger, Bihar, India: Yoga Publications Trust.
Yoga Alliance is ruining yoga (2015). American Yoga School. Retrieved from http://americanyogaschool.com/yoga-alliance-ruining-yoga/