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    « It's All Good, Even the Bad | Main | The Niyamas -- The Observances of Yoga »

    Yama, Yoga Ethics -- Living the Good Life

    This is the first in a series of eight articles on what is called Ashtanga or "Eight Limbed" Yoga*.

    Yoga was my introduction to the spiritual path over thirty years ago, and while I haven't often spoken about it directly, the philosophy of yoga forms the basis of much of the counseling work that I do. Much of who I am as a counselor is a result of the yoga teachings I received personally from great yoga masters like Yogiraj Shri Swami Satchidananda, Swami Muktananda and others in the late sixties and early seventies. Yoga was and is very important to me, both as a wisdom lineage and as a personal practice, and with these articles I want to share and pass on what I was taught, and what I came to understand through my own practice.

    Ashtanga Yoga has never been as popular as it is today, but the increasing commercialization of yoga, and an overemphasis on the physical practice of yoga overshadows much of the deep wisdom and beauty of the teachings.

    Each generation discovers yoga newly, and reinvents it to some extent, and it is my hope that what I pass on of what I learned will inspire and support a deeper and more satisfying understanding of yoga in the present generation.

    Millions worldwide practice yoga as a physical discipline, but many don't know that the physical practice of yoga is rooted in a profound ethical philosophy, a simple set of ideas that not only support and uphold a person's physical health and well-being, but their emotional health and well-being as well.

    Underlying Asana and Vinyasa practice in yoga are a set of five essential ethical precepts or principles called Yama. These five core concepts form the ethical basis of the yogic approach to life, and constitute what is called the first "limb," or part, of eight limbs of yoga.

    Self-alignment allows us to grasp the totality of ourselves.The five principles of Yama guide not only our physical practice of yoga, but also provide a a platform for understanding how to live our best life possible. Properly understood and put into practice, they serve as powerful organizing principles, bringing out what is best in us and supporting us in bringing out the best in one another.

    Ethics are much more than just following social rules and obeying the law. Ethical behavior is life-supporting behavior. It is conduct that promotes well-being in the world.

    In another sense, ethics could be thought of as living in harmony with the greater life around us, living our most "natural" life, living as we meant to live.

    Ethical conduct cannot be achieved through external controls, whether personally or socially imposed. As is often remarked, morality cannot be legislated. Ethical conduct is the result of a person living in accord with their own nature, which would result in a natural sense of empathy and investment in the well-being of others.

    When we feel whole and at peace within ourselves, we naturally want to support others in feeling that same sense of well being, if for no other reason than that it feels good.

    The precepts of yama are mental landmarks, principles that allow us to orient and anchor our understanding and our actions. We use the five precepts as starting points for our understanding of how best to be in life -- nothing more. They are not rules of behavior; rather, they are descriptions of the good life. Properly used, the precepts allow us to find our own way by helping us to make sense of what matters most in our own experience and to align ourselves with it.

    Again, they are not rules or codes of conduct; they are recommendations meant to help us find our way in life, guideposts to the good life, to a life that is satisfying and rewarding.

    The first step to making use of the five precepts is to develop an understanding of them. Simply grasping the simple logic of the ideas can transform a life and change the world. For example: the first yama, ahimsa, was the inspiration for the work of Mahatma Gandhi, and not only helped India find its freedom, but later inspired the non-violent approach of Dr. Martin Luther King. Each of the yamas has the power to change your life and change the world.

    Perhaps more importantly, the precepts of yama also serve as validations of your practice of yoga -- proof to yourself that you are achieving a state of yoga, that is, of alignment or harmony between yourself and nature.

    As you come into a state of yoga, as you become more aligned with yourself, with your own sense of joy and appreciation, you concurrently come into alignment with nature and with life itself, and the yamas just arise in you. They reflect your natural inclination, your natural way of being.

    The yamas are the characteristics of one who is in alignment, of one who is in a state of yoga. They are the way yogis tend to be -- in other words, you don't have to work at them. Matter of fact, you can't. Trying to force yoga or force the yamas goes against all of the yamas.

    It would be very difficult to enact or follow the precepts without more or less being in a state of yoga -- when you are at odds with yourself, you don't have the focus or presence of mind to hold the needed perspectives. The precepts are your natural way of being when you are in a state of yoga -- or more or less at peace with yourself.

    When you're in yoga, you're feeling good, your perspectives are broader and more inclusive, things make sense, and things go your way. When you're upset, and not in yoga, you lose perspective, few things make sense, and life doesn't really support you.

    The practice of yoga is designed to support you in being in harmony with yourself and the world around you. When that happens you have support from every corner, inside and out.

    A good way to understand whether you're currently in a state of yoga is to feel how much peace of mind you have overall. When you're feeling peaceful and happy, and life seems good, you're in yoga. You're aligned.

    One more thing -- being "in" or "out" of yoga is always a relative value. We're always "more" or "less" aligned with self -- it shifts from moment to moment. Like keeping your physical balance, it takes continuous adjustments, which, with practice, become automatic, but as you get good at "keeping your balance," you find you fall down less frequently.

    Being in a state of yoga isn't something you attain and then you're "done." Living in yoga, or living in alignment is always an ongoing practice, and on any given day, each of us moves in and out of alignment all day long, depending on how we're focused. We're always growing, always changing, always expanding, always evolving -- and practicing yoga means releasing resistance to that natural growth, that natural expansion.

    Life is never static, never finished, never done. Every setback is merely an opportunity for clarification and deeper understanding. Every attainment nothing more than a platform for the challenges that are yet to come. The road goes on and on and never ends. Life never stops expanding.

    Enlightenment is not a fixed state of bliss or omniscience; it is a growing and evolving appreciation of ourselves and the world around us. The process of enligntenment just means continuously coming to see ourselves and wherever we are from broader perspectives. It means shedding more light on the subject of life.

    A Few Background Notes:

    Yoga is an experience. The words and descriptions don't really matter, except as pointers to the experience. A lot of the terms used are vaguely or poorly defined, and the original meanings are lost -- so we're trying to piece together an understanding of an experience based on old and vague information.

    Yoga is not the bringing into being of a "better" or higher self. It is harmony or peace between the different sides of our everyday self.

    Yoga is living as an integrated being. It means integrating our narrow focus in day-to-day living with the best of our broader perspectives. Its bringing our most inclusive perspectives to bear on the most finite situations.

    Yoga is the union of infinite life itself with a particular finite focus of living. If you have the experience, you understand the words. If you don't have at least some of the experience, the words aren't really helpful, except as pointers.

    Think of a time when you were able to bring broad perspective and experience to bear in a narrow context, when you brought generosity of spirit and great understanding to bear in a specific situation -- that is a pointer to what yoga is all about.

    An early meaning of yama is "twinned," or "along with." Another meaning is "control" as in "feeling in control," not "trying to control." These seem good meanings -- yamas are ways of being that "go along with" or mirror yoga, ways of being that allow us to "feel under control."

    Some commentators describe the yamas as "do nots," as rules, abstentions, external restraints, things yogis should not do if they want to be yogis. This view is rather confused, as restraint of any kind is antithetical to the spirit of yoga. Yoga is not "against" anything, and it is certainly not about controlling yourself. Yoga is about reducing conflicts, resolving differences -- not trying to restrain or control energies. It's about losing interest in negativity, not controlling our "negative" impulses.

    Yogis are not people who are at war with themselves -- they aren't trying to bring themselves under control. Yogis are people who are achieving alignment by reducing conflicts between different aspects of self, who resolve difference by adopting a broader understanding, people who naturally exhibit the qualities described by the "yamas."

    The Five Yamas:

    Maharishi Patanjali, the author of the ancient and definitive text on yoga mentions the five yamas in his Yoga Sutras, but they did not originate with him. The yamas are much older than Yoga, much older than any religious or spiritual tradition we know of. They are at least five thousand years old, and they are certainly the oldest ethical principles on record.

    The five traditional yamas of yoga are ahimsa, or non-violence, satya, or truth, asteya or non-stealing, brahmacharya, or abiding-in-self, and aparigraha, or non-possessiveness.


    "When the yogi is established in ahimsa -- physical, mental, vocal, and spiritual non-violence, he or she has no enemies." Yoga Sutras 2:35

    The first precept is ahimsa -- non-forcing, non-harming, non-violence. It is similar to the hippocratic oath -- "first, do no harm."

    Ahimsa is fully grasping the futility, the pointlessness of aggression or force, of harm or violence. It means losing interest in the idea of needing to force anything.

    Ahimsa says, "Trust the flow of life, the inevitability of progress. There is no need to use force -- open yourself to a broader understanding and watch things get better. There is no need to harm anything or push against anything -- harming never helps."

    There is a big difference between taking action in harmony with life (and with others) and trying to use force to overpower, to dominate. When something is ready to happen, it doesn't take much effort, and the actions we take feel inspired and welcome and easy. When something isn't ready to happen, then all the force in the world can't make it happen -- not really. Trying to force things just makes things worse.

    Ahimsa reminds us that there is no need to try to force things. Life has a pattern and a flow. In our lives, as in nature, timing is everything. When we are in the state of yoga, we are in harmony with ourselves and with nature, with the life that is flowing all around us. So our actions are appropriate, efficient, seemingly effortless and natural, and they bear the proper fruit. When we're not in harmony or in synch with ourselves or our world, we may be tempted to try to use force to bend things to our will. Not a good idea. Better to go with the flow and let the better life emerge in a more natural, more holistic way.

    Many of the problems of our modern world stem from our being out of synch, out of alignment with ourselves and nature, and then trying to use force to make things go our way.

    Ahimsa is a recognition of the futility that approach, of trying to control things by using violence. It is the understanding that it takes no effort to harvest the ripe fruit, or to ride the horse in the direction it wants to go.

    Ahimsa says, "don't bother with violence, don't try to force things, it harms -- and harm doesn't really help. It just makes more trouble."

    Ahimsa is the first precept because it reminds us to trust the flow and the intelligence of life -- in ourselves, in one another and in the world around. It speaks to the futility of trying to substitute force and struggle for alignment and flow. Life, nature is intelligent. When we live in harmony with life, with natural law, which is what yoga is all about, life is easy -- things flow without too much struggle, our natural knowing, our instinctual intelligence emerges and flows.

    Ahimsa says power is no substitute for intelligence, force is no substitute for yoga, for alignment. Yoga is easy -- when we are in a state of yoga or alignment, life flows.

    It is being out of yoga, out of alignment with yourself that is difficult, that is harmful. And when that happens, we may be tempted to try to use force, to try to push through obstacles. Better to be in yoga, or alignment, and watch the obstacles melt away.

    Satya or Truth

    "When the yogi is firmly established in satya, or truthfulness, he or she obtains the complete fruit of all actions without effort." Yoga Sutras, 2:36

    The second yama flows from the first. Ahimsa is recommending a relaxed, open, trusting, non-forceful, non-aggressive way of being, and as we become more that way, things get clearer. We understand more. We "know" more. Things become obvious and easy to grasp.

    We begin to see the "truth" of things. Truth in the sense of a workable understanding, not in the sense of a final reality. Confusion and conflict begin to be resolved, we release distorted or limited understandings that held us back.

    This is Satya.

    Satya can best be described as the experience of being at peace with the present truth of the way things are. It's "loving what is." It isn't truth in the sense of accurate or complete reporting, or the recounting of facts. And it isn't non-lying.

    Satya is not a static truth, a fixed reality, but a constant evolving of understanding and perspective, ever more inclusive, ever more complete, and ever more satisfying views of life -- knowledge and understanding must continue to grow for it to be called Satya.

    Satya is an ongoing peaceful knowing of the full nature of things. A seeing and an understanding of life from a broader and more inclusive perspectives. Satya is being at peace with the way things are because you can catch a glimpse of the eternal and unbounded nature of things. You see more of the flow, more of the big picture, so you can relax. You stop struggling with things that are merely temporary, and you start to orient to the larger purposes, and the larger needs of things.

    Satya is the relief of a broader more inclusive perspective. It is seeing a larger piece of infinity. Instead of the claustrophobic feelings of running out of time or not being able to control things, we relax and gain insight into the larger truth: life is good, all is well.

    Instead of becoming stressed about a parking space, you see there is really no rush.

    Instead of worrying about money, you enjoy and appreciate the money you have and you see the potential for more.

    Instead of being frustrated by the limitations or struggles in a relationship, you see the good in them, and if you can build on that good, you do, and if you can't you let go gracefully, you understand the fact that relationships take time to grow and unfold, and they can't grow in an atmosphere of complaint.

    You understand that it is better to love unconditionally than to limit or restrict your loving nature.

    And instead of criticizing, you praise. Instead of tearing down, you build. And you start with yourself.

    And if someone is hurting you, you protect yourself, and them, by not allowing them to injure you or yourself.

    Instead of arguing, you decide to love, as best you can.

    Instead of struggling, you relax. You let go and trust yourself and trust life.

    And as you relax, you can know more of your larger truth and you can speak it without worries.

    You become less inclined to cling to facts or "stories" in an attempt to be right or to try to control situations or other people. You delight in the fact that you are learning a broader perspective every day, and your mind is feeling more and more free and more and more happy.

    The truth is what is. And what is is constantly changing, constantly growing. And for us to know the truth, our perspectives have to grow along with it.

    Satya is being-with-what-is-which-is-ever-evolving, and loving every minute of it.

    As you practice yoga, or alignment with self, with nature, with life-itself, satya becomes your natural way of being.

    Asteya, or Non-Stealing

    "When the yogi is firmly established in asteya, non-stealing, the gems of inner riches present themselves to him or her." Yoga Sutras, 2:37

    All of the yamas are about relationships, because fundamentally, yoga is about a relationship -- the one between you and you.

    Ahimsa, the first precept, is about the futility of trying to force things. It is about being able to allow people to be who they are.

    Satya, the second precept, is about grasping and understanding the present moment truth of things, knowing and understanding that things are always all right for now.

    Asteya is making us more aware of the importance of being content with who we are and what we have at the moment. It is about releasing or letting go of any sense of being needy or greedy in an attempt to assuage feelings of emptiness.

    Asteya is usually interpreted as "don't steal" -- don't try to take what is not yours.

    But on a deeper level, asteya is about recognizing the pointlessness of trying to forcibly appropriate or claim something that is is not yet yours, when the truth is we only have our experience, our life, and that is always enough, for now.

    Asteya is about coming from sufficiency, instead of coming from lack; counting our blessings, instead of resenting our wants.

    We can only be who we are, for now, and only have what we have, for now. And what we have, right now, is always enough, for now. Asteya is being aware of that.

    If we are at peace with who we are and where we are and what we currently have, we will get surely get more of what we want. We won't have to try to "steal" anything.

    But if we are not at peace with what we have, for now, that inner turmoil we feel will not be resolved by trying to lay claim to something we haven't earned or grown into, or arrived at as yet. Asteya is warning us about that.

    Asteya means letting go of any sense of lack about what we don't have instead of seeing that there is room in our life for what we want if we can just keep faith about it.

    Who you will be in life has to grow from within. It can't be supplied from the outside. You can't just take it by force.

    Asteya means finding a way to be content with where you are in life and with what you have, and letting your contentment be a platform for getting more.

    The formula is simple: happy with who I am right now, and still eager for more; happy with what I have for now and still eager for more.


    "The yogi being established in brahmacharya (literally meaning abiding-in-self-as-source) -- this is strength, this is power." Yoga Sutras, 2:38

    Our connection, our alignment with our self is the source of all of our strength, all of our understanding, all of our virtue. And alignment with self means a broad and deeply felt sense of our own being.

    Yoga teaches us how to be-with-ourselves, as opposed to against-our-selves, on all levels -- physical, mental, emotional and spiritual.

    Ethical conduct is behavior that is in alignment with the self, both the self of relative identity and the self that is our deepest connection to the source of life within us. It is alignment with the self as the source of all that is good in us, the self that is a daily unfolding work in progress, and future self -- the destination of all of our greatest hopes and best intentions, for ourselves and our beloved world.

    One cannot hope to be strong if the strength is rooted in a relative value, something that comes and goes, something that has only a temporary or partial importance. Strength is rooted in life itself, in all its glory, life as that broad potential which streams forth and expresses itself with such beauty and diversity as all of us and the world around us. Life as an absolute exists deep inside the forms of this material world, as the energy and intelligence which streams forth as the substance and forms and eventually the experience of living, with all its color and beauty, all of its brilliance and intensity, its joy and its drama.

    Brahmacharya is being established in the heart of life itself -- in the "I am" that is the irreducible bedrock of our being, the witness, the knower, that which streams forth as knowing. When the mind is established in this as the self, then this is strength, this is virtue. This yoga, this alignment is the basis of ethics, of life-supporting behavior, of conduct that supports and sustains life in all its diversity.

    Some have translated brahmacharya as continence, abstinence from sexual behavior. I believe this to be a misunderstanding of the word viryalabha, which means "benefit of virtue." There is no reference to sexuality or abstinence from sexuality in the yoga sutras -- the word virya in sanskrit means strength, and is the root for the word "virtue," which originally mean spiritual strength. Later it came to mean "moral strength," which came to be misconstrued as resisting the temptations of the flesh and sexuality. Interesting to note that virya is also the root for virile, so it would be just as possible to argue the definition in the other direction, and define viryalabha as "benefit of virility." Both would be incorrect, though -- virya means strength of the spirit. Labha means benefits as in gifts, rewards. Viryalabha is best translated as "gifts of the spirit."

    There is no spiritual benefit in continence. This is a misunderstanding that has been passed down for generations. Of one thing we can be certain. Yoga is alignment, harmony with life itself, and since sexuality is central part of the life of every organism, every form of life on the planet, avoidance of sex would be like avoidance of life itself. We are called to have sexual behaviors that support love and life, in the same way that all of our behaviors should support love and life.

    There is great spiritual benefit in ethical (life-supporting) behaviors, behaviors that keep us peaceful and happy, elsewhere defined in yoga as maitri, friendship and fellowship, karuna, great love and compassion, and mudita, joy and entertainment. (Yoga Sutra 2:33)

    To establish oneself in brahmacharya, one need only calm and pacify the mind, and turn the attention towards those things that feel good, those thoughts that bring more peace. Then the sense of the self as a being-in-the-world-in-joy becomes natural and easy. Every baby, every toddler, spends most of their days in brahmacharya, alignment and joy. The sutra infers that to be powerful, what is needed is not discipline and control, but peace and innocence, trust in the our own basic goodness, and the goodness of life itself.


    "When the yogi is firmly established in aparigraha, non-clinging, there arises knowledge of the arising of life, as well as knowledge of the how and why of existence." Yoga Sutras, 2:3

    Yoga holds that the purpose of life is the expansion of happiness. Yoga is understanding and experiencing the linking, the interconnectedness of all parts of life into one purpose, one stream, one flow, and understanding that the destination of that flow is the expansion of joy.

    Yoga is about the expansion of peace, the expansion of happiness, the expansion of the goodness of life itself. It is about having life more abundantly.

    It is not about imposing discipline or control, not about striving or setting up conflicts. Yoga is about discovering a natural discipline, one that arises from within, which is effortless and easy to sustain. Yoga is a way to peace and reconciliation and it supports peace and reconciliation not by making everything the same, but by supporting and upholding diversity, and showing the harmony of all of the threads of life as they are woven into one cloth of being.

    Clinging or grasping of one thing over another is a desperate act -- yogis are never desperate, never clinging, never in a hurry. Yogis see the value in every particle of experience and focus on the good.

    Aparigraha means seeing the value in everything so there is no need to cling to anything. All things have value, and the value of all things exists in abundance. From this perspective an empty cup (or bank account) is a merely vessel for more. Difficulties point the way towards improvement.

    Frustration merely points to the need to remove an obstacle so that a desire may flow.

    Desire is a good thing -- it is our experience of the life inside of us asking for more. Desire is not the root of suffering -- it is the non-fulfillment of desire that is the root of suffering. Life is always everywhere reaching for more. Growth is natural, expansion is inevitable and good. When we form life-supporting desires, desires that are in alignment with life itself, then life grows through us into more and better forms, more and better expressions of beauty and joy and happiness.

    When we don't trust ourselves, and resist our own nature and the desires that flow from life through us, we create conflicts which cause pain and suffering, and delay progress. (Can't stop progress, but can slow it down for a while.)

    The root of our suffering is our resistance to the flow of life itself. When we are unwilling to allow life to flow through us, we deny our own basic nature, to our own detriment.

    When we learn to appreciate everything more, then we are surrounded by beauty and abundance, and there is no need to cling or try to control anything.

    Clinging, possessiveness, or a need for control arise from a lack of trust in life itself. When we are fearful, we get desperate -- we become grasping, greedy. We feel a need to try to control life. Clinging or trying to possess anything chokes the life out of it. When we try to "possess" or control something, we keep it from growing and evolving into newer forms.

    Life cannot stand still, not for a moment. Don't try to hold on to anything, there's no need. Allow the flow of life, of interest, of desire to lead you to greater and greater experiences of abundance and delight and joy. Let go of what you have so you can open yourself to much more.

    more to come... next up: the niyamas

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