The Yamas: Ethical Contemplations from Yoga Philosophy

These days it is common knowledge that yoga is more than just exercise. When asked how it is more, most people answer that it includes the mind as well as the body, or they mention the focus on breath. Very few are aware of just how deep and complex the system of yoga really is.  Yoga consists of both practices and philosophy. As a philosophy, yoga shies away from dogmatism. It is a philosophy open to interpretation and begging for contemplation.

One of the components of this philosophy is a set of guidelines for dealing with others. These are called the yamas and they are the very bedrock foundation for the entire system of yoga. I have heard these called the “commandments of yoga” and I couldn’t disagree more. The yamas (and the niyamas) of yoga are not commandments, they are guidelines to study, contemplate, and practice.

It is as if we went to a venerable grandparent, whom we respected deeply, and asked for some tips on living. No matter how much we respect this person, there is no way that we would simply apply this wisdom to our lives wholesale. At best we would experiment and test and see what is true for ourselves. So we look at the yamas and the niyamas as advice from the wise. We do not come to this with skepticism, but rather an open mind–eager to apply the wisdom of the ages to our own lives. We do this with understanding that we must come to our own conclusions as to the nuances of these guidelines, that no one can simply tell us what to do.

Yama

The yamas are 5 guidelines for dealing with the world around us.

Ahimsa – non-violence

This means violence in thought, action, and speech. When there is a choice to be made, we try to determine the least violent path. This applies to ourselves as well as others. We do not wallow in self-pity or self-hate. When there is a choice between two paths, we must determine the least destructive path.

Satya – truthfulness

Pay attention to your habits about telling the truth. Do you lie to others? To yourself? Are you impeccable with your word? Truth is different from “brutal honesty”. Brutal honesty conflicts with non-violence. Can you balance telling the truth with non-violence?

Asteya – non-stealing

Beyond the obvious, asteya means not stealing people’s energy or taking credit for someone else’s work. The universe is based on a balance of giving and receiving. When in doubt, give. The universe will give back.

Bramacharya – moderation/restraint

Bramacharya is often defined as celibacy or sexual restraint. This is but one aspect of it and a great illustration of how these guidelines need to be put through our own filters. For some yogis in the past (and a smaller number today) refraining from sexual activity was a method of harnessing the inherent power of one’s sexuality and using it for one’s spiritual practice. Today, the concept of sexual restraint is still a valid part of our spiritual exploration. For example, we should restrain ourselves from sexual activity that will harm ourself or others.

A definition of bramacharya that works within the ‘householder’ (ie non-monk) framework that most of us live is to seek balance between pleasure and restraint: ie moderation.

Most importantly, we should restrain ourselves from exploiting our power over others. Anytime there is a power differential, such as between a teacher and a student or an employer and employee, the responsibility for restraint lies with the person who has more power. This restraint is not limited to the times when actual harm is caused. We must seek to understand the motivation behind our actions and apply the concept of moderation when necessary and appropriate. It is by catching our small transgressions into abuse of power that we can avoid large ones.

This is true even in the case of parent and child. As a parent, it is your responsibility to try not to exploit the power you have over your child for your own convenience. The power of a parent over a child is there for a reason–to keep the child safe until they can do so for themselves. So it is helpful to examine periodically how you are using your power. Ask yourself, am I abusing my power by trying to make my child do things that simply benefit me in the short term and not my child in the long term? There is no judgment implied in this. I myself catch myself abusing my power over my child frequently. The practice is in becoming aware of our habits and patterns and moving towards a benevolent use of power. Sometimes we just need a break. That is ok too…Parenting is a spiritual practice like no other.

There have been many examples of leaders, even revered spiritual leaders and yoga gurus abusing their power. The more power that one has, the more challenging and relevant bramacharya becomes. The abuse of power does not negate the powerful teachings that these people have provided or the good they have done. Imperfection is not the problem. It is true that a teacher who practices their own teachings is more powerful than one who says one thing and does another. But a teacher who struggles with a concept or problem may have a lot to offer about that subject, perhaps more than one who does not struggle. The betrayal comes either from representing oneself as perfect or from the student’s own expectation of perfection destroyed.

To avoid this kind of pain and betrayal, do not expect perfection from others. Accept that we are all both perfect and imperfect. That is not to say that the abuse of power is ok. It is not. But it exists for us to learn from it.

Aparigraha – simplicity

A more direct translation of aparigraha is non-grasping, but I think that the English word simplicity more elegantly expresses the concept. Practice detachment from possessions. People are more important than things. Evaluate needs and separate them from wants. This is not to say that you can never indulge yourself in a want. Just be aware of when it is a want vs a need and act accordingly. We each need to make our own distinction between wants and needs and decide for ourselves when it is appropriate to indulge. Think about getting rid of some “stuff” to make more room for yourself.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks, Mado. These are excellent guidelines. I use virtually the same ones from the Buddhist ethical framework I attempt to follow.

    I like how you distinguished guidelines and philosophies from rules and dogmatic religions. Recently I have been increasingly noticing how those who follow rules and dogmas like to label and dismiss guidelines as “moral relativism” that will somehow lead down a slippery slope toward a world where everything goes.

    I also find it interesting how those who follow the Biblical faiths like to note that these yogic guidelines are similar to the 10 Commandments and, therefore, we might as well follow “the word of God” if we are already following “His” commandments.

    Thanks again.

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