The idea of living by a code of behaviour, ethicalguidelines or moral judgements runs through all spiritualpaths. In yoga, the code is known as the Yamas and Niyamas,the first two limbs of the eight limbed system of spiritualevolutionary practice laid out by Patanjali and practisedfor many thousands of years. It is a flexible set ofideas about how best to live in the world which standsthe test of time and can be applied in any culturalsetting.Why would an ordinary layperson need to worry aboutsuch things? Isn't it enough to just try to be a goodperson without following any particular ideology? Yes,sure it's fine, everyone has free will and can choosehow they respond to life, moment to moment. For thosewho choose to practise yoga and find that it is muchmore than a physical exercise, the Yamas and Niyamascan be an accessible entry point into yogic philosophyand lifestyle.
In poses which require balance such as tree (vrksasana)or eagle (garudasana), students often find themselveswobbling and unsteady. Similarly in meditation, themind is often unruly, easily led down whimsical paths,away from the single pointed concentration requiredto develop a spiritual practice. The practices do notstand alone - neither asana (postures) nor dhyana (meditation)can occur in isolation. They are further limbs on theeight limbed path (astanga). The Yamas come first. Withoutthese ethics, progress will be slow or blocked completely.
Every action has a reaction, an effect no matter howfar distant that effect may seem. In yoga, the ideaof karma means that every single action, thought orword will have its natural consequence. Some of theseconsequences will be positive, leading you to a higherstate of happiness, making your mind clearer, betterable to meditate and concentrate and improving yourrelationships with others and the divine (supreme consciousness).Other actions, thoughts and ideas make the mind cruder,they have a negative impact on your happiness and leadyou to feel trapped, confused or deluded. All the practicesof yoga are designed to make you feel more subtle, sensitiveto, and aware of, the non physical dimensions. Hence,the sage Patanjali set out eight limbs (astanga) whichconstitute a complete path to the bliss described asSamadhi, or total enlightenment, where the individualsoul merges with the cosmic soul (Parama purusa).
The first two limbs, Yama and Niyama, describe an ethicaland moral lifestyle which will be suitable for spiritualprogress, allowing aspirants a firm foundation uponwhich to build. Similar to the biblical Ten Commandments,the ethical restraints and moral codes of yoga allowpeople to live peacefully and positively with themselvesand in communities.
It is clear that ethics are helpful for individualsbecause they make clear what is "right" andwhat is right is best for everyone, not just the individual.In fact, sometimes the individual will have to sacrificesomething for the welfare of others. You have the freedomto do anything, the right to choose your path, but nocontrol over the consequences, be they positive, negativeor neutral. You can run away from consequences but forhow long? Even if you postpone consequences this lifetime,is that wise?
The Yamas are sometimes referred to as "self restraints"or the "Do Nots" of yogic philosophy. Ahimsa(non-harming), Asteya (non-stealing),Aparigraha (non-grasping/non-covetousness),Brahmacarya (restraint of the senses), and Satya (truthfulness)are virtues required for the subtlefying of the unitconsciousness.
The Niyamas, or personal observances, are Sauca (purity/cleanliness),Santosha (contentment), Tapas (discipline/austerity),Svadhyaya (self study/study of scriptures) and IshvaraPranidhana (devotion/absorption in the Infinite).
The person who lives by such principles gets fulfilmentby being the person they want to be inside themselves.This gives them integrity which allows them to be unfazedby what others think of them. How liberating is that?
The worst consequence of acting unethically is thedamage you do to your own mind. If you knowingly goagainst what you know to be right, your ethics/morals,you will find it hard to live with yourself as yourmind will be full of turmoil, recriminations and remorse.How long will it take to recover your equilibrium andturn the flow back towards the goal, the goal beingincreasing subtlety of the mind, bringing you ever closerto Cosmic Consciousness? The only way to recover isto act to rectify the wrong you have done. By takingthe ideal action, the harm can be minimised, but wisepeople would simply stay ideal and not deviate.
Yet humans do make mistakes, judgement errors, gaffesand blunders. Perhaps the deal seemed too good to resistso you closed your mind to the reality of the intentionsbehind it. Perhaps the desire for pleasure, name, fameor wealth was overwhelming and you let your animal withinoff its leash without having trained it well enoughto come when called by its master (your higher mind).Clearly, people do choose sometimes to continue beingamoral, unethical, crude or negative because the momentaryfulfilment seems more appealing than facing the consequences,and rectifying problems seems too difficult.
For example, ethics are essential in relationships.A common scenario is a less than happy relationshipwhere the shared resources and energy invested makeit difficult to get out of. Along comes a potentialsuitor for one party. The "right" thing todo would be to end the existing relationship honestly,doing the least harm possible and dividing the resourcesfairly. Then the potential new relationship can be developed.But the fear of loneliness, the attachment to resourcesand perhaps the lethargy borne of prolonged unhappinessmay make an affair seem attractive. What are the consequencesof such an unethical action? It is unlikely to playout happily for anyone involved. Yet the ability todelay gratification and take the moral high road couldresult in more lasting happiness and deeper relationshipsbuilt on trust and honesty.
As a yogi living in the real world, the ethical guidelinesare something to look to when your conscience is swayedby self interest. Simple things like being underchargedfor goods, or being given too much change are seen asopportunities to do the right thing. What good willcome of hoarding or coveting the money? What good willcome of speaking up, returning the change, helping makethe situation right? Follow through on the scenarioand see what can happen. By accepting the excess changeyou may think you have profited. You might justify toyourself, ah it's too far to turn back, I don't havetime, it's a big business they can handle it.... Theshop assistant at the end of the day finds that theirtill does not add up correctly. Not knowing their error,they are left with no response when the boss questionstheir ethics, wondering if the money has been stolenintentionally. Unbeknown to you, the clerk loses theirjob and has to deal with all the ramifications of beingwrongly accused, having no income and having to seeknew employment with no good reference. Meanwhile, youhave increased your propensity for greed, dishonestyand theft, making it harder for you to move forwardand causing distress and suffering to another. Seenin that light, it hardly seems worth any amount of money.
Even contemplating an affair, or considering keepingmoney not due to you, causes a mental vibration whichhas consequences. Though perhaps not as damaging asthe action, every thought has repercussions in yourmind and that of others. According to both science andphilosophy, every action has a reaction which is co-existentwith the original action, whether the action be a physicalone or only a psychic vibration. This potentiality ofreaction is known in Sanskrit as a samskara, a seedthat will eventually sprout. The reaction will haveto be endured some time, in some form, no matter howyou try to avoid it or cancel it out with "gooddeeds". This constant revolution of karma keepsthe unit mind in the cycle of birth, death and rebirthas the seeds (samskaras) seek ways to be expressed.In this cycle moksa (emancipation) and mukti (liberation)become impossible to access. Even if the actions takenbring some enjoyment, they cannot bring spiritual freedom.
That doesn't mean the yogi or spiritual aspirant shouldcease to take actions out of fear of creating more karmicreactions. A goal is important, it gives the mind afocal point and directs the life forces positively.It is not enough to just contemplate a goal, steps mustbe taken to achieve it. This means action. So how toact?
In the Bhagavad Gita it is said: "Karman' yeva'dhika'raste ma' phales'u kada' cana", meaning humanbeings can only control their deeds, not the fruitsthereof. Hence Krishna advises Arjuna to act withoutfear or attachment to the outcome. He recommends workinghard, but relinquishing the fruits of one's labour.
Yogis have taken the ideation that they are a toolof God, or a machine and Brahma alone is the operatorwho gets the work done through this machine. They surrenderall actions to Brahma and think that every action isperformed by Brahma through them. The consequences arealso borne by Brahma. The idea of "I" is dissolvedby this ideation, as the separate identity is lost.
So the yogi lives by Yama and Niyama, an ethical life,which allows them the mental freedom to do the otherpractices of yoga which bring them to a level of subtletywhere they can merge with the Oneness of everythingwhile still continuing to act and live in the world.
Chandrika Gibson ND is a holistic yoga teacher andnaturopath