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Ethics

When Patanjaji compiled the Yoga Sutras (the influential yoga guidelines) almost two thousand years ago, he fully acknowledged the difficulties that we may have living according to the ethical principles of the eight-limbed method offered in this sutra. The ethical principles are divided into the first two limbs of what later came to be called ‘astanga’ or ‘eight-limbed’ yoga.

These first two limbs are what individuals new to yoga often struggle in accepting. However, it is not the case that you need to rigidly adhere to these guidelines (not rules) before progressing to the other stages. Rather by just being aware of their existence, meaning and importance, you can assist and enhance your yoga practice and the benefits to your wider life. As with anything, the more gradually you introduce lifestyle changes, the longer they are likely to last.

There is no point in feeling guilty or non-yogic if you find some principles difficult to apply at first. All yoga should enhance your enjoyment of life, not impede it. As you progress along the asana (3rd) , pranayama (4th) and dyana or meditation (5,6 & 7th) limbs you will probably find that you naturally progress in the first and second limbs also. Through mindful and gentle progress on each of these paths, you approach the 8th limb of Samadhi, a superconcious state leading to self realisation, which is the ultimate goal of yoga.

The first limb outlines the Yamas, ‘Yama’ is usually translated as ‘restraint’ and refers to our social conduct.

Yamas

The first Yama is Ahimsa or ‘non-violence’.

Narrow: Restraining from physical harm.

Broader: Our intention or state of mind behind the act. Not only to physical violence, but also the violence of words and thoughts.

The importance with all the Ethical guidelines is not necessarily the ‘act’ we perform, but rather our intention or state of mind behind it. Therefore, if you restrain yourself from performing a physical act of harm, but have already thought harmful thoughts, the principle of Ahimsa has still been violated. Protecting ourselves or others does not violate Ahimsa. Rather practicing Ahimsa means that we take responsibility for our own harmful behaviour and we try to stop the harm caused by others.

The second Yama is Satya or ‘truthfulness’.

Narrow: Behaving with ‘honesty’ in terms of our dealings with others. Relating things as far as our ability allows us to realise our beliefs as true.

Broader: Acting with ‘integrity’, that is continuing to behave in an honest manner even when others are not around.

It is not always easy to do this. However, by practicing honesty and integrity as far as you possibly can, you will find a greater sense of ease and contentment with yourself as well as decreasing the likelihood of causing harm to others.

The third Yama is Asteya or ‘non-stealing’.

Narrow: Not taking what is not ours.

Broader: Not taking more than we need of anything.

this could apply to a range of activities, from eating more than we need, to stealing someone else’s time. We can even steal from ourselves, by neglecting to allow ourselves enough time for things such as a commitment to practising yoga.

The fourth Yama is Brahmacarya or ‘moderation’.

Narrow: Celibacy.

Broader: The practice of sexual restraint, either in terms of monogamy or mindfulness. We should be present and focused on what we are doing, and not have sex mindlessly. We should respect the divinity in ourselves and others in our sexual relationships in order to prevent harm to either.

It does not therefore mean giving up sex so much as restraining bodily/ sexual urges, so that the extra energy can be directed into higher pursuits.

The fifth Yama is Apigraha or ‘non-greed’

Narrow: Not lusting after material goods.

Broad: Not seeking fulfillment from anything that will pass away.

You can still enjoy external objects, but over-attachment to or longing for anything beyond your control will only end in suffering. Temporary pleasure is all that can be gained from the material world (whether that be shoes or a lover) and this is distinct from the lasting fulfillment of eternal happiness.

The second limb outlines the Niyamas or ‘observances’. These concern how we deal with ourselves.

Niyamas

The first Niyama is Saucha or ‘Purity’.

Narrow: to refrain from impure or selfish thoughts, words or actions

Broader: to have pure intentions behind actions. If you act in a manner that appears pure, but all the time with impure intentions, this often shows, and is still impure.

It can be difficult in the beginning to understand how it could be possible to prevent yourself from thinking impure thoughts. You may start by trying to behave more in a more wholesome way and find that the thoughts then change or subside accordingly. Naturally, as you progress on the other paths of yoga, impure thoughts and actions become less desirable, less distracting and command less and less of your time.

The second Niyama is Santosa or ‘Contentment’.

Narrow: to be content and happy with what you have.

Broader: Patanjali asks us to be equal-minded in all moments, pleasant or unpleasant.

Only when we can remain content in situations of pain and difficulty can we really be sure to be content. Only when we are secure that the nature of the external world will not affect our inner most state can we actually be practicing real Santosa. We should remember that every single moment has value.

The third Niyama is Tapas or ‘austerity’.

Narrow: Fiery discipline or commitment

Broader: Not to be equated with difficulty or struggle, but rather with consistency and patient endurance.

A more constant and dedicated practice involving strength and determination of will, but without allowing individual achievements to inflate or create an ego

The forth Niyama is Svadhyaya or ‘Study of the Self’

Narrow: to actively meditate on the Self or the true nature of the Self

Broader: remembering to be aware of the true Self in all deeds, or remembering the interconnectedness of the true Self

It is important to reflect on one’s own actions, in order to deepen the understanding of the Self. This can be done through the reading of sacred texts/ articles or meditation. As all beings are interrelated, and nothing exists in isolation, the scope of Self-Study could involve anything that helps you to understand the true nature of things better.

The fifth Niyama is Isvarapranidhana or ‘surrender to the Divine’

Narrow: Surrender of the Self/Ego/ Fruits of all actions to a higher power

Broader: Trying as hard as we can in life to act to the best of our ability, and then detaching from the results. Not developing an egoistic attachment to achievements, or an over-responsibility for our failures. Awareness that to an extent a convergence of favourable or unfavourable factors lead to both.

This should not lead to inaction or lack of responsibility. On the contrary we should develop our awareness that we control what we can control, and so do as best as we can, as far as we can, with awareness that the rest of the outcome may be a part of something too complex for us to possibly understand. This Niyama requires that we surrender the idea that we always know best as well as our desire to control all, in order to lead to greater happiness and less suffering.

Yoga related quotes on yin yoga with hannah
Attachment is blind, it lends an imaginary halo of attractiveness to the object of desire
Paramahansa Yogananda
Read the quote on yoga above