Ethics: Snoozefest or Treasure Map?
The Yamas and Niyamas - An exploration of desire and restraint
Ethical guidelines are systems that can help us discern which desires we want to magnetize us in their direction and which require some restraint. In physical practice we use our awareness in each pose to notice, which parts of the structure need to hold back or contain, in what sequence, and where do we open, embody and let ourselves be pulled towards the final richness of the shape. Your awareness can investigate the difference between culturally imposed values and our own. What's the point? That when we live our beliefs we are at ease, at peace, on purpose.
Ethical guidelines are a vocabulary with which to investigate our experience. A simple practice is to do a writing contemplation asking:
Which values have I been prescribed vs. which are my own - is there friction or synthesis between these categories?
What moral framework did I inherit from my family? Does this framework move my community and I in the direction of liberation?
The Yamas and Niyamas, Yogic ethical practices and restraints as well as personal observances, are stated as absolutes and used to explore an entire spectrum of behavior. For example, Bramacharya, right use of energy or containment of sexual energy can be interpreted as celibacy but can also be used as a concept that examines the effects of channeling sexual energy with intention and perceiving of this energy as a resource.
Ask whether your decisions reflect your deepest desires. Ethics are not designed to fix you and make you good - you are already good - they are designed to remind you of who you already are and move you in the direction of your heart - that’s what this yogic vocabulary is for.
If the path towards liberation is walked via discipline - remember that discipline in this context is not punitive. It’s not to fix you. It is synonymous with devotion. Sometimes devotion requires restraint in the name of the heart.
Yamas: Ethical guidelines and restraints
Ahimsa: Non-violence, compassion for all living things
Satya: Truthfulness, honest and sincere communication
Asteya: Non-stealing, objects, energy, someone’s peace, not taking more than is needed
Brahmacharya: Right use of energy (sometimes withdrawal or moderation of senses, celibacy)
Aparigraha: Non-attachment, not getting caught up in grasping, lost in craving/desire
Niyamas: Personal observances
Sauca: Purity of mind, body, and environment
Santosha: Contentment, cultivating happiness with what is
Tapas: Fiery discipline, passion, zeal, burning desire for self-realization
Svadyaya: Self-study, examining one’s habits, samskaras (deeply rooted patterns)
Isvarapranidhana: Surrendering to the Divine, recognizing divinity in yourself and all, connection to source
I think of the Yamas as moral guardrails with a focus on moderation and the Niyamas as magnets for my energy. They exist in related pairs. Where Ahimsa recognizes non-harming and compassion for all, its sister concept Isvarapranidhana concludes a recognition of divinity in all. One can be seen as a restraint, a boundary, and the other as a revelation or a direction - a Why. Why do I cultivate compassion? In recognition of the divinity in all.
Where Satya requires truthfulness and sincerity, Svadyaya is a path - Self-study - fearless moral inventory and self-examination that leads us towards deep knowing.
Asteya - to not steal, to take just what you need - this restraint has the effect of creating Sauca - a purity of mind, body and environment.
Brahmacharya can be thought of as engaging with choices about the direction of our energy - sexual motivation is highly energizing, and this ethic asks that it be honored as such, and intentionally channelled - its pair in this imagining is Tapas, a fiery discipline and passion heated by the desire to know who we really are.
And finally Aparigraha or non-attachment - a steady perspective of acceptance that creates Santosha, contentment with what is.
Together these pairs make up a system of exploration. A vocabulary we can use to explore the terrain of the self. Let yourself inquire as to the origins of your beliefs as a way to experience your wholeness and contain your energy in service of love.