Understanding The First 2 Limbs Of Ashtanga Yoga: A Code Of Ethics…

Understanding The First 2 Limbs Of Ashtanga Yoga: A Code Of Ethics

Ashtanga Yoga

The practice of yoga embraces every moment of our lives, and so our ethics — our guiding principles of conduct — are essential to reflect upon, study, and act.

The way you conduct your outer life compliments your meditation.

With a balance of inner development and outer restraint, a sense of strength, of peace and clarity, stays with you all the time. Right conduct is the foundation of spiritual practice.

Meditation without morality is useless; morality alone, though admirable, is not the goal of life.

Because right behavior is often a struggle, the strength of mind afforded by regular meditation is a necessity.

The guidelines of Yama and Niyama are thousands of years old, developed by the yogis as a way of bringing spiritual realization into a social context.

They are not so much “commandments” as guides that should be deeply contemplated and rationally adjusted.

Yama refers to ethics regarding the outside world, and therefore is particularly important in social contexts. It comprises non-harm, truthfulness, non-stealing, universality, and greedlessness.

Niyama refers to ethics regarding the inner world.

It comprises purification or cleanliness and contentment, service, education, and surrender or devotion to something greater than oneself.

As such, the ethics suggested in yoga are devoid of religious connection—they are not based on moral value judgments of right and wrong—but are rather seen as actions that help to quiet an overactive mind, regulate emotions, and enhance prosocial and skillful behaviors.

SEE ALSO: 10 Interesting Facts About Buddha





5 Acts of Integrity (YAMA) — Part One

1. Ahimsa — non-harm, kindness

“When kindness has left people even for a few moments, we become afraid of them as if their reason has left them.” — Willa Cather

The essence of the practice of Ahimsa (pronounced “ah-heeng-sah”) in daily life is simple lovingkindness: kindness to ourselves, kindness toward others, and compassion when making social and political choices.

The word Ahimsa means, literally, non-harm (a=no, himsa=harm) so this kindness includes refraining from inflicting harm upon other beings.

True Ahimsa must begin with an acknowledgment of the aggressor in us — the dark, ruthless side of ourselves as human beings. We have many opportunities to explore our destructive side, to discover and acknowledge the parts of ourselves that are capable of atrocity.

Parents know the powerful forces of love that go quite beyond the soft and gentle lullaby.

Threaten to harm my child and I can easily take your life. So much for nonviolence!

But Ahimsa is not nonviolence. The natural order of the universe is violent; we cannot live one minute without taking a life.

We must breathe and thus destroy millions of microbes, we must eat to survive, we must protect ourselves and others from harm, sometimes by doing harm to an aggressor.

The spirit of Ahimsa is the effort to bring to consciousness our impulses to do harm, and to make choices that reduce the needless harm we do.

It is a way of striving to be synchronous with that which is true human nature, which, in yoga’s view, is compassionate.

Rather than a commandment, Ahimsa is chosen with care and understanding of the motivation, the implications, and consequences of one’s behavior.

This way of living requires constant attention, thought, and choice — for it means deeply feeling the things we do (or refrain from doing) for ourselves and others. We must choose what is congruent with our most honest understanding of each situation and its requirements of us.

Each of us has the capacity to harm and the capacity to bring understanding, forgiveness, and kindness to meet the demons of fear and rage, which cause us to harm ourselves and others.

It is helpful to examine our harmful behavior with kindness toward ourselves, and then to consciously choose to practice behaviors that fuel our bodies and minds with positive energy, health, and integrity.

Handling Aggression and Self-Destructive Pursuits

Ahimsa means, first of all, that we take care of ourselves; as much as possible, we do no harm to our bodies.

We choose not to indulge in self-destructive recreational pursuits. We feed our bodies nutritious foods, bath, exercise, and always try to see our bodies as beautiful, alive, and precious to us.

We take time to nourish our bodies every day and special time to heal our bodies when they need healing.

Aggression — that tense holding-on, which we can easily recall by imagining ourselves in a traffic jam on the way to an important appointment — sends waves of stressful impulses through our nervous systems, triggering the release of hormones that deplete our energy and undermine our immune systems.

Practicing non-harm toward ourselves is more than simply refraining from harmful substances; it requires that we examine the stresses in our lives and learn how to reduce those that are unnecessary and manage those that are unavoidable.

Emotionally, Ahimsa has to do with self-esteem, and with the way we turn our pain into weapons against ourselves and others.

Practicing Ahimsa, we respect ourselves. Developing healthy self-respect requires that we heal the past.

We try to bring to awareness experiences from childhood that injured us emotionally, experiences throughout our lives that have been harmful to us, and heal the damage and care for ourselves.

It also means that we maintain self-respect within our relationships; that we learn how to say “no” when we need to, and how to gently but firmly let others know where our boundaries are.

Mentally, practicing Ahimsa means that we try to keep ourselves in situations that maintain our mental peace.

It means we don’t beat up on ourselves or others; neither do we constantly demand ourselves or others to accomplish things of which we are incapable.

Ahimsa with Others and Social Conditions

In our relationships, Ahimsa requires that we do not intentionally hurt others — groups of people as well as individuals.

We observe ourselves acting out anger, resentment, judgment, blaming and victimizing others. Where does this behavior come from?

What triggers thoughts that make our hearts grow cold and cause us to think, speak, or act this way?

With compassion toward the pain that underlies all of this rigidity, we can explore our thoughts and emotions and try to allow the issues that cause them to come into focus.

Domestic Violence

Ahimsa requires that we bring kindness and understanding into every relationship.

Domestic violence is in opposition to Ahimsa. We commit ourselves to learning how to communicate without threats, sarcasm, and physical violence.

If we came from a violent home, good communication requires that we acknowledge it and strive to figure out how to be dedicated to Ahimsa in our homes and with our friends and families.


Anger itself is not against Ahimsa; rather, it is a feeling that calls for exploration.

It is the acting out of anger, without mercy for ourselves and others, that violates the spirit of Ahimsa.

When we don’t have a healthy relationship with our negative states — our rage, our fear, our frustration — we suppress them or react in ways that hurt. This behavior creates more of the same — not the release we seek.

We can begin to explore our inner territory and discover what our anger conceals. Anger is like a scary mask.

Behind it is a frightened, hurt child. We need to find that child and heal him; give her the safety and love she needs. The mask then becomes unnecessary and real communication can happen.

Righteous Anger

Righteous anger, such as we feel when confronted with things that are patently wrong, is not against Ahimsa.

Recently, a special lion in Africa was killed by an American big game hunter who paid many thousands of dollars for the “privilege.” People all over the world were outraged, and that type of righteous anger can help to make big changes in how people think and behave, in outdated laws and corruption.

Feeling righteous anger requires us to do something. We can explore the deeper reasons behind whatever incites our feelings, and begin to understand what really needs to change; then we can use that information to help change the real underlying problems.

Using the example of the lion killing, our immediate desire may be to punish the perpetrator.

Looking more deeply, we begin to understand why this hunter was even allowed to murder species that need to be protected.

A culture of poverty is the underlying problem; big game hunters are allowed to do so because in doing so they bring wealth to a poverty-stricken country.

Ahimsa in Parenting

Ahimsa in relationships also applies to our children.

We commit ourselves to find ways to help nurture them, guide them, and allow them to develop healthy boundaries. We can work on reducing behaviors such as criticism, blame, shame, control, and ridicule.

Physical and verbal abuse in any of our relationships clearly violate the spirit of non-harm in our families.

Accepting kindness as a cardinal value does not mean we never feel angry.

Parents experience moments when a child brings them to the edge of sanity, when physical or verbal abuse are distinct possibilities.

In that moment can grow compassion for ourselves and for others’ pain — and true remorse, which makes us soften and brings us closer together.

Out of that moment may also grow aversion, self-hatred, intolerance for others’ struggles, and shame, which hardens our hearts and pushes a wedge between us.

If we were hit and made the object of ridicule, sarcasm, and shame when we were children, if we were discounted and dismissed, it takes a conscious effort to choose other ways to discipline our own children, ways that may not be in our parenting repertoire.

Active listening, negotiation, and choice-making are all skills that can be learned and used effectively to take the violence out of parental discipline.

Vegetarian Diet

Most people who practice yoga gravitate toward a vegetarian diet not only for its nutritional benefits but because of a willingness to embrace this idea of non-harm.

Naturally, if we begin to think about the kinds of harm we inflict upon other beings, directly or indirectly, at some point we will think about the animals that are tortured and killed to feed us.

In selecting food, the spirit of Ahimsa is to choose food with comparatively less development of consciousness, judging by the capacity to express that consciousness.

My daughter says, “I don’t eat things that could move off my plate by themselves if they were alive.”

The spirit of Ahimsa is to consider circumstances when making these decisions and to make them with reason and restraint.

For example, if you are living in an Inuit tribe, you cannot be a vegetarian without seriously harming yourself; in such circumstances, you choose whatever comes closest to non-harm that you can find.


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