When I decided to take the next step in my yoga journey and train to become a yoga teacher it was primarily aimed at deepening my knowledge of yoga and learning the skills to share this with others, in the form of yoga classes. As well as achieving this I stumbled on a realisation that two of my life’s biggest passions, yoga and social/environmental justice, were actually inextricably linked in terms of the underlying, guiding morals and ethics.
As part of the course I read ‘Yoga for a World Out of Balance: Teachings on ethics and social action” by Michael Stone. I’ve read widely on yoga, buddhism and meditation and studied two degrees in politics and international development but this was the first book that really tied the two areas together and I was blown away! In his book, Stone firstly talks about how we can bring a wider world view to our yoga practice, rather than using yoga and meditation to ‘retreat’ from the world. Secondly, and very effectively, Stone uses the five yamas (outlined in the Yoga Sutras) to form a basis for taking ethical social action and making a difference in the world.
- Ahimsa: non-violence or non-harming can be related to peace and non-violence to others (including the environment) and linked to many social justice issues. However, ahimsa is also non-violence to yourself – being kind to yourself and treating yourself and others with compassion, in feelings, words, thoughts and actions.
- Satya: truth or not lying, means being truthful in thoughts, words and actions to others and to ourselves. Although, if speaking that truth would cause unnecessary harm it may be better to keep it to yourself – highlighting that each principle cannot be taken in isolation. Satya is also about acting with integrity and living our own ‘inner truth’. When we act honestly even when there is no one around to know either way, this is true satya.
- Asteya: non-stealing is more than just not taking what we do not ‘own’, asteya relates to not taking more than you need. If the world has limited resources then taking more than you need causes suffering of others (ahimsa). We are also said to not be practising asteya if we take credit that is not ours or we ‘steal’ from ourselves by lacking commitment or not living up to our true potential.
- Brahmacharya: one of the more difficult yamas for Western society to understand, this is traditionally defined as celibacy or abstinence. More accurately it means living closer to God and is usually best understood through the idea of giving up sex to become a monk or nun and living a life dedicated to gaining enlightenment. So does this mean that every yogi needs to give up sex? In Stone’s book he talks about the ‘wise use of sexual energy’ rather than complete celibacy, arguing that we should respect our (and our partner’s) life force and not engage in sex mindlessly and frivolously.
- Aparigraha: non-greed is perhaps a most appropriate principle to keep in mind in Western society where we are constantly bombarded by advertisements for, and opportunities to, accumulate more and more. Many of us talk about living a simpler life but are just as easily caught up in the longing for material possessions. However, aparigraha also relates to craving in other ways… for spiritual enlightenment, advanced postures, a blissful meditation!
So, as yogis on the mat when we find ourselves striving to achieve that difficult pose when perhaps our body is not ready for it, we should be honest with ourselves (satya), acknowledge this greed for what it is (aparigraha) and be kind to ourselves (ahimsa) for a) feeling the way we feel and b) being wherever we are in our practice.
Off the mat, I think you will agree there are many ways to live by these guiding principles!