June 3, 2010

Yoga Ethics: a Primer.

Celibacy, or Divine Chewing?

Brahmacarya is the sun which the rest of the yamas orbit around.

“If we even occasionally experience our immersion within a universe that is a vast, multidimentional living organism, that experience will naturally foster a profoundly ethical posture toward the totality of life.” ~ Duane Elgin

The Yamas and Niyamas are the 10 ethical principles of yoga which were outlined by Patanjali about 2,000 years ago in the Yoga Sutras.

The word “ethics” tends to make my eyes glaze over. So, for a long time I just ignored them – I’d already spent many years recovering from the fiery torture of 10 other set-in-stone rules laid down by You Know Who – no desire to replace them with a more exotic version, thank you very much.

But as my yoga journey continued, I began to realize the importance of the yamas and niyamas in my own life – not as roadblocking rules, but as fluid streams of consciousness that permeate the universe and lead me to balance. When I ride those streams I am privy to new levels of awareness. I began to realize that the yamas and niyamas are woven into the very fabric of consciousness. Understanding and abiding in them became more about relating to them as internal barometers and less about adhering to externally imposed dictates.

Some of it is really obvious. Ahimsa (pronounced ah-heeng-sah) for example, the first of the yamas, means non-harming. In general, not harming others – in any way, actions, words or even thoughts – creates a sense of inner peace. So what I began to understand is that the yamas and niyamas, are not only ethical guidelines, they are in effect, a powerful mental health strategy.

The ethics of yoga are split into two categories because the first five (the yamas) have to do with our relationship to other people or the path of social integration, and the second five (the niyamas) have to do with our relationship with ourselves, or the path of personal integration.

The yamas include the principles of ahimsa (non-harming), satya (honesty), asteya (non-stealing) and aparigraha (non-hoarding) and have to do with how we relate to the external world. The most controversial is Brahmacarya. Traditionally Brahmacarya was typically translated as “celibacy.” In the west more watered-down translations such as “continence,” “abstinence,” or “self-control” began to emerge.

But if you break down the Sanskrit, the literal translation of brahmacarya is “to walk while you are chewing on the Divine.” In other words to ruminate upon the Divine in everything and everyone you encounter, in every situation, in every moment, in every breath. And in all fairness, that’s really at the heart of what most spiritually celibate people are trying to do with their lives isn’t it.

If we translate it this way, brahmacarya becomes the sun of the yamas and the rest of them orbit around it in a strikingly beautiful concordance.

The literal meaning of brahmacarya is much more relevant to the yamas, because they have to do with our relationship to the external world. Sexuality is a pretty personal thing, if you think it’s important enough to include in ethical principles, you’d at least want to put it in the category of the niyamas, maybe under tapas (the burning effort – hmm, that sounds about right).

But trying not to have sex with everyone you encounter is not really in the same category as non-harming and being honest with them (unless you are in need of some serious therapy).

Approaching every situation and person in a spirit of non-harming, honesty, non-stealing and non-hoarding makes sense if every situation and person is an opportunity to see everything as an encounter with the Divine.

Patanjali wrote in the Yoga Sutras, “To those who are established in Brahmacarya, great strength (virya) is available.” (2.38) Yeah, if you are having a lot of sex you might not have much energy for other pursuits. But I think he meant something much subtler. If you know where your energy is truly coming from (hint: it’s not your fourth cup of coffee), you can do anything, anything is possible. You’ll have tons of energy.

Without applying the literal translation of brahmacarya, the whole system of the yamas disintegrates.

More to come on the niyama star system…

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