Friday, August 20, 2010

Are the Yamas (Moral Disciplines) of Yoga Unnecessary? (1)

Traditionally, the five yamas are considered key limbs of Patanjali’s eight-limbed path, which are universally applicable. They are deemed foundational and indispensable by virtually all yogic schools.

Not so in contemporary Yoga. Several prominent Yoga teachers are on record as having dismissed the moral disciplines as old-fashioned and unnecessary. Is this a valid perspective? Or are those teachers out for lunch?

My own opinion is that they are not only out for lunch but also are irresponsible. Here is my reason: As I have explained in my book Yoga Morality (2007), which the review media have all but ignored with the notable exception of the Vancouver Sun, our modern civilization is in a moral quagmire that is the equivalent of an economic depression (not merely recession!).

In other words, we are in dire trouble. Our situation is similar to an ocean liner with a broken engine and without a working rudder. Anything goes. We are morally adrift. People pretty much make up their own convenient morality if they have—and often even if they have not—jettisoned the moralism of their theistic religion. They are holding up flash lights to guide the traffic on a stormy sea, with dark thunder clouds overhead and billowing waves beneath.

Does this sound familiar to you? Have you noticed that Yoga people, who should know better, behave as if they had no moral compass? What has been your own response to the situation? Are you confused? Please share your thoughts and feelings.

I have seen people flee into religious or secular fundamentalism just to have tentative (if dubious) guidelines. I have seen others avoid moral issues like the plague. Is this compatible with authentic Yoga? I think not. As Yoga practitioners, I suggest, we must face the question of our moral stance in the world. Should we endorse harming in deed, speech, and thought personally and culturally? Lying? Theft? Greed? Sexual exploitation (usually of women and children)? Of course not. But how can we act responsibly? How can we be true to our calling as Yoga practitioners?

Georg Feuerstein


  1. I think this question is very much connected with the the potential of yoga as a transformative social force you addressed in an earlier post.

    Yoga has been criticised in some accounts for contributing to the current consumeristic and materialistic way of life. If the moral and ethical dimensions of yoga are bypassed, as often seems to be the case, much of this criticism may be valid.

    However, the yamas and the niyamas point a way directly opposite to the current state of things. To me, they offer solutions to many problems on individual & social level. So yes, I think yoga practitioners should definitely try to understand and live up to these ideals.

  2. My response to this question has involved a blending of buddhist and hindu yoga. My hatha yoga teachers typically neglect to teach the yamas and niyams, which is fairly unfullfilling. Buddhism conversely has no shortage of ethical and moral teachers from whom to learn and study. It would be nice to have 1 teacher or even tradition that provides a wholistic mind-body path, but I've basically become a buddhist that practices hatha yoga and references some hindu philosophy.(which actually works out pretty well). Maybe I've given up most of my hope that the popular yoga world will begin to care about ethics, because let's face it, yoga asana practice IS a really good fitness system. In my yoga teaching however, I emphasize philosophy and theory of yoga. I appreciate you Dr. Feurstein, for continuing to champion the issues of morality in the yoga tradition.
    -Cody Jackson-

  3. Ahimsa (Non-harm), the first Yama underpins the whole deal. You discuss this fully in the 'Lost Teachings of Yoga' and I fully concur.

    As a Yoga teacher Ahimsa is something I emphasise in asana work (which is where we, as teachers, reach out to many Westerners). Non-harm to yourself is a good place to start.

  4. If one considers a Yoga practice only that which happens on a mat then by all means leave off the Yamas, in fact one must. For if that is considered a Yoga practice it already lacks of Satya. No longer does it hold the essence of bringing body, mind and spirit together. It becomes yet another method by which to torture and manipulate the body into what the mind believes it should be based on the concepts and notions of societal norm in this moment. It then becomes easy to side step the practice of Ahimsa and instead lends the mind into a sense of entitlement. The thoughts riding along the lines of "See how wonderful I am to have such a well formed body. I should be admired for all the hard work I have done." In these thoughts there is a lack of recognition that the body has in fact done the work. A failure to recognize the possible harm done to the body along the way to satisfy the egoic mind. In doing so the mind has stolen from the body, countering Asteya. The capacity to notice through awareness, the effects of Asana on the body, to work with loving kindness, opens the way to noticing the effects on the body of choices made in daily life. This allows a space to be created in which to retrain the mind. To begin to perceive the body as a gift by which this life can be experienced. To invite thought patterns that recognize damaging habits, choosing to change them to ones that support not only perceived health based on how the body looks, but well being based on the body's natural ability to heal and strengthen. The flow of life running through the body is that which we truly are. It is through this connection that contentment is found. It is then that a life worthy of living blooms and grows. This has been the experience of Yoga for me thus far. It is specifically the Yamas and Niyamas that drew me to Yoga in the first place. Without them it would have been yet one more form of exercise that I would have avoided. While my daily practice sometimes includes Asana, it is the continuous, moment by moment practice of the Yamas and Niyamas that has changed my perception of life itself. A life once lived in misery and severe depression has become one of amazement and gratitude. I guess that makes the short answer to the question no the Yamas are empathetically not unneccessary.

  5. Hello Georg,

    Speaking from the 'front-lines' so to speak, I'd say that some of this moral lassitude stems from contemporary yoga's kinship with some aspects of 'new age' thinking. I often hear students and teachers say "It's all good," and "As long as your intentions are good," as ways of dismissing the kind of deep engagement with moral issues authentic yoga demands.

    I often begin my response to this kind of statement by reminding them that the road to hell is indeed paved with 'good intentions.' The Buddhist 8-fold path offers both the reason this is so, and the corrective: Right Understanding or View precedes Right Intention. One's intention may indeed be 'to cause no harm,' but if you don't fully understand what is needed, your action can cause much harm!

    What draws me to Yogic/Buddhist morality is indeed the quality of engagement it demands. Shila is understood as 'training.' They are not 'commands' given from external authority. We take on the yamas/precepts as the 'great vow' and then use them to cultivate greater mindfulness, leading to deeper insight and wise action. As the phrasing of the Five Mindfulness Trainings taught by Thich Nhat Hanh put it, "we learn ways to protect the lives of people, animals, vegetables and minerals." When asked what to do, how to act, Thay encourages us to look and learn from life itself.

    thank you, and metta
    frank jude

  6. Thank you everyone for participating. I read all responses, but won't be able to answer each one. Also, I am technically not very savvy and depend on Brenda's postmaster help. . ., and she has a busy daily office routine. So, if I don't always comment, it's because I don't have the wherewithal. :)