Healthy Beginnings

Living consciously with yoga’s 10 ethical guidelines

Kathaleen Martin Midcalf stretches in her studio, The Yoga Pearl. Photo: Tessa Miller Osborne

While yoga is neither a religion nor a sport, it can be referred to as a system of living consciously — wide awake to Life itself, as well as to the universe of which we are an integral part.

Inherent in this system are guidelines for living a more conscious life. These guidelines are often referred to as the 8 Limbs (which comes from the Sanskrit term Ashtanga) of Yoga, according to the great sage, Patanjali. The first two limbs, the Yamas and Niyamas, are often referred to as the ethical guidelines of yoga and are the first two limbs we study — and actually come before asanas (poses).

These guidelines are really pretty basic and, if followed, can put us on the path to living life in harmony (and isn’t that what we really want — to live in harmony within ourselves, and in relationship to, others?). The Yamas are ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (non-excess) and aparigraha.

It is said that, if we all follow ahimsa (non-harming), we don’t even really need the other principles. When living life by these guidelines, we first must define them for ourselves. What does non-violence mean to you? How much does it encompass? Does it just mean not hitting someone else? Or does it also mean not cursing at a driver who cuts us off in traffic? What does it mean to be harmful to yourself?

What does satya mean to you? What is the difference, to you, between truth and belief? Where is the line between your truth, another’s truth, and the truth? And, can you temper that truth with ahimsa, non-violence? You might ask yourself before you say anything, if this really has to be said today, by you, at all?

How do you define non-stealing? Is it simply not taking another’s possession, or does it mean not taking credit for someone else’s work — or ideas — or words? What about stealing someone’s story (you know, when they begin to speak about their experience, you turn the light back on yourself — maybe as a way of connecting, maybe for attention). How do you identify non-stealing?

Brahmacharya is non-excess. We have just finished up a season of excess — excessive food, excessive drink and excessive activities — so how to come back to a place of non-excess? “We must be able to discern between what the body needs in the moment and what the mind is telling us,” according to Deborah Adele. See non-excess in the light of ahimsa … excess is harmful to YOU! Practice saying, “no.”

The last Yama is aparigraha, which means non-possessiveness or non-grasping. And, it refers to hanging onto too many things (how many pairs of boots do you actually need?) or hanging onto relationships when it is time to let go, or hanging onto thoughts that are harmful to you. Letting go of that which no longer serves you allows you to live your life more freely is aparigraha.

Once we practice the restraints, we turn to the second limb on our tree, the Niyamas, or observances. These include saucha (purity), santosha (contentment), tapas, (self-discipline), svadhyaya (self-study), and Ishvara Pranidhana (surrender).

Purity (saucha) refers to not just bodily cleanliness, but cleaning up our words and our thinking, as well as cleaning up our relationships by maintaining clear boundaries. Once we are living the Yamas, this Niyama becomes easier.

The next four Niyamas can be summed up in the Serenity Prayer (Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference).

Once we immerse ourselves in svadhyaya (self-study), we can then find the contentment (saucha) to love ourselves just as we are; the tapas (this literally translates as heat and has nothing to do with those little appetizers!) — or self-discipline — to change the things about ourselves that holds us back; and the wisdom to know when to surrender.

Practicing the first two limbs of yoga can be your system of living into the changes you want to see in 2019!

Reverend Dr. Kathaleen Martin Midcalf is the founder and master teacher at The Yoga Pearl in Sparks, Nevada. For more information, call 775-750-7610 or visit