Ethical conduct is an important part of any transformative practice.
Classical yoga recognises this and the first two limbs of Patanjali’s ashtanga yoga system are Yamas, five guidelines for conduct, which are seen as an essential protection from causing harm to oneself or to others and Niyamas, five qualities which spiritual aspirants seek to develop, and which are somewhat similar to the Paramis of Buddhism. Yajnavalkia list 10 yamas and 10 niyamas, which are somewhat different from Patanjali’s, but the basic idea is the same: there can be no spiritual progress without a well-defined ethical framework.
The five yamas are:
- Ahimsa, the practice of non harming, which helps develop kindness towards all being
- Satya, the practice of being truthful, which expresses the spiritual seeker love of the truth
- Bramacharya, the practice of using our energy (and particularly our sexual energy) wisely
- Asteya, the practice of non stealing, which helps develop non attachment to the material world
- Aparigraha, the practice of non attachment, which helps develop freedom
The five Niyamas are:
- Sauca, cleanliness, whose practice leads to purity of mind, cheerfulness, and mastery of the senses
- Santosha, contentement, whose practice leads to happiness
- Tapas enthusiasm, whose practice leads to purity of body and mind
- Svadayaya, inquiry, whose practice leads to clarity and understanding
- Isvara Pranidhana, acceptance, whose practice leads to self realisation
It is useful to see yamas and niyamas as practices, rather than rules to be followed. Seeing ethical behaviour as a practice, and yamas and niyamasa as guidelines, we can be kind to ourselves when we fail, and keep working at perfecting them.