Last updated on November 25th, 2023.
The Golden Rule transcends time and culture. Like the precious metal, this sage advice can transmute the lead in our external experiences to refined and joyous living. Treating others the way you wish to be treated seems simple, but with the complexities that exist in the world, we often find ourselves struggling with interpersonal relationships. However, with the ancient wisdom of yoga, it is possible to travel the path of limited suffering and abide in a better relationship with the outside world.
Our relationship with the world is multifaceted: We exist in communion with family, friends, lovers, coworkers, neighbors, and even strangers. Everyday we experience life alongside other beings, which include animals and nature. These relationships span from within the walls of our homes to the vast reaches of the planet. The beliefs, practices, and behaviors we espouse can differ greatly from any one of these entities.
To practice yoga and live a yogic lifestyle, one must follow the eight-fold path described in the sutras. As described many times throughout this book, the path consists of the following eight limbs:
- Yama (abstinences)
- Niyama (observances)
- Asana (postures)
- Pranayama (breath control)
- Pratyahara (sensory withdrawal)
- Dharana (concentration)
- Dyhana (meditation)
- Samadhi (absorption)
This chapter will focus on the first limb or rung of this ladder—yama. In Sanskrit, yama translates to “moral displicine”. This discipline describes the thoughts, speech, and actions we put out into the external world. There are five yama-s we must consider when relating to the world, which are reflected in many spiritual practices and governmental laws:
- Ahimsa (non-violence)
- Satya (truthfulness)
- Asteya (non-stealing)
- Brahmacharya (continence)
- Aparigraha (non-covetousness)
When we abide by these ethical principles, laid out in many teachings, including the yoga sutras, we can make a positive impact on everything we encounter and work to eliminate suffering on a collective level.
How to Control Your Behavior to Support External Relationships
Yoga practice and application is about strengthening your physical, mental, and emotional capacities. The intention of living a yogic lifestyle is to improve your life, relieve suffering, and obtain peace. A part of this peace includes how you interact with the world around you and how the world reacts to your action (or inaction).
Karma is our actions, words, and thoughts that elicit a response. This response is an energetic impression, the low- or high-level energies of our emotions—sadness/joy, love/hate, fear/courage, etc. According to Nicolai Bachman, author of “The Path of the Yoga Sutras”, karma can come from us or can come from an external source, such as a conversation, movie, or other sensory experience. Whether these impressions are subtle or dramatic, these energies affect our heart-mind. Even the laws of physics acknowledges “an equal and opposite reaction” to an initial action. Think of these actions as ripples in a pond: Eventually, they will move an object downstream.
The impact, imprint, or impression these actions make ultimately become our samskara-s, which means “formations”. These mental impressions occur when we intake sensory stimuli and assimilate the experience into our memories. These memories of the event influence our behaviors, whether the event was benign or traumatic. Every person you meet experiences this phenomenon. Animals, plants, and even the weather/climate demonstrate the repercussions of cause and effect. When we begin to realize the enormous impact each and every action has upon the faculties of our heart-mind, you will understand the importance of emitting positive, high-level energy into the world.
“In the presence of one firmly established in nonviolence, all hostilities cease.”
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, 2.35
The first yama, or abstinence, is ahimsa. Ahimsa is the act of non-violence. Non-violence includes the tenets of compassion, forgiveness, and non-judgement. To practice ahimsa is to live in a manner that intends to reduce harm in all actions. In a way, all the yama-s espouse the moral principle that is non-violence. When we abstain from violence, deceit, stealing, misusing our energy, and greed, we work to prevent harm.
The Effects of Violence on Others and Yourself
Violence can include mental, emotional, and physical abuse. When we harm someone, the effects are far reaching. The negative action will influence the person, animal, or object that receives the harmful action. The effects could be that a person or animal retaliates, or becomes deflated and unable to live according to their purpose. An inanimate object can break, which also diminishes its usefulness. We harm others and ourselves in the following ways:
- When we physically hurt a person, animal, nature, or inanimate object, we can cause irreparable damage. We can also suffer through the ramifications of such an event.
- When we think or speak negatively about someone or something, we act to end that person’s or object’s life. In the same way that physical violence can lead to death or trauma, being cut off from society (through the use of rumors or a bad reputation) is a form of death. (Trauma informed yoga could help)
- When we listen to hateful speech, watch violent movies, or participate in activities that emit low-energetic frequencies (fear, anger, ignorance, etc.), we increase our chances of hostility.
- When we react to negativity through retaliatory behaviors, we subject ourselves and others to cycles of violence.
Violence is harmful, because it is disruptive. Adversely, unconditional love and kindness maintain stability. Kindness negates hostility. Hostility begets violence. These behaviors will become cyclical patterns, creating habits that continue to injure all parties involved. The key, according to the yoga sutras, is to become the “antidote to violence” (Bachman, p. 146).
How to Practice Nonviolence
To begin acting in a nonviolent and compassionate way, it is essential to see the importance of everything we encounter, treating all objects—alive or inanimate—as purposeful and sacred in their origins.
- Instead of unwanted vermin or insects in your home, see each as having a purpose. Try to collect these critters and release them, or let them be.
- Think of someone with whom you feel hostility or negativity toward. Intentionally send them good energy, whether love, forgiveness, or understanding.
- Practice the pause. Instead of reacting to negativity with more negativity, take a breath before responding. In your response, make sure to act, speak, and think in a way that imposes minimal damage.
- Consider the ways that violence and low-level energy enter your life. Are you an active participant? Is there a way that you can limit your interaction this sensory stimuli?
- Pay attention to the ways in which you condone violent actions though your inaction. Try to use your gifts and talents to provide an antidote to the violence of this world.
“To one established in truthfulness, actions and their results become subservient.”
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, 2.36
Absolute honesty is the focus of the second yama. In Sanskrit, satya means “truth,” and it encompasses thoughts, speech, and actions. For many, telling the truth seems easy, but to practice satya, one must not merely tell the truth but dishonesty must be completely eliminated from everyday life. To live according to this sutra, a person must apply truthfulness in all areas of his or her life, using the light of faithfulness to create a pure heart-mind.
The Effects of Dishonesty on Others and Yourself
If you wish to practice ahimsa, satya will come naturally. It is impossible to withhold the truth or even produce a white lie if you wish to practice ahimsa. Satya is about pure interactions with others, acting intentionally. If you are unclear at all with your words or actions, then you diminish your trustworthiness. For example, you can tell people that you intend to live a certain way (and even believe these words yourself), but if you do not live out your truth, then your delusions will become a warning those around you: You are not trustworthy.
- When you pay someone a compliment that is insincere.
- If a friend asks you what you think about something (their outfit, new love interest, or if you are upset with them), it is irresponsible to lie.
- When you make assumptions, use deception, or pass along rumors.
How to Practice Truthfulness
- Always tell the truth, being mindful of limiting harm. You do not need to be rude or accusatory, but it is appropriate to tell people what you prefer, so they understand your sincere desires. This honesty will also limit resentment toward other people’s actions or choices.
- Strive to be reliable, matching your actions with your words.
- Refuse to spread misinformation. Do not partake in gossip or attaching your preconceived beliefs to events. Use a clear mind to see events as they occurred and question your own biases.
“To one established in non-stealing, all wealth comes.”
-The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, 2.37
Asteya encompasses non-stealing in any form: physically taking items, misusing time and materials, depleting our own energy by giving too much, etc. When we take something from someone, whether it be their possessions, peace, or time, we are stealing. We can steal from nature, cultures, other people, employers, and ourselves. Receiving a gift is not considered stealing; however, taking something for granted—which may deplete an energy source—without a grateful attitude or reciprocity, is considered theft.
The Effects of Stealing on Others and Yourself
Linked with ahimsa and satya, asteya requires honesty and working to limit harm. There are many ways in which we steal, without realizing the effects on their sources:
- When we throw away, hoard, or misuse goods that can be used by others.
- When we interrupt conversations or ignore people.
- When we take resources from nature without gratitude or replenishing its gifts.
- When we receive the benefit of a mistake and do not rectify the situation.
- When we take an object for our own that belongs to someone else.
- When we plagiarize or use intellectual material, taking credit for its creation.
- When we do not use our time at work appropriately, yet receive a paycheck.
Stealing hurts all parties involved. It hurts the person who loses the property, because they can no longer use the property. It can break trust between parties, creating suspicion and fear. Taking time from an employer can limit that source’s productivity, and the effects can ripple out on a global scale. Claiming someone’s work as our own diminishes their compensation, of which they may need to survive. Hoarding property, food, and money can hurt those who need these resources more than we do. And finally, stealing can hurt the thief because the thief can go to jail, acquire a record, and lose credibility. Work ethic diminishes, resources are not recuperated, and the thief learns nothing about the proper exchange of energy.
How to Practice Non-Stealing
- Pay nature back for oxygen, water, and other natural resources by planting trees, cleaning up the earth, and only taking what is needed.
- When you are privy to a mistake, use honesty to correct it.
- Donate excess money and items that you no longer need.
- Be diligent at work and when claiming what is your creative property.
- Do not interrupt others or waste their time. Be considerate of other people’s property.
Brahmacarya (Conservation of Vital Energy)
“By one established in continence, vigor is gained.”
-The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, 2.38
Brahmacarya is similar to non-stealing, however, the theft is against yourself. When we give of our vital energy, without replenishment, we deplete our physical, mental, and spiritual/emotional stores. This sutra is about the principle of stamina and controlling our sensory impulses. To practice yoga, one must move away from concern over sensory pleasures and move toward (carya) supreme truth (Brahma). The sensations of the body deplete the energy we need to reach union within. Although this sutra is concerned more with the practitioner, the effects of wasting vital energy can harm others, as well.
The Effects of Depleting Vital Energy on Others and Yourself
This sutra focuses mostly on the physical and emotional aspects of sexual relationships. It is not concerned with strict celibacy, although for some, this is an important aspect of the yogic path. However, it is important to note that this sutra mostly discusses sexual energy exchange and how inappropriate use of our vital sexual energy can diminish our own health:
- When we consider love only a physical act, we can overindulge in sexual activity. This behavior can cause physical harm to our bodies, and our partners’, through sexually transmitted diseases or unwanted pregnancies.
- When we overindulge in any activity in which we give of ourselves, we can experience physical, mental, and emotional fatigue.
- When we equate love with sex, we diminish the holy quality of our bodies.
Conserved vital energy is converted to our subtle body, which is ojas or “vigor”. Over time, ojas creates tejas, which is our personal “illumination” and external effects we have on the world.
How to Practice Conservation of Vital Energy
- Practice moderation and control the impulses for appropriate use of vital energy (do not overly give of yourself).
- Be judicious with whom and how you demonstrate physical love.
- Use your vital energy appropriately for physical, mental, and emotional/spiritual stamina.
“When non-greed is confirmed, a thorough illumination of the how and why of one’s birth comes.”
-The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, 2.39
Aparigraha is similar to asteya. It is about an intense desire for material goods. Asteya focuses more on the misuse and holding onto goods, while aparigraha focuses on possessiveness and material desires.
The Effects of Hoarding on Others and Yourself
When we become preoccupied with possessions, we become slaves to the ego and bound to our earthly attachments:
- When we feel obligated to others as a response to their giving.
- When we claim an idea as our own or desire recognition.
- When we act out of the need for power and control, not allowing others to be themselves or have their own opinions.
- When we dominate conversations or insult others’ opinions.
Hoarding power and possessions can harm others and yourself. We lose valuable insight from others when we control the narrative. We feel beholden to others when we do not allow others to give freely, without expectation. And we continue to deplete our vital energy when we cling to earthly attachments, instead of realizing that these materials are temporary and cause static in our relationships.
How to Practice Non-Hoarding
- Eliminate your desire for external possessions, so you can focus on your internal status.
- Think of gifts as gifts, not as place markers for obligations later to be paid.
- Allow others to state their points of view. This behavior is especially important for people in places of leadership.
- Manage your desire to participate in consumerism. Purchase only what you need and help your children by teaching moderation.
Often, it seems as if we are battling the world, with the need to protect ourselves from foreign invaders of our physical space and inner peace. But our relationship with the world is within our control. By choosing to follow the path of yoga and the wisdom of the yoga sutras, we can manage our energetic footprint. Our behavior, like everything else, ripples out into the world. Our actions cause reactions. This concept can be explained by the principles of science or spiritual belief—the laws of physics or karma.
Having this knowledge for ourselves as yoga practitioners is helpful but especially if you’ve been through Yoga Teacher Training and intend to not only teach the forms but instill the lifestyle amongst your students. Remember to always keep your mind open to new learning opportunities. There are many benefits of a lifestyle of lifelong learning. Make sure to capitalize on every opportunity to learn.
Suffering exists when we tread outside of the lines of a pure heart-mind. Through these sutras, you can clean your heart-mind and use its light as a laser beam to enhance your impact on the world.
If you found this article helpful check out others in these series covering topics like increasing your emotional energy, the benefits of yogic breathing and so much more. Look in the “Well Being” category under the Health and Wellness menu item.