YAMA AND NIYAMA AS AN EDUCATIONAL TOOL
Teaching yoga is a wonderful profession. The service we sell or provide in return for donation is very effective. 90 minutes of asana practice suffice for people who arrived tired and stressed, maybe with a painful back, to leave the studio in a bright mood and much more relaxed. It is probably the combination of activity, stretching and the withdrawal of the senses which brings about this balance and relaxation. We yoga teachers thus have a profession with high social responsibility, because our over-strained societies urgently need relaxation and we provide space, time and know-how.
Asana practice is very popular and has a high media presence, whereas the moral advice, yama and niyama, lead a shadowy existence. They constitute the first and second steps of the ‘Eightfold path’, and are therefore the basis of the yogic way of exercise and science. Could we conclude, that yogic practice starts originally with a social meeting and not in a beautiful pose? Of course we talk and write about ethics, but does it really become a vivid tradition? We are now experiencing a period of crisis. Wouldn´t it make sense to encourage our pupils morally and not only to take care of their backs and spinal discs? Could we help them to consolidate an attitude to existential human questions?
The yama and niyama principles are rather easy to understand and get an overview of: 5 yama principles for proactive living together and 5 niyama principles for self-encouragement and spiritual development. Both directions merge into one: social engagement requires responsible introspection. To stand for a cause requires a fundamental conviction and also a good portion of serenity.
I try to interprete the yama and niyama principles in a modern way. I consider moral advice which is not understandable to be useless. Like a medicine, whose instruction leaflet I do not understand. I try therefore to use terms which do not have religious connotations. Ethical practice is in my opinion the basis of spiritual practice, no matter whether it is a religious belief or a science of experience like yoga practice. The basis should be the essence of everything. The connecting principles. More and more people live without a religious denomination. They also have to take moral decisions in their daily lives. In 2017 about 17% of Austrian inhabitants belong to this group.(1)
Asteya (not-stealing) is the one term for which I chose the broadest interpretation in my book (2). I describe it as a theft of rights in general, not only a theft of property. And isn´t the right to a good life, the right to education or the right to an undamaged body, as is written in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of existential importance?
Sometimes these rights are even more existential than the right to property, in particular considering the extremely unjust distribution of property and income worldwide.
THE EXERCISE OF YAMA
How can I practise yama and niyama? While the niyama principles can be combined with regular body work, the yama principles often remain abstract. A secular model of thinking and exercising is therefore needed.
I have developed two ways of practising:
1.The moral check
In 1902/3 Emile Durkheim, considered one of the fathers of modern sociology, gave a lecture at the Sorbonne about the criteria for a moral act. He was looking for a secular explanation of how to judge a moral deed and he came up with three terms: voluntarism, renunciation and unity. I took these terms and made them the cornerstones of my field. The orientation towards the future is my fourth cornerstone. Then I placed each yama (ahimsa, satya, asteya, brahmacharya and aparigraha) into this imaginary field – it was an experiment and it worked. My thinking became clearer, working with this criteria. Try it! You can also pose just one question in the field, something you want to think over, e. g. does it make sense to become involved in an organization against the destruction of the rainforest (ahimsa) – what about my voluntarism, what would I have to forego and for whom would I do this? Not forgetting: is this a sustainable act? My thinking is more precise, when I write. And it is easier to discover blind spots.
Turning point Bhavana
The second brain teaser, which is also suitable for a small writing exercise, is to think over your behaviour in daily life in order to find out if you can take a healing turn with the help of a bhavana (YS 1.33: maitri, karuna, mudita, upeksha). You can think about stories that happened or imagine future situations. If you write it down in advance, for example a meeting with a special person, you can remember more easily later on. I tried it out. For each of the five yama principles I found four situations, where I chose one of the four bhavana-attitudes. Altogether I wrote down about 20 experiences, some of them happened a longer time ago, some just now. E. g. was I rooted in ahimsa when I had this difficult meeting and which bhavana helped me? It was neither my intention to castigate myself, nor to become a shining moral example of a Western Yogini, no: I just tried to exercise with authenticity, as honestly as possible. And I wanted to sense the moral turn in each story, most of them about meeting a person. My examples are situated in my surroundings, in the apparently trivial. Thinking about great solutions for wars, natural disasters, hunger and misery are too much in the beginning. Starting with the trivial is a good first step, you will grow with each new challenge as a consequence.
TO STAND FOR A REQUEST IN THE PUBLIC
The possibilities to practise a yogic attitude in daily life are as diverse as our lives. The projects I will describe now therefore are not suitable as a copy template for the typical engagement of a yoga teacher. Everybody has to find out for which idea or project,he or she really wants to take responsibility – with all their heart.
1. Since 2021 I am a member of Yoga for Future (3), an initiative of the German yoga teachers Gudrun Komrey and Hardy Fürch. We meet regularly on zoom and ask ourselves what we can do as yoga teachers to take social responsibility. Nico Raabe from Munich is also in the group. She started the initiative ‘Wir bleiben am Boden – Yoginis für Flugverzicht’ (We stay on earth, Yogis for flight cancellation). I like this idea. It is a good example of a grounding in Yama (Ahimsa: How many tons of destruction in the form of CO2 are caused by flights to a yogic retreat? Satya: How transparent and true are the prices? Brahmacharya: Is our lifestyle really moderate?) The western yogic scene contains a lot of advertisements for retreats, training and holidays and quite often in combination with flights. How many tons of CO2 is it worth – my relaxation on the other side of our planet? Please note: This cancellation is based on a voluntary decision, it is not a prohibition! Remember Durkheim’s criterion ‘voluntarism’. Everybody must decide what it means for him/her taking responsibility for the planet.
2. I am committed to helping refugees, and our club has rented a house for workshops and language courses in my home town. Sometimes I also go to demonstrations against the discriminatory policies in Vienna. To be honest, it is not easy for me to march on the streets. I feel uneasy and a little bit lost between the loud shouting of slogans. This changed when I wrote my own small placard, on which was written: ‘Bleiben wir bei der Wahrheit. Yoga Sutra 2.36. Afghanistan ist nicht sicher. Rückkehrern und Abgeschobenen droht der Tod.’ (Let us stick to the truth. Yoga Sutra 2.36. Afghanistan is not safe. Returnees and deported people risk death.“ To march as a Yogini in Satya – suddenly I felt I had found my place. The yogic moral helped me to stand up for my opinion in a public space.
3. What is the reason for my commitment to people who are waiting in Austria for a fair asylum proceeding? I love to teach them German before they are not yet integrated into the official language training programmes. Asteya helps me. I am convinced that respect for the rights of people and all living beings is part of my moral base. I lead a lucky life, others have no chance. This is deeply unfair. We can feel this or we suppress this fact. My effective power is limited, but I can at least speak with them and show them my respect and, incidentally, some small problems can be solved. Asteya makes me sure: It is of existential importance that we meet each other in a respectful way. If we affront someone´s dignity, we affront ourselves.
DO WE REACH THOSE WHO NEED YOGA MOST?
Hatha Yoga is effective and also the yogic moral principles can provide help in daily decisions. It is a pity that we yoga teachers do not reach all those people who would need help. But Yoga is very popular? Nevertheless!
Western yoga is above all female. Men often prefer performance-orientated kinds of sport. But learning to sense the body and the breath, learning to sense a moral dilemma, all this would help them as well. Therefore we should motivate young men to start yoga or become yoga teachers.
Disadvantaged people, financially or socially, also participate very rarely in yoga classes, last but not least because yoga has the image of being part of a middle-class-lifestyle. The training, equipment, clothes, holidays – apparently essential must-haves – cost quite a bit of money. Those who have to save money for heating, school or food, go without paying someone for their own relaxation. That´s a pity, particularly because poverty causes stress and daily fear of one´s existence is exhausting. Refugees also could be grateful for such offers. Not long ago I offered a yoga lesson for Ukrainian women. It was surprisingly easy for me and they felt safe and comfortable, despite me saying only a few words.
Yoga teachers who want to take social responsibility could start by looking for contacts with disadvantaged people in order to create easily accessible offers. Lessons could be given for free or sponsored by companies or institutions. A first possible step is to contact social service providers.
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2. Alexandra Eichenauer-Knoll: „Yoga und soziale Verantwortung. Sich gründen im Außen und Innen mit Yama und Niyama“, Windpferd Verlag, 2022, ISBN 978-3-86410-352-0