Bringing Ethics Back
On a Wednesday afternoon, New York City yogis from different traditions gathered in the brightly-colored loft of Hari NYC. The large group was assembled to hear master teachers Alan Finger, Hari Kaur Khalsa, Dharma Mittra, Reverand Sam Rudra Swartz and writers Benjamin Lorr and Stefanie Syman discuss the first two limbs of yoga – the yama and niyama or ethics of yoga.
Brette Popper, publisher of YogaCity NYC and moderator of the panel, asked Hari Kaur to open the event in a way that was traditional to her background as a Kundalini yogi. She chose to lead the group in chanting Ong Namo Guru Dev Namo, a Kundalini chant honoring the guru.
After the chanting, Popper initiated the discussion by reading sutras 2.35 – 2.45 that directly name and describe the yama and niyama or the internal and external disciplines of yoga. She chose a translation by Chip Hartranft because it was “ecumenical” and simple to understand.
Because isvara pranidhana can be a tricky concept in secular America today, Popper posed the first question to interfaith minister Sam Rudra Swartz, asking his opinion on Hartranft's translation of sutra 2.45: “Through orientation toward the ideal of pure awareness, one can achieve integration.”
Swartz began by explaining that his understanding of isvara pranidhana draws on a combination of his Jewish background and the idea from Satchidananada that all yoga is meant to be in service to humanity. “When I find a situation where my mind and my intuition are split, I 'give it to god' for a few days instead of immediately needing to take control of it.”
Alan Finger, on the other hand, suggested that he views the sutras as a science and Patanjali as a scientist. In terms of isvara pranidhana, he said that his approach is grounded in the idea that we all originated from the Big Bang. Therefore we can trust the universe because we are fundamentally a part of it.
As the panel continued around, each panel member shared a little bit about how they individually understand the sutras as a system and the yama and niyama as an entry point to that system. Dharma Mittra said that his favorite is ahimsa. “All the others flow from ahimsa,” he said, “and if you follow it properly, you can forget all the rest.”
From here, Brette Popper geared the discussion to a simple, but vital question: “Why are the yama and niyama important?” Ben Lorr weighed in, sharing his perspective, after studying one of the more scandal-wrought lineages and it's leader, Bikram Choudhary. He said that the kind of growth that yoga asks of us also makes us vulnerable, both as teachers and as students. “The yamas and niyamas,” he posited “provide ethical checks to pull us back from naval-gazing – for lack of a better word.”
Rudra Swartz agreed, saying “As a teacher, you are also a student, which keeps us vulnerable...but if you can be present and practice each one, then all the sutras make more sense.”
Finally, the conversation turned to how the yama and niyama have changed over time from their original context. Hari Kaur pointed out that they are in their essence, very basic and straightforward – and not terribly different from other ethical systems, such as the Ten Commandments.
So then why are they not more widely practiced and known as part of the yoga system? Lorr and Syman both pointed out that, as yoga was brought to America, to make it more palatable to a secular audience, it was evacuated of any notes of spirituality or religion. Instead, emphasis was placed on the physical and health aspects of the practice, which sent the ethics into the background. As Syman put it, with the introduction of early Iyengar practice in this country there as a clear message that said “you don't have to be a dirty hippy to do yoga...people could just heal their backs.”
Today, however, the panel generally agreed, that there is a growing interest in practicing yoga as a whole system again – perhaps especially needed as the sexual scandals keep coming up as ethics are overlooked. With this reintroduction of the other limbs of yoga, Lorr noted that “practicing ethics will change you just as much as practicing postures.”
As the event began to move into a question and answer portion, some questions included how you can use the yama and niyama to navigate situations that are personally challenging. And why these teachings were almost never included in standard classes.
Overall, a consensus emerged that this topic merited much more than an afternoon's worth of discussion and could have gone on for hours. The next live discussion will take place on Anatomy and the Subtle Body on September 25th.
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--Alex Phelan teaches anatomically influenced and alignment conscious yoga in New York City.
--Illustration: Sharon Watts, for more of her work, click here.