There’s no getting around it. You can turn it upside down and look at it through rose tinted glasses but yoga is, first and foremost, the practice of ethics.
If you’re like me (and most modern yogis), your first experience of yoga will have been in an asana class. Not much talk about philosophy, maybe a few minutes spent in meditation or breathing exercises, but most of the time you’re doing the poses. It’s easy to view these classes as pure exercise, bending and strengthening your way to better health. But anybody who’s kept up a regular practice knows the benefits go much deeper.
After a while, you start to feel calmer, more alive and more connected. The discipline, grace and sensitivity that you cultivate in class makes you more attuned to your own needs and those of others. This in turn leads to subtle changes in the way you live your life as self-destructive patterns fade away and new ways of being emerge. This is where the ethics bit comes in. Even without knowing all the philosophy, practicing yoga sets up healthier, kinder and more conscious behaviours. And that’s the whole point of yoga.
Nearly two thousand years ago, the great sage Patanjali set out the practice of yoga that is followed by millions of people around the world today. It’s called the 8 Limbs of yoga and shows us 8 steps we need to take in order to reach Samadhi, a state of pure bliss that is the ultimate goal of yoga. Asana, or yoga poses, is the third step, followed by breathing practices and the four stages of meditation. So what comes in at number 1? Ethics.
The first two limbs of yoga are Yama and Niyama, guidelines for living an ethical life that are absolutely essential pre-requisites to all the other practices of yoga. It doesn’t matter how good your handstand is or how many green smoothies you drink, the health and happiness you crave will stay just out of reach until you’re following the ten common-sense guidelines offered by the Yamas and Niyamas. Of all ten guidelines, the first, and most important, is Ahimsa – non harming.
There are many ways to practice non-harming and when I ask my yoga teacher trainees each year how they practice Ahimsa, their answers range from being kind to their kids to not eating meat. In a western consumer culture, the way we choose to spend our money is a daily practice of Ahimsa. Do we buy the cheapest eggs in the supermarket, or spend a bit more on free range out of consideration for the animals? Do we purchase water in a plastic bottle that causes environmental damage or do we install a water filter at home? Do we buy our yoga wear from a company that doesn’t pay fair wages and safe work conditions or do we ensure our clothing has been produced ethically? Being ‘good at yoga’ is more about the choices you make in life than your alignment in Warrior 1.
Practicing yoga makes us more sensitively aware of our own bodies and the world around us. As our yoga practice deepens, so our sense of living in harmony with the rest of the world grows and we are spontaneously drawn to live an ethical, caring life. After all, the very word ‘yoga’ means ‘union’ and practicing non-harming in every area of our lives is the first step towards inner and outer peace.
Nikola Ellis is the founder of Adore Yoga, one of Sydney’s leading yoga schools. Yoga therapist, teacher trainer, mentor and mother, she’s passionate about building caring communities that do good and feel good. In 2012, she initiated the Pink Yoga project, dedicated to making therapeutic yoga and meditation freely available to women with cancer. Catch up with Nikola at www.adoreyoga.com.