Yamas & Niyamas Practice Group

Session Five

Dear friends,

We discussed the fifth yama at our June meeting. Aparigraha means abstaining from greed or possessiveness. Below are excerpts from the readings.

From The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Translation and Commentary by Sri Swami Satchidananda
Sutra 39: When non-greed is confirmed, a thorough illumination of the how and why of one’s birth comes.

Aparigraha is abstention from greed or hoarding – which is a form of stealing – or not receiving gifts. Many times we get gifts that are merely an advance for a future obligation. One day someone comes to us with a gift, and the next day he or she telephones to say, “Remember that gift I gave you? Well, could you please do a little something for me?” We feel obligated to do that then. Even the Internal Revenue Service won’t accept business gifts as being tax deductible because they aren’t a real donation. They are only given to get something in return. A donation means something given just for the sake of giving, not for name, money or publicity.

Accepting gifts binds us and makes us lose our neutrality. The mind will say, “You received a gift from him. How can you say something against him?” On the other hand, if we are strong enough to remain free of obligation, we can accept gifts. Feel, “I am giving her an opportunity to use her money in the right way, but I am not obligated by this gift. She shouldn’t come to me tomorrow for an obligation.” Then we are not bound.

When the mind becomes this calm and clear by being free of desires and obligations, we gain the capacity to see how our desires caused our present birth. We directly see the cause and effect relationship because we are detached from it; we are no longer bound up with it.

From Yoga Philosophy of Patanjali, by Swami Hariharananda Aranya
Sutra 39: On attaining perfection in non-acceptance, knowledge of past and future existences arises.

Questions regarding the past, present and future states of one’s body, in the forms of “Who was I and what was I? What is this body? How did it come about? What shall I be in the future? How shall it be?” get properly resolved in a Yogin. The powers mentioned before are developed on being established in Yamas, the restraints.

When through development of a spirit of non-acceptance, objects of bodily enjoyment appear insignificant, the body itself appears to be a superfluous burden. Thereby a sense of detachment towards sense-objects and the body arises. From meditation based on that idea, knowledge of the past life is derived. The delusion that exists from close attachment to one’s body and objects stands in the way of knowledge of the past and future. When the body is made completely steady and effortless, powers of clairvoyance etc. are acquired irrespective of the body. Similarly when along with objects of enjoyment, the body also is regarded as a superfluous burden, one becomes conscious of the body as separate from the self and thus rising above bodily delusion comes to know one’s past and future lives.

From The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, by Edwin Bryant
Sutra 39: When refrainment from covetousness becomes firmly established, knowledge of the whys and wherefores of births manifests.

On perfecting the yama of refrainment from covetousness, aparigraha, the knowledge of the circumstances of the yogi’s present birth as well as of previous and future births, janma-kathanta, is automatically revealed if the yogi desires it, according to Vyasa and the commentators. The yogi knows exactly who he or she was in a previous birth, specifies Bhoja Raja, what sort of a person in what sort of circumstance. The connection between cause and effect is hereby revealed, says Ramananda Sarasvati – every type of birth, after all, whether human, animal, or celestial, is the fruit of previous activities, karma. The yogi is able to perceive precisely how the present birth is the consequence of previous activities, and how present activities will fructify in the form of a specific future birth. Again, the ability to access previous births surfaces frequently in Indic texts: The Buddha, for example, by marshaling “all the techniques of dhyana, meditation” on the night of his ultimate enlightenment, was able to bring to mind all his previous births, according to his hagiography. “He remembered thousands of past lives, as if reliving them again, that ‘I had been such and such a person at that time, and then, passing out of that life I had come to this other life’ ” (Buddha-carita XIV.2-3).

Bhoja Raja elaborates here that refrainment from covetousness involves not coveting the means of enjoyment, and this includes the body, which is the mechanism of enjoyment. In normal life, due to desiring enjoyment, one’s consciousness is directed outward and thus the type of knowledge mentioned in this sutra does not reveal itself. In other words, when awareness is not dissipated externally, it can be channeled internally into one’s citta where all the imprints of past life experiences are recorded. By accessing these samskaras, the yogi can gain awareness of the past lives in which they were recorded.

Along the same lines, Hariharananda states that delusion stemming from attachment to one’s body obstructs knowledge of the past and future. When this is given up and one becomes conscious of the body as separate from the self, the body becomes a superfluous burden, and the power of clairvoyance, which means awareness that is not limited to the bodily organs of sight, etc., is developed.

One might imagine the citta as a lake, and samskaras as pebbles within it. When a lake is crystal clear, one can see the pebbles clearly and easily retrieve them. When the lake is choppy or murky, one cannot. Similarly, when the sattva potential of the citta is maximized, it is clear, and therefore its samskaras, including those of previous lives, can be more easily extracted. When rajas and tamas are prevalent, in contrast, it becomes choppy and murky, and even recent memories are difficult to bring to recollection.

R. S. Bhattacharya (1985, 149-51) takes the janma-kathanta-sambodhah of this sutra to refer not to knowledge of previous births arising in the mind of the yogi free of coveting, but to thoughts arising in the minds of people associated with the yogi. The janma-kathanta in his reading refers to people’s curiosity about the circumstances of the yogi’s personal life. Specifically, impressed by the yogi’s attitude of aparigraha, refrainment, people wonder about the birth of the yogi. In other words, they wonder in awe how an embodied being can be free from attachment, etc.

From Light on the Yoga Sūtras of Panañjali by B.K.S. Iyengar
Sutra 39: Knowledge of past and future lives unfolds when one is free from greed for possessions.

When one is steady in living without surplus possessions and without greed, one realises the true meaning of one’s life, and all life unfolds before one.

Perseverance in this austerity leads to knowledge of one’s past and future lives which appear like reflections in a mirror. When the sadhaka is free of worldly aspirations, he is a krtarthan (a happy and satisfied person).

Aparigraha means not only non-possession and non-acceptance of gifts, but also freedom from rigidity of thought. Holding on to one’s thoughts is also a form of possessiveness, and thoughts, as well as material possessions, should be shunned. Otherwise they leave strong impressions on the consciousness and become seeds to manifest in future lives. These cycles of life continue until the sadhaka is totally clean and clear in thoughts, words and deeds.

Aparigraha is the subtlest aspect of yama, and difficult to master. Yet, repeated attempts must be made to gain pure knowledge of “what I am” and “what I am meant for”.
This discriminative thinking helps one to plan one’s future lives from this present life. This is what Patanjali intends when he says that the pattern of future lies unfolds to an aparigrahin.

From The Practice of the Yoga Sutra, Sadhana Pada, by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, PhD
Sutra 39: With firmness in non-possessiveness comes complete understanding of the “why-ness” of birth.

Upon gaining firmness in aparigraha, non-possessiveness, we unravel the mystery of birth. Our unfulfilled desires bring us back to this world again and again. The desire to be wealthier and more important, and the desire to dominate others and consume more than others, are inherent in all of us.

This tendency makes it easier for us to commit violence, be dishonest, steal, and indulge ourselves, rather than to embrace non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, and non-indulgence. Behind violence, dishonesty, stealing, and indulgence lies one clear objective – gaining greater control over the objects of our desire and eliminating those with the potential to stand in our way. This phenomenon can be described in one word: possessiveness. We want to have enough to fulfill our desires – and desires know no limit. That is why in the realm of destiny, possessiveness takes a leading role in determining where, how, when, and in what species we will be born.

All of our desires and the possessions corresponding to them belong to one of three categories: putraishana, desires associated with family and progeny; vittaishana, desires associated with material wealth; and lokaishana, desires associated with power and fame. These three categories of desire manifest in numberless ways. When they manifest, they demand action. When we succeed in fulfilling our desires, they demand more. When we fail, we are disappointed, sad, and angry. In both cases, a network of new samskaras is created. Life after life we keep returning to this same cycle.

During the quiet moments of our meditation we can see what type of desire possesses our mind. The object pertaining to that desire is our dearest and most valued possession. If we fail to renounce it, then in all probability that particular possession will take the lead in designing our future life. This process takes place when we are breathing our last. During the time of death, our long-cherished desires and the objects corresponding to them stand before our consciousness en masse. The frail body, depleted brain, and frightened mind are overwhelmed. Finally, the most prominent among all the possessions and desires emerges and dominates our consciousness, and our life force is absorbed into this consciousness. Rebirth is a reversal of this process.

Pratipaksha bhavana, cultivating thoughts opposite to those that most occupy our mind, is the essence of the practice of aparigraha. In practice, non-possessiveness involves renouncing our desires and aversions. Through introspection we come to know what is there to be renounced. With the help of pratipaksha bhavana, vairagya, and meditation, we identify, attenuate, and eventually eliminate our mental possessions, which are forcing us to remain caught in the cycle of transmigration. As we progress in the practice of aparigraha, we begin to see our subtler and more potent mental possessions. We know we must renounce them or they will drag us into yet another helpless birth.

When we are fully established in non-possessiveness, we know that nothing can drag us into the cycle of birth and death. This level of firmness in aparigraha enables us to intuit the mental contents of others. Yogis of this caliber are the perfect guides for torchbearers for seekers. As sutra 1:37 tells us, by focusing on such accomplished yogis we are able to cultivate a peaceful and one-pointed mind.

From Sadhana, the Path to Enlightenment by Swami Rama
The practice of aparigraha, or nonpossessiveness, is meant to foster an inward attitude rather than create an outward appearance. Aparigraha does not mean to deny oneself of all material possessions. It involves not being addicted to or dependent on one’s possessions rather than the outward denial of them. The danger lies not in having material possessions but in becoming attached to them or in craving more than you need.

Another meaning of aparigraha is not to expect anything from anyone. When you expect too much from others you become dependent on them. Self-reliance is important. Even wife and husband should not become dependent on each other or have too many expectations from each other. Wife says, “I expect you to love me and listen to me.” Husband declares, “I expect you to love me, look after me, serve me and listen to me.” You live with each other’s expectations, without ever knowing what love is. As long as your expectations are fulfilled, you are both happy. You may live together for thirty years or more and finally realize you have never known each other. This is one of the miseries that society has produced.

What you call love is actually expectation. When two selfish persons expect from each other in the name of love, it is a precarious situation. When you expect too much of your partner, hou keep calculating how much you have received from that person. At some point you may decide you have not received enough and so you want a divorce. You should communicate and understand each other by expressing yourself and being honest with each other. If two people who are living together cannot adjust to each other’s ego, the relationship falls apart.

It is easy to expect, but very difficult to love. If everyone in the family expects from each other, the family institution will be reduced to a den of selfish people. Expectation is the mother of all problems. To love means to give. Once you learn to give you will receive. That is the law. Today we see the opposite: No one wants to give, but everyone expects to receive. In the world this expectation is considered to be love.

Learn to love others unconditionally without any expectation. When you expect too much, you are hurting yourself because you are making yourself dependent on others. You think that to lean on somebody or to expect something from somebody because that person is your friend or spouse is love. This is not true. If you expect happiness from others, you will never have it, because happiness does not come from others.

Too much expectation is one of the social miseries humanity is facing today. You expect your partner to be very nice and loving and gentle to you, but what do you expect from yourself? If you get something without expectation, that is okay. But you shouldn’t expect it. Pain in the external world comes from too much expectation.

Not everyone can live up to your expectations, and then you feel sad. You depend on others to make you happy, but that type of relationship is superficial. It is better to take time to develop awareness of the center of beauty, wisdom, power and peace that is within you.

Patanjali says there should be one principle in life, one truth. You should focus all your actions, thoughts, desires and emotions toward one aim. You can have many goals, but you should have only one absolute aim. You can marry and have children, a home and enough money to have all the comforts of life, but you should understand that none of these is the ultimate goal in life. It is essential to understand the purpose of life so together you can direct all your resources toward that goal. That is possible if you accept marriage as an opportunity to learn. If you really want to know all the secrets of life, you can learn them at home. You both can become two wheels of the same chariot. Make your husband an instrument for enlightenment, and he can do the same with you. You can have and enjoy all things of the world, but you should apply these as means to reach the ultimate reality. You can live comfortably with a lifespan of one hundred years so you can accomplish the real purpose of life, but it is not helpful to hoard or try to accumulate excessive wealth. When you accumulate wealth, you are exploiting or depriving somebody else. You should not deprive others for your own existence. If you do not have the ultimate reality before you as your goal, other goals will distract you more and more, and instead of giving you pleasure will give you pain. Freedom comes when you learn to love eternal life. Presently you love the objects of your mind and the external world, and you are trying to use God to acquire more and more things. Now you should reverse this process and use the things of the world as a means to achieve your goal and to love the ultimate reality.

From The Yoga Sūtras of Panañjali, Translation and Commentary by Baba Hari Dass
Sutra 38: On becoming steady in on-possessiveness, knowledge arises of how and why birth comes.

In this sutra, the perfection of aparigraha (non-possessiveness) is explained. The greatest attachment or feeling of possession is the identification of the “I” with the mind-body complex. From this basic sense of identity, which is egoism, the notion develops that “I am the performer and enjoyer of actions and objects.” This possessiveness expands through a deepening attachment to objects and experiences. In this way, possessiveness naturally arises from beingness. This sense of self-identity, the ego of individuality, is hard to renounce.

By not hoarding unnecessary objects, the mind starts to develop non-attachment to all objects. Non-attachment weakens the desire for acquiring and possessing objects. The mind gradually develops non-attachment even for one’s body. Then, in the absence of desire and attachment, the ego stops identifying itself as a performer and enjoyer, and instead dwells in a state of dispassion. In that state, the intellect (buddhi) becomes very pure and achieves knowledge of past births. “Who I was in past birth, where I was, and what I will be in future births” can be known.

Why don’t we always remember past births, since the latencies (samskaras) of past births already exist in the mind? The identification of the ego with the body is the cause of forgetting our past identities. There are two faces to the ego: the one that owns the gross body and the one that owns the subtle body. The subtle body contains all the samskaras (latent impressions of past experiences) and vasanas (desires, tendencies, urges to act), and it is the cause of the gross body.

The ego that had identified the previous body as “I am” no longer exists after the death of that body. When the individual soul (jivatma) reincarnates, a new ego develops and says, “I am this mind-body complex.” The mind-body complex of the past life is completely forgotten. So in each birth this ego relates only to the new body, and does not remember the past births.

A yogi who is well established in non-possessiveness has purified his or her mind of the attachment to the current gross body ego, and thus becomes capable of knowing about each incarnation of the individual soul (jivatma).

Note: The practice of aparigraha, which is the final restraint (yama), is to not hoard any object that is non-essential to maintaining life in the world. The key word in this practice is non-essential. The sutra does not say that we should burn all our possessions. It means that we should limit our possessions to those that are necessary for our life in the world.

When the ego is permitted free reign, it wants to possess everything. Nothing is ever enough, and it constantly seeks to acquire more even when some external limit is placed on it. This tendency of the ego keeps the mind very active and entirely absorbed in the outer reality. Therefore, it is a tremendous obstacle to sadhana (spiritual practice).

All aspirants need to place limits on the ego. In fact, all the practices of yoga can be understood as different ways to limit the ego. With aparigraha, the limit is on possessions. In society, we are identified and judged by our possessions. Where we live, what we wear, and what we drive are all significant factors in our social worlds. The question of what is needed to live in society is a gray area. At first, we may believe that everything we own is necessary, but if we look carefully, we can see many things that aren’t needed. If we have the courage to give them away, then we are practicing aparigraha.

This very act of giving away what is unneeded purifies the mind. As the mind becomes more pure, it sees that other possessions are not needed, so it gives them away also. Through this process, everything but the essentials are given up. What is the result? The result is the decrease of attachment in general and the increase of dispassion. This dispassion changes the way we relate to everything: our possessions, our families, even our bodies. The feeling that they belong to “me” disappears.

The main problem with possessions is that they don’t come for free; they come with attachment. To say that it is impossible to own something without attachment is redundant because the very notion of ownership is a form of attachment. By definition, the more we own, the greater our attachment.

An objection arises. What about the great king Janaka? He was an enlightened sage who happened to be a king with great wealth, huge palaces, and thousands of servants. He is an example of a person who owned a tremendous amount without attachment.

The objection is correct from an external perspective, but not from an internal one, where it counts. Yes, King Janaka’s wealth was great by any standard, but he did not feel like it belonged to him. Instead, he felt that it was his duty as king to manage the property in a way that benefited the society as a whole. The difference may seem like semantics, but the effect on the mind is profound.

The mind that “owns” possessions must protect and maintain them. Anxiety is created because there are so many external forces that get in the way, such as thieves, competitors, careless people, and extreme weather. The ego has identified itself as the owner of these possessions, so any threats to the objects are also threats to the ego itself. This anxiety is a powerfully driving force in the mind whose external orientation thwarts any attempt at meditation.

The pure mind that doesn’t identify with any objects of the world, including those objects required for life in the world, develops dispassion even for the body. The ego that had been identifying the “I” with the body atrophies and finally disappears. Simultaneously, the feeling of “I” expands beyond the body until it becomes universal. The universal mind is capable of recognizing the samskaras (latent tendencies) of the body and knowing their sources, which were the previous incarnations of the subtle body or jivatma (individual soul).

The commentary explains that there are two faces to the ego: one that identifies with the gross body and one that identifies with the subtle body. When the ego’s identification faces the gross body, the mind’s understanding is limited to that body. When that identification is weakened and finally eliminated, the ego only identifies with the subtle body. It thus becomes capable of remembering its previous incarnations because the subtle body is what transmigrates from one gross body to another.

From The Yamas & Niyamas, Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice, by Deborah Adele
For those of us who choose to stay immersed in the world, loving and living fully without becoming attached is not an easy thing. When we experience the completeness of being loved, the satisfaction of a superb meal, the acknowledgment of work well done, we can easily want to hold on to these moments and never let them go. It is easy to want the same satisfaction and begin to demand the same fulfillment from these things again and again. But it is the nature of things to change and by failing to let them change or move on, they begin to disappoint us and our attempts to hold on begin to make us stale and discontent. What we try to possess, possesses us.

Aparigraha invites us to let go and to pack lightly for our journey through life, all the while caring deeply and enjoying fully.

Just like the breath gives us nourishment, so does life in the form of homes, work, relationships, routines that bring ease, beliefs, stances, and images of ourselves. There is nourishment until we get attached to these things, often unconsciously, and then distur ourselves with expectations, opinions, criticisms, disappointments, all because we forget to trust life, exhale, and let go. Like the breath when it is held too long, the things that nourish us can become toxic.

Aparigraha invites us to practice divine play, experience full intimacy and contact with the moment, and then to let go so the next thing can come. It is how our adikara, or competency, grows and how we become more who we are capable of becoming.

The process of capturing monkeys in India gives us insights into how we stay attached to objects of life and how deadly that can become. In this process of catching monkeys, small cages with narrow bars are made and a banana is placed inside the cage. The monkeys come along, reach in between the bars, and grab the banana. Then the monkeys begin the impossible task of trying to pull the banana through the bars. And here is the amazing thing – in the moment when the monkey catchers come along, the monkeys are totally free. There is nothing keeping them from running off to safety as they hear danger approach. All they have to do is to let go of the banana. Instead, they refuse to release the banana and are easily taken into captivity.

“Bananas” for us are anything we expect to give us the same fulfillment the second and third time. When we expect our spouse to make us feel good like they did the evening before, or when we expect a dinner out to satisfy us like it did the last time, or when we expect to be appreciated like we were yesterday, indeed anytime we want the same “feel good results, we are “holding on to the banana.” Our expectations keep us captive and often disgruntled.

The image of the monkey holding on to the banana is real for those of us captured in our attachments. Indeed, nothing is holding us. We, like the monkeys, are totally free. Instead, we choose to hold on, choosing our attachments and our greed rather than our freedom. To choose freedom, we simply need to “let go of the banana.” Instead, we create our own prison of captivity.

Anything we cling to creates a maintenance problem for us. The material items that we hoard, collect, buy because they are on sale or take because they are “free,” all take up space and demand our attention. Subtle attachments come in the form of our images and beliefs about ourselves, about how life should be, about how others should be. These images keep us in bondage to our own learning and growth. Clutter in our physical space blocks our ability to physically move, while clutter in our minds blocks our freedom to expand and have space for the next thing life wants to bring to us.

Nonattachment does not mean that we don’t care or that we somehow shut ourselves off from the pleasures and joy of life and each other. In fact, nonattachment frees us up to be immersed in appreciation of life and one another. We are asked to let go of the clinging to the thing, not the enjoyment of the thing itself. Letting go of the ownership opens up up to full engagement with what is set before us in the present moment. Life becomes a banquet, and we are free to feast. Like the breath, we are invited to breathe in deeply, enjoying the fullness of the inhalation, and then to let go just as deeply and fully, enjoying the release of the exhale.

The fewer attachments we carry with us, the more we are free to enjoy and engage and live every moment before us to the fullest. The more breath we let go of, the more room there is in our body for the fullness of the next inhalation. The more we generously share and give away, the more expansive and light we become. The journey of life is towards freedom. A bird cannot hold its perch and fly. Neither can we grasp anything and be free.

Practicing constant generosity and unfailing trust will keep our greed in check and keep us open to life’s unfolding. What wants to come to us is so great. And what we hold on to is often so small.

Ideas to consider around aparigraha:

  • Pay attention to your breath. Let the simple act of inhaling and exhaling teach you about the fullness of breathing in life without the need to hold on to it.
  • Look at the physical things you have surrounded yourself with. Do these things make you feel free and light or do they have a hold on you and make you feel heavy? Experience the difference between enjoyment and attachment.
  • Notice where you impose our expectations on people and things, unconsciously demanding that they give you the usual fulfillment and comfort. How do your expectations keep you limited and often disgruntled?
  • Along the same line, do you have expectations of people when you do something for them?
  • Notice if you feel compelled to act in a certain way if someone gives you something or does something for you?
  • Krishna Das makes the observation that in our country we have a muscle in the mind that we forget is there. He calls it the “letting go” muscle. Krishna Das says we have developed a strong “holding on” muscle in the mind, but the “letting go” muscle is undeveloped. He suggests we get our mind in shape by using this muscle more often, practicing with little things so we are prepared when the bigger things come along. Notice when you cling to experiences, emotions, thoughts, habits and beliefs. Then give your “letting go” muscle some exercise and begin to let go.


Session Four

Dear friends,

At our May meeting we began our study of brahmacharya, or continence. Below are excerpts from some of the readings:

From The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Translation and Commentary by Sri Swami Satchidananda
Sutra 38: By one established in continence, vigor is gained.

By getting established in continence or celibacy, we save energy. 

Seminal fluid is our life. If stored properly, it can bring a lot of energy. When absorbed into the system it gets transformed into prana. Conserved sexual energy in women also gets transformed. It is that vital force that allows you to really help people and have good relationships. Without such prana, we can never give anything to anybody, just as only a fully-charged battery can give power, never a weak one. In observing brahmacharya, we build up this energy.

A Yogi should always keep this in mind. Teaching Yoga is not like teaching history or geometry. The teacher must impart a life force – a little current – into others. How can he do this if he himself is weak, if he has a rundown, discharged battery? So keep your batteries full of energy.

That doesn’t mean you must completely stay away from sex. Instead, be moderate. Preserve as much energy as possible. Have sex, only in the proper way in a marital relationship. Have one or two children. Until you have a regular partner for life, store the energy. After all, when can you ask a partner to go into business with you? Only after you’ve saved up enough capital.

The Hindu system has four stages in life: brahmacharya, grihastha, vanaprastha and sannyasa. Until one finishes his or her education that person is a brahmachari, strictly celibate. With this saved energy he or she can grasp things well. The brain power is more dynamic. In high schools and colleges now, most students learn sex and nothing else. But instead, finish your studies and then go into partnership with another person.

This is the grihastha stage. Bring your knowledge and strength together. You should not come together because of beauty; because how long will that beauty last? However much make-up you wear, physical beauty will not last long. The real beauty is inside – in your character, your noble ideas, your aim in life. With noble ideas, a noble child can be one of your contributions to the world. Expressing our love and affections without overindulgence is not wrong. It is part of nature. Even couples who don’t plan to have children should have limitations. Even animals have restrictions. Once a female dog is pregnant, no male can come near her. A lioness brings forth a cub once a year. Certain animals won’t even make love in front of others – elephants, for example. So, in your own way, according to your stage of life, have limitations.

In the Hindu tradition, the grihastha stage is followed by vanaprastha, where the husband and wife have finished their worldly responsibilities and become totally involved in spiritual pursuits. They take pilgrimages or stay in an ashram somewhere. Then, at a certain point, they take sannyasa and drop off all worldly ties completely. They are no longer husband and wife. In certain cases, if an individual has that much discrimination, he or she may take sannyasa directly after the brahmacharya or grihastha stage.

By observing celibacy, we preserve not just physical energy alone but mental, moral, intellectual and, ultimately, spiritual energy as well. Sexual energy that is preserved gets transformed into a subtle energy called ojas. This is similar to personal magnetism. It tones the entire personality, builds the nerves, improves brain power and calms the mind.

And ojas, when stored, creates tejas. Tejas is the aura or the glow. A newspaper reporter once wrote an article about me called, “The Swami Makes the People Glow.” How can the Swami do this? Is it some peculiar yogic make-up? No, everyone can glow and can transmit that energy when they preserve a lot of ojas.

From Light on the Yoga Sūtras of Panañjali by B.K.S. Iyengar
Sutra 38: When the sadhaka is firmly established in continence, knowledge, vigour, valour and energy flow to him. 

The celibate transforms the energy of procreation into spiritual energy (ojas), creating lustre.

Brahmacharya, in its sense of sexual control or celibacy, is often misunderstood.
Sexual energy is the most basic expression of the life force. It is immensely powerful, and it is essential to control and channel it. In no way should we despise it. On the contrary, we must respect and esteem it. He who seeks merely to suppress or stamp down his sexual energy is in effect denigrating his own origins. Of course there is a moral aspect to sexual behaviour, but cultural differences permit vastly different behaviour. Some cultures allow one wife, some three, some many. In parts of the Himalayas a woman may have several husbands. Often what we call sexual morality offends less against the code of brahmacharya than against the other injunctions of yama. Imagine the case of a married man who commits adultery with a married woman, and lies when he is suspected. Has he not offended, by the pain he gives, against ahimsa? By his lies, against satya? By taking another man’s wife, against asteya? By his greed, against aparigraha? The sexual misdemeanour in itself shrinks in comparison.

A yogi may or may not practise total abstinence; the great yoga Vasista had one hundred children, yet he was called a brahmacari. Ancient yogis studied the conjunction of stars and planets to discover the most auspicious moment for procreation. Continence or control in no way belies or contradicts the enjoyment of pleasure. Assuredly they enhance it. It is when sensory pleasure is the sole motivating factor that brahmacharya is infringed.

The life-force which finds sexual expression also serves to find the warmth of our emotions, the passions of our intellect, and our idealism. As our physical essence is sperm or egg, so our spiritual essence is the soul. Their relationship should be based on co-operation. It is the creative relationship of purusha and prakriti which leads to freedom. Renunciation is a positive process of disengagement, not a sterile rejection. In the past, most great yogis were householders. We must learn to husband and control the life-force because it provides the energy which carries us to goals other than procreation. Also we should remember that procreation by those practising brahmacharya will tend to be of a higher order than that which is carried out thoughtlessly or promiscuously.
The religious or educational studentship of adolescence is also termed brahmacharya. That is because the enormous outburst of energy which is released by puberty needs to be contained and channelled for the child’s all-round growth. If a child were to indulge in sexual activity the moment he or she was biologically ripe, a large part of his or her human potential would be thrown away.

We need application, study and idealistic motivation if we are to achieve anything. If, by youthful profligacy, the concentrated source of our energy has already been squandered, we will rediscover it later in life only with enormous difficulty. Lack of control can lead to despair, dejection and depression. But if energy is abundant and controlled we have hope and confidence, and our mind turns automatically to higher thoughts.

From How to Know God, The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali, Translated with a commentary by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood
Sutra 38: When a man becomes steadfast in his abstention from incontinence, he acquires spiritual energy.

Sexual activity, and the thoughts and fantasies of sex, use up a great portion of our vital force. When that force is conserved through abstinence, it becomes sublimated as spiritual energy. Such energy is indispensable to a spiritual teacher; it is the power by which he transmits understanding to his pupils. For true religion is not “taught,” like history or mathematics; it is transmitted, like light or heat. 

From The Yoga Sūtras of Panañjali, Translation and Commentary by Baba Hari Dass
Sutra 38: On being firmly established in sexual continence, vigor is obtained.

The body and mind get energy from food, from the air, and from the sun. People use energy in may ways, but generally most is spent in selfish activities, especially seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. For a yogi seeking liberation, not only does this waste precious energy, it disturbs the mind.

The practice of brahmacharya really means using the life energy for spiritual purposes. Instead of dissipating energy in all forms of enjoyment, the energy is channeled for one purpose (purification of the mind), and it becomes highly focused and powerful. It is like a garden hose with an adjustable nozzle. The water can be spread widely and softly over a short distance, or it can be focused narrowly and travel very far. Also, calm water is soft to the touch, but a block of ice is as hard as a brick and high pressure water is powerful enough to penetrate metal. In the same way, the life energy can be soft and dissipated, or it can be highly focused, powerful and penetrating.

This sutra says that when a yogi is firmly established in brahmacharya, the subtle energy is highly focused (vigorous) and capable of extraordinary powers. such power is extremely seductive to the ego, so it can be dangerous if not used for spiritual purposes.

From Lectures on Yoga by Swami Rama

Brahmacharya literally means, “to walk in Brahman.” One who cultivates this yama is therefore aware of Brahman alone. Such a state is possible only if the mind is free from all sensual desires, and of all sensual desires, the sexual urge is the most powerful and the most destructive. Brahmacharya is therefore often translated as abstinence from sex, or celibacy. In reality, it refers to continence in either the celibate or the married state, for sexual excesses lead to the dissipation of vital energy which could instead be used to attain deeper states of consciousness. Brahmacharya should not, however, be interpreted as repression of sensual urges – repression leads only to frustration and an abnormal state of mind. Brahmacharya means control of and freedom from all sensual cravings. The bliss that accompanies self-realization is far greater than any transient sensual pleasure, and one whose goal is self-realization would therefore overcome the obstacles of sensual cravings without any kind of suppression.

From Sadhana, the Path to Enlightenment by Swami Rama

Once you have practised how to love selflessly, how to practise truth relating with the facts, and how not to steal, then comes the fourth commitment, brahmacharya, or walking in Brahman consciousness. Brahman is the Absolute, the proprietor of all, who gives the breath of life to all of us. When you are conscious of the reality, you remain in Brahman consciousness. This is the highest meaning of brahmacharya. One who is conscious of the reality all the time is called a brahmachari. Literally, the word brahmacharya means “celibacy,” but not only in the physical sense. Brahman is the omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent Shakti, or the ultimate power; charyameans “how to utilize that power.” One who knows how to utilize the power of Shakti is called brahmachari. For a monk who has taken vows and wants to use his energy totally towards the goal of knowing God, a life of celibacy is appropriate. But worldly people can also practise brahmacharya by learning how to channel their energy in one direction. A brahmachari is one who knows how to conduct his energy in thought, speech and action and does not waste energy. For those who are renunciates it is essential to remain celibate. But for everyone else brahmacharya means to direct one’s energy for a right use.

Some commentators on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras have used the word abstinence to translate the word brahmacharya. This is merely a superficial meaning. A more accurate translation is: On being firmly established in sexual control, vigor is gained. It’s a very simple thing. One who does not do sex can become very powerful. Brahman means “Shakti,” the power within you, and charya means “the way you utilize this power.” This power is not limited to the sexual act, but you can examine your power by observing how much control you have in the sexual act. There are people who think about sex all the time and all of their energy is directed towards sex. When this happens it is considered to be a disease. Unfortunately modern society not only allows such an attitude toward sex, but also cultivates and encourages it.

The path of action in the world requires discipline on all levels. If you understand the four primitive fountains – food, sex, sleep and self-preservation – you will accept that it is important for you to discipline yourself. Discipline makes you aware of your capacity and of the resources and potentials that you have. Whether you overdo things or you do nothing you are hurting yourself. Neither extreme is helpful. It is important to discipline the urges of food, sex and sleep and not to have fears or to brood on human life. Examine your fears so you realize your mind has created those fears and they are not at all real. If you identify with and brood on fears, you become negative and sad. This is what creates disease.

Everyone eats, but very few people know how to eat for health. Everyone wants to sleep and sleep, but nobody knows how to sleep properly. Everyone wants to do sex, but nobody knows how to control the sexual urge. Training in these basic necessities for human survival and the growth of humanity are not imparted anywhere. This is why there is such chaos in the world. If all human beings were taught how to control sleep, their sleep would be very restful. If all were taught to eat properly – what to eat, how to eat, how much to eat, when to eat and when not to eat – everybody would be healthier. The sexual urge is the most powerful and the most destructive of all sensual desires. If everyone were taught how to control the sensual urge and were made aware of what sex means, there would be fewer marital problems.

Although brahmacharya is often translated as abstinence from sex, or celibacy, in reality it refers to continence in either the celibate or the married state. Sexual excess leads to the dissipation of vital energy that could be used instead to attain deeper states of consciousness. At this point I want to emphasize that brahmacharya should not be interpreted as repression of sensual urges. Repression leads only to frustration and an abnormal state of mind. Brahmacharya means control of and freedom from all sensual cravings. The bliss that accompanies Self-realization is far greater than any transient sensual pleasure, and one whose goal is Self-realization should therefore overcome the obstacles of sensual cravings without the use of suppression. When your mind, actions and emotions are under your control, then you are a brahmachari. One who cultivates brahmacharya is aware of Brahman alone. Such a state is possible only if the mind is free from all sensual desires.

From The Practice of the Yoga Sutra, Sadhana Pada, by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, PhD
Sutra 38: A yogi established in continence gains virya, the capacity to transmit knowledge.

The practice of brahmacharya results in the achievement of virya, vigor and vitality. Elaborating on this sutra, Vyasa states that the vigor and vitality gained from this practice heal and nurture us to such a degree that nothing can impede the rise of the inherent power and intelligence of our body and mind. In the Sri Vidya tradition, which is the epitome of hatha yoga, kundalini yoga, and tantra yoga, the integration and nourishment of the three bindus form the foundation of brahmacharya. Bindu means “dot,” and refers to three distinct, yet interconnected, principles that keep us alive and healthy: mind, prana and virya. As long as these three are fully nourished and working in harmony, our limbs and organs function properly. We have a vibrant and energetic body and are firm and confident. The practice of brahmacharya enables us to restore the pristine nature of these three bindus and help us conserve and further enrich their intrinsic powers. In the normal course of life, however, our mental tendencies drain the mind’s energy. A shaky, shallow, and noisy breath drains our prana. Sensory indulgence drains our vitality. Mind, prana, and virya are so intricately interwoven that when one is vitiated, the other two are as well. When one is one-pointed, the others become one-pointed. When one is stable and perfected, so are the others. Pranayama techniques that help us identify our pranic currents, collect the scattered forces of prana, and allow these forces to travel through sushumna, the central channel, to the crown chakra are used for mastering brahmacharya. Most outstanding among all pranayamas in this context are agni sara, pracchardana vidharana, and shambhavi mudra. These techniques are altogether different from what is taught in standard hatha yoga classes and should be practiced only under the guidance of a competent yogi. When further augmented with the higher practices of mantra, visualization, and alchemy, these pranayama techniques enable us to bring the forces of our mind, prana, and the body’s vital energies to a state of balance. We become acutely aware of which particular bindu – mind, prana, or virya – takes the lead in vitiating the other two bindus to control and guide the wayward one.

If need be, experienced masters may confer shaktipata upon us and guide us through the practice until one day we become firmly established in it. At that point, we are able to pass on what we have received from experienced masters – confer shaktipata on prepared students and help them gain a direct experience of what has been lying dormant in their own body and mind.

From Chariot of Sadhana, Yoga of the Inner Teacher by Martin and Marian Jerry

Brahmacharya is often presented only in terms of celibacy. But its meaning can be much broader – moderation and continence in all things of the senses.

“One should maintain a balance in the normal behavioural pattern of emotion, consciousness or energy … [leading] to the expansions of our inner faculties. This leads to a developed awareness of the self, which is brahmacharya. Brahma means supreme, divine, higher, and Acharya means knower of, or master. The absolute meaning of brahmacharya is not sensual abstinence; rather it is the merger of the individual with the higher consciousness and constantly maintaining that identity. Sexual abstinence can be known as part of brahmacharya when evolved beings noted thatpassionless and desire free relationships with the opposite sex gave an insight into the transcendental awareness which is free of gross feelings. Therefore they said to abstain from animal passion so that the gross carnal desires evolve. Later in ignorance, man defined brahmacharya as total sensual and sexual abstinence to develop spiritual awareness.” ~ Paramahansa Niranjanananda, 1992

Like ahimsa, brahmacharya relates to the hard wiring in our nervous system at the base of the brain. Survival and reproductive function go together in the evolutionary process. Reproduction is essential to the survival of species and so it is no surprise that sexual experience is so compelling. Control of sexuality is a lifelong task and one takes it a step at a time within one’s capacity. For the renunciate it may be complete celibacy, but the recent controversies over sexual abuse in the churches indiate how difficult a vow that can be. For the householder it can be monogamy. The nearly 50% rates of divorce in our society, never mind the high incidence of marital infidelity, show that this is an equal challenge. But continence goes beyond into sensual control. This is the realm of addictions to drugs, alcohol, tobacco, gambling, etc. It is deeply rooted in attachment (raga) leading to addictive and compulsive behaviors in general: the workaholic, the information freak, the compulsion to play computer games, the shopaholic. The list goes on and on. Working with continence means overcoming not only the biological urges of sex and food but also the compulsion and obsession to reexperience pleasure in its broadest sense. One who masters brahmacharya gains strength, virility and capacity (virya). Its ultimate perfection is the power to place knowledge into disciples, to impart yoga-diksha. “It is not for nothing that celibacy is called ‘walking in God’ ” (Veda Bharati, 2001)

From The Yamas & Niyamas, Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice, by Deborah Adele

Whether we find ourselves overdoing food, work, exercise, or sleep, excess is often a result of forgetting the sacredness of life. The fourth jewel, Brahmacharya, literally means “walking with God”

and invites us into an awareness of the sacredness of all of life. This guideline is a call to leave greed and excess behind and walk in this world with wonder and awe, practicing nonexcess and attending to each moment as holy.

Brahmacharya has been interpreted by many to mean celibacy or abstinence. Although this could certainly be one form that Brahmacharya takes, its implications are much more broad. It does, however, imply dealing with the passion of our sexuality, as well as our other desires, in a manner that is sacred life-giving rather than excessive.

In yogic thought, there is a moment in time when we reach the perfect limit of what we are engaged in. If we take food for instance, we gain energy and vitality from the food we are eating – up to a point. If we continue to eat past that point, there is a downward turn into lethargy. If we eat slowly enough and pay attention, we can find this point that sits perfectly on the line of “just right.” It is this moment of “just enough” that we need to recognize. Past that point, we begin our descent into excess.

This same process is true for any activity that we are engaged in. Why do we move past the place of enough into excess? Yogic thought tells us it is because our mind begins to connect certain emotional states with certain foods or activities. There is a difference between say, the body’s need to satisfy thirst and the extravagant things the mind does with this simple desire. A desire that could easily be fulfilled with a glass of water somehow, in our mind’s convoluted way, gets hooked up with memories and conditioning tied to emotional satisfaction or emotional disturbance. When a certain emotional attachment is placed with a simple body need, we can find ourselves in trouble. Without realizing it, we have acquired an addiction-like need for repetition of the feelings associated with that thing.

My business partner and I went through a phase where we were drinking chai almost daily. We were working hard and having fun together, and the chai became both a reward and a treat for us. Our need was to satisfy our thirst, but the memory that began to take hold of both of us was that we needed the chai to satisfy us. And, with each chai, we expected to feel the same pleasure of companionship and the satisfaction of work well done. There is nothing wrong with drinking chai, in fact it is quite enjoyable, but we soon realized that we weren’t having the chai, the chai was having us. Now we had an addiction, not the simple need to satisfy thirst. Our minds had created the need for the feeling of reward, not to simply enjoy the pleasure of a chai.

As we begin to peel ourselves out of our web of excess, it is important to check in with the body’s needs and to get skilled at separating these bodily needs from the mind’s stories. Sometimes the need is to feel sadness. When this feeling comes upon us, the mind may trick us into thinking we need to do something or to eat something. I found this experience to be true for me when my mother died. While my mother was alive, one of our favorite things to do together was to stay up late into the night watching a movie and eating ice cream. After her death, I found myself “craving” late night movies and ice cream. When I checked in with my body, it was clear that I was tired and full. In truth, I was missing my mom and I needed to face the grief. To indulge in a movie and ice cream would have left me with excess weariness in my body and excess food in my stomach. And I would still be missing my mom. I needed to separate my mind’s story from my body’s need to simply let myself cry.

We are here on this world, in part, to feel enjoyment and pleasure. If we are in the pleasure and not the addiction, we are practicing Brahmacharya. If we are feeding our mental stories and have moved past bodily comfort, we are in addiction and out of harmony with this guideline. Nonexcess is not about nonenjoyment. It actually is about enjoyment and pleasure in its fullest experience. The questions before us are: Are you eating the food, or is the food eating you? Are you doing the activity, or is the activity doing you? Can you enjoy pleasure without excess? In answering these questions, we have to be able to discern between what the body needs in the moment and the story our mind is telling us. (I don’t know about you, but I have personally noticed that sugar, salt, and caffeine create more mind stories than lettuce does!)

We also must be fearless in facing our sadness, grief, and disappointments without needing to soothe them with food or sex. If we find ourselves living in the extremes of addiction, excess, and overindulgence in any place in our life, then fasting, celibacy, or abstinence can be very useful to bring us back to the fullness of pleasure. Fasting and celibacy are both strong practices to pull in the reins, find our center, and take stock of our lives. Going through times in our lives when abstinence or fasting is imposed on us, either through our own or our partner’s illness, can be times of great cleansing for us and lead to greater discernment of our tendencies towards excess and the stories the mind has made up about these tendencies.

Brahmacharya invites us to live with God, not excess. This guideline invites us into the sanctity of all life by seeing every relationship we have as a relationship with the Divine and by seeing every experience we have as an experience of the Divine. Can you honor all as shared? Can you honor yourself as sacred? If we stop and pause for a moment, we know that it is the simple things that stir our soul and bless us with happiness. The wind in the trees, the colors of the sky, the touch of a loved one, the delight of a child, a shared moment with a friend, can fill us to overflowing. This overflowing is expansive and humbling, much different than the satiation of excess.

If we stop and reflect on our lives or out in the world, we can see an innate intelligence about things. It is as if a beautiful tapestry is being woven and we are one of the colors of thread being moved by a needle held by something greater than we are. It is this greatness, the Master Weaver, which we seek to be in touch with. When we see with the eyes of mystery, we begin to see the sacred in the ordinary and the ordinary in the sacred. Every task becomes an opportunity to wonder and be amazed. Mending the split between what we see as important or not, and who we see as important or not, puts us on the path to cherishing all people and all tasks. Media, culture, even our own egos separate, divide and then rank. We are asked to bring it all together and cherish it all by seeing the thread of the divine at play.

Seeing with the eyes of holiness shifts how we act as well as how we see. There is an inbuilt need to pause and give thanks. There is an inbuilt need to open the heart in wonder. When gratitude and wonder sit in the heart, there is no need for excess. Seeing everything as holy brings a continuity to life; it grounds us in centeredness. Whereas excess overdoes us, overextends us, and takes us away from ourselves, seeing everything as sacred firmly roots us and balances us.

I have found that when the sense of wonder leaves me, when everything becomes dull and ordinary, it is because I have kept too fast a pace for too long. I have pushed past my own boundaries and now I am out of balance. It is time to rest. When I am rested, nothing is dull and ordinary; everything glows with mystery.

The Divine is so magnificent, weaving a design of intricacy and mastery in an extravagance beyond our understanding. Such magnificence deserves an audience to marvel and appreciate it. I think following this jewel is like being an audience for God and may mean shifting our days so we have more time to just watch and marvel. It may mean adding more ritual to our lives and a certain rhythm. We may shift some of our commitments so that we have the time to see and attend to mystery and holiness by lighting candles, saying prayers, massaging our feet, taking hikes, or rubbing our loved one’s back. Being an audience for God also means we have to get off center stage. We don’t need to be the center of attention and activity all the time. I think it might surprise us to realize how much crazy activity we create in our days just so we can feel important. We wear our busyness like a badge, like our busyness would somehow impress the rest of the world, or impress ourselves. How many of us go to bed with a sense of accomplishment because we checked a lot of things off our task list or someone told us how “great” we were, or we “helped” others? What if we walked off stage altogether and put God there instead. Maybe then we could go to sleep at night, not with a sense of accomplishment, but with a sense of wonder, because all day we had been an attentive audience to the divine play.

Brahmacharya reminds us that we aren’t embodied in this form to feel dead but to feel alive. We aren’t embodied to snuff out our vitality and passion through excess, but to bring it to full expression. Brahmacharya invites us to be willing to walk around “turned on” to the wonders of life itself. Howard Thurman understood the importance of our passion to the world when he said, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Ideas to consider around brahmacharya:

  • Practice pleasure without excess. Eat, work, and sleep to the point of increased energy and before the lethargy of excess sets in. Know what is enough and stop there.  
  • Contemplate your own divinity – are you willing to be sacred? 
  • Which practices connect you to your passion and your sacredness?? 
  • Watch your attachment to the object of your desires whether it be a sexual partner, food, drink, etc. What are your thoughts around it? How do you feel if you can’t have it? How do you feel if you do have it? Notice if your desires are controlling you.
  • Notice how much time you spend thinking or acting on your desires for your physical pleasures vs your spiritual progress or even spiritual pleasures.
  • Practice pleasure without excess. Eat, work, and sleep to the point of increased energy and before the lethargy of excess sets in. Know what is enough and stop there.  
  • See if you can create an environment where the desire for a specific sensual pleasure doesn’t even arise. For instance,you are so consumed and fulfilled by a great book that you never even think about snacking.
  • See the sacred in the ordinary and God in each person you encounter. Notice the beliefs or judgments that limit your ability to see God and experience God in all things. Then practice letting everything be a relationship with the Divine.


Session Three

Dear friends,

It was wonderful getting together a couple of weeks ago with so many of you! Thanks for joining us on this journey.

Here is a link to an hour-long Youtube video presented by Shri Rabindra Sahu of Ahymsin in which he speaks about the Yamas and Niyamas. Rabindra suggests that the Yamas point to living in such a way that we are not a burden to anyone, including nature. And the Niyamas serve as a guide so that our way of living and our habit patterns are not a burden for ourselves. 

At our April meeting we began our study of asteya, or non-stealing. Below are excerpts from some of the readings:

From The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Translation and Commentary by Sri Swami Satchidananda
Sutra 37: To one established in non-stealing, all wealth comes.

If we want to become the world’s richest people, this is a very simple way. There’s no need to get into the stock market or even to go to work. Just practice non-stealing. All of us are thieves. Knowingly and unknowingly, we steal things from nature. With every minute, with each breath, we pick nature’s pocket. Whose air do we breathe? It is nature’s. But that doesn’t mean we should stop breathing and die. Instead, we should receive each breath with reverence and use it to serve others; then we are not stealing. If we accept it and don’t give anything in return, we are thieves. We steal because of greed. We want to do little and get a lot. Many people go to the office and just sit around, use the phone to make their own appointments all day, take free supplies from the supply room, and accept their paycheck at the end of the week. Aren’t they stealing that money? Do we not also steal other people’s ideas?

If we are completely free from stealing and greed, contented with what we have, and if we keep serene minds, all wealth comes to us. If we do not run after it, before long it runs after us. If nature knows we aren’t greedy, she gains confidence in us, knowing we will never hold her for ourselves.

The richest person is the one with a cool mind, free of tension and anxiety. Changing all these world situations is not in our hands. We are not going to stop all these things. But what is in our hands is the ability to find joy and peace right here and now. If we live in the present, even though the whole world might blow up in a minute, it won’t bother us. We can be happy in situations of tension. If we have decided to be happy, nobody can make us unhappy. Anything might happen. An earthquake might decimate the entire world, but we need not bother about the future. Nor should we worry about the past. It has already gone. To be happy this minute is in our hands.

We are not going to change the whole world, but we can change ourselves and feel free as birds. We can be serene even in the midst of calamities and, by our serenity, make others more tranquil. Serenity is contagious. If we smile at someone, he or she will smile back. And a smile costs nothing. We should plague everyone with joy. If we are to die in a minute, why not die happily, laughing?

But a carefree life is possible only with a well-controlled mind, one that is free of anxiety, one without personal desires or possessions.

From Yoga Philosophy of Patañjali by Swami Hariharānanda Āranya
Sutra 37: When non-stealing is established all jewels present themselves.

On the establishment of non-stealing, e.e. non-covetousness, such look of indifference radiates from the devotee’s face that any being looking at him regards him as greatly trustworthy and donors consider themselves fortunate in being able to make a present to him of their best things. Thus, as the Yogin roams from place to place jewels (best of things) from different quarters reach him. Fascinated by the powers of the Yogin and considering him as a source of great consolation, the best among the conscious beings appear before him personally, while inanimate precious things are brought to him by donors. Jewel implies the best of every class (animate or inanimate).

From The Yoga Sūtras of Panañjali by Edwin Bryant
Sutra 37: When one is established in refrainment from stealing, all jewels manifest.

Established in nonstealing, a glow or detachment and indifference radiates from the face of the yogi. People are inspired by this to feel that this person is trustworthy and has absolute integrity; they thus feel honored to bestow their most valued things on such a yogi, confident that they will be put to the best possible selfless use. Hariharānanda takes ratna, jewel, to mean the best of every class of things. Thus, the pure-hearted yogi attracts the best of human beings and is offered the best of material things by those he or she inspires. R. S. Bhattacharya takes the jewels to refer to noble-hearted people as well as useful things. Thus, noble-hearted people approach the yogi who is firmly fixed in honesty with a view of acquiring divine wisdom; likewise, useful things are offered to the yogi in service.

From The Yoga Sūtras of Panañjali, Translation and Commentary by Baba Hari Dass
Sutra 37: On being firmly established in non-stealing, all kinds of wealth present themselves.

Not taking anything that doesn’t belong to you or that isn’t given to you is asteya. Non-stealing also includes all kinds of indirect and subtle forms of misappropriation, including taking credit for something you didn’t do or keeping a lost object without turning it into the authorities.

One cannot practice non-stealing without observing non-violence and truthfulness. Again, the practice is to examine one’s actions and motives, thoughts and words to see how stealing occurs in gross and subtle ways. Stealing in any form reinforces the undesirable tendencies of the mind that obstruct our spiritual development.

The desire for more and more leads to all forms of stealing. Taking anything that doesn’t belong to us is considered stealing. 

Through the practice of non-stealing, the desire to have more begins to subside and a person finds contentment with what they already possess. When a yogi develops a pure state of mind, he or she becomes desireless and unattached, and dwells in peace. Spiritually minded people get attracted to such a yogi like moths are attracted to a candle flame.

The phrase, “All kinds of wealth present themselves,” means that people who get attracted to such a yogi offer all kinds of jewels and wealth to show their respect and to express their love and devotion. Everything is available to that yogi, but the yogi remains unattached to everything.

How and why does this happen? The answer is that the yogi has become completely trustworthy. They are the perfect guardians of wealth and power because they don’t want anything for themselves. Others recognize this and donate their money in full confidence that the yogi will remain indifferent and unaffected by it, and they will use it for the good of the world. The irony is that wealth comes freely to one who doesn’t want it but is so hard to achieve for those who covet it.

From Lectures on Yoga by Swami Rama

Asteya, or non-stealing, includes refraining from misappropriation, accepting bribes and the like. The desire for what another owns can be very strong, for the mind, when possessed by it, is capable of little else. Such an attitude of mind is based on underlying feelings of inadequacy and jealousy, a sense of having been cheated and a desire for retribution. One is haunted by the thought that “someone else has what I need in order to feel complete and fulfilled.” But stealing an external object does not get rid of the basic sense of inadequacy, so one surreptitiously takes, again and again. Still, the underlying feelings remain. Cultivating asteya counteracts such attitudes. It helps to develop a sense of completeness and self-sufficiency and leads to freedom from the bondage of such cravings.

From Sadhana, the Path to Enlightenment by Swami Rama

Asteya, the third commitment, means “nonstealing.” Stealing is another habit that weakens you and cripples your personality. The legal definition of theft is: To take what belongs to someone else without that person’s permission. When you steal you are depriving someone of what is rightfully his. Self-awareness is always with us, but real awareness means to become aware that others also exist. As you respect your own existence, you have to respect the existence of others. All human beings have the same rights and you have no right to deprive anyone else of those rights.

Even if you are successful in stealing, you are hurting yourself. It is a bad habit to steal because it weakens your will power and conscience, and dissipates and distracts the mind. If you are truly honest you will never be attracted to another person’s possessions or wealth. Only a weak person can steal. To overcome this weakness you have to try to strengthen your willpower throughout your whole life.

If you have many things and someone steals all those things, even if you have nothing, still you are richer than the person who has stolen from you.

When you do something good, it comes from conscience. When you feel bad about yourself, you condemn yourself or you are weak, it is your mind that is responsible. Suppose you have a habit of doing something your conscience doesn’t approve of such as stealing. You can learn to control that. Sit down and have a dialogue with your mind: Okay mind, if you want to steal, go ahead, but I am not going to move my body; I am not going with you. Then mind is helpless. You are not telling the mind to do anything and you are not going against your mind; you are simply controlling your body and not allowing your legs to take you to the place where you can steal the desired object This is how to train your mind. If you repeat this every time mind wants to steal something, after some time you will find that mind will no longer be tempted, and your bad habit will be gone. When your mind realizes you are not going to do everything it dictates, then it will gradually come under your control. One who is conscientious will never steal. One who practices yoga knows it is harmful to steal because it weakens the willpower and distracts the mind.

From The Practice of the Yoga Sutra, Sadhana Pada, by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, PhD

For Patanjali the practice of non-stealing is a requirement of a yogic life. We begin by refraining from taking what is not ours. We refine the practice by not coveting things that are not ours. As our practice becomes even more refined, we become aware of the subtle dimensions of stealing. We realize that a materialistic approach to life, and excessive consumerism, have caused us to plunder resources that belong to future generations.

This realization takes our practice of non-stealing to a new height. Not only are we no longer wasteful, we invest time, energy, and resources in protecting and preserving the future of humankind and the planet. In the subtle realm of divine providence, nature appoints us as custodian of her bounty. As a result, nature’s wealth is drawn to us. Celestial bodies shower their blessings on the earth. Rain brings a good harvest; bees produce sweet and nutritious honey; soil exudes fertility; wild fires remain contained; human minds become clear and kind; and we find joy in living in a symbiotic relationship with every aspect of nature. For a self-aware yogi, nature’s bounty is a shining gem. When we are established in the principle of non-stealing, these gems are drawn to us and we ourselves are gems.

From The Yamas & Niyamas, Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice, by Deborah Adele

Nonstealing implies more than not taking what isn’t ours. It is an inherent understanding that from the moment we are born, we are in debt to this gift called life. The ancient Vedic scriptures speak of taking nothing without giving something back. Imagine what would happen if each time we took something, we gave something back. I don’t think the Vedic writings were talking about trash. They were speaking to an inherent sense of reciprocity.

Small children, as they reach a certain age, begin to want what the other one has. It doesn’t matter what it is, they want it. Looking at the state of the world, it seems many adults are still caught in the toddler stage of wanting what the other one has. The tenet of Asteya, or nonstealing, asks us to shift our focus from the other to ourselves. It asks us to get excited about the possibilities for our own life. When we attend to our own growth and learning in the area of our interests, we are engaged in the joy and challenge of building ourselves. From the fullness of our own talent and skill, we automatically serve the world rather than steal from it.

The Sanskrit word adikara means the right to know or the right to have. This word challenges us to the reality that if we want something, then we better grow the competency required to have it. We can dream and wish all we want, but we only get what we have the competence to have and keep. Anything else is stealing.

Think about people who win big bucks in the lottery and within a year are back to being broke. Or think of the CEOs who run companies into the ground because they don’t have the skill to manage a huge corporation. In both of these cases, these people are stealing; they are trying to have something beyond their competency. Our outcomes in life are consistent with our abilities, not necessarily our wishes or goals.

Asteya asks us to focus on our desires and then build the competency to have them. It leaves us with the question, “Are you available to what you want?”

Ideas to consider around asteya:

  • Notice when and how you steal from others through time, attention, “one-upmanship,” power, confidence, and not being able to celebrate others’ successes. Notice what is happening in you that prompts this stealing.
  • Notice where you are stealing from the earth and stealing from the future. Where are you taking without returning something of at least equal value?
  • Live as a visitor to this world, rather than an owner. Notice how much is available to you to use and enjoy without needing to own them (parks, libraries, concerts, sunsets, etc.).
  • Think about your dreams and goals and make a list of things to do/study/try that would increase your knowledge and competency and bring you closer to your goal, thus building your adikara.
  • Cultivate an attitude of stewardship in place of ownership – “I have been given this space to care for.”
  • Actively “pay it forward” for things you can repay – kindness, lessons, love.


Session Two

Dear friends,

It was wonderful to see so many of you at our second meeting. We shared some of our observations about ahimsa (or non-harming) through action, speech and thought.  According to Swami Rama in Lectures on Yoga, page 24, “Careful cultivation of ahimsa leads to a spontaneous, all-encompassing love. One begins to see the unity in all creation and thus progresses towards the goal of self realization.” This first Yama is at the heart of the other nine Yamas and Niyamas. 

We also shared readings about the second Yama — satya, or truth. Below are excerpts from some of the readings:

From The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Translation and Commentary by Sri Swami Satchidananda
Sutra 36: To one established in truthfulness, actions and their results become subservient.

With establishment in honesty, the state of fearlessness comes. We need not be afraid of anybody and can always lead an open life. When there are no lies, the entire life becomes an open book. But this comes only with an absolutely honest mind. When the mind becomes clear and serene, the true Self reflects without disfigurement, and we realize the Truth in its own original nature.

A vow of absolute honesty means we can no longer tell white lies either. If by being honest we will cause trouble, difficulty or harm to anyone, we should keep quiet. Instead of lying and saying things like “I don’t know,” we can be frank: “I know, but I don’t want to tell.”

From Sadhana, the Path to Enlightenment by Swami Rama

It will be difficult for you to practice truth if you do not know how to express and communicate love. You should speak only truth that is inseparably mingled with love. Truth that is harsh or hurtful is not needed. Suppose I see a blind man coming and I say, “Hey, you blind man. Cover over here.” That is apriya (hurtful or unloving). I am not lying, but that truth is crude and hurtful. Truth that hurts is not satya. Speak the truth, but that truth should be pleasant, not the bitter truth. Don’t speak what is not to be spoken or try to become a great teacher of truth by hurting people.

To practice truth means to speak what you know to be fact, to act in a way that you understand to be correct and to train your mind to follow a train of thought that is helpful for you. Satya means to be truthful to yourself and to others in thought, speech and action.

Don’t be dishonest. If you frequently lie, it becomes an unconscious habit that affects your personality and creates obstacles to your growth. Sometimes you lie because you are afraid of what will happen if you tell the truth. One lie leads to another, and soon deception becomes second nature, leading to a fearful and scheming mind. To avoid this, always stick to the facts. Be straight and gentle when you speak and then your speech will be effective. If you do not lie and your actions are truthful, you will stand as an example to others.

From The Yamas & Niyamas, Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice, by Deborah Adele

Truth has the power to right wrongs and end sorrows. It is fierce in its demands and magnanimous in its offerings. It invites us to places we rarely frequent and where we seldom know what the outcome will be. We may think that truth means simply not fibbing to our mom when she asks if we ate the forbidden cookie. But truth demands integrity in life and to our own self that is more than not telling a simple lie.

When we are real rather than nice, when we choose self-expression our self-indulgence, when we choose growth over the need to belong, and when we choose fluidity over rigidity, we begin to understand the deeper dynamics of truthfulness, and we begin to taste the freedom and goodness of this jewel.

Carl Jung writes, “A lie would make no sense unless the truth was felt to be dangerous.” Why do we lie? Are we afraid to hurt someone’s feelings or afraid if we told the truth we would not be liked or admired anymore? What is so dangerous in the moment about the truth that you are choosing to lie?

Questions to consider around satya:

  • What is the difference between “nice” and “real”? From whom or what do you seek approval? Does this affect whether you act from your “niceness” or your “realness”?
  • When do you tend to be inconsistent with your thoughts/feelings, words, and actions?
  • How do you feel after you have lied? How do you feel after you have told the truth, even when it was difficult?


Session One

Dear friends,

Thank you for joining us at our first Yamas and Niyamas practice group session last week. We are excited to be on this path with you!

First of all, please know that we welcome your suggestions! We are new to hosting meetings that are both virtual and in-person. We hope to create an environment where all feel free to share. We would appreciate any feedback about your experience either as an in-person or as a virtual participant.

This month we will be practicing ahimsa, which is nonviolence, or not causing pain. Causing pain can be even more harmful than killing. Swami Rama suggests first applying ahimsa to yourself by not hurting yourself in thought, speech or action. Next you can initiate the practice of ahimsa at home. The family is a training center for learning how to love others. If you fail to love your family, you will also fail in other relationships. 

Until our next session (Wednesday, March 29th), simply observe yourself. When are you being violent with yourself? With others? With the planet?

We would also like to share a few resources that might enrich your practice. 

Prayer for Harmony: 

Om saha nāv avatu, saha nau bhunaktu, saha vīryaṁ karavāvahai, tejasvi nāv adhītam astu, mā vidviṣāvahai. Om śāntiḥ śāntiḥ śāntiḥ.

Om. May It (Brahman) protect us both together. May It (Brahman) enjoy/ feed us both together. May we create spiritual power together. May what we have studied together be possessed of brilliance. May we not hate one another. Om, Peace, Peace, Peace. 

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Translation and Commentary by Sri Swami Satchidananda
Sadhana, the Path to Enlightenment by Swami Rama (available at our center)

Below is a tentative schedule for the rest of our meetings:  
Monday, September 11
Monday, October 23
Monday, November 27
Monday, December 18
Final meeting date to be determined

Please email us with any questions or suggestions.