The Role of Meditation and Ethics in Yoga

Author: Augusta Lewis

Augusta Lewis

There are two seminal texts that inspire and influence our modern day interpretation of yoga in its ultimate sense. One is the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali, and the other is the Hatha Yoga Pradipika by Yogi Swartmarama. There are many other detailed texts on the ancient science of yoga; however the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (HYP) and Yoga Sutras (YS) are the best known. 

On the surface the two seem to have quite differing approaches, with the YSof Pantajali emphasizing emphatically the observance of yamas and niyamas, and the cultivation of sublime attitudes for the attainment of yog. On the other hand the HYP mentions these observances less and instead lays main emphasis on the control of prana through physical exercises of the body and the senses. It also talks about the science of awakening and moving and controlling the powerful awakened energy of kundalini, which is not mentioned at all in theYS.

However, it would be incorrect to conclude that these two texts talk of entirely different systems or paths. Infect, the HYP restates a number of times that its ultimate usage as a system for complete liberation lies within the greater framework of raja yoga (as expanded in the YS). For example, in verse two or HYP it is said that Yogi Swarmarama instructs the knowledge of Hatha Yoga only for (raja yoga) the highest state of yoga. Although, HYP and kundalini could be viewed as a complete path in itself, it could also be viewed as and in depth presentation of the two steps in Patanjali's eight-limb system or asana and pranayama. It is in this way that I will discuss its relevance in the framework of this essay.

Because of HYPs approach of first controlling the outgoing tendencies on a gross physical level it may be particularly suitable to introduce beginners to the science to yoga. It may be particularly suited to people of the modern world where the predominant prevailing culture is one of speed, consumerism and sensory gratification. Which is a misguided means to secure ultimate happiness. As Swami Muktabodhanda says "In hatha yoga the whole system has been designed for people of the kali Yug (P56, HYP). He likes trying to confront and control the mind like "running from clans of lions into a cage of lions". This is because for most, but certainly not all, the minds of modern people are too agitated to understand yamas and niyamas at anything but an intellectual level. At this level they could be distorted and misrepresented. Also, because Hatha Yoga at its higher level suggests that sensual involvement can actually be used on the path of yoga (specifically in regards to sexual involvement) it may appeal to modern people. However, there are still paths for lay-people in other traditions that emphasize ethics first, for example Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism (the latter also drawing inspiration from tantric sources).

Hatha Yoga may have a particular role in reducing and rebalancing particularly rajasic and tamasic tendencies, in which way it will gradually bring people towards the possibility of one-pointed meditation and the transformation which yoga presents as an opportunity. By controlling prana, increasing the mind-body communication, turning the mind inward and strengthening concentration, asana and pranayama are useful tools for preparing one to begin meditation, but and are also useful for supporting the stability and depth of those who already meditate. It would be a mistake, I feel, and an under estimation of modern humans, to assure that deep insight and realization cannot be obtained without first controlling the movement of prana through Hatha Yoga. There are millions of reasonably sattvic people who are able to immediately connect with meditation, and deep insight. Many of these people may have cultivated these circumstances through the creation of clarity through the practice of ethical activity, pure conduct, kindness  compassion and consideration for others. In other words they have good karma and little disturbance in the mind from negativity. Of course whilst still locked in the delusion of the separation of ego from the rest of existence there will be ignorant action, but they may be able to gain deep insight fairly easily. Some aspirants may have been practicing these types of selfless actions naturally with good motivation for the welfare of others in this and pervious life times and may be 'ripe' or , they may wish to understand the deeper dimensions of yoga and feel motivated to practice pure conduct as a means for removing obstacles.  Sutra 30, chapter 2 of YS states "non-violence, truth, honesty, sensual abstinence and non possessiveness" as means to remove ignorance. The YS also mentions the Brahma Vinaras of mudita, koruna, upeka and maitri. All these cultivations undercut the ego's tendency of self-grasping, which is based on ignorance of the true nature of reality. However as Swami Satyananda points out, if ethics and morality are practiced dualistically (i.e. good as opposed to bad, right as opposed to wrong, clean as opposed to dirty etc.) there is danger of division in the mind that may be acted out in the world. This kind of wrong understanding (which is based on separation of self and other  leads to more problems and suffering. 

Therefore, the practice of virtuous conduct, and its cultivation must be based on right understanding. This right understanding comes from the knowledge that action which is not virtuous is based on grasping at the illusion of a separate self. All the negative actions of body, speech and mind act as obscurations to ultimate truth that therefore must purify past negative actions through fractions and not repeat negative actions that create obscurations. In this way, concepts such as 'compassion' completely lose their sentimental connotations because they are closer approximations of ultimate reality (ie no separation between self and other on the ultimate level).

However, this is quite a long way away from peoples' initial motivations for joining an asana class. They may wish to achieve a firm bum and tum, or greater energy for carrying out their daily tasks, perhaps they have heard that yoga can bring peace of mind, or maybe they are looking to improve their physical health. Hatha yoga's system of asana and pranayama will provide these benefits as a by-product of its ultimate aim. HYP mentions these by-products quite extensively for example verse 47, chapter2 (HYP) notes "easing the apana upwards and bringing the prana down from the throat, the yogi becomes free from old age and appears as if sixteen years of age."

This may be very appealing to some, in this youth and beauty obsessed age. HYP expounds all these mundane benefits such as the decrease in diseases manifesting in the physical body, both HYP and the YS list siddhis that may develop through the course of practice. But Patanjali rightly warns that these should not be sought, and may serve as distractions on the path of yoga. To mention casually in a beginners class for example that, "Ahimsa means coming closer to pure spirit", (Swani Maktibadhanada (HYP, P57) may seem totally random and inappropriate for a person who has came to a yoga class to get fit. 

However, the practice of asana and pranayama does gradually begin to calm a person dawn over time by controlling the prana and turning the mind inwards. Therefore the system expounded in HYP offers a graduated evolutionary path accessible to all.  This begins at the level of body consciousness, a place where we can all start from. The HYP skillfully expands this graduated path first emphasizing the fullfilment of mundane/worldly accomplishments such as health andvitality and then it gradually introduces a transcendental dimension as it progresses through its chapters. The possibility of health, youthfulness, vitality and siddhis may offer an initial incentive to a practitioner, but in practicing a person begins to prepare themselves for higher levels of yoga knowingly or unknowingly. This is where retreats or time spent at an  ashram may be a good introduction to more comprehensive yogic practices  beyond asana. This may include an introduction to karma yoga, jnana yoga and a sattvic diet based on principles of ahimsa or non-violence. This may also be the time, now that an aspirant has shown sufficient interest and commitment to the path of yoga, to introduce the principles of ethics basic such as refraining from killing ¸lying, stealing, sexual conduct and taking intoxicants.

Meditation can also be introduced at this point. The teaching of ethics, a more detailed and abstract aspects of yoga can be introduced gradually through dharma talks. 

There is a danger that if the yogic path is not presented in its wider context of yamas and niymas that it could be misinterpreted and misused. 

Individuals may use tantric knowledge for power, prestige and personal gain if they are not also introduced to the notions of ethical observance and self-less service.

Hatha yoga pradipika itself in its sixteenth verse expounds the importance of "non-violence, truth, non-stealing, continence, forgiveness, endurance, compassion, humility, moderate diet and cleanliness" and  also talks about the futility of practicing hatha yoga if it is not in the context of raja yoga. In verse 79 of HYP chapter 3 it is said that "there are practitioners of hatha yoga who do not have the knowledge of Raja Yoga. I consider them as mere practitioners because they derive no fruits for their efforts". And, Raja Yoga cannot be achieved without the perfections of yamas and niyamas.

 The misuse of the knowledge of kundalini is particularly prevalent in the modern world, and should be prevented by a well-balance and integrated preservation of the science of yoga.

The misuse of the power of tantric knowledge is not a new phenomenon however. There was once a famous Tibetan yogi saint named Milerepa, who as a young man was deeply hurt and angered by some of the actions of his family members and community. He trained under a tantric master who taught him many powerful yogic techniques, but no yama or niyama training. Milerepa had vengeance on his mind, so used the techniques he had learnt to murder his family members and community. In a pitiful state of remorse he found his true teacher, Marpa. Under Marpa he endured countless trials and austerities to purify his heavy obscurations, until finally he uncovered his own inner purity, bodhicitta. Marpa taught Milerepa a complete path of yoga including compassion for other. MIlerepa become one of the great masters of the Kargu lineage in Tibet which exist to this day. So, it seems that yoga without virtue and pure ethics is like a car without a steering wheel. When the body and prana become disciplined, the mind is ready to be trained. Flexibility in the body is a metaphor for flexibility in the mind. 

Mind training is action/activity in line with the supreme goal. 

As Swamin Niranjananda Saraswati says" the yoga of Swami Sivananda is expressive yoga, and its main theme is service. When our life begins to express yoga, yoga no longer remains a one-hour practice to be done once a day. It becomes an attitude and awareness with which we live 24-hours a day."(Yoga Magazine Bihar School. Year 6, Issue 10)

In conclusion Yamas and Niyamas, Karma Yoga (selfless service) and compassion for all sentient in life, together constitute a part of a seamless system of ethics training which points to the truth. The mind training involved in the cultivation of virtuous qualities and their spontaneous action begin to express what Swami Sivananda described as 'a divine life'. 

Swami Sivananda also noted that "the first step on the spiritual path is selfless service of humanity [or any other life form]

. Selfless service elevates and makes you divine. Service purifies, redeems and energizes. To live life through service is to be intimate with life’s inner most secret. To serve humanity is to be in union with cosmic consciousness. Therefore selflessly serve humanity with sincerity and bhav" –Swamin Sivananda, 'Glorious vision'. P20.

Our true work as practitioners and teachers of yoga is to uncover our own divine nature, and help others to do the same.

"The views expressed are solely those of the author. may or may not agree with all statements. "

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