Yamas – Ethical Principles

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In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali laid out the Yamas, ethical disciplines, and Niyamas, personal disciplines or practices. Today we’ll cover, very briefly, the five yamas and consider their relevance to our leadership practice. (We’ll cover the niyamas on Thursday.) I would paraphrase today’s quote to reiterate, without ethical principles to govern our behavior, there is no success in leadership.

Ahimsa – non-violence. This is more complex than refraining from hitting someone. It includes refraining from violent/harmful speech and thoughts about ourselves as much as about others.  B.K.S. Iyengar says, “it is more than a negative command not to kill, for it has a wider positive meaning, love.”  As we all know there are many ways to harm others without physical violence and as leaders we have the power to harm the people we work with. We can harm others by our actions through our organizational systems. We can harm others by putting them in positions where they can not be successful. We can harm the people we work with by our manner, negative comments and the failure to give positive comments, or even the lack of attention to them and their work. Leadership by its nature puts us in the position to cause harm so the practice of ahimsa is a reminder to ‘do no harm.’

Satya – truth. In yoga philosophy, “truthfulness is the result of our mind, speech, and actions being unified.” (Idiot’s Guide) Have you ever had to give a deposition for a court case? It’s never any fun because it’s part of an adversarial process, but there’s one way to make it easier – tell the truth. When you have acted in accord with your highest principles, followed institutional rules, and done the best you can in difficult circumstances (they have to have been difficult or you probably wouldn’t be in court), the deposition is a lot less stressful, because you tell the truth. As a leader, there are often things you can’t share, but it’s okay to say so. Leaders who are consistent in word and action are trusted because they are practicing satya.

Asteya – non-stealing. Asteya “includes not only taking what belongs to another without permission, but also using something for a different purpose to that intended, or beyond the time permitted by the owner. It thus includes misappropriation, breach of trust, mismanagement, and misuse.” (B.K.S Iyengar) In the world of higher education, this includes plagiarism. In leadership, this also includes taking credit for someone else’s words or work. Asteya challenges leaders to honor the work of others in creating the elements of success.

Bramacharya – self-restraint/celibacy. “According to the dictionary, brahmacharya means the life of celibacy, religious study, and self-restraint.” (B.K.S. Iyengar) This yama points us toward a life of virtue – virtuous thought and behavior. Virtuous thoughts are filled with love and respect, rather than lust and selfishness. As a leader, I understand it as working to understand the larger purpose of the work we do (study). The concept of Bramacharya asks us take on the challenges and hardships of leadership and work toward the greater good rather than for our own benefit.

Aparigrapha – non-hoarding. “Accumulations, whether material things or unnecessary thoughts, tie you down to this world. Simplify your life as you simplify your thoughts.” “Greed can also surface in less obvious ways. Talking too much, interrupting others and dominating conversations while barely showing a flicker of interest in the participation of other’s comments are all ways greed creeps into our lives through language” (Idiot’s Guide) This last sentence relates directly to leadership. As leaders, it is all too easy to hoard attention. It is all too easy to become the only voice that matters in an organization rather than using silence to create space for others to engage fully. It is also easy to begin to feel that the perks and rewards that come to us are due us in some way instead of something to be shared.

Each of us has a code of ethics that governs our behavior. This particular set of principles may not resonate with you, but I find the yamas ask me to consider my actions as a person and as a leader in ways that are different from the formulations I grew up with. Working to understand them challenges my thinking and gives me new questions to ask myself. I hope you find this short summary interesting and useful.

Take care,



Budilovsky, J. & Adamson, E. (1998) The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Yoga. New York: Alpha Books.
Iyengar, B.K.S ( 1977). Light on Yoga. New York: Schocken Books.

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