Sunday, December 20, 2009

A ladder to something new

When I began writing this blog, I envisioned it beginning with this post. I wanted to start with the yamas and niyamas, the ethical teachings of yoga and the first two of the 8 limbs of yoga. I wanted to discuss how they could be useful to the legal profession. Instead, I went off on a tangent, which has been useful to me, and I hope, interesting to you. Well, the universe has intervened again. We are currently on break for two weeks from the yoga teacher training program, and our homework over break is to write about one of the yamas and niyamas each day and journal about how we could use them as themes for yoga classes. I will spare you from my postings each and every day for the next ten days, but I will write them, and they will be posted at a rate of probably two per week, and over the course of the next month, I hope you share your thoughts and ideas with me and each other.

So what are the yamas and niyamas? Well, the easiest and most relevant explanation is that they are like the yoga ten commandments. They help guide the yogis actions with himself and with the rest of the world. They guide the yogi practitioner on the spiritual path. Specifically, there are five yamas and five niyamas, and they are the first and second of the eight limbs of yoga. As reference, asana (postures)is the third limb and pranayama (breath work) is the fourth limb.

Lawyers also have a code of ethics, and it has always been the most difficult part of the law for me to reconcile with the rest of my life. First, when you start talking about lawyer ethics, the joke, of course, is that lawyers have no ethics. I am going to refrain from going down that path, but the perception exists, and I believe there is a reason it exists. By no means do I believe that lawyers have no ethics; I actually believe lawyers have wonderful ethics. That is, if those ethics are judged by the code. I see the Code of Ethics as a floor, not a ladder. (For you non-lawyers, a common legal argument is that something is a floor, not a ceiling). I say ladder here because that is exactly what the yamas and niyamas are. They are the ladder that begins the yogic path. They are the foundation, but they also travel along with the other limbs, providing guidance along the entire path, not just the baseline below which the yogi hopes to never fall.

By contrast, a lawyer can go an entire career without violating the code of ethics and be far from moral. Any ethics (sorry, Professional Responsibility) professor with whom I have spoken says that if you judge your actions by the Code, you miss the point. The Code, therefore, is a floor. It is the bare minimum by which you will not be disbarred. It does not create a higher path, a pursuit, a ladder to something greater. There are, however, many legal organizations that do strive for this higher goal. One of them, Phi Delta Phi, is known as the legal ethics fraternity. At one time, a majority of the United States Supreme Court were members. There are also the Inns of Court, a group of lawyers, judges, and often law professors and law students to discuss issues of professionalism and ethics in the profession. These organizations use the Code as a baseline and look for ways to be the best professionals, guided by something different than a Code. They create their own ladders.

I used to differentiate between ethics and morals in my head, saying that the Code of Ethics could keep you out of trouble, but morals should guide your actions - at least mine. I do not want to get into those semantics. If ethics is what you strive to achieve, that is great. But should it be a floor? Should you strive to walk the line as closely as possible? I would say that the vast majority of lawyers I know go far beyond this minimum. In fact, I can think of only one or two who walk that line with any regularity. But that is not the point. The point is that there is a difference between expecting the minimum from people and asking them to achieve their best. That is a semantics argument I am happy to make.

The following analogy may first appear to make no sense, but please bear with me.  When I lived in France, you had to buy your plastic bags at the grocery store. They cost between 3 and 5 cents - certainly did not break the bank - but I would rarely see people leave the grocery store with more than one plastic bag, and usually they brought their own. That was just the way it was. In the United States, you get 5 cents at many grocery stores (or the chance to win $25 at Trader Joe's), and I rarely see people take their own bags to places like Safeway, Albertson's and Fry's (Trader Joe's and other natural food stores are an exception, but for a different reason, I think.) The difference is the mentality between "saving" five cents or spending an extra five. Saving five cents is not much of an incentive. It takes a long time for that to add up to any "real" money, but they are not going to make me pay an extra five cents for a bag when it should be free! That's the difference between the floor and the ladder.
When you offer people a floor, what's the point of going higher? They must look externally for motivation and insight. When you offer people a ladder, promising spiritual enlightenment as the result, people act differently.  So, going back to basics on this blog, I am going to begin to explore that ladder.

Here is a taste of what is to come . . . a list of the yamas and niyamas:

Ahimsa - nonviolence
Satya - truthfulness
Asteya - not stealing
Brahmacharya - dedicated to the divinity of life
Aparigraha - non-grasping

Shaucha - purity
Tapas - burning enthusiasm (this could explain Spain)
Santosha - Contentment
Swadhyaya - self-study
Ishvarapranidhana - Celebration of the spiritual

Before I go, I would like to thank the universe and my yoga teachers for nudging me, through a homework assignment, to go back to where I always wanted to be.

Blessings and Namaste!

© Copyright 2009. Rebecca Stahl. All Rights Reserved.


  1. I like your grocery bag example. One other version: In Scotland, to use a shopping cart you have to depost a pound into a little machine that will then release the cart for you. You use it, and when you're done, you return the car and the machine releases the pound for you. So, you basically rent your cart. And lots are free from stray carts because people want to get their pound bag. Compared to US gorcery lots, where my car keeps getting dinged from carts that roll away from the where the previous user abandoned them ...

    So, while a bit tangential, I suppose that's an example of another "floor." Because other people leave their carts all astray, there is little expectation (or "ladder") that we should be any better. Or if you ARE better ... returning your cart to the proper place .... you begin to resent those who "get away with" NOT "climbing the ladder."

    Looking forward to more of your posts!

  2. Can you explain the difference between a yama and a niyama?

    (Also - my cousins put "namaste" on their holiday card this year and of course I thought of you :))