12/24/2012 03:31 pm ET Updated Feb 23, 2013

Killing People Is Wrong, Right? A Yoga Teacher's Answer

Contemplating the murders of children in Connecticut last week, many of us are asking what we would have done if we were there that day. Something I have been asking myself is what I would have done if I'd been there the day before. What if, on December 13, I knew what Adam Lanza would do on the 14th? What if I knew that killing him was the only way to stop the next day from happening the way it did? I know my answer. What would you do?

I teach yoga and I try to live my life guided by a very practical ancient resource called the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali -- a collection of 196 aphorisms that describe the human condition and how to make the most of it. I am drawn to Patanjali's little guidebook, in part, because it doesn't tell me exactly what to do with my life. There are no commandments. Instead, it's taught me the simple and difficult process of inquiry and reflection that I can use to decide which action to take at any one time. It's been a highly functional approach to my self-made, constantly evolving personal morality.

Within the framework is a list of ten behaviors, and, like the Old Testament's Ten Commandments, some of the behaviors are meant be avoided and some are meant to be cultivated. Where Moses' list describes specific things to do or to avoid, some metaphorical and some literal, these behaviors in the Sutras, called yamas and niyamas, are kept vague, thereby requiring a bit of work on the part of its adherents. Instead of telling you, down around number five, that "you shall not murder," Patanjali's code begins by saying, above all, to avoid causing unnecessary harm.

What designates harm? And when, if ever, do you believe it is necessary? While the definition of murder isn't exactly crystal clear, that which constitutes harm is even less definable. Most of us, at the end of any given day, would confidently tell ourselves that we've not committed murder today. But, how many of us can tell ourselves that we've avoided causing unnecessary harm? It's not so easy. You'd have to look closely and give it some thought. That's harder to do than following a simple black and white rule is. What it means to do the right thing is different for everybody.

The great mythologist Joseph Campbell taught that life can only be sustained by taking some other life. While we can specifically avoid homicide, eating animals and using glue mousetraps, there's simply no way for any one life to go on without interrupting another in some direct or indirect way. The sutras provide effective guideposts for this world because they accept that as a given: harm is unavoidable. The question is: how do we minimize it? Repeatedly asking and answering that question, and trying to live in alignment with the answers, is the primary challenge of crafting and adapting a personal moral code. And, although we don't always get it right, most of us unflappably do our bests over and over again.

Whether you practice yoga or not, it's nearly certain that you put the issue of murdering children very definitely in the category of avoidable harm. It's a moral no-brainer, right? It is less certain, but still likely, that you rate the killing of any human to be amoral. What if you had known, the day before he used his mother's guns, what Adam Lanza was going to do tomorrow? And what if the only way for you to stop him was to kill him? Is killing still wrong?

This may seem like an unnecessarily fantastical proposition, and maybe it is. After all, we never know what tomorrow will bring. But, there is opportunity here to clarify the complexity and nuance of appropriateness. We can use the question to illustrate one of the truths about the risks and rewards of a life guided by a self-made moral code, not always sure if you're going the right way. You are the judge and the jury every day, every time you take action. The hypothetical of deciding whether or not you'd have killed Adam Lanza last Thursday differs only in its starkness from the verdicts you hand down every day.

If I hypothetically knew last Thursday what was going to happen on Friday, I would have killed Adam Lanza, and it would have been an easy decision. And that's me being a yogi, not venturing from my moral path. I have no choice but to make a choice and that's the choice that works for me.

In that clarity, I presented the hypothetical to a friend, expecting that he'd choose the same course. But, he didn't. He said that killing people, no matter what, is wrong. He asked me if there were other options, whether there was a way to prevent the murders without committing one yourself. That wasn't an option in my survey of one, but he'd already shown me the truth: I couldn't fit him into my little ethical pigeonhole. He was working through it in his way, which is the only way he could. It's the only way any of us can. My friend sought to make his right choice, just as I had made an opposite, but equally correct moral decision.

As a yoga teacher, I am really never asked such dramatic questions as I've posed here, but I am asked almost daily some version of the question, "Which of these two is correct?" For example, students ask me all the time whether yoga practitioners are supposed to be vegetarian or whether the elbows should be straight in a certain yoga pose. My answer, invariably, to all of these questions is, "It depends". Yoga practitioners aren't supposed to be anything but human, living in a world of constant tough choices to make about when and how to cause or avoid harm. We all have to do that to stay alive.

Consciously choosing your best ethical path can be a lot of work, especially at first. At first, I didn't know why to be kind, let alone how to do it. But, then it started to get easier because it started to make sense. To paraphrase the sutras that deal with this -- a good way to know if your yoga practice is working is that you start to avoid causing unnecessary harm naturally because you start to know its origins and its effects. The things that injure become less attractive and fall away. The path that you fumbled hopefully along before becomes well-lit as you start to identify more with the inter-connectivity of all things. Until then we practice and sometimes fail, doing our best to do the right thing, then doing it again.

By encouraging my students to make their own inquiry and take action based on what they see, I am attempting to teach a skill that can work immediately and to great effect in the real world, whether choosing how to respond to a rude driver or how to prevent a tragedy. The code that is right for you may or may not be right for anybody else. You decide based on what you see and feel, as everybody else can only see their own path.