The Yamas and Gossip: Ancient Advice For the Modern World

From sheer pants shockers to guru scandals, it seems like there’s no shortage of juicy topics in the yoga world. But when does sharing news become telling tales outside of class? Gossip has many forms, from idle (which celebrity was seen at what studio with whom) to malicious (damaging someone’s reputation or career). Viewed through the lens of the yamas, however, even idle gossip has consequences, harming the teller as much as the target.

The first yama, ahimsa (nonviolence), applies to actions, thoughts, and speech. Who hasn’t experienced the pain of sharp words? Most of us recall the playground taunt, “I’m rubber, you’re glue,” along with its grown-up equivalent, “What goes around comes around”, and the yoga corollary, “That’s karma, baby.” And even though gossip may seem victimless because it occurs on the sidelines rather than as a direct hit, isn’t it harmful to limit another person in any way?

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The relationship between satya (truthfulness) and gossip seems obvious. However, just because a story is true doesn’t mean that telling it isn’t gossiping. Truthfulness encompasses authenticity—being in alignment or being true to one’s self. There’s also a relationship between truth and trust. If the stories we tell behind someone’s back are different than what we say to them directly, are we trustworthy?

When we look for the root of asteya (non-stealing), we find that it’s a practice for working with feelings of envy—wanting something that someone else has. Think for a moment how much gossip is a result of envying another’s possessions, accomplishments, or talents…even her perfect handstand.

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Like asteya, aparigraha (non-possessiveness) is a means for countering feelings of lack, or of wanting something for ourselves. At the root of these feelings is a sense of competition or scarcity, the fear of not having or being enough. But using gossip to feel superior leads to greater isolation and poverty of spirit. We cultivate asteya and aparigraha and through generosity, by giving rather than taking or hoarding, and by connecting rather than competing.

Brahmacharya (continence) asks us to manage our energies and maintain an awareness of absolute truth and reality. This too can apply to speech. In a sense, gossip is another form of over-indulgence or poor impulse control which can lead to the intentional or unintentional spreading of misinformation. A practice of self-restraint can help us resist being drawn into idle chat. And it’s like Mom said, “If you can’t say anything good, say nothing at all.”

From yama to asana to meditation, all yoga practices share the aim of purification, helping us “clean up our act” so that we can uncover the true self. Shaucha (purity) is the foundation of a yogic lifestyle, encompassing not only our practices but also our choices in food, material possessions, friendships, and yes, even speech.

Pure speech is the opposite of gossip—motiveless, without a hidden agenda. If that seems too old-fashioned or high-minded, consider this: Social media and data-retrieval make us more connected and more transparent than ever before. Yoga philosophy may be centuries old, but it can help us navigate modern life.

Which of the yamas do you think is most relevant to gossip and social media?

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