The Ethical Code of Yoga

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

by Shahrean Merican

“If you do not know the laws of right conduct, you cannot form your character.”

-Swami Sivananda-

Most Yoga classes are divided into 3 categories; Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced. Depending on your level of ability and what you are looking for, you will be allocated to either of these groups. Generally, our aim is to progress to the advanced level. We strive to perfect our postures, regulate our breathing and master our minds. While this is a great achievement, more often than not, we overlook the most important requirement of Yoga: our moral foundations.

Unfortunately, I have come across many ‘advanced’ Yoga practitioners who lack the basics of moral behavior. What use is breathing and meditating, if you still harbor jealousy, hatred and anger? You can spend hours a day practicing Yoga, but if you don’t cultivate good values, your practice is futile. In the end, the only thing that gets strengthened is your ego. This is the reason why all authoritative Yoga scriptures lay emphasis on practicing right conduct at all times. It is a prerequisite to practicing Yoga.

Yoga is actually a step-by-step process whereby each progression has a sequential relationship with the other. Postures (Asana), as we predominantly know to be Yoga, make up only a small component of the whole process. If you have read our previous posts on Gheranda Samhita, you will see that Sage Gheranda had prescribed 7 stages by which a person attains perfection in Yoga. Other scriptures such as Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras describe 8 steps and Hatha Yoga Pradipika has 4 steps. While each authority has different stages, they collectively emphasize that to achieve any success in Yoga, right conduct in thoughts, words and actions is necessary.

It is important to note that the Gheranda Samhita does not describe these moral behaviors because it was assumed Yoga was practiced under the guidance of a Guru who ensured these values were constantly cultivated. This is, however, not the case in modern Yoga. Therefore, it is important for all practitioners to know what these ethical guidelines are and to be mindful of this in their practice and daily life. For this purpose, I will highlight the moral precepts from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras that is clearly described in the first two stages of Yama and Niyama.


Ahimsa (harmlessness) – We are to cause no harm or show cruelty to any person or creature. It is expected that we adopt a considerate attitude towards others and our surroundings.

Satya (truthfulness) – Speak the truth at all times. This also means we are to avoid exaggeration, pretence and anything that involves saying or doing things which we know is not in accordance with the truth.

Asteya (abstaining from stealing) – Do not take anything that does not belong to you, not only in terms of material things but this applies for anything intangible such as taking credit for something you didn’t do.

Brahmacarya (control of sexual desires) – Whether we care to admit it, we live in a society where ‘sex sells’. The media thrives on this. We find ourselves constantly subjected to impure thoughts, lustful desires and sensual pleasures. Promiscuity has become the norm. Hence, we need to have control over sensual desires.

Aparigraha (non-possessiveness) – We work hard so we can accumulate worldly goods and once acquired, we seek more. We are never happy. Aparigraha simply put means: do not be greedy and take only what is necessary.


Sauca (cleanliness) – It is purification of the body and mind. This also applies to cleanliness of thoughts, words and actions.

Samtosa (contentment) – Be grateful for what you have. Understand that everything happens for a reason and do not brood over the things you did/have not attained.

Tapas (purification) – This term has really no exact English equivalent. It stands for various practices to purify and discipline the body and mind. This would be practices such as Yogic purification that is described in the Gheranda Samhita Part 1 post.

Svadhyaya (inquiry/contemplation) – Svadhyaya is about knowledge. We are encouraged to read the Yogic scriptures and familiarize ourselves with the different aspects of Yoga. Apart from reading literature, we need to practice self-examination to gain understanding of the self.

Isvarapranidhana (surrender) – It is about surrendering to God, The Divine or a Higher Purpose. We are to put our faith and trust in the higher power (this is subject to one's own religious beliefs).

There are many opinions and views on the practicality of Yama and Niyama in our modern life. Some might say that you will need to lie or cause harm if it means your life is in danger or to protect someone you love. Each situation in our lives is unique and there is no hard and fast rule that can be applied to all situations. Be guided by your instinct and intellect. As your moral foundations strengthen, you will develop the wisdom to know when something feels right or wrong.


Anonymous said...

Very well written. There is so much focus on Yoga as a physical exercise. This is a great article to show that Yoga is more than just being able to stand on your head!

Yoga Teacher Training said...

Good explined what is the basic purpose of yoga since yoga is devlops phsical value to human kind but also a moral value like respect to others, be faithful and various more.

Anonymous said...

It is interesting to note that there is an ethical code to Yoga. Although I have deep respect for the code you have written about, what if a person just wants to practice Yoga for the physical benefits only? Does it mean that that person will not enjoy maximum benefit without practicing the code?

Shahrean Merican said...

You can definitely achieve great benefits by practicing only the physical aspect of Yoga. This code of ethics mostly applies to practitioners who wish to take their practice to the next level focusing on higher aspects to strengthen the mind. That is the beauty of Yoga: it can benefit you in more ways than one. In saying this, I think it is still important for all of us, even if we don’t practice Yoga, to cultivate good values. It is the only way we can function as a society and make a difference in the world.

Honey said...

How beautifully you described The Ethical code of Yoga. The basic moral behavior of yoga classes is most important thing. I am also a yoga teacher trainer but never pondered about it. Really a good work you did.


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