The Ethical Code of Yoga

By Laura Hansen.

The code of yoga is codified in ancient Indian Scriptures called the Varaha Upanishads. The code includes correct actions or practices that lead to enlightenment. Patanjali, who summarized the Upanishads in 200 A.D., tells us that the practice of yoga has eight steps:

seated forward bend

  1. Yama – These are universal moral principles<
  2. Niyama – Personal moral principles
  3. Asana – physical postures
  4. Pranayama – control of breath
  5. Pratyahara – control over the senses
  6. Dharana – perceptual awareness and concentration
  7. Dhyana – meditation on the divine
  8. Samadhi – union with the divine/god

Prior to the practice of Asana, are the practices of the Yamas and Niyamas which serve as an ethical code and foundation for the practice of yoga. These are moral ideals to strive for and the idea is improve the practice of these disciplines. A perfect practice of the Yamas or Niyamas is divinity itself.

There are Five Universal Morals or Yamas:

  1. Compassion/Love: known as Ahimsa the practice of compassion for all living things including animals. Specific examples include a vegetarian diet, and not harming others by word, deed or thought.
  2. Truthfulness: honesty as well as being forthright in dealings with others. This includes avoiding gossip or slander.
  3. Generosity/Non-stealing: taking nothing that does not belong to you and/or not manipulating situations or people to get more of something than is your fair share.
  4. Chastity: some texts interpret this as celibacy, others stress the importance of an ethical sex life. Examples of an ethical sex life might include not being promiscuous, speaking and dressing modestly and avoiding pornography.
  5. Non-hoarding/not being materialistic: do not take more than you need and trust that the universe will provide for your needs as they arise.

There are Five Personal Practices or Niyamas:

  1. Purity or cleanliness of body and mind: keep the mind pure from negative thoughts, keep the body clean of toxic substances/practices, and maintain a clean environment.
  2. Contentment and gratitude: accept things as they are in this moment and be grateful for all that is good. Actively seek happiness and spread happiness to others.
  3. Wise direction of energy: use your own heat or energy to cleanse yourself. This may also include atonement for misdeeds or acts of sacrifice such as giving up material possessions.
  4. Self-reflection: work towards a more objective understanding of yourself and your thoughts.
  5. Spiritual reflection and celebration: surrender yourself happily to the divine.

There is a reason that the Yamas and Niyamas appear before Asana in the eight limbs of yoga. By practicing the yamas and niyamas we set the mind and body up for an improved asana practice. The yamas remind us not to harm ourselves and to honestly assess our abilities. The niyamas remind us to enjoy the practice and be grateful for what our bodies can accomplish. Practice with joy and gratitude.


Patanjali, Edited by Satchidananda, S. (1999). The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Buckingham, VA: Integral Yoga.

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