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Ethics and Yoga

As a yoga teacher and yoga therapist, I belong to several groups and professional organizations where I engage with other professionals to share insights and learn from each other.

In the past week, on 2 separate occasions in different groups, there was a call to create a "Code of Ethics" for our practice b/c of an unethical situation brought forward (each was different, and too elaborate to go into here). However, my thought in both circumstances was – Why do we need a new code of ethics? If one is indeed practicing “yoga”, there is already a 5,000 year old code of ethics set in place for us to follow. Yoga in the Western world has become more about the physical – stretching, strengthening, pain relief – and less multi-dimensional. However, yoga in its original intent is a spiritual practice. I have heard it said that, “Nobody ‘owns’ yoga.” However, my teacher, Dr. Ananda said, “We cannot take yoga out of the culture it comes from. The culture goes beyond all human-made divisions.” According to Patanjali, “There are 8 limbs of yoga: Yama (the laws of life), Niyama (the rules for living), Asana (the physical postures), Pranayama (the breathing exercises), Pratyahara (the retirement of the senses), Dharana (steadiness of mind) Dyhana (meditation), and Samadhi (the settled mind).”* Herein lies our “code of ethics”: “Yama - The laws of life are five: nonviolence, truthfulness, integrity, chastity, and nonattachment. Niyama – The rules for living are five: simplicity, contentment, purification, refinement, surrender to the Lord.”*

If a yogi, yogibhasi, yoga teacher, yoga therapist is practicing these first 2 limbs of yoga, then they are already following an ethical code.

It has been said that Ahimsa (non-violence) is first and foremost because all other laws stem from this. If you are living in a way as to not cause violence or harm to any other living creature or yourself – you are practicing yoga. Any other ethical code is redundant. However, Patanjali further elaborates, that in addition to non-harming, we should be truthful to ourselves and to others in our words, thoughts and actions (satya). We should have integrity and cultivate a balance of fairness in giving and receiving (asteya). As my teacher Joseph LePage describes in "Mudras for Transformation and Healing", “Non-stealing also encompasses our ecological “footprint” on the planet, reminding us to use natural resources consciously in order to maintain global balance and harmony. We should conserve our life energy and vitality, in part by cultivating healthy relationships (brahmacharya). We should release our attachment to greed in relation to material possessions but also release attachment to our limiting beliefs which can become obstacles to our awakening (aparigraha). Our culture is suffering right now from the disease of confirmation bias. Human beings are steeping themselves in that which reinforces their limiting beliefs instead of reaching out, opening up and listening to others who may have experienced life differently. This also leads to a feeling of "otherness" and superiority ("My beliefs are right and yours are wrong.", "I am saved and you are not"). When we practice aparigraha, we release our attachment to these limiting beliefs, hold life more lightly and live with greater freedom and ease. In addition to these laws for life, we are given by Patanjali "Rules for living" (Niyamas). We must purify our bodies, minds and hearts in order to create space to reveal our True Selves (shaucha). We should cultivate contentment in order to live joyfully and simply (santosha). We should be disciplined in our spiritual practices in order to progress and transform ourselves towards awakening (tapas). When one practices yoga – whether chanting mantras, controlling the breath through pranayama, moving through asana, or meditating – if your heart is not in it – if you are simply practicing in a monotonous way – you will not receive the benefits of the practice. You must be committed and dedicated to your own spiritual growth. In doing so, we cultivate “witness consciousness” (svadhyaya). Through the process of self-study, clarity and knowledge arise naturally, but we must be willing to step back and examine our thoughts and emotions with perspective. Studying the spiritual texts of Patanjali, the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita as well as other spiritual texts can help us on this path of exploration.

Finally, we must ultimately surrender to our Higher Selves – to God, Creator – to our own Divine presence and experience our inter-connectedness to all life (Ishavara Pranidhana).

If we are practicing these laws and rules for living, we are following an ethical path. In this way, Yoga provides us a map towards connecting with our Higher Selves and with all life on this planet. When we recognize the Divine in ourselves and in all of life, and live with deep gratitude and reverence, we experience life as a blessing.

In this way, the practice of Yoga provides an ethical path for living. *Translation of Sutras by Alistair Shearer

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