Ashtanga Yoga of Patanjali Explored – The Ethics of Yoga


The Yoga Sutras were written by Patanjali approximately 500 to 200 years B.C.  In the opening chant of Ashtanga Yoga we pay homage to Patanjali.   The Yoga Sutras are an excellent guide for anyone interested in delving deeper into yoga. Despite being written so long ago, they are very relevant to the modern day practitioner of yoga. Each time I have read them I have understood them on a different level as insights from my own practice and life help me to understand them more.


In The Yoga Sutras Patanjali defines the term Ashtanga.  Asha mean eight and anga mean limbs. The yoga sutras are     not specific to Ashtanga Yoga and are relevant to all that practice yoga and are interested in delving deeper.

The eight limbs are:


  1. Yama – ethical guidance concerning our dealings with society
  2. Niyama – ethical guidance concerning our dealings with ourselves
  3. Asana – the yoga postures
  4. Pranayama- breathing exercises, control of prana, our life force
  5. Pratyahra – sense withdrawal
  6. Dharana – a state of consciousness whereby the mind is directed to one point
  7. Dhyana – meditation
  8. Samadhi- a state of oneness


These eight limbs of Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga are not necessarily practiced in that order.  Usually practitioners of Hatha yoga, such as Pattabhi Jois’s Ashtanga yoga that I teach begin with asana, the physical postures.  Actually the other limbs are also practiced within  the physical yoga practice as we shall see when we explore them further.


This is a big topic and I would like to write a series of posts about Patanjali’s eight limbs in order to explore them in my own life and hopefully get some other people’s experiences.  I would like to begin with the Yama and Niyama.  In the next part I will discuss each of them in more depth, to begin with I will define each one.


The five yamas are:


  1. Ahimsa – non – violence
  2. Satya – truthfulness
  3. Asteya- not coveting others possessions
  4. Bramachamera – sexual restraint (not necessarily celebacy)
  5. Aparigraha- to not be greedy


The five Niyamas are:


  1. Sauca – cleanliness
  2. Samtosa – being content with what you have
  3. Tapas – keeping the body fit,  to create  heat in the body and thus cleanse it
  4. Svasdyaya – self inquiry
  5. Isvarapranidhana – surrender to god


Well my Sanskrit dictionary  just grew!  Most of these are self explanatory and are practiced by most people anyway.  By practised, I mean we know these are things we should do, I am sure we all find it challenging sometimes, I know I do. We all get things wrong some of the time!  However they are useful guidelines in which to reflect our choices.  As discussed in the previous post about why people practice yoga, often people begin practicing yoga for purely physical reasons and then find that they are inadvertently changing for the better.


I will discuss each yama and niyama in more depth in future posts.


Do you think these ethical guidlines are useful?

Do you think they are challenging?

About Helen Aldred

Helen Aldred practices and teaches ashtanga yoga in Liverpool. She loves to share and discuss yoga, as well as health and wellbeing. Follow her on twitter and join Ashtanga yoga Liverpool's Facebook community .


  1. I was just reading Donna Fahri’s book when I saw your blog post. She says that rather than a list of do’s and don’ts, these are actually “emphatic declarations of what we are when we are connected to our true nature”

    For example, if we understood that we really are all connected, it would seem obvious to us not to steal or to lie or to hurt others (e.g. through sexual misconduct etc.)

    I like the way she explains it. Her chapter ends with this:
    “we can regularly ask ourselves these questions: Who am I becoming through this practice? Am I becoming the world in which I wish to live?”

  2. Hi Lindsey,

    I love Donna Fahri’s take on it too. She has a wonderful way with words. Thanks for sharing. I love the “Am I becoming the world I wish to live?” One of my favourite quotes is “be the change you want to see in the world” Gandhi

  3. I see a lot of overlap (as Lindsey hints, how is Bramachamera not covered by Yama and Niyama? Samtosa, Asteya & Aparigraha are all sending the same basic first message, at my (almost first) reading).

    I also suspect that there’s a lot of atheist and agnostic discussion of Isvarapranidhana, much as there is in 12 step groups (where they use the term as ‘higher power’ and people can attribute it to anything).

    I’m also struck for the first time by the inevitable overlap with the Jewish/Christian (and probably Muslim) commandments – though shall not covet, though shall not lie etc.

  4. Hi Ragdoll,

    Thanks for your comment. Some great questions and points. I think there is always overlap. I started to write about Isvarapranidhana as surrender to god is not how I practice it, but this is a big topic. I decided to not go into anything in any depth in this first post but to focus on defining and introducing the terms for those unfamiliar. Thanks both of of you for sharing your thoughts I will endeavour to address them in future posts.

  5. Ronnie Mukherjee says

    I struggle with some of the implications of this kind of philosophy, e.g. no alcohol!

  6. Hi Ronnie,

    I do find some of these challenging as I will discuss when I write about this in more depth. It is interesting that you feel there would be no alcohol allowed. Although I personally don’t drink I can’t understand which yama or niyama suggests that is necessary.

  7. Ronnie Mukherjee says

    My mistake helen, I think i was confusing these with the Buddhist precepts.

  8. Hello,
    In response to the “Jewish/Christian/Muslim commandments” comment. The commandments are not technically a part of Islamic doctrine as they do not share the same texts (Torah) and they have their own set of do’s and don’ts in accordance to which school of Shari’ah they belong (which historically is geographic) along with different interpretation of Qur’an and Hadith. Also, be wary of using the Abrahamic faiths in comparison to Indian Traditions as they are immensely different and supposed similarities are massively nuanced. The difference in worldview (linear rather that cyclic) means that their eshcatological beliefs are literally polar opposites which explains the differences in ethics and worldview. (Sorry for the essay, not quite finished yet ;P).
    In regards to Isvarapranidhana, Hinduism (blurgh, I hate using that term, technically a geographic label referring to people who live below the river Indus, not a religion per se)) but for the sake of my point it will suffice. Hindu’s believe that “God” (Brahman) is the ultimate reality of being, Brahman is Being itself, absolute truth, not bound my contingency, is permanent and perfect (essentially, all language is flawed thus does not do any justice to describing such a reality). This brings into question the point of worshiping (or showing reverence to) a lesser deity. So, is this “surrender” to Brahman as supreme Godhead or to the deity worship which you may (or may not) already belong to? And if this surrender is to this ultimate reality, how do we, through yoga, conceive of surrendering to such a concept?
    I find these guidelines to be utopian and not applicable to a huge demographic. Social conditions can and do make certain practices impossible or difficult. Consider the violence inherent in western society (not necessarily physical), to find a way for this to compatible with the practice of Ahimsa would be problematic. Also, thanks to our capitalist society, Aparigraha is also problematic. Greed is the building block of capitalism. Avoiding such a thing is near enough impossible now. How is it possible to completely boycott this?
    I’m done now, well, for a bit anyway.
    Apologies for the rambling.
    H 🙂 x <3

  9. Aha, Ronnie now I understand.

    Helen, thanks for your comment. As you are studying this subject, your comments are interesting and shed further light on this topic.

    I am not going to go into to much depth in my response as I will do so in further posts. This is a big topic and it’s nice to see so much interest. My first post was only meant to introduce the vocabulary for those unfamiliar.

    I think it’s interesting that most religions have some sort of ethical guidelines brought into them. Although the knowledge of comparing them is beyond me. I notice that the yamas and the niyamas are some of the ones used in Hinduism. Obviously yoga philosophy is influenced by Hinduism as it is from India. However, yoga is not Hinduism and you do not have to be a Hindu to do yoga. You can come from any religion or none. Yoga does have a philosophy however which may not be compatible with certain belief systems. I think in that case it is fine to practice it and take whatever benefit you get.

    I am not sure what do you mean by the violence inherent in Western society.

    There may be all sorts of reasons for not being able to practice the Yamas and Niyamas but does that mean we can’t practice them at all? My aim is to practice them as much as I can as I find them all useful.

  10. Hello 🙂
    Western society (I can only speak of this as it’s the only one I live in) is a constant bombardment of opinion, media influence, objectification, victim blame, persecution, oppression etc etc. The list is endless. I think (or like to think) that it may be possible through awareness of this and ones own involvement /non-involvement to transcend this corruption esoterically in some cases, though nothing exists in a vacuum. Admittedly, this is a contentious and difficult subject.

    Yoga, I think, heightens physical, emotional and intellectual self awareness. Through this awareness, is it possible to find a place within our own lives to practice these ethical guidelines in accordance to a personal “aim”? I’d say that there is no reason why not as long as we are aware of our privileges and constraints. A remarkable example of this is Rabi’a al-Adawiyya, one of my favorite mystics of the Sufi tradition, she transcended social constraints and eventually duality itself through her absolute devotion to her aim, divine union with her beloved Allah.

    With many practices, through diaspora and what are considered by sociologists as “new age” practices , I agree that people do not have to subscribe to any dogmatic system of beliefs to benefit from these ancient rituals. (See Grace Davie and Steve Bruce for a secularisation debate).

    I find religious ethics to be a ground of contention between the powerful and the oppressed in many instances. See Manu for vile misogyny. It is grim. The Bible, Torah and Qur’an also contain some horrific misogyny under the guise of religious ethics. It is never as cut and dry as “though shalt not kill”. I think we may have opened a can of worms on this one. When I get some time I’ll do some research 🙂

    Last question (for now at least :P), given that yoga can be practiced outside of religion, how can an atheist/agnostic practice Isvarapranidhana?

    I’m really looking forward to reading your future blogs on this subject. Fascinating stuff for a geek like me! 😀

  11. Hi Helen, I started writing about Isvarapranidha within the context of this post and decided it deserved a blog post of it’s own. Glad you are enjoying the blog.

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