The Ethical Foundations of Yoga

I have been practicing yoga for  fifteen years now.  Over that time I have learned about the ethical foundations of yoga.  The ethical state of humans is a matter that has been debated over millennia.  There are those who argue that it is an essential element of being human to behave ethically.  Those who take that view speak from the standpoint of what ought to be rather than what is.

Others say that ethics have no part in determining what it is to be human.  In Catch 22, Joseph Heller’s principal character Yossarian is proposing to go AWOL and says he would rather let some other person get killed flying dangerous missions.  The character to whom he is speaking took issue and said, “But what if everyone on our side felt that way?”  Yossarian replies, “Well then I’d certainly be a damned fool to feel any other way, wouldn’t I?”

Are We All Just In It For Ourselves?

Thomas Hobbes, a seventeenth century academic and philosopher, asserted that man’s life in a state of nature would be solitary, nasty, brutish and short as each person fought all others for access to scarce resources.  In such a state there would be neither morality nor immorality but rather an amoral state in which ethics had no part to play.

The idea that we are all just in this life for ourselves and have no obligation to observe any moral standards does not rest well with me.  I accept that morality shifts from one age to the next.  Our criminal codes have changed over time and our attitudes to punishment have changed too such that in our current world we view as cruel and barbaric the treatment meted out to people in former times.

In 1895 Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years hard labour, the maximum penalty (a century earlier the penalty was death), for gross indecency for having had sexual relations with other men.  The criminal law of England forbade the “love that dare not speak its name” yet there were inklings of a shift in public opinion against such a law.  In his first trial, Wilde was not convicted as one juror refused to participate in a verdict notwithstanding ample evidence that Wilde had, indeed, been involved in sexual relations with other men.  In his retrial, certain witnesses refused to identify Wilde whilst in other respects confirming the facts of the case against him.

Over the course of the intervening period there has been progress with respect to this area of morality.  Morality is a shifting ground.  But that does not mean that ethics are not a fundamental element of our make-up as humans. 

Ethical Behaviour in the Animal Kingdom

We see what appears to be ethical behaviour in the animal kingdom.  Dolphins, elephants, primates and some other mammals are known to demonstrate behaviour consistent with a moral awareness.  For example, a rat with the option of opening a box containing food or to open a box containing another rat emitting a distress sound, will choose to liberate the suffering animal.  Elephants show a reverence and respect for their dead, even engaging in some burial practices, that shows a sense of morality transcending a simple notion of survival of the fittest.

Virginia Morrell and Frans de Waal have both conducted scientific studies that point to moral sensibility in the animal kingdom.  Equally, there are those who assert that morality is uniquely human: Dr. Helene Guldberg for example.

I believe there is something, beyond mere socialisation or a desire to comply with criminal laws or a desire to escape punishment in the after-life, which motivates us towards ethical behaviour.  I believe that the development of some part of the mammalian brain has given certain members of the animal kingdom a sense of empathy and that this sense is critical to ethical responsibility.

Empathy and the Golden Rule

Empathy is the capacity to understand and share the feelings of another.  It is the capacity to comprehend what another person is experiencing.  If we can appreciate the emotional hurt experienced by another person who is marginalised or who is experiencing grief or whose self-esteem is attacked then that will encourage us to avoid behaviour that causes another person to have those experiences.

The Golden Rule, expressed as some variant of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, emanates, I believe, from this sense of empathy and forms the basis of ethical responsibility.

Ethics in Yoga Philosophy

Yogic philosophy comes from such a standpoint as well.  It is true that in the Bhagavad Gita the idea of karma is expressed.  In this context karma means that during one’s lifetime one attracts a colour or quality to one’s soul that survives death and determines into what condition we will be born in our next incarnation.  There is, therefore, the weight of the afterlife influencing our behaviour in this life.

In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, karma is referred to but not in the sense of a warning to behave well in this life lest you be punished in a subsequent life.  Rather, karma is referenced to explain that the true self has no karma.  Part of accessing one’s true self in this life is to free oneself from all karma.

The first two of the eight limbs of yoga described in the Sutras, the Yamas and the Niyamas, are devoted to ethical matters.  It is not for the benefit of our soul in future incarnations that we need to observe these ethical standards.  Instead, it is for the state of fulfilment as a being in this life that such morality must be observed.

The author(s) of the Sutras assert that without such ethical observance there will be no stilling of the disturbances or distractions of the mind that is the aim of yoga.  At some level, unethical behaviour will gnaw at our mind and prevent us from presence and contentment in ourselves in our circumstances, whatever they may be. 

Guilt – Conscience

Guilt and the prick of conscience are reminders to us of circumstances in which we have not behaved ethically.  I carry feelings of regret and shame for occasions when I have not observed the Golden Rule, when I have behaved unethically and when I have caused unhappiness to others.  When my family moved towns in my mid-teens I found it hard to work into established sets of friends.  I used the technique of picking on someone to get in with others to work into groups.  I was not conscious of what I was up to but I look back with great shame at the way I behaved.

I do not enjoy these feelings and I have no desire to be seen by others as someone who inflicts hurt or behaves with cruelty.  My past experiences are a guide to me to ever be better.

Utterly flawed as I am, I do not succeed as I would like in this endeavour.  Words come to me quickly and sometimes out-race my better judgment resulting in others feeling the callous edge of my words.  I wish it were not so.  Baron Baptiste uses the expression, “Don’t wish for it.  Work for it”.  I must work at being ethical and so must we all.


Trustworthiness is another ethical principle of relevance.  In the Sutras there is satya – honesty.  Be honest with oneself.  Be honest to others.  Make trustworthiness a feature of your being.

I know a yoga teacher who asked me to sponsor their immigration application to New Zealand.  I pointed out that, in their circumstances, that required them to have skills not attainable elsewhere in the country and that I needed their special skills in my studio.  I told them that I did not.  They suggested I could just say that I did and make up a pretend job description to fool the immigration authorities with.  No, I said.

Another person agreed to teach some cover classes for us one time and took the opportunity to teach a different style as a means of their own self-promotion for what they were doing outside of our studio.  Having agreed to teach a few of our classes in a style they were trained in, experienced in and quite capable of teaching they chose to do something different without clearing it with us or seeking permission.  They did so in an under-handed and untrustworthy way.

Make the ethics of integrity, honesty and trustworthiness your way.  The Sutras instruct us that these ethical values are a starting point to the clarity of mind and peace of being that is yoga.  It doesn’t matter if you are good at the poses or even that you can teach a decent class, if you are deceitful, dishonest or untrustworthy, it isn’t yoga.

Be present, come from a place of connection with others, from empathy, compassion and truth and live an ethical life.  By our example we influence those around us and build a culture of ethical responsibility.


Silhouette of a man figure meditating in the outdoors