Spirituality and Morality in Yoga

By Nancy Ηitzanidou

In this essay, we aim at investigating the relationship of Yoga with Spirituality and Morality; the place held by Spirituality and Morality in the yogic theory and practice, as well as the relationship between these two.

We may say that Yoga is, essentially, spirituality. All branches and schools of Yoga share the common conviction that there is a supreme Reality, a Transcendental Self, whose essence is spirit, and which lies in the core of our being. The ultimate goal of yogic practice, generally called Liberation or Mokṣa, although slightly varying from school to school, is, in the renowned Yoga Philosophy and Tradition scholar Georg Feuerstein’s, words: “the continuous ecstatic enjoyment of the transcendental Self […] Liberation is a way of being in the world, without being of it.”[1]

According to the non-dualist Schools, like those of Vedanta and Tantra, that Reality, either called Brahman or Śiva, or more generally, the Absolute, the Divine, the Spirit, or God, is the single ground of all Existence, from which everything  arises –from the subtler to the grosser. In the course of the practice, we gradually come to realize and manifest the truth that we are this interconnected, infinite, undivided Whole we perceive inside us and around us.  In the words of one of the foremost Indian philosophers and spiritual leaders of the twentieth century, Sri Aurobindo:

“To find the Divine is indeed the first reason for seeking the spiritual Truth and the spiritual life; it is the one thing indispensable, and all the rest is nothing without it.”[2]

But also in the dualist Schools, like Pātanjala Yoga, the goal of the practice is defined as one’s establishment in the realization that essentially we are Puruṣa, sheer awareness, only temporarily connecting with nature, Prakṛti, in order to draw experiences and liberation (bhoga/apavargaYoga Sūtra 2.18). Yoga is therefore a spiritual practice, and its goal, Kaivalya (literally “aloneness”), or Liberation, is the definite realization that our innermost nature is Spirit.

Scholar Ian Whicher states: “Kaivalya can be seen as a state in which all the obstacles preventing an immanent and purified relationship of person and spirit (puruṣa) have been removed.”[3]

Yet, as Yoga might be described as a highly practical science –a Science of the Self–  the equation of our Inner Self with Spirit is not considered an axiom, but rather as a realization that comes along with practice. As one proceeds sincerely in the yogic path, this truth, gradually, becomes obvious.

The practice of Yoga begins, thus, with this seemingly paradox –the first in a line of many: We practice in order to realize what we already are; in our practice, we proceed toward bridging this infinite gap between Being and Becoming, which was cleaved since time immemorial, at the moment of Creation.

Therefore, sādhana, the practice, constitutes a path that has to be traversed by the aspirant, from an ordinary, secular life and attitude, toward those of an enlightened being. This path is treated diversely in the various branches and schools of Yoga, and this is, potentially, where morality comes into play. Indeed, most schools of Yoga define a context for the practitioner’s ordinary life, and this context, almost unanimously, includes specific moral principles. The role of morality, in this case, is to pave the path between a human’s ordinary life –more or less ruled by desires, expectations, pleasure and pain, anger or greed –in one word: suffering–  and the integrative actualization that in truth we are eternal, immortal, blissful Spirit.

Morality, and its theory, Ethics, is a topic long elaborated in the course of human history, from the viewpoint of Philosophy as well as of Religion. As stated by Georg Feuerstein, the major current “schools” of ethics can be summarized as moral realism, moral relativism, and moral nihilism[4]. Of these three, although moral realism (which upholds that there are “objective” rules about what a moral person ought or ought not to do) seems, maybe, the most attractive approach, one cannot altogether deny that moral rules are closely relative to the time and culture in which they are applied. For example, slavery, which is (at least in theory) highly objectionable today, used to be the status quo of many ancient cultures. It is this relativity that impelled Sri Aurobindo to write:

“Morality is a part of the ordinary life; it is an attempt to govern the outward conduct by certain mental rules or to form the character by these rules in the image of a certain mental ideal. The spiritual life goes beyond the mind; it enters into the deeper consciousness of the Spirit and acts out of the truth of the Spirit. As for the question about the ethical life and the need to realize God, it depends on what is meant by fulfillment of the objects of life. If an entry into the spiritual consciousness is part of it, then mere morality will not give it to you.”[5]

And later on:

“The principle of life which I seek to establish is spiritual. Morality is a question of man’s mind and vital, it belongs to a lower plane of consciousness. A spiritual life therefore cannot be founded on a moral basis, it must be founded on a spiritual basis. This does not mean that the spiritual man must be immoral – as if there were no other law of conduct than the moral. The law of action of the spiritual consciousness is higher, not lower than the moral – it is founded on union with the Divine and living in the Divine Consciousness and its action is founded on obedience to the Divine Will.”[6]

We will therefore deal here, strictly with “Yoga Morality” (instead of conventional one), or in other words, we will investigate the concept of moral principles and morality in two of the most representative and influential yogic texts: The Bhagavad Gītā and the Yoga Sūtra of Patañjali.

Bhagavad Gītā: The concept of dharma

It is often said that the beginning word of a sacred text is of special importance. This is obviously the case of one of the most rich in spiritual teachings, and most cherished scriptures worldwide, the Bhagavad Gītā: It begins with the word dharma:

dharma-kṣhetre kuru-kṣhetre samavetā yuyutsavaḥ…”  (In the field of Dharma, in Kurukshetra, they have assembled, desirous of battle…’ )

In the yogic tradition, the closest term to Morality, is dharma. However, dharma is much more than just moral principles. Originating from the verbal root “dhṛ”  (literally: to support), it may be defined as the eternal law governing, upholding, and supporting the creation and the world order, but most of all, the realm of humans. It also means “way of life”, “duty”, “righteousness”, “virtue”, “nature”, “the Way”, “religion”, and “spiritual truth”. Already in the Atharva-Veda (12.1.17) , it is stated: “pṛthvīṁ dharmaṇa dhṛtam” – ‘the Earth is sustained by dharma.In its meaning as “truth”, dharma is often  –since the time of the Rig-Veda –  used synonymously with ṛta, a notion of utter importance, especially in vedic times. Ṛta means also “truth”, but it mostly denotes the cosmic law, the universal order and harmony, the infinitely subtle and wise order of the world, to which everything obeys. However, this harmony occurs rather spontaneously in the realm of nature: the circle of life on earth, the annual cycle of seasons, the orbits of the planets. On the contrary, dharma is the cosmic law specifically applied in the human realm, namely in mind and deed. As Georg Feuerstein tells us: “The cosmic order (ṛta) is dharma at the level of the macrocosm, while dharma can be considered to be a microcosmic manifestation of the macrocosmic harmony.”[7] Unlike the natural procedures, however, man is (at least theoretically) free to follow his dharma. Thus, dharma introduces the concept of free will: Complying to it, must be one’s conscious choice. One may or may not conform to his dharma, in which case he must suffer the negative consequences of karma. In the Bhagavad Gītā, Lord Krishna –in a sense, the embodiment of dharma– warns Arjuna thus:

“Remembering me, you shall overcome all difficulties through my grace. But if you will not heed me in your self-will, nothing will avail you.

If you egotistically say ‘I will not fight this battle’, your resolve will be useless; your own nature will draw you into it. Your own karma born of your own nature, will drive you to do even that which you do not wish to do, because of your delusion.”[8]

Beyond ṛta and dharma, lies satya, Universal Truth, often used synonymously with ṛta in the Vedas. Satya (from Sat – the Existent), originates from the Spiritual plane, pervading all three worlds –the realms of nature, man, and spirit. It is the one  law that governs universally.  Satyam eva jayate, nanṛtam” – ‘Truth alone triumphs, not the untrue’ preaches the Mundaka Upanishad (III.1.6).

Therefore, in between satya, Universal Truth, and ṛta, cosmic order and harmony, stands dharma, morality and righteousness, addressing to mankind. Man has a choice, and by consciously choosing to walk the way of dharma, he becomes the bridge which connects the world of matter with that of spirit. This also explains the use of the word “dharma” in the sense of  “the Way”. “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me”, says Jesus Christ (John, 14.6). In the Bhagavad Gītā, Lord Krishna says:

“Whenever dharma declines and the purpose of life is forgotten, I manifest myself on earth. I am born in every age to protect the good, to destroy evil, and to reestablish dharma.”[9]

It becomes evident that dharma is no man-made law; it is one of divine origin, addressed to mankind. Its lofty teachings constantly impel man to transcend himself, fostering inner evolution and purification.

Self-transcendence is also the innermost essence of vedic sacrifice. In his book “Yoga Morality”, Georg Feuerstein shows the close relationship of the word yajña –the sanskrit term for sacrifice– with the word yoga; and he goes on stating: Thus Yoga can be succinctly defined as the discipline of self-sacrifice / self-surrender, which in more contemporary terms would be self-transcendence; that is, the transcendence of the illusion of being a limited body-mind-personality.” [10]

Indeed, sacrifice means to give up the lower for the sake of the highest. In the actual ritual offerings of the vedic times, people offered flowers, seeds and clarified butter (ghee / ghṛta) to the gods, hoping at receiving in return, good fortune and health. In their inner-sacrifice, the upanishadic sages offered their breath and mind during the process of meditation, aspiring to Liberation and Enlightenment. In the process of constant self-transcendence, the practitioner sacrifices the notion of the finite personality, in order to reach Oneness, the enlightened state.

Normally, the natural tendency of every particular system in time is to decline. In physics, this principle is known as  “the law of Entropy”: “For an isolated system, the natural course of events takes the system to a more disordered (higher entropy) state.” The only way for us to go against decay, is to constantly strive toward self-transcendence, therefore, to follow our dharma. This leads to a “less disordered” emotional and mental state; we preserve inner harmony and order, which is also reflected to the “outer” world. In other words, we contribute in preserving ṛta. Observing our dharma, our personal, individual law, directly aligns us with ṛta, cosmic harmony, as well as with satya, the universal law of Truth and Existence.

Therefore, dharma, and mostly, sva-dharma –one’s personal duty– provides the context within which an aspirant must lead his life. Of the four puruṣārtha, the four aims of life in the vedic tradition, dharma is –not accidentally– the first mentioned, shaping the other three (artha–wealth,  kāma–pleasure,  and mokṣa–liberation).

For the aspirants of yore, sva-dharma was probably well-defined, shaped by a person’s social estate (varṇa), or stage of life (āśrama). For the contemporary practitioner, however, the question may reasonably emerge: “What is my sva-dharma? What would be the optimum path to walk, in order to lead a moral life?”

An answer to these questions has promptly been given, almost two millennia ago, by a mysterious sage called Patañjali. Next to nothing is known of this adept, yet from his seminal work, the Yoga-Sūtra, he seems to have been an intellectual and spiritual genius, as well as a knower in depth of the functions of both the conscious and the unconscious  mind.

Patañjali Yoga-Sūtra: Yama

In the second chapter of the Yoga-Sūtra, Sādhana Pāda – “Chapter on the Practice”, Patañjali introduces the famous eight-limbed path toward Self-Realization,  Aṣṭāṅga-Yoga, whose first step is yama. Yama, literally “control”, are five ethical restraints, designed to clarify one’s relationship with the “outer” world. In other words, as  most often said, they are “Patañjali’s five moral rules”.

 Or, maybe, are they much more than that? Yoga Sūtra 2.31 states:

jāti-deśa-kāla-samayānavacchinnāḥ sārva-bhaumā mahāvratam” (‘[These are valid] in all spheres, irrespective of birth, place, time, and circumstance, [and they constitute] the “great vow” ’)[11]

This implies that this “great vow” (mahā-vrata) is beyond ethics; it might be called “supra-moral”. We find the same principles in Jaina Yoga, addressed both to renouncers as mahā-vrata (“major vows”),as well as to lay people as anu-vrata (“secondary vows”).In Buddhism, also, we find them embedded in the noble eight-fold path. Furthermore, these universal principles, as Georg Feuerstein states, “can be considered the property of all major religions”. In his words:

“The foundation of Yoga, as of all authentic spirituality, is a universal ethics […] These moral attitudes are meant to bring our instinctual life under control.”[12]

At first read, the yama seem like five simple, clear-cut moral commands. However, since we commit to practice them, we may gradually discover more and more subtle ways in which they can be actualized. Soon, we come to realize that, in truth, they are highest principles, toward which we ever converge. Moreover, curiously enough, Patañjali refrains from giving clear definitions for each one of the yama. What he gives, though, is the fruit of their practice; and these almost para-normal effects are like milestones, paving the practitioner’s way toward enlightenment.

The path begins with ahiṁsā, non-harming, or non-violence, the most fundamental of all moral values. An ancient sanskrit epigram (mentioned also in the Mahābhārata) says: “Ahiṁsā paramo dharma”–‘Non-harming is the ultimate virtue’. Primarily, ahiṁsā can be understood as the intention to relinquish hostility toward the others. Gradually, it expresses itself as the conscious attitude of not causing harm also to ourselves, as well as to the world at large. By aiming to be established in ahiṁsā, one learns to make space within consciousness for peace, instead of conflict; and in that space, anger, separation, and aggression are given the opportunity to resolve themselves; acceptance is allowed to blossom. In this way, others are allowed to be who they are, and we are apt to discover our deep interconnection with each other, and with the world. Through ahiṁsā, one learns to move toward niḥśreyas – the ultimate good, the welfare of the world. It is then no surprise that, as Patañjali says in Yoga Sūtra 2.35, “when the yogi is grounded in ahiṁsā, enmity ceases in his presence”: Truly, it might be said that one who is firmly established in the intention to purely benefit others, creates around him a cloud of positive energy, in which hostility becomes powerless.

As already stated, the yama are no trivial moral commands, exposed in a linear way; instead, they present a highly complicated model of hierarchically placed universal principles, setting the context for the aspirant’s progression from conventional morality toward genuine spirituality. An aspect of this model’s complexity, is that the practice of each one of the yama, presupposes applying the former ones.

This gets clear, for instance, as we proceed from ahiṁsā to satya –truthfulness, or honesty. Satya invites us to express truthfully in action, speech, and thought, always bearing in mind that this expression has to be non-harmful. However, satya does not mean that one ought just to articulate what he believes is true; the word itself, stemming from Sat –the Existent– implies that one has to align with All that Is. Satya constantly calls us to step beyond our beliefs and prejudices, to delve deeper into the true essence of things. Once more, what we discover, is that subtle web of Existence, infinitely intricate and wise, of which we all make part. Again, it is no surprise that, once firmly established in satya, one is so deeply aligned with the truth, that whatever he says comes true, as Patañjali states in Yoga Sūtra 2.36.

Asteya, non-stealing, comes next –and non-stealing could not ever be practiced, if not preceded by non-harming and truthfulness. It is obvious that we should refrain from taking what belongs to someone else; however, asteya has ever subtler ways in which it can be implemented. The more we become oriented toward this principle, the more we discover those ways. As already said, the yama are not only to be practiced in our actions, but first and foremost, in the mind. Therefore, this yama points toward not only non-stealing, but also non-coveting others’ belongings –whether material or subtle. Asteya aligns us with the virtues of simplicity, moderation and generosity; and when one is generous, life is also generous unto him, as a result of the law of karma. Thus, Patañjali affirms that “when one is grounded in asteya, all [kinds of] treasures appear before him” (Yoga Sūtra 2.37).

Asteya paves the way for the next two yama: Brahmacarya, moderation in one’s use of vital energy, and aparigraha, moderation in one’s acquirement of possessions.

Brahmacarya, chastity, is perhaps the most talked-about yama; maybe because, in its more strict interpretation as celibacy, it deals with one of the most sensitive fields of the human mind and experience –sexuality. However, the literal meaning of brahmacarya is “brahmic conduct”. As stated by Georg Feuerstein, “…it refers to a student of the sacred Vedic lore. The chaste practitioner, or brahmacarin, is guided by the ideal of abstinence from sensuality, especially but not only, of the sexual variety.”[13] It might therefore be said that brahmacarya applies differently to different people: For the ascetic, it means to commit to celibacy and sensual abstinence, while for the householder, it can be interpreted as the voluntary limitation  and regulation of  the sexual activity within a committed relationship. In this way, our behavior is no more ruled by the senses, which means that life energy –prāṇa– is not squandered, but can be harnessed toward spiritual transformation. It is understood that “when  [the yogi] is grounded in brahmacarya, great vitality is acquired” (Yoga Sūtra 2.38).

The last one of the five yama, aparigraha, is the road to freedom. Aparigraha is traditionally translated as non-greed, and Patañjali clearly states (Yoga Sūtra 2.34) that greed (lobha), along with anger (krodha) and illusion (moha) are the root causes to ignorance (avidyā) and suffering (duḥkha). But the literal meaning of aparigraha –nongrasping– “reminds us that nothing actually belongs to us in the first place”.[14]  By starting to get conscious about our true needs, by learning how to let go of the surplus, we learn how to let go of clinging to possessions (again, whether material or subtle). And, as psychotherapist and writer Michael Stone says: “… through letting go of habitual forms of clinging to thoughts and money and addictions, we find ourselves deeper in the world, due to the renunciation of clinging”.[15]  Once more, we come to recognize the inherently infinite abundance of the World, and our “conscious participation in the nexus of Life,”[16] as well as the responsibility that arises from that. Also, besides helping us cultivate the precious virtue of contentment, aparigraha guides us to loosening the hold on the notion of a fixed personality, or “I”. Thus Patañjali states that “when steadied in aparigraha, [the yogi gains the] knowledge of the wherefore of his births” (Yoga Sūtra 2.39).

 However, “yogic moral principles” do not end with the yama. The next limb of Patañjali’s eightfold path –niyama–  referring to internal restraints intended to harmonize the yogin’s relationship with the transcendental Reality, in many ways complement the yama toward the cultivation of a higher sense of morality. Thus śauca introduces the aspirant to external and internal purity, while santoṣa calls for the supreme virtue of contentment.  The last three, which also constitute Patañjali’s krīya-yoga, are tapas –austerity and internal discipline– svādhyāya –study, (resonating also the ancient Greek dictum “know thyself ”)– and īśvara-praṇidhāna –devotion to the Lord. Īśvara-praṇidhāna is an ideal also much praised in the Bhagavad Gītā; one who is grounded in it, acts totally selflessly, offering the fruit of all actions to the highest Reality.

In the observance of the yama and niyama, the aspirant inevitably starts dealing with them as conventional moral principles, trying first not to harm, not to lie, not to steal, to be continent and non-covetous. However, gradually, these principles are getting weaved into the mind, and as practice deepens, one sees that in truth, there’s no reason to be violent, untruthful, envious, and so on. As Georg Feuerstein observes:

“The yogin […] devotes his entire life to become virtuous, which is to say, his ethical conduct is a function of his very state of being. He does not merely follow moral rules but embodies the virtues that conventional morality endeavors to mimic.”[17]Then the yama are followed spontaneously, and, together with the niyama, they function as a spiral: as we reach īśvara-praṇidhāna, we discover that this is the ultimate form of ahiṁsā; namely, the abstention from violence, not only against the others, but ultimately, against the very flow of life. Scholar Ian Whicher says:

“Moral disciplines are engaged as a natural outgrowth of intelligent self-understanding and commitment to self-transcendence which takes consciousness out of (ec-stasis) its identification with the rigid structure of the monadic ego, thereby reversing the inveterate tendency of this ego to innate itself at the expense of its responsibility in relation to others.”[18]

So long as one is on his way on a spiritual path, he needs a structured method, a specific set of principles to which he has to adhere. Occasionally, a few are ready right away to embrace the idea that everything stems from Spirit, and along with that, the concept of interconnection (bandhu) and our deep intimacy with the whole of Existence. However, this is not the case for most of us, who are dominated by the notion of a concrete and fixed personality, an ego that has to acquire goods (material as well as emotional) in order to be happy and full. In this case, morality (or rather, “Yoga morality”), is necessary in order to provide the method to proceed in the yogic path, to pave the path toward spirituality. In other words, morality acts like a “training” of the mind, providing (more or less) concrete limits in our behavior, which have to be respected.

 Once we reach the transcendental state, in which the world appears as One Reality, “conventional” morality is also transcended. The yogin effortlessly lives in accordance with the moral law, just because he has realized that he is an integral part of the Absolute Reality, and his actions, words and thoughts are spontaneously integrated in, and flow from the Ṛta-Dharma-Satya trinity. Georg Feuerstein writes:

 “… the traditional teachings, which are the repository of the wisdom of masters, have the purpose of guiding the aspirant’s behavior from outside until wisdom manifests clearly from the depths of his or her own mind. When the diverse spiritual virtues are actualized, the need for external guidelines drops away. In that case, the mature practitioner must learn to trust his or her own wisdom and moral conscience.”[19]

Morality, then, is the road to authentic, genuine spirituality. As psychotherapist Michael Stone observes:

“Suddenly we are back in the domain of spirituality. Learning to perceive our lives as situated in the greater whole of organic life –arising, unfolding and passing away– keeps us connected to the living and breathing whole of which we are made. In yoga nothing can be disconnected.”[20]


1] Georg Feuerstein: “The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice” ( Prescott, Arizona: Hohm Press, 3rd ed., 2008, p. 5)

2] Sri Aurobindo:“The Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching & Method of Practice”  (Twin Lakes WI 53181 USA: Lotus Press, 1993,  p. 7)

3] Ian Whicher: “Cessation and Integration in Classical Yoga”, article published in “Asian Philosophy” (vol. 5.1, ISSN:0955-2367, p. 49)

4] Georg Feuerstein: “Yoga Morality: Ancient Teachings at a Time of Global Crisis” (Prescott, Arizona: Hohm Press, 2007, p.81)

5] Sri Aurobindo:  “The Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching & Method of Practice”  (Twin Lakes WI 53181 USA: Lotus Press, 1993,  p. 15)

6] Sri Aurobindo: “The Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching & Method of Practice”  (Twin Lakes WI 53181 USA: Lotus Press, 1993, p. 15)

7] Georg Feuerstein: “Yoga Morality: Ancient Teachings at a Time of Global Crisis” (Prescott, Arizona: Hohm Press, 2007, p. 20)

8] Eknath Easwaran: “The Bhagavad Gita – Introduced and translated  by Eknath Easwaran” (Canada: Nilgiri Press, 2nd ed., 2007, ch. 18, v. 58-60, p. 263 )

9] Eknath Easwaran: “The Bhagavad Gita – Introduced and translated  by Eknath Easwaran” (Canada: Nilgiri Press, 2nd ed., 2007, ch. 4, v.7-8, p. 117)

10] Georg Feuerstein: “Yoga Morality: Ancient Teachings at a Time of Global Crisis” (Prescott, Arizona: Hohm Press, 2007, p. 57)

11] Georg Feuerstein: The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice”  (Prescott, Arizona: Hohm Press, 3rd ed., 2008, p. 224).

12] Georg Feuerstein: The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice” Prescott, Arizona: Hohm Press, 3rd ed., 2008,  p. 244)

13] Georg Feuerstein: “Yoga Morality: Ancient Teachings at a Time of Global Crisis” (Prescott, Arizona: Hohm Press, 2007, p.164).

14] Michael Stone: Yoga for a World out of Balance: Teachings on Ethics and Social Action” (Boston, Massachusetts: Shambhala Publications, 2009, p. 128)

15] Michael Stone: “Yoga for a World out of Balance: Teachings on Ethics and Social Action” (Boston, Massachusetts: Shambhala Publications, 2009, p. 130)

16] Georg Feuerstein: “Yoga Morality: Ancient Teachings at a Time of Global Crisis” (Prescott, Arizona: Hohm Press, 2007,  p. 189)

17] Georg Feuerstein: “Yoga Morality: Ancient Teachings at a Time of Global Crisis” (Prescott, Arizona: Hohm Press, 2007, p. 262)

18] Ian Whicher: “Cessation and Integration in Classical Yoga”, article published in “Asian Philosophy” (vol. 5.1, ISSN:0955-2367, p. 52)

19] Georg Feuerstein: “Yoga Morality: Ancient Teachings at a Time of Global Crisis” (Prescott, Arizona: Hohm Press, 2007, p. 257)

20] Michael Stone:“Yoga for a World out of Balance: Teachings on Ethics and Social Action” (Boston, Massachusetts: Shambhala Publications, 2009, p. 139) The translations of the Yoga Sūtra come from Georg Feuerstein’s The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice” (Prescott, Arizona: Hohm Press, 3rd  ed., 2008, ch. 9, Source Reading 12)

*This study was first publiced in INDIKA 2018 (revised edition)