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Yama and Niyama, the ethical rules of yoga

Monica Nicoletti explains what are the prohibitions, obligations, and actions to avoid or perform for those who practice yoga.

Yoga provides its own ethical-moral code, leaving each practitioner free to follow it or not.

Obviously, the yogin is urged to behave according to these guidelines, not out of any real obligation, but because, through observance of these guidelines, one can develop one’s capacity for discernment (buddhi).

Through discernment we ask the right questions and gradually overcome the veil of Maya created by conditioning or false identifications, which make us lose sight of our true spiritual essence.

When this connection with our soul part is missing, we feel unbalanced, confused… something is always missing.

Patanjali (2nd BC) clearly explains how this situation produces negative karma. The discomfort we feel in this state of disconnection does not allow us to pursue the life mission for which we were incarnated.

Following these directions, called Yama (prohibitions or actions to avoid) and Niyama (obligations or actions to perform), allows us to re-establish our course.

The intensity of the ‘vow’ will have to be reasonably related to the practitioner’s life and various factors in his or her existence, such as nature, needs, environment, degree of spiritual development, belonging a people or religious group.

Everyone can then adapt their behaviour accordingly, although the general themes are still universally valid.

Explaining them would take a long time and a lot of space, so I will briefly describe them, trying to give as precise an idea as possible, bearing in mind that the interpretations that exist are also different.

Yama (prohibitions or actions to be avoided)

Social code

(Sutra 30 Sadhana-pada -Yoga Sutra 1st BC up to 5th AC)

They are like an ethical safety device that prevents the practitioner from negative, harmful and dispersive actions.

At the social level, the individual must first of all avoid generating interference and conflict in the larger field in which he is immersed. Only then, from a partial element, will he be able to access the total whole.


Fix at a very deep level a precise will to do no harm.

Refrain from any form of violence, in any way and at any time, by thought, word and deed.


Refrain from lying and deception. It implies truth in thought, word and deed, at all levels of existence.

Speech must aim at good and light, never at harming others, creating difficulties or misunderstandings.


Refrain from stealing. It is not just a matter of not stealing other people’s things, what needs to be controlled is the desire to appropriate any object.

It means not stealing or wasting the time of our spiritual evolution or the work of others (precious time, energy or thoughts of others).


Abstaining from passions. It concerns the control of sexual functions (chastity) as well as eating and drinking, and all sensations from sight, touch, hearing and so on (purity).

It also includes any form of attachment to people or things.


Abstaining from possession, understood as not accepting any thing, considering the damage involved in accepting it, keeping it, destroying it, attaching oneself to it.

Possessiveness is the very dangerous desire to control the soul of one’s neighbour.

Niyama (obligations or actions to be performed)

Personal code

(Sutra 32 Sadhana-pada – Yoga Sutra 1st BC up to 5th AC)

The purpose of ‘obligations’ is to give direction to one’s acting or thinking.

These actions to be performed are regenerated, purified of negative valences and sublimated.


Purity: includes the purification of the body, organs and mind, the purity of our outer environment and our inner being to perfection.


Constant attitude of serene acceptance of any situation, interpreted as the best opportunity for spiritual progress and happiness.


It makes the individual behave with perfect knowledge of and adherence to natural laws, so as to obtain the best results from the psycho-physical tools they have (diet, breathing, body attitude, mental processes). It strengthens the will to discipline oneself.


Introspective study and self-analysis to understand all personal psychological issues.

It is practised to avoid developing false ideas about one’s evolutionary progress.


Devotion, that is, keeping one’s heart and whole being open to the divine.

All actions are offered to God and emotions are channelled in the right direction to achieve the desired result.

Monica Nicoletti

Follow Monica on her Facebook page Monica Yoga Libera Tutti

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