Last Updated: September 1, 2018

Definition - What does Virtue mean?

A virtue is a trait or behavior that is associated with moral excellence and alignment with moral or ethical principles. In classical yoga, the five personal virtues (yamas) comprise one the eight limbs of yoga as described in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The second limb of yoga is comprised of the rules-of-life virtues (niyamas).

In the Sandilya and Varaha Upanishads (among others), there are 10 codified yamas, some of which overlap those in the Sutras. The same is true of the niyamas, with Patanjali listing five in the Sutras and other texts listing up to 10 codified niyamas.

The yamas represent things the individual should avoid to be virtuous, such as not hurting others and not stealing. Although the yamas can be expressed in a positive manner, they are considered the “don'ts" of good living. The niyamas, on the other hand, represent things the individual should do (disciplines), such as being accepting of others and spending time in self-reflection.

Yogapedia explains Virtue

At least sixty ancient texts discuss the virtues known as yamas and niyamas, though the lists of virtues in these texts vary. Some are similar to those in the Yoga Sutras, while others list anywhere from one to 10 yamas and a similar number of niyamas. Most commonly, 10 of each are listed.

In yoga, the yamas and niyamas complement asana practice and vice versa, helping the individual find true yogic transformation.

Patanjali's five yamas include:

  • Ahimsa (non-violence) – Avoiding physical and emotional violence toward the self and others.
  • Satya (truthfulness) – Avoiding falsehoods and taking the path of Truth.
  • Asteya (not stealing) – This applies not only to material things, but also includes opposition to oppression and exploitation.
  • Brahmacharya (self-discipline and self-denial) – Maintaining control over physical impulses of excess.
  • Aparigraha (non-possessiveness) – Letting go of what's not needed and possessing only what's necessary.

The five niyamas include:

  • Shaucha (purity) – Maintaining purity of mind and body.
  • Santosha (contentment) – Being accepting of others and one's own circumstances.
  • Tapas (self-discipline) – Practicing intense self-control and willpower.
  • Svadhyaya (self-study) – Reflecting on and studying the self, allowing the individual to see their own true and divine nature.
  • Ishvara Pranidhana (devotion) – Contemplating and surrendering to the Divine or a higher power.

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