Yama and Niyama, the misunderstood yoga

I think nothing about yoga could be more sadly misunderstood than the principles of Yama and Niyama. As you may already know, according to an ancient and widely accepted system set down by the yogi Pantanjali, there are 8 "limbs" (astanga) of yoga, which are arranged in an order suggesting that they might be steps towards the ultimate goal of union with God. Considering that the translation of the sanskrit word "yoga" is "union", that assumption seems reasonable. Problems arise however in the assumption that the beginning limbs/steps of yoga are more easily understood. They are certainly the most familiar concepts to us: the first limb being moral restrictions and the last limb being complete merger with God.
The entire list is:
Yama (moral restrictions; "don'ts")
Niyama (encouraged daily behaviors; "dos")
Asanas (special yogic physical exercises)
Pranayama (yogic breathing exercises)
Pratyahara (withdrawal of the mind from the 5 senses)
Dhahran (concentration exercises)
Dhyana (contemplation of God)
Samadhi (union with God)

Surprisingly, to me the order suggests levels of *decreasing* likelihood of misunderstanding what the limb is all about, but for the moment let me focus on Yama and Niyama for a couple of reasons:
A. Practicing them is absolutely crucial to making any progress in yoga
B. A proper understanding of how they work can alleviate a lot of unnecessary fear about them

Yama yoga consists of 5 things that a yogi should not do if he wants to get anywhere with his yoga.
1. Don't hurt anyone (includes thoughts and words as well as physical actions)
2. Don't lie for personal gain (also includes thoughts)
3. Don't take property that belongs to others (also includes thoughts and words)
4. Don't hoard unneeded things (also includes thoughts and words)
5. Don't seek personal pleasure from the world (also includes thoughts and words)

Niyama yoga consists of 5 things that a yogi SHOULD do if he wants to get enlightened
1. Do keep your body, mind and environment clean (includes thoughts and words)
2 Do maintain a peaceful/cheerful mental state (obviously includes thoughts and words)
3. Do study spiritual books (ideally involves thoughts, words and action)
4. Do make personal sacrifices for the welfare of others (includes thoughts and words)
5. Do make God the purpose of your life (obviously involves thoughts, words, and action)

There are already plenty of books going into great detail on these points. My purpose is only to point out something about these "rules" that I feel has been sadly overlooked, and that is the tremendously liberating effect they can have. My guru often said "a yogis is a practical man," and all the limbs of yoga are part of a scientific system designed to bring great joy to the practitioner, not frustration and guilt. Yama and Niyama are not a set of rules set up to make life more convenient for parents, teachers and heads of state. They are a direct tool for the liberation of true intellect. And most amazing of all is that the effects are immediate; assuming you really "get" the principles and practice them in your life. One of the areas where most religion has failed us is giving us the notion that if we behave properly now, we will reap the benefits somewhere way down the road. To paraphrase: good behavior now will give us only frustration in this life and we are left to hope that a reward will come in the afterlife. Some people find comfort in that; most folks, however, are looking for more from life than that way of thinking can offer us, resulting in the completely unnecessary lack of popularity of religion these days.

Back in the 60s and 70s when Eastern religion became very popular in the West, young people got all excited by the more practical possibility of enlightenment, but unfortunately threw the baby out with the bath-water and rushed briskly past moral principles, so they could quickly get on with the veg diet, fasting, yoga asanas and meditation. In my mind, this was a major mistake and possibly the very reason the whole Eastern religion boom fizzled out leaving us with nothing more than commercial yoga schools on every corner. It just doesn't work like that, and I find it very sadly unnecessary.

Back in those days I told a friend that my take on the various limbs of yoga was that "meditation is what really gets us to the goal and the other stuff just makes the journey more comfortable". His response surprised me. He said he always felt that "Asanas are the practice that gets one to enlightenment and meditation only gives us a glimpse of the goal." Well.... nowadays I think a strong case can be made for yama and niyama being the practices that actually get us to enlightenment and the other limbs only serve to flesh out the basic structure set down in yama and niyama. What more could there be to spiritual life than Yama and Niyama? Of course the other limbs of yoga are very important. They are the nuts and bolts, the "how to" of the various points of Yama and Niyama. Similarly, within each of these other limbs (asanas, pranayama etc) there is an ocean of knowledge which must be acquired from a competent teacher.

So, Yama and Niyama are an indispensable base; furthermore an integral part and starting point of yoga, but in those roles they needn't be seen as an unfortunate impediment to juicing the joy out of yoga. If you check the list of exercise classes at any local gym you will certainly find an asana class, but I doubt you will find a class on Yama and Niyama. You won't even find one at your neighborhood yoga school, and that is kind of sad to me, because there is so much joy hidden in Yama and Niyama.

I know many men and women who have been regular meditating, asana-performing, vegetarians for 30 years or more and seem no happier or healthier than the meat-eating, couch potatoes living next door to them. How the heck can that be? Did the peace, love and yoga revolution of the 70s send us on a wild goose chase? Few of us would say that I think, so what is the problem then? I used to think it was a lack of determination, but now I think it is a misunderstanding of Yama and Niyama. Nothing can trip up a yogi more than a less than crystal clear understanding of the liberating effects of Yama and Niyama. Determination is certainly required, but in order to make progress we must see results. What sort of results? The same sort of results we have come to expect from a great meditation: peace, clarity, wisdom, a huge wave of relief and dare I say "bliss?" These are our birth right, and the benchmark of a great meditation, but this same joy and peace is right there for us the moment we deeply grasp the meaning of ahimsa (non-injury; the first point of Yama). We might meditate in vain for hours on end accomplishing nothing more than wearing a painful spot into our psyche rehashing for the hundredth time how we might have avoided getting insulted at the office last week; or we might spend the time cleaning up a cluttered room, discover a plant in need of water and thereby discover our true nature in a moment of peaceful clarity.

Now, if any of this has struck a chord with you, I heartily recommend going back to the beginning of this essay, finding the part where I listed the 5 principles of Yama and the 5 principles of Niyama and giving them a good going over, noting in particular my parenthetical comments. See if anything clicks for you. Also, it might be better to think of yama and niyama as practices rather than principles. They make up 2 of the 8 limbs of yoga. If my math is correct, that is 25% of the entire body of knowledge we call yoga, and it is called yoga for a reason. That reason being that it is a science, a very practical and exacting science. Heck, let's call it technology. It is a bunch of techniques; very specific techniques with predicable outcomes and that is just as true for yama and niyama as it is the deepest meditations. When I first really witnessed ahimsa in action, I felt like I was having a personal consultation with God.

As children, our first experiences of morality were tragic. Parents, teachers, religious and political leaders all exploiting moral principles and our biological tendency towards guilt to manipulate us for their own convenience. It's no surprise that we reach adolescence with aspirations no more lofty than being free of moral restrictions. Well, I think yoga can offer us much more than that, but we can't just ignore yama and niyama and expect to get enlightened. We need to grasp their true meaning and practical utility in the pursuit of *true* liberation, the realization of God in all things. Baba Nam Kevalam.

Author's Bio: 

Bruce Boyd has been a spiritual seeker since the early 70s and spent most of his adult life overseas (Japan, India, Nepal, China, Ireland, Germany and Thailand), studying and teaching yoga and martial arts, playing music and looking for gurus. He now lives in Eugene, OR with his wife and three kids teaching yoga and meditation. http://babanam.com