If Yoga were merely an exercise program, done only to slim and strengthen the body, as it is often viewed these days, then the first two limbs of Yoga, Yama and Niyama, would be no more than curious spiritual practices that have little to do with the real purpose of Yoga.
No wonder the Yamas and Niyamas receive only passing mention in many yoga classes.
Yoga, however, is not an exercise program. It is a spiritual science, the true purpose of which is to attain awareness of oneself on all levels, self-mastery and spiritual liberation. Because of this, the first two limbs of Yoga are of immense and under-appreciated importance.
The reason for this is that the path to awareness, mastery and liberation is through the mind. The mind is the essential instrument of the quest. It is through a calm, concentrated mind that the Truth becomes known.
The mind is, metaphorically, like a microscope that is used to look into oneself. If that mind is calm, clear and focused, then it can be used to explore the inner world. But, a mind that is agitated and unfocused, like an unfocused microscope, cannot observe anything.
So we need a calm, focused mind, and this is where the Yamas and Niyamas come in.
The Yamas and Niyamas are practices that cleanse the mind from that which causes it to jump rather than stay still, such as violence, physical/mental discomfort, and attachment to the fruits of our actions.
Let’s take a look at the first Yama, ahimsa, non-violence. A mind that is polluted with violent thoughts won’t settle down. Have you ever tried meditating when you were angry or scared? Were you able to do so?
A mind filled with violence - anger or fear - is very agitated.
But even a mind that has just a little violence in it remains agitated. Such a mind scans the environment for dangers, or fantasizes how it can “get back” at so-and-so for some past wrong.
The practice of ahimsa leads the Yoga practitioner to continuously cleanse the mind of violence so that the mind slowly becomes more and more peaceful. Without this practice, the mind won’t settle.
When the Yamas and Niyamas are perfected, the mind finally calms, and attaining the true spiritual purpose of Yoga can come easily.