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About Yoga Series: Understanding the Niyamas

Friday, March 28, 2008

We previously discussed the Yamas and found them to be ethical disciplines for the yoga practioner. The Niyamas are the Yama's counterpart and are the rules of conduct the yoga student follows to build personal character. There are five Niyamas, which are:

* Saucha - purity of body/cleanliness
* Santosa - contentment
* Tapas - austerity/religious zeal
* Svadhyaha - self study
* Isvara pranidhana - total surrender to God

Saucha is essential for our well-being. It not only covers keeping our external body clean, but also our internal system as well. Externally we use soap and water to cleanse, inside we eat right foods good for our constitution and we drink clean water among other internal options. In conjunction, we perform asanas and Pranayama to help move the toxins out of our bodies, to aerate the lungs, in general oxygenate and purify the entire body.

However, equally important to keeping the entire body clean is keeping the mind clean and free of disturbing emotions. By practicing the yamas of ahimsa, asteya and aparigraha we help reduce and remove emotions like hatred, greed, lust, anger, delusion and pride. But still more important is cleansing the intellect (buddhi). Impure thoughts bog us down and keep a veil draped over us. Through Svadhyaya, discussed shortly, we learn more about our true self through self study and the impurities are burned away. As BKS Iyengar states, "This cleansing gives radiance and joy. It brings benevolence (saumanasya) and banished mental pain, dejection, sorrow and despair (daurmanasya)." This cleanse helps the mind fight sorrow and despair and makes the mind more lucid, thus helping it become better prepared for and easier to be single-pointed (ekagra). This in turn prepares us for Pratyahara.

Cultivation is the key to success with santosa. In this author's opinion, this is the 2nd most difficult of the niyamas, as being content is very hard for people to achieve. A non-content mind can not remain single-pointed, so learning to concentrate is key. A non-content mind continually desires something else, which is a constant distraction to the mind. When the mind is distracted, peace of mind is not always accessible. When the mind is still and tranquil, peace of mind can be found and the yogi can naturally become content and find bliss.

Tapas stands for burning up ones desires. Although Patanjali indicated one should, with burning zeal, live a life devoted to God, whereby every action, thought, word and deed are illumed, pure and divine, this is just one part of the whole concept of tapas. The remaining part is the inner/outer balance, the natural struggle between opposites. For example, "Ahimsa can not be properly understood without reference to tapas. Tapas is the inner himsa (violence) by which we create the possibility for outer ahimsa. Ahimsa can not exist alone. A complementary force must necessarily exist." (Light on Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, p. 147). We need the polar opposite to achieve balance, to temper our overall actions, thoughts or words.

Try this the next time you are in an encounter with an irritating driver or individual. Ask yourself if you are irritated at them or at yourself, then determine if being more irritated will escalate or diffuse the situation. Try to recognize the himsa (violence) and see if you can create ahimsa (non-violence) in the situation. Tapas truly works when we are acting without selfish motives or expectations of rewards. Then desires and wants are burned-up, opening the door to a more illuminated (tejasic) life.

Sva means "self" and adhyaya means "education of" or "to study". Therefore the essence of svadhyaya is education of the self. We are not necessarily talking about education liked lectures, classed, seminars, etc., but a deeper more internal discovery. There are two paths to svadhyaya. The first is external to internal. This path leads us to better understanding of ourselves. Through this knowledge we can walk a straighter and more desireless second path. The second path is inner to outer and governs how we relate our self to the external world.

However, the two work hand in hand. For example, do we treat others violently (verbally or physically)? If so, then we are most likely very angry with ourselves and being violent internally if not physically to our body. Likewise, we may feel peaceful with ourself, but randomly attack others in thoughts and words. This indicated a hidden issue which, with svadhyaya we would want to study to understand why/what is causing these actions and thoughts.

This example shows us the ignorance in our mind. We may think we are pure, but our mind truly understands and gives us clues if we listen. "Ignorance has no beginning, but it has an end. There is a beginning but no end to knowledge. By svadhyaya the sadhaka (yoga practitioner) understands the nature of his soul . . .", (Light on Yoga, p. 39).

Pranidhana Sutra II.45 samadhididdhih Isvarapranidanat translates as, "Surrender to God brings perfection in samadhi."(Light on Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, p. 148) First what is Samadhi? Samadhi is the eighth limb and represents the state of union one achieves when the sadhaka becomes one with the object he/she is meditating on, i.e. the Universal Spirit/God or whatever you may call it.

This union brings about an unutterable joy and peace to the yogi. So in the concept of yoga, God (Isvara) is not the canon proposed by organized religion, but one of universality, the Supreme Soul. Isvara is the beginning and the end, the creator, sustainer, destroyer, and renewer, and is not conditioned by time, space or place. The yogi has bhakti (adoration/devotion) for the Lord and seeks to leave their own desires and gratification aside and pray "I do not know what is good for me. Thy will be done." then "When the waters of bhakti (adoration) are made to flow through the turbines of the mind, the result is mental power and spiritual illumination." (Light on Yoga, p. 39) Without bhakti, physical power can be lethal, but without strength in character, mere devotion is likened to an opiate induced dullness. This means a balanced path must be followed. The practitioner has to curb their desires and gratification as these lead to moha (attachment) and lobha (greed). For if continued gratification is provided, then there is soka (sorrow) and this renders the mind harder to control.

So devotion to the Lord is liked the Sun, which dispels darkness. When there is true bhakti, that is true love, then the ego the "I" has no place and disappears. This is achieved by emptying the mind of the desires and gratifications and replacing these thought with ones of the Lord. This is total surrender, total pranidhana.

Referenced Sources:
John Charping/Betty Larsen, SIYI Teacher Training Materials
Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, by B.K.S. Iyengar
Light on Yoga, by B.K.S. Iyengar

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