This is the third installment in a year-long series on living yoga’s eight limbs. The earlier pieces laid the groundwork and explored the first limb made up of five moral observations known as the yama. This month we’ll look at the second limb identified by five personal disciplines we call the niyama.
If we look at the yama as our “don’ts”—don’t be violent, don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t hoard and don’t be possessive—we will turn to the niyama for our to-do list—do pursue purity, contentment, self-discipline, self-study and surrender.
In this chart from her book The Yamas and Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practices, my friend Deborah Adele sums up these five bedrock yogic disciplines succinctly and invitingly:
Purity Invites us to cleanse our bodies, our speech, our thoughts.
Contentment Invites us to fall in love with our own life.
Self-Discipline Invites us to consciously choose discipline and growth.
Self-Study Invites us to know the Self.
Surrender Invites us to pay attention to what life is asking of us.
The Yamas and Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practices (Deborah Adele), p. 177
An invitation has such a different connotation from a mandate.
It ceases to become a “should” hanging over our heads, and becomes an opportunity we are enticed to accept. Not because we have to, but because we want to. As we put the niyama into practice this month, let’s consider them an invitation rather than another item we’ve added to our overloaded to-do lists.
While the yamas tell us what to avoid, the niyamas are designed to tell us which spiritual observances to pursue.
We need both.
A spirituality that provides rules without illuminating the path of spiritual growth is an empty vessel. Actively pursuing the niyama will begin to create a framework in your life to allow for that growth without dictating any one particular path, religion or belief system.
I believe this bears repeating. While these more esoteric limbs of yoga are distinctly spiritual, they are absolutely compatible with with your religious or non-religious path of choice. Each of the niyama will draw you more deeply in touch with your truest self, thus increasing your ability to experience your own spiritual truths.
Niyama of Purity (Shaucha)
Let’s begin with the first observance—purity (shaucha). Inexorably intertwined with purity is another “p” word that causes untold heartache—perfection. Our brains tell us that if something is pure, it’s perfect. We then go about trying to be perfect and fail, causing us to give up on the idea of purity as an attainable state. We need to rewire our thinking to include yet another “p” word—process.
Purity is a process, not a destination. Thinking of it as a verb, something you are constantly working toward in your thoughts, words and actions.
Deborah Adele approaches this niyama with a very helpful two-pronged approach that deals with the internal and external aspects of the process of purification which always begins with an honest look at ourselves, followed by a gradual unburdening as we eliminate the unnecessary and detrimental from our lives.
The first part of this process involves a clearing out of body and mind, which results in an inner clarity that enables us to undertake the second prong in which we bring this newfound presence to our interaction with others.
It’s true that you cannot share what you don’t have. We cannot bring purity into our relationships with others if we have not yet cultivated it in our own lives.
What does this personal purification look like? Undoubtably, it will look different for each of us. To discern your own methods of purification, consider some of these options.
Do you feel physically sluggish?
Try drinking more water, eating less meat, lowering your processed carb intake, parking as far away from your destination as possible, biking/walking rather than driving doing sun salutations upon awakening.
Do you feel weighed down by your environment?
If you did the closet-cleaning exercise from last month’s study of aparigraha (yama of non-possessiveness), reflect on that. Did it have an effect on your mental state? Did it help you lighten up? Expand this practice into another area of your environment that you visit often—your pantry, desk or nightstand are all good candidates.
Are your thoughts holding you back or not inline with the direction you’d like your life to go?
Implement a daily discipline to realign your thoughts with your intentions. It is not important that this be an elaborate exercise, only that it be undertaken daily. Try writing out an affirmation or prayer each morning and/or ending your day by journaling three items you were grateful for that day. Alternately, you can start a group text with a few friends who are committed to the same disciplines. This provides accountability and inspiration as you follow others’ affirmations and gratitudes.
Think of this niyama as a way to rid yourself of anything that no longer serves you.
Niyama of Contentment (Santosha)
“The better part of happiness is to wish to be what you are.”
~ Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536)
The practice of yoga brings a physicality to the cultivation of contentment that is missing in most Western spiritual traditions where we seek contentment in our hearts, while our bodies—and often our minds—are working in opposition to our goal. Our culture shouts, “More, more, more!” while our hearts are yearning for a slower pace, whispering, “Enough…enough…enough.”
In his yoga sutras, Patanjali provides us with “movement or positions, breathing practices, and concentration, as well as the yama and niyama, [that] can contribute to a physical state of contentment (santosha).”
A 16th century sacred Sikh text reads, “Make contentment your ear-rings, humility your begging bowl, and meditation the ashes you apply to your body.” What would life be like if we could put on an aura of contentment each morning as simply as clipping on a pair of ear-rings?
Niyama of Austerity (Tapas)
“To have freedom is only to have that which is absolutely necessary to enable us to be what we ought to be.”
~ Ibn Rahel (Medieval Christian chronicler)
The term austerity rolls awkwardly off our Western tongues, as if we are using a foreign language to recount memories of our faithful forbearers whose relinquishment of worldly pleasures is unfathomable to our comfortable modern sensibilities. We look at religious ascetics’ pursuit of eternal sanctity and see within their monastic walls a deprivation unrelated to our own lives.
It is not surprising, then, that we look outside the modern Westernized worldview for help in grappling with this elusive and misconstrued concept. The words here, attributed to Ibn Rahel, an Egyptian chronicler who lived in the Middle Ages, point us in the right direction.
Indeed the interpretation of this niyama as austerity is actually part of a bigger picture which encourages a general sense of self-discipline that is a necessary for growth.
This niyama is not really about eschewing material pursuits. But when we can begin to resist our default mode of self-indulgence and instead make choices conducive to growth, we will begin to be transformed by the effort.
For one week, be aware of how you spend your time—what you eat, where you go, who you see and the activities to which you devote your energy. Reflect on your week, and find one thing you can do to simplify your life. Eliminate one thing you are doing that is motivated by ego-building or people-pleasing. Notice the breathing space you’ve created. Or resist the urge to buy the latest gadget or acquire the “must-have” fashion item of the season. Realize that you are content—even joyful—without the purchase. Be intentional—yet not militant—about what you eat. Eat slowly and mindfully. Notice how certain foods, at certain times of the day work for or against you. Adjust your diet and consider eliminating certain foods based on what you learn.
Niyama of Study (Svadhyaya)
Esteemed yoga teacher Donna Farhi, in her book Yoga Mind, Body & Spirit, says that “any activity that cultivates self-reflective consciousness can be considered svadhyaya (Sanskrit for study).”
To fully grasp this niyama, we have to leave behind the belief that to study meant to seek external knowledge and claim it for our own. Limiting the search for truth to outside sources—books, the Internet, sermons, lectures, others’ opinions—can be dangerous territory. The most important study we can ever do is internal. It is also precisely the work that we often try to avoid.
It is so much easier to absorb from the environment than to explore the landscape of the soul.
Spend time in meditation this week, seeking inner wisdom with no agenda. Spend just five minutes each day—either upon rising or before bed—sitting in silence. Choose one word to anchor you during this time. Contentment, peace, love and joy are just a few you might consider. Repeat this word silently to yourself throughout your five-minute meditation.
Niyama of Surrender (Ishvarapranidhana)
Contrary to its passive-sounding admonition, surrendering is an act that requires an understanding and adherence to all the other niyama to be successful.
We begin by abstaining from abhorrent behavior by practicing the yama of non-violence, non-lying, non-covetousness, non-sensuality, and non-possessiveness. Then we embrace the niyama of purity, contentment, austerity and study.
All of this leads us to a the climactic final niyama of surrender.
I understand surrender not as a moment but as a way of life. It must be done again and again—sometimes many times in a day…or even in an hour. It happens every time we choose to set aside our own agenda, our petulant self-will—our best-laid plans—and turn life over to a power we trust even more than our own schemes and plots.
In surrendering, we acknowledge that we are not the authors of our own lives, merely the actors on the stage. We are either going off our own script or following God’s. The irony is that when we follow God’s script, we become who we were truly meant to be rather than an ego-driven shadow of our divinely inspired selves. This encapsulates the beauty of surrender.
Surrender is easy when everything is going our way. It is an overlooked miracle lost in the chaos when things are falling apart.
Whether things are smooth sailing or rough going for you right now, try this culminating niyama out and see if you don’t find some small miracles cropping up where you least expected them!
Come back next month when we’ll reach that limb that so often gets dubbed the be-all-end-all limb of yoga—the asana (postures). Join us in examining this most physical of the limbs to see if, perhaps, there’s more going on than meets the eye.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Apprentice Editor: Guenevere Neufeld/Editor: Travis May
Photo: via author