The second limb on the Raja yoga path is Niyamas. In Bringing Yoga to Life by Donna Farhi, she refers to niyamas as "inner observances" which act as a code for living soulfully. (p. 31)
They can also be considered "individual conduct" as the yamas (the first limb on the 8-limbed path) were defined as "social conduct."
The niyamas in order are:
- saucha: cleanliness/purity
- santosha: contentment
- tapas: austerity/discipline
- swadhyaya: study
- isvarapranidhana: surrender to the divine
Practicing the niyamas means it's time to turn inward. Each yama is best begun by looking inward, but with each niyama, the entire practice is about you. It's time here to do some examination of us before we proceed further along the path.
The first niyama, which can be translated as cleanliness and/or purity, is saucha.
These directives, the "to do lists" of the niyamas are truly of an individual nature--no one else can decide for you what it means to live with purity. While there is a hygienic component (a slovenly yogini is certainly not practicing purely) this niyama is about being the best person that you can.
How? I think it's up to us individually to decide.
We have so many choices to make—daily small choices and larger life choices. The options are overwhelming at times—to be a vegetarian or not? To have children or not? To buy organic or not? Why? To drive or take the bus? Etc, etc, ad nauseum.
I think a good practice for ourselves is to daily ask ourselves why we do something a certain way, or why it is that we think a certain thing. This sort of self-questioning is a good way to determine whether or not we are choosing a lifestyle which is to our best benefit. It's also a good way for us to question our own sense of reality. Assuming that everything is real is one of the four flawed perceptions. Can you expand your notion of reality?
We may even want to examine which yoga practice is best for us. For some of us, the practice of yoga asana is not the best way forward. Especially for those of us who have intense injuries or are entering this practice later in our lives--we may want to consider other options—perhaps bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion or jnana yoga, the yoga of wisdom are better suited to our individual needs.
Start practicing saucha by asking some questions. They don't have to be big, but this daily practice may provide you with the insight you need to live with a pure heart and mind. Choose pathways that will best allow you to actualize your potential for pure consciousness.
The second niyama or individual conduct is also the namesake of this blog—Santosha. If you're curious as to why I chose this as its name, check out the very first post. If you're curious what a niyama could possibly be, check out the first posting on Yamas.
Okay, here we go.
Santosha can be summed up in a single word--contentment. Not happiness or joy, mind you. But straightforward contentment—not happy, not sad.
In my interpretation of santosha, when we practice the second niyama, we are striving for a sense of peace of mind in each moment. It is absolutely impossible to be happy and joyous at each moment in our lives—we are bound to experience pain and suffering on some level at some time. But through regular practice—daily asana, meditation and whatever other yogic practices move you, we begin to develop the tools to face each challenge of life and remain content in those moments.
This sense of contentment will not come easily. Through years and years of practice, you will begin to see the world with a discerning eye, enough to realize that to experience a moment fully, any moment, you must experience all the joy and pain available in it. And then to take the next step, you can have peace of mind within that moment.
Allow me to offer a daily life example.
Many people dislike their jobs, correct? But also consider that the daily grind of going to work is a necessary evil to pay the bills, afford a family, etc.
I think that within this negative feeling toward your job, that there is the possibility for contentment, despite the suffering. There is the possibility to slightly shift your perspective to recognize that even though you have aspirations of being something bigger and better in your life, that this present moment experience of your job is a natural stepping stone. Can you try to find some sense of santosha there? Can you try to see the peace available through moment to moment awareness?
How do we practice santosha on the mat/meditation cushion?
I think we have to be content within each practice that we showed up to do the work. Not every asana practice will produce amazing results. At times you will be able to stay in headstand for 5 minutes and at other times, you will fall out on to your back. Sometimes in your meditation, you will easily find single-pointed awareness and sometimes your mind will be a gaggle of monkeys. Can you simultaneously practice non-attachment to the moments that are "good" and contentment with each experience no matter the outcome? This is the beginning of your santosha work.
Tapas the third niyama translates as discipline or austerity, but can be better understood as "heat" or something, the thing, that drives your practice.
The more regularly you practice, the more momentum or heat you are able to create to feed the continuation of your practice.
You practice, you begin to see results.
You practice regularly, your life begins to change.
The benefits of yoga asana practice are many--physically, mentally, emotionally—they are too numerous to list. The benefits of a meditation practice are also many—mental clarity, more level emotional state—again too numerous to create a simple list.
Despite the ability of these disciplines to heal the body, mind and spirit, there is a catch.
Isn't there always a catch?
It is this: in order to achieve the much desired benefits of practice, one must cultivate a regularity of practice. Through this regularity, we can begin to see our own weak spots, the areas of our lives on which we need to focus. If we only practice yoga asana once a week and meditate once a month, we are not exposed to the particulars of our own needs. How can we begin to listen to the focus of our thoughts—which may bring to light our personal samskaras or life patterns—if we don't sit down and do so each day?
Well, simply put, we cannot.
In this lifetime, if you wish to shed light on the true nature of your Self, if you wish to discover the fullness of life available to you (it's in there), come to the mat regularly and come to the meditation cushion even more often.
Nothing that's worth achieving comes easily. But the more consistently you practice, the more tapas you create, the more clarity you will have to see your Self as you really are.
Svadhyaya the fourth of five niyamas is the "study of one's self." In Living the Yamas and Niyamas by Aadil Palkhivala, he writes:
As yoga teachers, it's our responsibility to help students develop a practice of constant inner reflection so that they will become aware of the changes that yoga is making. This can be done by asking such questions as, "Why are you here? If you had all the money, all the time, all the energy you wanted, what would you do with your life?" In my teaching, I find that these sorts of questions stimulate the practice of svadhyaya.
When we first begin a yoga practice, there are many overwhelming and potentially confusing new concepts, i.e. "you want me to put my foot where?" and "why are we chanting om?" After a few classes, as we begin to get more comfortable with our teachers and begin to enjoy the after-effects of practice, we may begin to notice a new sense of ourselves that we'd never experienced prior. The sense that we feel more alive, or that we have musculature that we never even knew about. This turning inward and observing your personal growth is the essence of the second niyama. You can even begin your classes by asking yourself, "what did I come here to achieve?" And, any answer is the right one for you today, even if it is six-pack abs or peace of mind. They are all just stepping stones along the path.
In terms of your asana practice, svadhyaya is the part of the practice in which you tune in to what you are feeling. From the observation deck of the mind, you begin practice by sensing—how does your breath feel as you embark upon your practice? What bodily sensations are you experiencing? What is your mental state?
Observe, non-judgmentally, the state of your being prior to practice. And then you continuously check in as you progress. After each pose, come back to your observation tower and have a look. Have you been able to increase the flow of prana? Is your breath calm, steady and deep? Is the body becoming more supple, or are you holding tension? How about your mind? Are you making grocery lists and envying your neighbor's bakasana or can you quiet the ticker tape of the mind and tune into your practice?
In terms of your day-to-day life practice, svadhyaya is put into practice by watching your emotional states. Especially those that are uncomfortable such as anger, shame or sadness. Was it an external force that created your emotional state? If so, in the future, rather than jumping to an increased emotional state, can you begin to step back and observe the situation, observe the activity of the mind before your reactive sense of self (EGO) flies off the handle?
This capability is years in the making—and isn't easy. But the more often you come to the mat and come to the cushion, the more you can "study the self" to be able to soothe your potential reactive mind before it even starts.
This practice of yoga is all about self-transformation--the possibility of waking up to experience the joy of the real you. So quite naturally, you have to take a darn good look at yourself, spend some time with your svadhyaya practice, before you can begin to make true, effective progress.
Yoga Sutra 2.45 states:
Perfection in samadhi arises from dedication to Ishvara
Samadhi is experienced from surrendering the results of action to and deeply respecting the inner, universal light of knowledge
Okay, it's time for me to get real. When I did my first teacher training and we (I hesitate to say studied) learned about the yamas and niyamas I pretty much had no idea what was going on. My head was so far in the asana clouds that I couldn't see much that had to do with yogic philosophy. But! I was always interested. Just more from a distance. I wanted to know about yoga philosophy, but I didn't necessarily want to live it. As time has progressed, I am pleased to say that my perspective has shifted to allow space for a life based in yoga.
When isvarapranidhana was first explained to me, it was described as "devotion to god." It's a pretty good start, but there is so much more to it. For one thing, isvarapranidhana is part of a three-step process to weaken the kleshas and work toward samadhi. The other two parts are tapas and svadhyaya or the fire created from regular practice and self inquiry; both which are up to you, the practitioner. They are very much something that you have control of, whereas isvarapranidhana is about giving it up to something higher than yourself.
Indians have no problem with this step. They are all about devotion. Where else in the world could you find businesses called "Sri Hanuman Used Tires" or a clothing boutique called "Jaya Laxshmi"? You can't walk a block in India without coming across a statue, burning incense or flowers laid down as puja. It's as though they were put on earth to devote themselves to something greater.
So, that's what Indians do. But it's not necessarily what we as westerners have to do. We are often cynical and jaded about things religious or devotional. I get it! I was raised in a tradition that I no longer practice and have certain angry feelings toward said tradition. Five years ago, I would have been the last person on earth capable of writing a blog post about "devotion to god."
Alright. Here's where it's up for interpretation.
Ishvara is not necessarily "god" in the traditional sense. It can also be understood as "the universal teacher" or the light within you capable of connecting to the light present in someone else. Or maybe for you it's the "inner teacher" or personal sense of something more than you. In other words, you can be a practicing atheist and still identify in some regards with ishvara. It certainly won't be in the traditional sense intended, but likely more of a "giving it up to my inner teacher" idea.