The Niyamas are the five observances or basic rules for a healthy and happy life. This is the second limb of yoga and provides an ongoing foundation for a solid yoga practice.
Saucha - Cleanliness
Saucha, (also spelled Śauca or Shaucha) is from the Sanskrit meaning cleanliness or purity. This is the first of the Niyamas or positive duties or observances of a yoga practice. These duties complement the Yamas or restraints of a yoga practice that we have discussed in prior weeks.
In the physical world we can all relate to what it means to have a clean house and a clean work space. We feel better and more at ease without clutter in our lives. But often not taking care of these simple matters leads to "clutter" in many other aspects of our lives. I have often found that tackling a source of clutter in my life leads to clarity in other parts.
Saucha is also important about how we take care of our physical bodies. Beyond hygiene, are we conscious of what we eat and drink that is clean? When I have my junk food moments, I do not feel clear and that affects all aspects of my desire to be more pure. By consciously make the right decisions every moment as to what goes into our bodies, we can be clean on the inside.
While the physical aspect of Saucha is perhaps more obvious, like the Yamas, Saucha also extends to thought and word.
In our thoughts, Saucha can be muddled with the thoughts of prejudice, anger, hate, fear, pride and greed. Examining these thoughts and meditating on their source or cause to help them dissipate is where our meditation practice of Saucha begins. Then moving forward we erase these thoughts from our mental vocabulary and our lives become spiritually "cleaner!"
When our thoughts are clean so becomes our word which is the outward reflection of our thoughts. But words are an imperfect representation of our thoughts and can lead to misunderstandings. So sometimes when we communicate, what is sent is not what we intended. So again we have to clean up the communication.
I find Saucha to be an interesting Niyama to meditate on as I often find my monkey mind being a product of my need to clean up my space, thoughts and communication.
Samtosha - Contentment
The second Niyama or observance is samtosha or contentment. The concept is straight forward. Be content with what you have. This frees us from the unnecessary suffering of what we don't have.
Samtosha is perhaps the easiest of the Niyamas to understand but living in a culture where more is better, makes the practice of Samtosha is sometimes more challenging.
Practicing Samtosha in the most simple way is to be satisfied with our physcial possessions and not be in constant battle to always want more. This is not a prohibition on consumption but an attitude to be in the moment accepting for what we have.
On our mats we can practice by accepting where our bodies are when we do an asana. Thinking you have to push further or being frustrated by not touching your head to your knee is not contentment.
Patanjali puts it most succinctly: "Contentment brings Joy!"
Contentment is practiced in meditation and finding a state of contentment is a form of mediation. The monkey mind may be busy, but, just being OK with what is happening and not trying to follow it or make it go away is practicing Samtosha.
Tapas - Heat
The third Niyama or observances of yoga is called Tapas. No, not an appetizer, the word Tapas most commonly is translated as heat.
But many also translate the word to mean discipline. But discipline in this sense means a positive discipline. It is the action you take to bring a positive energy to what you choose to do. You feel heat rise through your body or mind as a result of the action you take.
An example in the physical realm is the physical heat you feel when you are doing intense asanas or any sort of physical activity where you are putting all your effort in that activity. It is the heat you sense as you focus on your breath.
I am going out on a limb here and say that Tapas is a form of directed passion. It is where we put all our focus into an activity with our mind and body in a single purpose. The outcome is a oneness with the process. Staying disciplined and focused is the observance of Tapas.
Tapas may be useful to us for creating change, eradicating bad habits and moving forward into bliss. For example, we may want to change our diet and quickly realize that what we do is a function of habit. By applying the focus and discipline into passionate selection of what we bring to our mouths every moment, we change the habit of doing something we have been not so conscious about.
Tapas is also interpreted to mean the burning off of impurities through discipline. By removing all distractions through focused effort we eliminate all the thoughts and activities which do not serve us. Some also interpret the Tapas to mean the "glow" that we emit when we have cleared all our impurities.
You can start with taking Tapas to your mat with discipline, making each asana count. Check to see every asana is perfect for you in that moment and let go of all other distraction.
Svadhyaya - Contemplation
The 4th Niyama in Sanskrit is Svadhyaya. The most common translation of Svadhyaya from sanskrit has been self study. Because of the trans literal approach, the depth and breadth of of this important Niyama, I believe, is a bit muddy. A second translation sometimes used is "virtuous observance." So I doubt there is really a single English term to appropriately describe this practice and so we need to work a bit to understand its essence.
Some of the ways we can practice Svadhyaya:
Study our physical bodies, emotions and thoughts and how they behave.
Study the philosophy of great thinkers, poets and writers and how those writings may be absorbed into our sense of being.
Contemplation of any aspect of the universe and its corresponding interrelationship to our being.
Silent meditation of our plans, values and activities to better understand our journey in this life.
I also think Svadhyaya is easily realized in our daily activities:
Creating art as a representation of our senses combined with thought is a contemplative act. Or even as simple as taking a picture to capture a moment that we connect to because of synergy, beauty or whatever brings us pause to contemplate that connection.
Svadhyaya is examining what we do in our work and our play that brings us to understand where we are and where we are going. Ask yourself: Are the actions, words and thoughts we choose leading us to more fulfilling, realized Self?
Ishvara Pranidhana - Surrender
The translation of Ishvara Pranidhana would most closely appear to be "surrender to the divine." This fifth Niyama is probably the most challenging in our culture yet so easy to understand once we finally experience it.
First it is important to understand what you consider the "divine" to be. For everyone it is different. For me, I see it as the energy that sparks or supports all life.. So that is what I surrender to. That energy feels universal and since it feeds me, it is also feels right to surrender to it. But it is not just about me. That same principle is in all that is living and is created and by surrendering to it, I am it.
"Surrender" like many words of our language can be taken many different ways and often colloquial connotations can create a new meaning. For example it may feel like you have to give up something or be defeated. Sometimes the word "devotion" is used to amplify the connotation. Taken together we see that this is a positive decision not a forced option.
A simple example may be found in our daily lives. When we make music or sing, we surrender to creating beauty without thought to other distraction and begin to experience a form of Ishvara Pranidhana. When we find joy in the normally mundane like washing the dishes or cleaning our space we experience a form of Ishvara Pranidhana. When we come to our mats and surrender not to ourselves but ideals of yoga we experience a form of Ishvara Pranidhana. Every meditation that is devoted to our understanding of the divine is Ishvara Pranidhana.
Adding the understanding of Ishvara Pranidhana to our yoga vocabulary brings us one step closer to finding our bliss.