By: Juliana Cole – Living Yogi, Yoga Instructor, Studio Manager at Yoga Heights
Hello Yogis! Thanks for tuning in once again as we continue our discovery of the Eight Limb Path of Yoga. Last month, we got into the Yamas, the first limb, and in this post, we will look more closely at the Niyamas.
Quick review – we are exploring the eight limbs or stages of yoga which are all about the practical application of yoga. Yoga can be considered the study of the mind with the intention of understanding the workings of the mind, connecting with one’s innermost self and feeling at peace and at one with everything around you. The eight limbs are offered as a means to reaching this ultimate goal and should be practiced all at once, all the time. Yes, that sounds like a lofty goal and it is! In a way, that’s the point: this is a practice that is constant and though at times can seem easy, there is the inevitable eb and flow which implies that there are times when it seems impossible. I think it is safe to say that most people embark on a yogic path because they are drawn to it, so the work (which eventually becomes ever present) is truly a labor of love. Let’s get into it then- the second limb of this wheel or path of yoga- The Niyamas!
The Yamas and the Niyamas make up what could be considered the ten ethical principles by which we guide our thoughts and actions. We reviewed the Yamas last month, discussing the five moral disciplines or restraints. The Niyamas are the five ethical principles that deal more with rules of conduct and individual or self discipline. How we treat ourselves in order to be most equipped to live a full, happy and peaceful life. The five Niyamas are Saucha, Santosha, Tapas, Svadhyaya and Isvarapranidhana.
Saucha means purity, or “that and nothing else”. This discipline talks about living purely in various aspects including our bodies, minds, and our environment. The terms uncluttered, clean, and unadulterated are often used when describing saucha. Starting with the body, the practice of saucha is both internal and external. Eating clean foods that work for your specific body encourages good digestive health and proper functioning of the internal organs, relieving the body of the stress of feeling bad. Cleansing the body through regular bathing (and it is recommended in many yoga traditions to bathe just before practicing asana and about 15 minutes after practicing asana) and practicing asana and pranayama, the postures and breathwork respectively, is how we purify the body. Similarly, for the purification of the mind, practicing saucha means nourishing and feeding the mind in positive and pure ways and ridding the mind of impurities such as hatred, anger, and delusion. When it comes to activities that stimulate the mind, such as reading, listening to music, and engaging in conversations, practicing saucha means choosing content that elevate the mind, rather than confuse, worry or depress the mind. It is in the study of the mind and of the self where we are able to burn off or get rid of the impurities, leaving the mind clear, at peace and lucid. Finally, our environment makes a great impact on our sense of peace. Maintaining a clean and uncluttered space, particularly spaces that are dedicated for practicing yoga, prevents potential distractions from self study. Practicing saucha or purity enables us to see things clearly and engage with the world from an honest perspective – to experience life more vividly.
Santosha means contentment. This niyama asks us to feel satisfied and void of expectations in any given experience. This is not to say that we should practice being happy in all situations, rather that we are able to see things clearly and without the cloud of our own expectations so as to be able to move gracefully and seamlessly through various experiences. Practicing santosha means that we practice acceptance of what is and give up the need to control what we cannot. This can seem increasingly difficult to do when living in society where you are constantly navigating various interests and outside influences, however this is an excellent foreground for practicing santosha. Being able to navigate potentially conflicting interests, experiences and external forces with a steady and clear mind helps us reduce the time and effort it takes to de-escalate from feelings of stress or disappointment.
Tapas is often translated as blazing or burning fire. Tapas, or zeal, is the practice of enthusiastic and burning effort or energy focused on achieving a goal. In the practice of yoga, tapas is often called to mind when practicing asana; how often do you hear your teacher say something along the lines of, “fire up your…”, or, “bring energy into this pose”. Beyond bringing tapas to your physical asana practice, tapas can be engaged in all aspects of life. In even the most seemingly mundane activities, engaging tapas, or this burning fire towards a goal, asks that you bring a sharp focus and your energy to that activity. This zeal prevents you from going off course and enables you to not only complete the task or activity at hand but to generate energy towards that activity such that the completion of it fills you with a great sense of satisfaction. Effort that is not wasted or derailed, with a clear and sharp focus towards a goal makes the nectar of the fruit that much sweeter.
Svadhyaya is the niyama that talks about self study. Unlike study that we practice from reading, attending lectures, or listening to a teacher other than our own self, svadhyaya is completely about self-reflection and self study. This niyama is, to me, difficult to describe because the methods that we use to study ourselves can be so vast and are so subjective. Svadhyaya can be a practice of daily journaling, or simple moments taken throughout the day to ask yourself why you did the thing you just did or thought the thing you just thought. Svadhyaya can be a meditation practice or it can be a creative or active outlet. Any activity that we engage in that enables us to learn about and better understand our own self, body and mind, is svadhyaya. The interesting thing here is that at the onset, there can be an insecurity about being able to trust oneself in this very personal and reflective study, particularly when the person deals with confusing or conflicting ideas of who they are (this is often derived from perceiving yourself as you think you are seen from the outside world or as you wish to be seen from the outside world). It is often recommended to connect with a mentor, one who can give you feedback, reflecting back your observations, as you embark in self-study.
Isvarapranidhana means devotion or celebration of a higher power. Talking and writing about a higher power can turn some people away, so I want to use the term spirituality here instead of higher power. This taps into areas that may make people uncomfortable and if it is not for you, that is perfectly and obviously ok…not all aspects of yoga are going to reach us all equally nor with eager positivity. The practice of isvarapranidhana acknowledges that there is force or an energy greater than our own that is omnipresent and that we should take time, even small moments to celebrate that. This, like with svadhyaya, can be explored in a wide variety of ways and is most potent when it is personal. For me, the practice of isvarapranidhana happens in organic ways and I don’t always anticipate when the moment comes. I find moments in my day to stop, breath deeply, and feel a gentle release throughout my body and it is in this moment when a sliver of joy that comes from seemingly nowhere arises in me. I call that moment gratitude for this life and it is in that moment that I celebrate the spiritual/higher power/that thing that you can’t put your finger on but you feel it and it’s powerful.
As we continue walking through this discussion of the eight limb path of yoga, I’d be interested to learn ways in which other people practice the Yamas and Niyamas, or how they show up in your life. This are simple things to contemplate that can lead to deep discussion and a deeper understanding of oneself and this life we are in. I find the greatest value in this exploration comes when we can share our experiences and ideas with others and we start to build a stronger community around the practice of yoga. I invite you to share either in the comment section of this blog or in person, the next time I see you in the studio! You know where you can find me; either at 3506 Georgia Ave NW or 255 Carroll St NW. Also, tune in to how and when you are thinking of or practicing the Yamas and the Niyamas. That reflective process is a powerful tool for deepening our understanding.
Keep walking with me as we explore Asana next month!