by Helen Chandler
There are eight limbs of Yoga. They are Yama (Restraints), Niyama (Observances), Asana (Posture), Pranayama (Breath/Energy control), Pratyahara (Turning the senses inward), Dharana (Concentration), Dhyana (Meditation) and Samadhi (Absorption). These aspects of yoga are described by Patanjali (the father of yoga) in his writing of the Yoga Sutras. There are 196 sutras or aphorisms that inform us about all aspects of life (from a code of conduct to one’s vision of the true Self). And though there are other translations of the yoga sutras, we will explore the translation and commentary of B.K.S Iyengar in his book Light on the Yoga Sutras. This article focuses on Niyama. Patajali writes in the second chapter, 32nd Sutra II.32: Cleanliness, contentment, religious zeal, self-study and surrender of the self to the supreme Self (also translated as Lord or God) are the niyamas. [The Sanskrit: “sauca, santosa tapah, svadhyaya, Isvarapranidhani niyamah”] Gurugi explains that while yama is the universal social practice, the niyama evolves from individual practice. These are yoga’s spiritual disciplines.
Let’s explore each Niyama separately: Saucha (Cleanliness) – There are two types of cleanliness, internal, and external. Bathing is external, asana and pranayama are internal. Asana and Pranayana condition and cleanse the body, and mind (thoughts, words and actions).
Santosa (Contentment) – is the practice of BEING where you are. This brings about cheerfulness and benevolence, because being present in this moment removes worry and fear.
Tapas (religious zeal) – The word “religious” is burdened with many connotations, but here it is meant as a devotion in the practice of yoga. So that we cultivate a burning effort, in the development of self-discipline, purification and dedicated practice.
Svadyaya (Self Study) – Self-evaluation enlightens the practitioner. Finding a good teacher, going to class, and reading texts on yoga are a good beginning, and every student has to do this. However, without a personal practice and self-evaluation, the effects of asana, pranayama and meditation may not be internalized. We have to check ourselves to determine if we are following the principles of yoga. Are our behaviors supporting our yoga practice, and are we practicing yoga in a mindful way so that it supports our best and authentic self? This is critical in our path of bringing the individual self to the universal self.
Isvara Pranidana (resignation to the Creator, surrender to God, making God the target of concentration). The operative word here is surrender. Each of us has our own belief system about what God is, or if God is. I choose to interpret this broadly to mean that we should surrender ourselves to our authentic selves, to awareness and to the greater good. This surrender frees us of possessiveness. According to Gurugi, the observance of yama (non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, continence, and non-covetousness or hoarding) “…support our practice of niyama and the practice of niyama disciplines one to follow the principles of yama”. For example, he tells us that non-violence brings purity of thought and deed, truthfulness leads to contentment, non-covetousness leads to tapas and so on. Likewise, cleanliness leads to non-violence (as cleanliness is innately nurturing), and contentment leads to truthfulness (if one is content, then the truth flows more easily).
Our yoga practice then becomes broader than what we experience in our asana class. We
integrate yama and niyama into asana and pranayama. Our asana and pranayama in turn, inform us about our observance of yama and niyama. We take yoga with us into our daily lives, we feel sutra: more content, we interact more truthfully and benevolently with ourselves and with others; we become more self-aware and are willing to surrender to a greater purpose. Our path of yoga is integrative, transforming us from the individual self to the universal self.