This is the second part in a series of eight articles about what Ashtanga really means, as derived from Patanjali’s ancient Yoga Sutras.
Niyama, the second limb of Ashtanga, involves self-discipline and spiritual observances. Regularly attending temple or church services, writing a journal, developing your own personal meditation practices, or making a habit of taking contemplative walks alone are all examples of niyamas in practice. (Read about Yama, the first limb of Ashtanga)
The following 5 principles refer to the inner observances that relate to our thinking, behaviour and discipline in our daily lives.
1) Shaucha: Cleanliness
I remember a discussion about body hygiene and cleanliness some years ago during my first yoga training camp. We, the trainees, were staying in a tropical jungle, and in close proximity with each other for many hours daily where temperatures reached the low 30s. Hygiene wasn’t a priority for some, and due to our constant togetherness, some tensions flared up. My teacher approached this with kindness and compassion. Without singling anyone out or making anyone feel bad, he introduced ‘Shaucha’ to us in one of our group meetings. He encouraged us to take great pride in the care of our physical bodies, which he referred to as a sacred special gift and instrument, a temple even.
Shaucha refers to personal hygiene and purity of mind as well as keeping the external environment around us clean. Clutter inhibits thinking and clouds one’s concentration.
When my desk or mind is cluttered with To- Do’s, it is difficult to concentrate on anything else. If I try to sit down to meditate, but haven’t finished the “laundry”, then I end up meditating about all the “laundry” that awaits me. However, when I do what must be done first, I can more easily concentrate on my practice. Shaucha also affects Santosha (contentment), the next niyama.
2) Santhosha: Contentment
We live at a time where the mind is easily seduced with perceived needs. We always want more and trick ourselves to think we need more to be content. This endless pursuit of acquiring (clothes, approval from others, money, followers, etc) may be stunting personal and spiritual growth. In our attempt to constantly fulfil our desires and needs, we miss the opportunity to enjoy what we have at the moment.
By relying on external stimuli to bring us contentment, we hold ourselves back from enjoying existing blessings in life. We cannot enjoy the present moment as we hold deep fears from the void, and don’t feel complete. When the mind is fixed on cravings and desires, we believe we can only feel happy when all perceived needs are met, which in itself is a trap as our needs are often endless. This constant seeking destroys our ability to be in the here and now. We have to learn to purify our minds (Tapas) through self knowledge, and this will help us realize we actually already have all we need inside of us in order to experience contentment.
3) Tapas: Purification
While visiting the Perth Mint several years ago, I witnessed how gold bars were made. The goldsmith showed us the purification process: he heated the rough gold nuggets at a very high temperature, melting them into glowing liquid and pouring them into a rectangular brick cast before dipping them into cold water. What emerged from water was a solid and pure gold bar. The intense heat removes the impurities, he told us.
Throughout our lives, we pick up impurities along the way and we need to go through “fire” or Tapas, to remind us of our pure nature. Alistair Shearer in his translation of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali eloquently describes Tapas as “a process of transmutation, an inner alchemy that burns away the dross of imperfection”.
Detoxification of the mind and body is often very uncomfortable, requiring much effort and internal heat. Through hardships and successes, opportunities to love, opportunities to be loved, and other experiences, we gain a more refined sense of self. A good yoga practice eliminates toxins, and guides us towards a strong and healthy body and mind. We shed superficial layers as we evolve through the ebbs and flows of life, and take our yogic practices beyond the mat.
4) Svadhyaya: Self-Knowledge
I once attended a course where we were asked to choose something from our suitcases and place it on a table, where it would remain for the duration of the month-long course. I chose a small mirror as I decided to create an intention of being able to “see” myself differently as the training progressed. Throughout that month of practice and my experiences, I became aware of the masks I wore. Through awareness and practice, I learned how to peel off the masks. The exercise planted a deeper seed within me about the power of ongoing self-reflection.
The true cause of pain and suffering is one’s own ignorance of the true self. Only light (knowledge) can remove the darkness (ignorance). Svadhyaya means study of one’s self, and this could be via introspection and meditation, as well by reading sacred books, such as The Gita or The Yoga Sutras, or any other text that allows you to delve deep within yourself.
5) Ishvara Pranidhana: Surrender, Devotion
This final niyama is perhaps the essence of yoga, because without it, we succumb to ‘ego’ and slow down our progress. The Yoga Sutras say devotion to something deeper than ourselves plays a vital role towards self- realization. The ego will tell us we can do it on our own. When we recognize we need help, we enhance our devotion and allow ourselves to surrender to the Supreme. This type of surrender is very different from giving up or feeling failure. Yoga reminds us of our oneness with everyone and everything. We become more humble and purified.
The five niyamas are like our own personal spiritual compasses. They shine light onto the process of purification in how we view and care for our body and mind. Along the path of purification, we release the masks that dim our light. As with everything, through practice it gets easier. Observing the niyamas brings great inner strength, and we become the steady and bright flame that is undeterred by the wind.
Sherriann Melwani is a yoga teacher who shuttles between Hong Kong, Bali and Singapore, and is a freelance writer for Yoga Journal Singapore.
Read about ‘Asana’ next.