The Niyamas are a means of controlling our inner world. Which is ever more important in today’s fast paced life. They provide a set of guidelines that can help us navigate the line between the physical manifestations we see all around us and the subtle knowing within us that there is more to our life than material possessions.
The Yamas were very much about our outward control. Practising the Yamas gives us control of our ego, of our physical actions and how we interact with the world. They are a guide as to how the Yogi should interact with the external environment. The Niyamas, in contrast, are a means of disciplining the inner self, that part of us that typically remains hidden from everyone else.
When we look at the Niyamas, they are designed to teach us control, discipline, focus and self knowledge. All these things affect and are related to how we show up in the world everyday, but on a more subtle level than the yamas. The yamas teach us not to be violent towards others, not to lie, steal, be possessive and practise sexual restraint. Which could be practised by anyone really, not necessarily those on a spiritual quest! The Niyamas bring us that bit deeper because they start the process of conditioning the mind to first obey. The more closely the Niyamas are followed and integrated into our everyday lives, the more focused we become on our spiritual journey and connection to the All. Where our mind’s focus goes, so energy flows! For this reason, persistent practise of the Yamas and Niyamas guides us along a spiritual journey towards enlightenment.
1. Śaucha – Cleanliness.
Saucha means cleanliness or purity. It applies to our body, mind and actions. Keeping our body clean focuses our attention on aligning our vibrational energy with that of the All. It reminds us that we are in pursuit of a higher calling. Similarly, not thinking foul thoughts and wasting energy on jealousy, possessiveness, or hatred, allows us to spend our energy on our spiritual practise.
The practise of cleanliness is a process of self purification. We are literally cleaning or purifying our energetic body to align with that of the All. Whatever actions we take in pursuit of this can be deeply liberating, whether it is purposefully cleaning the body, or sweeping the Yoga mat.
When we are clean in body and mind, it is easier to be clean in action. The language that we use, the way we speak of others, how we interact with others all falls under the umbrella of cleanliness. Keeping a clean lifestyle and a clean environment around us enables us not to waste our energy on clutter and too many possessions. Cleanliness means we aren’t wasting energy on forcing processed foods through our system. Cleanliness means we clear out the old to make way for the new. This means we leave old habits behind, old harmful ways that we have accumulated so that we can have space for the new us that is growing as we follow the Niyamas in our lives.
The concept of cleanliness in all areas of our life allows us to direct our energy where we want. Having applied cleanliness, when we sit down to meditate or step onto the yoga, we have a free flowing energy within our environment, body, emotion and mind.
It is important to understand that this Niyama does not mean that we should be lathering ourselves in toxic shampoos, body washes and perfumes. Cleanliness in the sense implied here means naturalness – our body and minds should be aligned with what comes naturally rather than something that is artificial and forced. As an example, natural organic soap would quailify under Cleanliness. Toxic shampoo that is harmful to us and the environment would not.
2. Santosha – contentment
Santosha, or contentment, is more apt in today’s world than perhaps at any time in the past. The amount of advertising today means that even in our own home, we get no peace from the call of companies to have the latest consumer goods. Even opening our smartphone can be an exercise in being bombarded with marketing designed to lure us into the call that our lives will be so much better if only we had this thing or that thing. It is never ending.
Add to this the sheer comparative force of social media and very quickly we can find ourselves suffering all kinds of anxiety. Social media shows us the snapshots of everybody else’s perfect life! And we buy into it. Hook, line and sinker, we feel inadequate because we don’t have what everybody else has!
Contentment then is a call to us to examine all the blessings we currently have. Not just the material goods we own but on a deeper level, that we can breathe, walk, talk and communicate. That we have food and water running right into our house. That we feel safe. That if all our goods were stripped away from us that we would still be able to survive.
This Niyama is very much a call to consider what it is that is truly important to us. Not the easiest at times when there is so much pressure on us to conform to some ideal that is illusive because it is us who have constructed it. We take a bit from each person we know, a bit from social media, a bit from advertising and we mesh them all together and we think that this is where we should be. We begin thinking how happy we will be ‘if’ we could just reach this level. Instead, we need to recognise that this idea is meaningless because it is based on fear. The fear of not having enough, the fear of not being perfect the way we are. The fear that our body is ugly, or that money means something.
Contentment then, can be a powerful practise in directing our energy towards a higher purpose. Unconsumed by a nonsensical race towards acquiring ever more of everything, we begin to free ourselves on a deeper level to just be. Contentment allows us to be ourselves and recognise that we hold a part of the divine within us and seek to recognise the divine in everything and everyone. In this state, we become happy with ourselves, happy with life, happy to just experience and teach. The practise of Santosha brings with it an optimism which serves to elevate all around us.
Contentment is a powerful state to hold because it truly means that we cannot be manipulated by others with advertising or marketing
3. Tapas – Discipline
Daily discipline is required to bring ourselves to a state of enlightenment. Thus, the practise of Yoga should be undertaken daily. Building discipline can be done in many ways – both on and off the mat. Anything that we do when we don’t feel like it, helps build discipline. If you feel like not doing something, arise at once and do it before you have time to convince yourself any further that it need not be done right now
By persistent practise, do we begin to access the deeper levels of ourselves. Persistence in meditation quietens the chattering mind. Persistence in asana teaches the body to obey. Persistence leads us to firstly strengthen and secondly, understand our own inner force. Without the patient persistent practise of anything, it is difficult to be good at it! Therefore, resolve to spend time practising yoga. Doing some everyday is better than doing a lot once in a while.
This might be the simplest of the Niyamas but in practise, it can be hardest. The times when we come home exhausted and haven’t done our yoga, or when it’s freezing outside and we must go to the yoga studio, or we know we are buying something because everyone else has it – these are the times that discipline is required. These are the times when we actually build our inner strength.
4. Svadhyaya – Self study
Svadhyaya literally translates as self reading. It has been taken to mean the reading of sacred scriptures. This practise of reading spiritual works helps us to understand our own meaning. It provokes us and makes us contemplate our own purpose and pathway in life. Although the sutras are an obvious place to start, the practise of Svadhyaya can be applied to more than just yoga philosophy – any spiritual book can be used.
Svadhyaya is about recollecting or reconnecting with what we truly are – spiritual beings that inhabit a physical shell for a small space of time. Self study or studying scriptures can bring a deeper understanding and awareness to our everyday lives as the layers of our ignorance are peeled back. If we don’t take the time to step back and have a period of reflection, we become consumed with the daily realities of our lives. We get caught up in the rush, the money, the kids, marriage and socialising. Svadhyaya attempts to break that cycle by asking us to take some time out to deepen our knowledge. That knowledge serves to deepen our understanding and illuminates the way forward.
The realizations that take place from reading cannot be understated and the more we educate ourselves the better equipped we are to use that knowledge in our everyday lives.
Self study is also the way we understand our own being. Pausing in meditation or becoming consciously aware of the way our habits and routine rule us, makes it possible to put in place new routines and new pathways that will serve us better. Practical examples of self study could be journaling with a view to picking out habits that negatively impact our lives. Or sitting quietly with our negative feelings until we understand why we repeat them over and over to the point of beating ourselves up. Self study is the way we free ourselves so that we can become something better.
5. Ishvara Pranidhana – Self-Surrender
The last of the Niyamas calls on us to surrender to the higher power. It can be a difficult one to take on board. Very often in life we are aiming towards something – a better job, newer car, more money, a bigger house and we convince ourselves that we need to work harder or hit more targets to obtain that which we want.
Letting go, and surrendering to the universe is an act of trust. It doesn’t mean that we become lazy or negligent in our duties, but it does mean going about our day with the quiet confidence that what we seek is ours already. This surrender is more an act of faith in our unity with the divine consciousness that flows through all things. When we seek something, it is hard to get because our thoughts and actions confirm to us that we do not have it. Conversely, when we surrender in the quiet confidence that it is already ours, we begin to manifest that end goal into a physical reality.
Letting go of our future plans, anxieties and worries means we can be fully present in the current moment. There is only now, only now can you ever enjoy at the present time. We literally skip the feelings of happiness and contentment that we could experience now because we are wound up about some future event or possibility. Surrendering means we detach from this expectation which leaves us free to enjoy the here and now.