The Niyamas: Keys to Spiritual Progress
Rolf Sovik, PsyD
May 4, 2020Year Long Meditation
The yamas and niyamas together are the 10 powerful guidelines that form the first two rungs of raja yoga (royal yoga, the eight-runged path). If the yamas (restraints) are like the banks of a river, restraining the haphazard flow of inner energies, then the niyamas (observances) are the disciplines and observances that propel this stream forward toward its goal. The five niyamas are constructive tools for cultivating happiness and self-confidence; the opportunities to practice them arise wherever you may find yourself.
Shaucha means “purification; cleanliness.” It includes a number of techniques for cleansing the body as well as the mind, and it has even been called the aim of the entire system of yoga. Why does it have such significance? The sages say that shaucha is not only the foundation for bodily health, it is also the doorway to deeper and more tranquil states of meditation.
Connections between purification and health are easy to identify. For example, the dramatic lengthening of the human lifespan over the past century is widely attributed to improvements in sanitation. And the need for cleanliness both when handling food and in medical situations is well established. But purification has an even more intimate relationship with our health. The body, breath, and mind are all undergoing constant change—old cells are replaced by new ones; the breath ebbs and flows; thoughts enter and depart in a seemingly endless procession. At every layer of our being, nutrients are continually taken in and wastes discharged.
Blockages in the flow at any level are an invitation to trouble. And from the yogic point of view the accumulation of internal wastes (whether in the form of undigested food or undigested experience) is the primary cause of disease. The aim of shaucha is to remove internal toxins and wastes, and to select wisely from the many choices of food, emotions, and thoughts waiting to come in.
When the body is purified it enjoys physical health; when the mind is purified it becomes increasingly clear, friendly, and cheerful. It does not hold on to fear or anger, and self-doubts vanish quickly. All of these benefits, both internal and external, come about through the practice of yoga.
It is not difficult to recognize moments in life when shaucha can be applied productively. The trick is to grasp those moments and use them. For as the texts say, once the heart is purified, then the mind becomes one-pointed; when the mind is centered, the senses become calm; and when the senses are calmed, the way to self-realization is prepared.
The word santosha means “contentment” as well as “delight, happiness, joy.” We tend to equate it with the satisfaction of desires, but yogis tell us that true contentment is something quite different. The happiness that arises from fulfilling desires, they point out, is soon clouded by the birth of more cravings and frustrations. Contentment, they say, is quite different. It unfolds from an experience of acceptance—of life, of ourselves, and of whatever life has brought to us. Contentment is an aspect of living in the moment. When we are content, we are happy. Thus—and here is the key to this niyama—through the power of contentment, happiness becomes our choice.
But how do we achieve contentment when inwardly we are disappointed and striving for change and improvement? The answer is actually more practical than we might imagine: We create it. We commit ourselves to the yogic premise that whatever we have in the present moment is enough. And once we do this, happiness will find an enduring place in our lives; whatever aspirations we have for the future will simply add to our joy.
Practicing contentment means letting go of the past. It means not condemning ourselves for not being wiser, wealthier, or more successful than we are. It also means that we must free our mind of expectations. Then we will see life in a larger context and be able to ride its ups and downs with equanimity. Contentment allows us to know that we are making the right effort. Contentment also leads us to the next niyama, tapas, which complements and completes it.
The literal definition of tapas is “heat,” in this case the heat that builds during periods of determined effort. Tapas accompanies any discipline that is willingly and gladly accepted in order to bring about a change of some kind—whether it be improved health, a new habit, better concentration, or a different direction in life. Tapas focuses energy, creates fervor, and increases strength and confidence. The practice of asanas is a form of tapas for the body; meditation is a tapas that purifies and focuses the mind.
But tapas is not so much a specific action as it is the concerted internal effort that accompanies the action. Tapas can go hand in hand with any task—even something as mundane as cleaning the bathroom floor. Whenever we perform our actions with full determination and effort, they are performed with tapas. Just as a light beam can be focused and reorganized into a powerful laser, so does our determination focus diverse energies to increase internal fire. Far from the mindlessness of heavy-handed discipline, true tapas generates ardor and enthusiasm.
What is the value of performing actions with conscious determination and self-discipline? Picture a pile of stacked wood being gradually consumed by a steady flame. The fire both purifies and transforms— impurities are turned to ash while the energy contained in the wood is liberated in the form of light and heat. Acts of tapas are similar. They reduce lethargy, sloth, discouragement, doubt, and the ill effects of past actions to ashes; they liberate energy in the form of light and heat—in our case, joy and productive action.
A word of practical advice about tapas: be realistic. Through the ardor of tapas we may choose to make healthy changes in our life, but focusing on only one or two changes at a time is usually the best course. Take small steps that can be accomplished successfully. Find replacements for habits that are unproductive. And finally, if you find yourself focused on failure, remember that guilt magnifies its negative effects and keeps you preoccupied with the event that generated it in the first place. Forgive yourself easily while redoubling your determination and self-discipline.
Svadhyaya means, literally, “to recollect (to remember, to contemplate, to meditate on) the self.” It is the effort to know the self that shines as the innermost core of our being. By now, however, it must be apparent that within the context of yoga the word self requires some careful handling. In the everyday sense, “study of the self” implies self-analysis—the effort to gain a clearer understanding of our personality. Yoga approaches the theme of self-study quite differently. It acknowledges that analysis can provide important information, but yogis have long believed that no matter how many hours we give to it, self-analysis will not free us from the tensions of everyday existence. For that we must dive deeper.
Self-study begins with the study of writings that inspire us to feel the presence of the indwelling spirit. They encourage us by illustrating how life is transformed when we learn to concentrate and rest within. For example, this is how the Bhagavad Gita describes the joy of self-awareness: “One whose joy is within, who finds contentment within, whose light is within—such a yogi attains the enduring bliss of the higher self.” (5:24)
But inspiring as it is, such knowledge is of little use if we cannot apply it to ourselves. In the second stage of self-study we gain a working knowledge of ourselves through practicing the yamas and niyamas, the asanas, breath awareness, and meditation, and we learn to recognize when we are acting in harmony with our goals and when we are unconsciously acting counter to them. At this stage, self-awareness, contemplation, and mindfulness are powerful tools.
Over time, self-study is directed increasingly inward. When mantra is introduced into our meditation practice, it establishes a direct link to the self within. We sense an inward quietude, a state that lingers in our daily life, reducing conflict and calling us back again when our meditation time approaches.
Self-study is not prescriptive. Any practice of yoga can be part of it, as can the words of yogis, saints, and sages, as well as inspiration gained through the teachers we are drawn to. Follow your heart in choosing your path of study and let it nurture you.
Self-Surrender (Ishvara Pranidhana)
Ishvara refers to all-pervading consciousness; pranidhana means “to surrender.” Together, these words are most frequently translated as “self-surrender,” the last and most important of the niyamas, and perhaps the most difficult for students to embrace. The problem, of course, lies with the word surrender. To many of us it implies defeat—our will overwhelmed and forced into submission. And what could be more offensive to our sense of independence and self-responsibility than this?
To understand the importance of Ishvara pranidhana let us return briefly to the four instinctive urges: food, sleep, sex, and self-preservation. Appeasing them is an endless job. They can be regulated but never fully satisfied. When the four urges dictate the flow of life, the pursuit of happiness inevitably becomes dependent on externals. And one purpose of the yamas and niyamas is to regulate our wants so that life doesn’t become an endless round of such cravings and attachments.
Along with the four primitive urges, however, there is another powerful inner drive: the urge for self-realization. As strong and inexhaustible as the other four, this fifth urge is fulfilled through attending to our inner life, and its call is the voice of our inner self. When the outer world distracts us, it slips away, only to return later and call again.
Yoga shows us how to answer this call. Through the practical experiences we gather in our quest we are inspired to practice more. Our enthusiasm is tested and strengthened by the demands of daily life. We may make choices that seem illogical to those who do not know about the inner journey we have embraced, but we feel at ease about the direction our life has taken.
Self-surrender, then, is not a process of defeat or of mindlessly submitting to another’s will. It is the act of giving ourselves to a higher purpose—and when we do we feel uplifted and invigorated. This may take place in the midst of a decision-making process, or in discovering a point of view that is better than our own, but it occurs most often when we are meditating, when we let go of the thoughts and desires that bind our thinking process and give one-pointed attention to the center of our being. At such times we transcend the limitations of our attachments and sense the presence of inner stillness. In whatever form it presents itself, that experience, the sages tell us, guides us toward wholeness and the fulfillment of our inward quest.
Source: Yoga: Mastering the Basics by Sandra Anderson and Rolf Sovik, PsyD
About the Teacher