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Do You Know The Niyamas?

January 25, 2016

NiyamasThere are eight limbs in the yogic path as codified by Patanjali – the Niyamas are one of the eight limbs. They are disciplines, and together with the Yamas, create a spiritual foundation for the practice. Practicing the niyamas can be an exploration into one’s Higher Self. What do I mean by this? Well, let me answer that by asking some questions.  Can we be content with ourself, where we are right now and the world as it is? Do we have the self discipline to practice and live the life of a yogi? Can we step back from wanting to be in control of everything and everyone in our life and surrender, knowing the Universe, that a Higher Power is at work?  These are some of the aspects of the niyamas. Similiar to the yamas, the niyamas can be practiced both on and off the mat. We become a witness and look objectively without judgement at our life. Learning to love ourself unconditionally.

There are five niyamas: Saucha (Purity), Santosha (Contentment), Tapas (Generating Heat), Svadhyaya (Self Inquiry), and Ishvara Pranidhana (Surrender). Let’s take a closer look at each of them.

Saucha (Purity) – When practicing saucha or purity there are two components. The physical aspect – the outward aspect of the practice; the second component is the internal aspect – an introspection of one’s self.  Seeing our body as a temple – a vessel – that houses our Spirit. Eating healthy, wholesome foods to keep our body healthy and strong is practicing saucha. The environment we live in is orderly, our homes become a sacred space for living. Practicing breath work (pranayama), the physical yoga practice (asana), and making conscious choices about our livelihood are all ways we practice saucha from a physical aspect.  The physical practice of the asanas (postures) and the pranayamas (breathwork) are an intregal part of this purification. Instead of thinking of saucha as an imposed discipline or countless rules we must follow, instead practice from a place of love, respecting and honoring ourself – taking care of ourself. Seeing our body as a sacred space.

The second component of saucha is the internal aspect of the practice. Becoming aware of negative thoughts and emotions, self-criticism, competition, judgments and self-defeating perceptions. How many times do we get on our mat and during the practice we are making judgments of ourself and others? How many times do we entertain the competitive edge in our practice? How many times during a one hour practice do we have negative, self-defeating thoughts? The practice of saucha is not in suppressing or denying but by accepting and becoming aware when these thoughts occur. At the point of awareness we then have a choice, do we continue engaging and feeding these negative thoughts or do we begin to look deeper within? When we look deeper we begin to purify our thoughts. Here’s a visual that may help you. You are on your mat practicing the asana and a thought comes up, you become aware of the thought as a ‘judgment’ at this point, you practicing stepping back and you begin to see this judgment was simply the ego, the negative thought was a wedge that shrouded or masked us from seeing our Higher Self. When we become aware of these self-defeating thoughts we can take this covering off, revealing who we truly are. An analogy is on a cloudy day we cannot see the Sun, it is covered by the clouds, yet we know it is there. The same with our Higher Self, it is always there, when we think negative thoughts the ego has covered it, we have – in that moment forgotten who we truly are. The awareness of the thought becomes a turning point, a way to purify our thoughts, uncovering our Spirit. Allowing our Higher Self to shine brightly.

Santosha (Contentment) – For me when I started learning more about the niyamas and in particular santosha I was confused. I misinterpreted contentment as mediocrity. I thought it meant I would have to give up doing my best. This was a false interpretation of santosha. What I became to realize is that I would never be perfect – no matter how hard I tried. I started to realize I was enough, it meant living in the moment, doing my best without fear of failure. To be totally and absolutely absorbed and fullfilled, living in the present, without being attached to specific expectations or outcomes. I realized that everything that happens in the future rests on the present moment. That when I stayed present within each second, giving it my all, loving what I was doing whole-heartedly, the future would unfold beautifully. It created a sense of inner peace with no anxiety or frustration. I became more productive, more creative and life became more fun. I smiled more, I began to laugh more and enjoyed life more.

How do we practice santosha on our mat, in our physical yoga practice? Listen to your body, listen to what your body needs. For example, if you feel the sensation of tightness in your lower back, ask yourself, “what pose will change that sensation?”. Practice being totally absorbed in your asana, totally captivated by each sensation in the body as it arises, without fear or expectation. Simply move with the sensations that arise.

Tapas (Generating Heat) – The first ten years of my life I lived in a very rural setting, on a dairy farm. Every night my father would bring in a pail of fresh milk from the barn and put it in the pasterizer. In the morning my mom would take the top layer off — this was the cream – and the rest was fresh pure milk that was used during the day. When we heat up the body, when we practice yoga, sometimes emotions rise up to the surface. When emotions arise do we react? Do we fight against the emotion? For example, maybe we feel sad, but instead of crying and letting this emotion rise up, we fight against it, squash it and press it down. How many times to we run away from facing reality and not allow ourself to experience specific emotions? The ego will take one of the following measures to avoid addressing emotions: Fight to save our self-image; Run away by diverting our attention; Blame someone or something else; or Shame ourself. Whether on or off the mat, when emotions arise, take the time to really “BE” with the emotion — no fighting, no running, no blaming or shaming. When we take the time and allow deep seated emotions to rise up to the surface, we have the opportunity to release them and with this comes freedom, we begin to feel lighter. We begin to feel more at ease with ourself and in our relationships. When deep seated emotions are allowed to rise to the top and released we are left with fresh, pure Spirit.

Svadhyaya (Self Inquiry) – Observing oneself, seeing ourself for who we truly are is the practice of swadhyaya.  It is the understanding and practice of knowing we are Divine. As we age our experiences create a false image of who we are. We create personal biases, create stories about who we are — forgetting that we are a miracle, we were created in God’s image, therefore we are Divine. There’s a saying, “God doesn’t make junk.” Yet how many times to we think we are not good enough, smart enough, etc. These self destructing images cover up our True Self.  How do we find our way back? We look within. Be still and know. Practicing meditative awareness. Practice stilling the mind. When practicing on the mat and holding a pose can you still the mind? When thoughts come into the mind, can you step back and move into stillness? Do you take the time to meditate, to find time to sit in silence? Can you become a witness to your thoughts? The witness creates an opening to begin to uncover and strip away the past conditioning revealing the Divine within you.

Ishvara Pranidhana (Surrender) – Learning how to surrender is a continual practice throughout life! This does not mean we give up, but it does mean we let go. We let go of our fears and worries, we let go of the need to be in control. Each time we let go of fears and attachments, we practice surrender. Letting go of attachment to the end result is so difficult! Many of us were raised in a society where goals, the end result was drilled into us from a very early age. Yet as soon as we set a goal, an expectation, we also set ourself up for frustration, disappointment and anxiety. This practice I also misintrepreted as mediocrity — however, what I found out is that when I am fully present, totally captivated and being in the present moment, my work becomes deeply fulfilling and satisfying. It also allows my mind to be at peace and I remain free from anxiety and impatience.  Love and faith in God empower us to live without fear and the need to be in control. On our mat, in your yoga practice can you surrender? As a teacher, I sometimes have students hold a pose for a very long, extended period of time…. like 5 minutes or maybe 10 minutes. Try this and see what happens, go into Warrior I and stay in the pose for 10 minutes! What emotions come up, can you relax into it, can you let go of any and all expectations of the pose and of you? When I teach this with my students and ask them what they experienced most say the same thing.  I was struggling and struggling to keep the pose, but after so long I finally had to let go, I had no choice but to surrender. As soon as I surrendered the pose became easy, not hard. Is this not how most of us go thru life? We struggle and struggle, we try to force and keep going and going full speed… but as soon as we let go and put our faith in God everything works out. We are happier and life becomes easy.

Practicing the niyamas both on and off the mat is a constant practice. At times it can definitely be challenging… and for me I forget. At some point I become aware of the struggling, the anxiety, the fear… and then I remember the niyamas. They can deepen not only your physical practice on the mat but they can have an incredible impact and profound effect in your daily life. On a personal note, when I moved to Florida, I took a position at a very large, high-tech company. I was all about goals and getting it right. There was a co-worker that I didn’t get along with, this went on for several years. It seemed we were always competing against each other. I thought she was wrong and I’m sure she thought the same of me. She moved to a different department, I started practicing yoga. Years later we both ended up working in the same department again, only this time things were different between us. We got along and I actually liked working with her. What changed? Maybe maturity on both our parts, definitely my practicing the niyamas helped. I wasn’t competing, was better at practicing non-judgment and always having to be the critic. I surrendered more and worked in the present moment.

Yoga is more than just moving in and out of a pose, it can transform your life and your relationships.


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