In the simplest of terms, yoga is like a tree comprised of eight limbs. Each one of these limbs represents a different level of the practice. The yamas and niyamas comprise the first and second limbs respectively and are ethical precepts that apply to how one relates to oneself and to society. By the most essential definition, the yamas are restraints while the niyamas are observances.
In a nutshell, the niyamas are as listed below :
Shaucha – Purity
Santosha – Contentment
Tapas – Burning Enthusiasm
Swadhyaya – Self-Study
Ishvarapranidhana – Celebration of the Spiritual
Easy enough then. Practice all of these things and you’re good to go.
Well, not really. It’s been said that practice makes perfect. But whoever said that was delusional and possibly cruel, as perfection is an illusion and cannot be achieved.
Let me explain them as I understand them. I’ll keep it simple.
You might say, “Purity? No such thing.”
Well, you could be right. Afterall, the word comes from the Latin root purus which means unadulterated. So if you’ve moved past the infant state (physically, at least), it could be impossible to be pure. Honestly, I can’t say. But when you’re mindful of what you put into your body, what you feed your mind, and where you choose to dwell, things are bound to operate more smoothly. No need to be obsessive about it.
In other words, if you wake up each morning with mountains of dust-coated tchotchkes descending upon you, only to tune into a bobble-headed 24-hour newscaster spinning violence while you alternately scarf donuts and huff cigarettes, then purity probably does seem like a myth. This could be your thing. More power to you.
But you just might feel better if the majority of what you ingest or take in is natural and unprocessed, if you give yourself enough quiet time to reflect or read, and if the place you call home is a clean and uncluttered space.
You might say, “How can I possibly stay content with so much wrong in the world?”
I’m with you. There’s some bat guano crazy lunacy going on out there. And no one is saying to sit back and be happy. Not even to be cool with all of it. That would be complacency – contentment’s maladjusted cousin. But there’s something to be said for accepting what’s happening in the present moment and growing hope from that. Simply put, roll with the punches.
Unless, of course, those punches are the real deal. Maintaining an abusive relationship – physically, emotionally or otherwise – is not santosha. It’s unhealthy. And to stay in such a relationship with the hope that the abuser will magically change is also not santosha. It’s delusional.
Santosha is contentment derived from an innate balance that won’t be thrown completely off kilter by awful outer circumstances such as a tragedy, illness or the 2016 U.S. presidential election. And it takes practice.
You might say, “What the sam hill does burning enthusiasm mean? I usually have to be drunk for that.”
That’s more spot on than you might think. If you’ve had the particular experience of being influenced by some sort of substance, then you know the sudden unexplained ardor for conquering herculean feats such as scaling up a utility pole. Or flying. Too frequently though, this sort of altered enthusiasm delivers unsavory results.
Tapas is different. It’s translated as the “disciplined use of our energy” and is associated with heat and fire. But whether you’re naturally predisposed to be like a 120-year old tortoise or a ferret on crack, keeping that fire lit (or keeping it from burning down the whole city) is a challenge. We’ve all had those moments when partaking in the most arduous task is suddenly you’re greatest desire. We say, “I wish I could bottle this feeling.”
But tapas doesn’t come in a bottle. It’s work. It takes discipline to not get sucked into that black hole of avoidance activities (like binge watching Toddlers and Tiaras, or toasting an entire bag of marshmallows, one by one, over a candle and eating them all) that leave us feeling zapped of motivation or energy. Regardless of how delicious toasted marshmallows are.
You might say, “Geez (or something more emphatic). With everyone posting their dinner on Instagram or their appendix removal on Facebook, isn’t there enough self-study already?”
Because that’s not self-study. Unless the meal/organ removal posting cultivated self-reflective consciousness on the part of the poster. And that seems highly unlikely.
Self study comes through activities – be it arts, athletics, volunteer work, sheep herding, etc. – to which we’re most naturally drawn. It’s like a moth to light. Or a bug zapper (so much for ahimsa). Because here’s the deal. Self-study will unearth the light and the truly awesome things about you. It’ll also draw your attention to all of the things that need work. And who really wants to look at that garbage? Short answer, you.
Humans are quick to discuss the foibles of others, lamenting the fact that those others “just don’t see what they’re doing.” Spoiler alert, there’s a super great chance that you’ve got at least one blind spot yourself. And when you start to shed some light on that, it isn’t pretty. In fact, it can be the festering vomit-colored mold in a petri dish variety of not pretty. It’s hard to live with at first. But with perseverance, and a trusted cohort to help you through, you’ll eventually be able to see the influence of past and present events which allowed that mold to bloom. You can then redirect yourself from such events in the future. Furthermore, you’ll be more accepting of other people’s mold. (A clear example of taking an analogy too far, but you get it.)
You might say, “Celebration of the spiritual sounds vaguely like you’re telling me I should head to the church/temple/mosque/other to get religion.”
Not exactly. The dictionary says the definition of “get religion” is as follows – to acquire a deep conviction of the validity of religious beliefs and practices. “Getting religion” doesn’t capture the essence ishvarapranidhana.
But does it have a religious connotation? Well, sort of. Our buddy Mr. Webster defines religion as a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies. Ishvarapranadhana is more like embracing those serendipitous moments when there’s no explanation for what just happened. It’s an acknowledgment of something bigger than ourselves. And then saying, “Hey, thing bigger than myself, you’re pretty alright.” Or something like that.
God (Krishna/Allah/Other)-fearing fundamentalists have given spirituality a bad rap. This niyama does not ask us to bow at the altar of some mighty being – be it a human, a monkey or a tire iron. It asks us to look beyond ourselves – to look past our own drama and recognize that we’re not in control. It asks us to trust in the process – whatever you may call it.
I call the process yoga.