Niyama - Personal Observances

Last month we reviewed the yama or universal observances. This month we examine the niyama or personal observances. As the first two limbs, the yama and niyama establish the foundation of Patanjali's eight-limbed practice of Yoga.

As yama is universal social practices, niyama evolves from individual practices that strength one's character. The Sanskrit word yama translates as; to bridle, to restrain, to check or hold-in. The prefix 'ni'  as inniyama, is an intensifier signaling an internal restraint and discipline.

The five niyama are purity (shauca), contentment (santosha), discipline (tapah), self-study (svadhyaya) and the perfect aligning of attention with the True Self (ishvara-pranidhana). Purity extends beyond the external cleanliness of the physical body to include the nourishment that goes into body, the sensory impressions taken in via personal relationships/media and the subtle quality of thoughts and beliefs.  Contentment as an internal practice means embracing an Absolute Joy that is independent of external circumstances or conditions.  It is relaxing into the world as it is and the letting go of external attachments that allows one to abide in the here and the now.  Tapah, literally "to heat," is an intense commitment to the internal process.  Each time a distracting impulse, intense emotion or outdated habit surfaces but is not obeyed the heat of this friction moves us closer to discriminating awareness.  Self-study is independent study of philosophical texts and, more importantly, how one applies them to one's own life in order to "walk the talk."  Lastly, isvara-pranidhana.  Isvara is pure awareness, the omniscient Self, the Seer or the God within.  Pranidhana is orienting every thought, word and deed toward knowing pure awareness. Chip Hartranft in his commentary on the Yoga Sutras sums it up beautifully, "Isvara-pranidhana provides the point of focus to which the yogi continually returns in the course of practice (abhyasa) and the inspiration to cultivate non-reaction (vairagya)."

The inner life of every human being is visited by unwholesome and negative thoughts of all kinds. Patanjali doesn't find fault or judge but rather regards this as the natural state of affairs.  He does, however, state that we have the power to neutralize unwholesome thoughts by cultivating and realizing their opposites.  Otherwise, our unwholesome thoughts are bound to manifest and contribute to the cycle of suffering, pain and delusion.  The ten yama and niyama serve as a baseline "karmic management" program that encourage us to take actions that allow us to gain mastery over our lives while minimizing karmic burden.

Yamas - Universal Disciplines

The Yamas-Universal Disciplines

Over the last several months we have been taking a closer look at the second chapter of the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali. The Sadhana Pada is the chapter on practice. This chapter includes one of the most beloved pieces of Yoga philosophy, the 8 Limbs of Yoga.  The 8 Limbs of Yoga are both a starting place and a roadmap for the student seeking an understanding of the philosophy that supports the 5000 year old practice. But as Richard Freeman so wisely states, "the map is not the territory." The map can give us a theoretically understanding of being there but, alas, it is not the same as actually being there.  If what follows resonates, I encourage you to seek out resources (including Shala teachers), journal, meditate and discuss your discoveries. Nothing beats ones' first hand experience.  The practice of Yoga is a living, dynamic, constantly changing tradition that requires your curiosity and insight in order to continue to evolve from generation to generation.

The first of the eight limbs is yama, universal disciplines. The Sanskrit word yama translates as; to bridle, to restrain, to check or hold-in. The yama focus on the interactions we have with people and things outside of ourselves. Together with the niyamas, or internal disciplines (to be discussed next month), the first two limbs of Yoga form the fundamental ethical precepts at the foundation of the practice.  To be clear, Yoga is not a religion. It is a philosophy of existence that offers us the contemplative science and technology for living the good life.  At the core of the Yoga practice is the understanding that we are all interconnected. You can interpret it on the gross level - we share air, earth, sun and water - or the subtle level - we share the spark of consciousness. The Dali Lama sums it up nicely, "My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness."  The living practice of the five universal disciplines is an exercise in placing all beings inside your heart while simultaneously seeing yourself in others. 

The five yama are non-harming (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya), non-stealing (asteya), moderation (brahmacharya) and non-grasping (aparigrahah).  Theses principles seem fairly straightforward but they run deep into every action, deed, attitude, thought and word. These questions are merely food for thought, not personal opinions or judgements. Does non-harming extended to animals? Insects?  Does non-stealing included other's time or energy?  Brahmacharya was traditionally considered a period of chastity. Most modern house-holding yogi's prefer to translate this yamaas moderation, specifically in the arena of sexual desire. Are there areas in your life where desires of any kind consume and incapacitate you?  The yama are ordered with intention.  Can you practice non-hurtfullness when speaking your truth?  Can you practice non-grasping in your intimate relationships?  Perhaps over the next five weeks you will ruminate on these question and others of your own, recognize patterns and reaffirm your Yoga practice as a method for creating a gap between the spark and the flame....

Purusha, Prakriti & The Gunas

Purusha, Prakriti & The Gunas

Last month we discussed the five root causes of suffering (kleshas): lack of self-awareness (avidya), "I am-ness" (asmita), attachement (raga), dislike (dvesa) and fear of change (abhinivesha). The Yoga Sutras state that by tracing our patterns of suffering back to their source and controlling the thoughts (vrtti) that arise around them we can avoid future pain.  Sutra 2.17 states that the suffering to be ended is caused by the correlation between the Seer and the Seeable. 

Purusha is the Seer, the witness, pure consciousness and the True Self. Prakriti is the Seeable, the experienced, creativity and the constantly changing. All ideas and feelings, including those about Purusha, are composed of impermanent and interconnected braids of creative energy, or Prakriti. Prakriti is expressed through the three primary forces of creation - sattva, rajas and tamas. Sattva is brightness, clarity and intelligence. Rajas is activity, passion and change. Tamas is inertia, lethargy and darkness. Referred to as the gunas, these three forces combine to create everything in nature including the food we eat, the thoughts we think and the body in which we live. Sutra 2.18 goes on to say that the Seeable exists for the dual purpose of experience and emancipation. If Purusha is pure seeing alone and Parkriti exists solely to put on a fantastic show for Purusha, how did they become such an entangled mess?  Though distinct, Purusha an Prakriti are often experienced as one and the same due to lack of self-awareness - yes, thats right, klesha numero uno! Through the practice of the 8 Limbs of Yoga we can use our experience to awaken to our innate discriminating intelligence. This light of awareness has the ability to discern the difference between the Seer and the Seeable.  When the Seer sees clearly the external world may appear drastically changed when in truth, it is the internal perception of the world that has shifted. The world doesn't change but how you relate to it does...

Next month we will start to look at where the rubber meets the road - The 8 Limbs of Yoga!

Avidya Asmita Raga Dvesa Abhinivesha Klesah

Avidya Asmita Raga Dvesa Abhinivesha Klesah

Last month we discussed the definition of Kriya Yoga according to Patanjali in his seminal text the Yoga Sutra. The second chapter of the Yoga Sutra is titled Sadhana Pada. One translation for the word sadhana is procuring and thus the second chapter is often referred to as the chapter on how to practice Kriya Yoga. Sutra 2.2 states that the intent of Kriya Yoga is to bring our innate intelligence into the foreground by removing the causes of suffering. Sutra 2.3 lists the five root causes of suffering and the Sutras that follow go on to explain each klesha in detail.

The five afflictions are: lack of self-awareness (avidya), "I am-ness" (asmita), attachement (raga), dislike (dvesa) and the will to live/fear of death (abhinivesha). These five obstructions whether dormant, attenuated or alternating between interrupted and fully active are the principle hindrances on the path to self-realization. Avidya is considered to be the ground in which the other four kleshas thrive. In the absence of self-awareness we mistake the transient for the permanent, the impure for the pure, pain for pleasure and that which is not the self for the self (2.5). To be clear avidya has little to do with the ordinary acquisition of knowledge through the intellect but instead refers to knowledge in the highest philosophical sense. One can be very intelligent or academically accomplished and be completely blinded by the illusions created by the mind. The mind in its delusion desires things to stay permanent, perfect and pure and when things change or unfold in an unexpected way suffering occurs because the sense of "I am" (asmita) has become enmeshed with that object/person/situation/title. This confusion of the seer and the act of seeing results in attachment to pleasure (raga) and resistance to pain (devsa) and a generalized fear of change, the most all encompassing and subtle of which is the fear of death (abhinivesha). How do we get off the wheel of suffering?  Stop watering the seeds! Fortunately the root causes of pain can be ended through self-inquiry and meditation.  By tracing these afflictions back to their source and controlling the fluctuations of thought that arise around them we can cultivate the discriminating intelligence that allows us to discern the difference between the Seer (Purusha) and the see-able (prakriti). More on these concepts next month...

Tapah Svadhyaya Isvara Pranidhanani Kriya Yogah

Tapah Svadhyaya Isvara Pranidhanani Kriya Yogah

Patanjali's Sutra 2.1 defines the practice of Kriya Yoga, the Yoga of Action, as tapas (self-discipline), svadhyaya (self-reflection) and Isvara pranidhana (surrender to Isvara). Tapas, from the Sanskrit root "to heat," is the purification of body, mind and senses through consistent practice.  Svadhyaya is self-study and may involve reading philosophical or spiritual texts, the recitation of personal mantras, journaling and psychotherapy. Isvara pranidhana is surrender to God.  If you are uncomfortable with the "G word" please feel free to substitute a word that resonates: Divine, Soul, Creator, Beloved. BKS Iyengar states "This sutra represents the three great paths: Karma Yoga, Jnana Yoga and Bhakti Yoga." The path of action (karma yoga) is the practice of austerities (tapas) including asana (postures). The path of knowledge (jnana yoga) is the path to understanding one's self (svadhyaya). The path of love (bhakti yoga) is the path of complete surrender (pranidhana) to the effulgent and sorrowless light of Isvara. Tim Miller quotes his teacher, Pattabhi Jois, as having considered the mythological Hanuman, to be one of only two great yogis. What makes a great yogi?  The perfect balance of strength, intelligence and devotion.

Patanjali goes on to say in Sutra 2.2 that the intent of Kriya Yoga is to bring our innate intelligence into the foreground by removing the causes of suffering.  More on the five kleshas (afflictions) or root causes of suffering next month...