Back to the Basics- the Niyama of Ashtanga Yoga

Yoga as Life — By on February 1, 2009 12:01 PM

By Miriam Stollar

So, who remembers the five Yama? (See last issue of Yoga Bean Magazine)
 
No, this does not refer to the five mountains, for anyone who didn’t read the last issue of Yoga Bean, but does speak Japanese.  These are rather the five ‘Restraints,’ the first of the eight branches of the Ashtanga Yoga.  And to those again, Ashtanga Yoga here does not mean Power Yoga, Super Yoga, and definitely not Hot Yoga, but the traditional and ancient ‘Raja Yoga’ of Patanjali, writer of the Yoga Sutras, about 2500 years ago. 
 
The five Yama, the prerequisites of yoga practice that every yogi should know by heart even in their sleep, who remembers?—  Ahimsa, or non-violence, Satya, truthfulness, Asteya, or non-stealing, Brahmacharya, celibacy, and Aparigraha, or non-covetousness.  As discussed in the previous issue of Yoga Bean, these ideas go much beyond their English translations, so further reading and familiarity is highly encouraged, and considered necessary inspiration for any practicing yoga teacher. 
 
Now we come to Niyama, the second branch of Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga, or Raja Yoga.  While Niyama are given as 10 Ordinances in the ancient yoga sutra of Hatha Yoga Pradikipa of Gorakshanatha, and others, Patanjali included five elements in the Niyama of his Ashtanga Yoga.  These are Saucha, purity; Santosha, contentment; Tapas, austerity; Svadhyaya, spiritual study; and Ishvaripranidhana, surrender of the ego.
 
Saucha, or purity, on a practical level is cleanliness.  Cleanliness of the body, food, living environment and habits is a mental discipline preparing both body and mind for asana and meditation.  Asana and meditation is best practiced in an environment free of clutter and dust; uncluttered space allows an uncluttered mind, and breathing in dust obviously goes against the purpose of yogic breath.
 
Santosha, translated as contentment, is, in my opinion, the mantra of mantras, the commandment of commandments, used by many a guru. Be contented. You are not happy? Contentment!  This happened? That happened? You are feeling angry, resentful, grouchy? Be contented!  The practice of Santosha is taking happiness as a self-responsibility.  It is the realization that happiness need not be dependent on anything outside of us, but is something we can choose of our own free will, for an anytime super high buzz, totally free, and without any aftereffects or withdrawal symptoms.  It is the decision to be alchemists of our own mind, creating happiness at will.  It is the practice of the highest psychic power taught by Buddha, that of transforming the unpleasant into pleasant, the disagreeable into agreeable. In short, Santosha! Contentment!
 
Tapas, or austerity, is practice taken on in order to purify our mind. How can this work?  It is not necessarily the action itself that purifies by magic, but the strength of mental willpower built by the practice of determination, self-discipline, and the overcoming of the senses, that gives us the mental strength and concentration to further guide our mental thought, speech, and action, in the direction we choose.  It may be taken on also as penance for past actions.
Tapas may be given by a teacher or chosen oneself.  There are many spectacular examples in India- vows of continuous standing, or holding one arm up, vows of silence, or not eating, practices of fire meditation, as well as barefoot pilgrimage, wearing only sackcloth, or nothing at all, and so on.
In Kyoto, Japan, there is a monastic Buddhist practice of climbing the high peak of the sacred mountain of Hiei-Zan for one thousand days in a row; one day missed, and the practitioner of this austerity must start from the beginning.  Some form of Tapas is common to all spiritual religions, practiced only by ascetics of the faith, or by all followers.  Fasting, in varying degrees, is a practice of Tapas practiced by adherents of many faiths.
 
Svadhyaya, or spiritual study, may be self-study with scriptures, or study with teachers.  Positive mental thought is born out of right inspiration. On the formative level, we are what we eat, and likewise, what we hear and read fuels our thought, so choosing what we put into our mind is paramount to yoga training.  The seeds of right thought need constant nurturing inspiration and knowledge, to grow strong and bear fruit.  For this reason, yoga training, as a mental transformation, stresses filling the mind with inspirational teachings and knowledge, as well as the keeping of good company, or positive support.
 
Ishvaripranidhana, or surrender of the ego may be translated; according to the ideas we are comfortable with, as surrender to God, surrender to a higher power, or surrender to teacher. The shared element in all of these is the surrender of ego, or the self.  In letting go of our self, of our own desires and will as being central, we can feel ourselves as a part of a wide and infinite universe. 
Feeling connected to all things and all beings is a far higher bliss than staying in our own small egotistical world, though in normal day-to-day consciousness, it is the only world we know.  Yogic consciousness pushes us to break out of this illusionary ‘Truman Show’ world of the ego, and discover what lies beyond our own desires and fears.  Ishvaripranidhana is the surrender of our I, the letting go of our own desires, our own existence, as being most important. 

Next time you have an argument with a loved one, one of those that gets pulled into that space where both are hurt and there seems no way to back out, try this- especially if you are sure you are definitely in the right, and the other is definitely in the wrong-
just say- okay! I surrender!
 
What a wonderful feeling to let go, especially when totally justified, because these are the moments our ego holds the strongest.  Even when there is more self-justified fuel for your fight than there is oil in the Persian Gulf, just say, I surrender!
 
For one small moment, at least, our small self-experienced bliss of ego-annihilation, becoming one with the wide universe.  Even one small moment of enlightenment is definitely worth giving in!
 
And finally, we are ready for the third branch of Ashtanga Yoga, Asana- or the yoga positions that we know and love.

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