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Practicing the Presence of God:
Living the Niyamas of  Patanjali
(Second in a series on the eight-limbed yoga of Patanjali)

Recent research has proven that not only are human beings inherently social creatures, our very health and longevity may depend upon our social ties. It turns out that those of us who are connected by loving relationships with others are more likely to live longer lives significantly less filled with the deleterious effects of heart disease, cancer and depression. (1) While we may be aware that close relationships are important in life, we find those relationships occasionally challenging, frequently confusing and too often downright enigmatic.  It may be physically, emotionally and mentally healthy to be connected to others, but it is not easy. 

      Wise teachers tell us that learning to live with others by definition begins when we learn to live with ourselves. Yoga can be a helpful tool for this task. While the practices of yoga are traditionally associated with a solitary figure deep in meditation, it is sometimes forgotten that the wider teachings of yoga philosophy can have deep relevance for learning to live with those we love and those we don’t. 

     Centuries ago Indian sage, scholar, grammarian and yogi Patanjali wrote his seminal Yoga Sutras to clarify and preserve ancient oral teachings. The book is sectioned into four chapters or “padas” which describe the workings of the human mind and how, if the prescribed teachings are followed, one can learn to live a life free from suffering. While the book is about one’s individual relationship with the Divine, or in other words, the freedom which comes with self-awareness, the book does contain information for those of us struggling with the mystery of the intimate relationship. 

     While the connection of Patanjali’s yoga teachings and the improvement of our relationships may not at first blush seem related, they are interwoven. The overlapping concept is that of ego. When we act and react from our individual ego without the benefit of perspective and/or compassion, not only are we not practicing yoga, but also we are potentially harming those around us. Looking to Patanjali for clarity in our relationships is valid because he gives us the tools to let go of the illusions which shield us from our true selves and from life itself. 

     While these teachings are found throughout the Yoga Sutras, they become especially clear in the second pada. In this pada, Patanjali presents the “astanga” or eight-limbed yoga practices. Probably the best-known of the limbs is number three, asana, or posture. But the second of these limbs is not to be overlooked. This limb is called “niyama” and means “observance”; actually there are five (2). The niyamas are an extension of the yamas and ask of us that we take practice into a deeper level of our consciousness. (For a discussion of the first limb, the yamas, see Judith Lasater’s article “Beginning the Journey: living the yamas of Patanjali” )  While the yamas outline actions and attitudes we ought to avoid, the niyamas describe actions and attitudes which we should cultivate to overcome the illusion of separation and suffering it causes. 

     The five specific niyamas are to be practiced within one’s self in order to live free from the attachments which cause suffering and separation from the Whole. The five niyamas are: purity (saucha), contentment (samtosha), austerity (tapas), self-study (svadhayaya), and devotion to the Lord (isvara pranidanah). With the reader’s permission, I would like to approach the niyamas in a non-traditional order. 

    Discipline as Purification 

     “Tapas” is one of the most powerful concepts in the Yoga Sutras.  The word “tapas” comes from the Sanskrit verb “tap” which means “to burn”. The traditional interpretation of tapas is that it is “fiery  discipline”. It is this discipline which burns off the impediments which us from being in the state of yoga. (Yoga is both the practices associated with the state of wholeness and simultaneously that state itself.)  Unfortunately tapas usually is interpreted to mean that anything which is difficult must be discipline and therefore must be helpful to spiritual unfoldment. But difficulty can create its own form of impediment. In fact, the ego is drawn to difficulty; challenging yoga poses can increase pride and attachment to being an “advanced” yoga student, for example. 

     Difficulty is a two-edged sword. Just because something is difficult does not mean it is transformational. Good things are sometimes difficult, but not all difficult things are good. If the concept of tapas is misunderstood it can be used as a reason to inflict yoga poses or practices upon one’s self. One can sometimes hear yoga students complaining/bragging about how hard their class was, or how long the teacher made them hold a pose. In this example it becomes clear that difficulty by itself is not enough to make an action a “tapas”. 

    Another way to understand tapas is to think of it as consistency.  One of the highest disciplines is that of consistency: getting on the yoga mat every day, sitting on the meditation cushion every day, observing the antics of the mind every day, forgiving your mate or your child yet another time. If tapas is considered in this vein, then it becomes a more subtle practice, a practice that is concerned with the quality of life and relationships, not just with outlasting some
difficulty. 

     Perhaps one of the most clear examples of the practice of tapas is marriage. Marriage requires commitment, consistency and love. Without any of these three things, marriage does not work. When these qualities are present however, we can celebrate the good days and hang on through the bad ones. Tapas requires the same things. When we bring a commitment born of love to our consistent practice of yoga, we are practicing the niyama of tapas. It is with this spirit of abiding in the midst of difficulty which is at the heart of tapas. 

     A dear yoga teacher friend of mine died recently. At her memorial service it was said that during her life she “made the hard decisions with a soft heart”. This is the spirit of tapas: the willingness to follow through with difficult decisions while maintaining compassion for all the effects that those decisions might have for self and others. Tapas is ultimately measured in the consistent willingness to begin practice again and again, over and over again to bring awareness to this very moment. Ultimately nothing is more difficult than consistency. 

Remembering the Self: svadhyaya 

     One day this winter as I was starting to teach a beginning yoga class, a first-time student spoke up from the back of the room asking, “By the way, what is yoga?” A thousand thoughts flooded my mind; how could I answer truthfully and succinctly? Thankfully the answer came almost spontaneously from my heart: “Yoga is the study of the Self”. This is actually the definition of another of the niyamas, svadhyaya.  The word ‘svadhyaya” can be broken up into three smaller words. “Sva” means one’s Self, meaning the soul, the atman, or the Higher Self. “Dhy” is related to the word “dhyana” which means meditation. And “ya” is an activating suffix. Thus svadhyaya means “actively meditating on or studying the nature of the Self”. I like to define svadhyaya slightly differently as “remembering to be aware”. 

     All of us have moments when we perceive ourselves and the world around us with clarity. But svadhyaya is more than just mental clarity. It is the deep acknowledgment of the oneness of Self with all that is. In other words, to practice svadhyaya is to begin to dissolve the illusion of separateness we feel from ourselves, those around us, and our world. To practice svadhyaya is to find God in the person standing in front of us at this very moment. 

     I read an interesting story lately about a Zen monk who was giving his first talk to a small group of beginning American Zen students. The monk spoke very little English and the students spoke no Japanese. The monk gave his presentation simply by standing in front of each student; he would not talk, smile, move or in any way avoid deep contact with the student. Some students were moved to tears. This deep acknowledgment of the God-sense or Self within us all is at the heart of svadhyaya. 

     Scientists continue to discover the powerful connections of energy that exist on all levels of the Universe. And these connections are not only between cells in the body, but between widely distanced events which only a few years ago would be considered separate. (These discoveries are part of the field of study called Chaos Theory) . I remember studying biology in college and was struck by our unit on ecology. Biologists were beginning to teach the “new” concept of the interrelatedness of all living things, i.e. ecology.  Interestingly, in all eras and in all cultures spiritual teachers have taught the “ecology of the spirit”, i.e., the connection of each of us with the whole. This connection exists; the practice of svadhyaya is whatever reminds us of that connection.

    Svadhyaya could be reading this article, practicing postures, studying scriptures or singing from the heart. Practices which help one experience the interwoven fabric of reality are svadhyaya. 

 Practicing the presence of God 

     One of the most interesting niyamas is “isvara pranidanah”. Translating and understanding this concept is a little tricky. This is true in part because the idea of “isvara”. Patanjali defines isvara as “Lord”. Many people are confused by this niyama, in part because yoga is often not presented as a theistic philosophy. Some traditions have interpreted this niyama as requiring devotion to a particular deity or representation of God, while others have taken “isvara” to refer to a more abstract concept of the divine which each person understands in his/her own way. However, Patanjali states in Chapter I verse 23 that devotion to the Lord is one of the main avenues to enlightenment. 

     The word “pranidanah” conveys the sense of “throwing down” or giving up. Thus “isvara pranidanah” can be translated as giving up the fruits of all practice to God. Isvara pranidanah is acting as best we can, and then relinquishing all attachment to the outcome of our actions. Only by releasing our fears and hopes for the future can we really be in union with the present moment. To surrender the fruits of out actions to God requires that we give up our egotistical illusion that we know best, and instead accept that the way life unfolds may be part of a pattern too complex for us to understand. This surrender, however, is anything but passive inactivity. Paradoxically the ability to surrender on this level requires great strength. 

     I have learned this as I have watched my children grow up. Probably the hardest thing to do as a parent is to do nothing, letting them have the powerful opportunity to learn by making mistakes. A wonderful quote states that “good judgment comes from experience but experience comes from bad judgment.” Stepping back and allowing the right to make mistakes in life to my kids has taken a lot of discipline for me. As any mother would, I would like to make their lives easier. However I know that unless they make their own decisions as they grow up they will not gain the wisdom to live life fully and appreciate its sweetness. In mothering, part of my practice of isvara pranidanah is to honor
the Self in each of my children by trusting them and trusting the process of life as they grow up into adults. 

     In a way, the practice of asana or posture embodies isvara pranidanah as well. In order to practice each pose two things at least must be present. First, certain muscles must contract to twist or bend the body into a particular shape. Secondly, the opposite muscles must let go in order to allow the bending and twisting. Strength and surrender in balance create an asana. Isvara pranidanah requires the strength of surrender of the fruits of practice so that one can drink deeply of the present moment.

Purity as a Practice 

     Another niyama is saucha, or purity. When I first began studying the Yoga Sutras I balked at this particular niyama because it sounded so judgmental. Of course I knew that it had to do with the obvious choice of such things as pure food and pure speech. But somehow to me the concept of “purity” smacked of a rigid view of life which saw the world as a profane place. When I first began to practice yoga, newly-formed yoga groups I was associated with tended to interpret the teachings of Patanjali in this rigid way. I was taught that there were impure foods, thoughts and people, etc. I was simply to avoid them. I was lead to believe that if I ate onions and garlic I had “sinned”. It was “obvious” that people who ate meat were not as spiritual as we were. There was no interpretation of
sauca as having to do with what was in my heart rather than following a specific set of rules about purity. 

     There was no teaching about seeing sauca as this practical technique: if you embrace impurity in thought, word or deed, you will suffer. This suffering has more to do with your thoughts than your actions.  It has taken me years to begin to understand saucha on a more complex level. Now I think of it in a more sophisticated way as being related to my intention rather than my action. I know that all my actions have unintended consequences, consequences which I often do not and cannot know. For example, I do not know what effect my purchases have upon the world. Am I buying wisely so that the money I spend has a compassionate effect upon those unknown persons who profit from my purchase? I am not able to know or understand how all that I do effects others, but I can be aware of the intention with which I do those actions. 

     This to me is the heart of saucha. If I am acting from selfishness my intention does not have its origin in purity; when I act from compassion then my actions are pure, even if just for that moment. When I treat others as myself I am practicing sauca and at those time my relationships are as pure and connected as they can ever be. 

     This purity of action was apparent immediately following the devastating earthquake in San Francisco in October, 1989. It was both inspiring and humbling to watch how people responded to the immediate needs of the moment. All traffic lights were out so citizens directed traffic and everyone obeyed; bus lines and trolleys were not running so many drivers picked up pedestrians without thinking. But most impressive was the great numbers of volunteers who went to the
immediate aid of those trapped by rubble and fire. Television showed groups of people from all walks of life and all races working together to help others without seemingly a thought for themselves. This was purity of intention in action. These helpers had pure intention and for those days following the disaster they were living the practice of saucha. 

     I have also been inspired by philosopher and author Viktor Frankel who wrote moving words about the meaning of life. He said that his life had meaning when he helped others to find the meaning in their life. To me this is what the practice of saucha is all about. When I have the  purity of intention about my action, whether this is during my formal practice of yoga or during other times in my life,
then I am living in the spirit of purity, then I am practicing saucha. And importantly, it is during these times that I am in the most pure loving relationship with others. 

Embracing the Whole: Contentment 

     The last niyama is at first blush enigmatic, yet it is also the one which presents the most hope. The last niyama Patanjali presents is “samtosha”, or contentment. Remember that the niyamas are practices; one is then to actively practice contentment.  What exactly is contentment? To me it seems that in order to be content one must have experienced both sides of life. In other words, if one has never had anything, then it is hard to be content because one thinks material goods are the solution. And if one has had material things and still remains discontent, there is almost a sense of betrayal. If you have a lot and are still unhappy, where is there to turn? 

     Patanjaly is teaching us something very important here. By giving us the practice of samtosha Patanjali requires that we clearly observe our values and choices in life. He demands that we see the hollowness of achievement and acquisition. This is not to say that material wealth and success are evil, it just is that they are not enough. 

      Samtosha is an experience which has nothing to do with the external circumstances. Contentment requires the willingness to enjoy whatever has been given you today knowing that it will change. One wise teacher has said that the true spirit of renunciation is to be happy with whatever you have, whether that is a lot or a little. Contentment is like that; when we enjoy the life we have today, this very moment, we are practicing samtosha. 

     It is easy, of course, to enjoy the beautiful moments, the joyous experiences of life. But Patanjali is asking us to be equally willing to embrace the difficult moments. When we can embrace the difficult moments in a spirit of contentment then we are free from the slavery of life’s vicissitudes. When we can be content when all is difficult then we are free. And contrariwise, when change can no longer control our inner life, then we are content. When we can remain open in the midst of pain, then and only then do we understand what true openness is. 

     Patanjali’s teachings are not for the weak. He requires discipline and strength. He asks us to walk into the unknown. But he does not abandon us on this journey. Instead he offers the wise teachings of the niyamas to guide us back home to ourselves; it is this journey to nowhere that transforms us and all those with whom we come into contact. This is the final commitment and the very heart of the teachings of yoga. Bon voyage!
 

Footnotes 

 1. Dean Ornish, MD, Love & Survival: the Scientific Basis for the Healing Power of Intimacy, San Francisco, California: HarperCollins, 1998. back
 2. Georg Feuerstein., The Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali: a new translation and commentary, Folkstone, Kent, England: Wm Dawson & Sons, Ltd, Cannon House, 1979 back

 

 

 

 

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