The Niyamas - without ethics, "all is just circus"

It's hard to know where to begin this post, having recently come home from a 3 1/2 week teacher training retreat in beautiful Bali. Since the real purpose of Teacher training is to recognise the teacher within, and in Yoga the discipline of looking at oneself is expressed through the Niyamas, I thought I would start with that. The Niyamas are the second of the eight 'limbs' of Yoga, and are key observances or self-practices that are like beacons, lighting the path back to the true self.

Saucha – purity
To live Saucha starts with oneself – taking care of the body, which is our temple, our vehicle through this life, the mind, and the soul. Yoga gives us helpful cleansing techniques, or Kriyas, which are practiced every day to keep the nadis (energy channels) of the body clean and balanced. In a borrowed metaphor, Yoga is like a process of renovating your house (transforming your life). So once you have knocked down walls, broken through barriers, smashed what you no longer want or need, you must sweep away the old to make room for the new. After all, who decorates a dirty house?

Santosha – Contentment / Satisfaction
Santosha is the principle of accepting what we are given in life as enough. But it is more than material contentment or detachment from the material world. Santosha is to realise that all that we need, we already have, within ourselves. All the tools for our liberation are there, waiting for us to remember how to use them. To live Santosha is also to accept your limitations of the present moment. In our daily practice of the Ashtanga primary series at the retreat, each of us has to accept the limitations of our current practice, as we are allowed no further in the series if we cannot perform a pose. It is frustrating because our natural tendency is to look ahead at poses to come, and measure ourselves against them. But by learning to live with our limitations we also learn to be satisfied with our state of being as we are.

Tapas – Effort / Self-Discipline
Tapas is more than just 'effort', it is 'transformative effort'. Tapas is the ability to see the silver lining in your hard work, even when it feels like it is going nowhere. Literally “fire” in Sanskrit, Tapas is the ability to burn through your negative thoughts and make room for the positive. The Ashtanga Primary Series (literally called “Yoga Therapy” in Sanskrit) is the embodiment of this transformative process. It is a rigorous, challenging series that cleanses and balances the body. It requires discipline, commitment, patience and humility, and when practiced thus, it will indeed rouse the fire that can transform you and move you to another level.

Svadhyaya – Self-study
One could say that this principle is the embodiment of Yoga. Whether we know it or not, to practise Yoga is to embark in a journey of self-discovery. As one of my teachers said: “the mat is like your battlefield. Here you confront yourself. And if you can rise to that challenge, do battle with your ego and still maintain a steady breath, what in life can you not do?” Our Svadhyaya on the retreat was further intensified with the observation of Mauna, or “noble silence”, for the first 7 days when not in class. Imagine 25 people walking in silence, eating in silence. It was intense! The Mauna was like a cleansing process – breaking the habit of “chit-chat”, of speaking without thinking, of being on social autopilot. Bringing us to mindfulness, bringing us into ourselves.

Ishvarapranidhana – devotion
Literally this Niyama means “surrender to God”, but for me personally the idea of devotion is not that blind following that I associate with my limited contacts with modern religious institutions. The devotion here is to a higher purpose, yes, but that purpose need not be sought without, for it resides within every one of us. Call it what you will: the soul, the consciousness, our inner light, our divinity, our inner nobility, our True Self. To be devoted to finding this inner light is a lifelong commitment. It requires us to peel away the obstacles of humanity (ignorance, egoism, attachment, hatred, to name a few) in search for that which is already within us. Ishvarapranidhana is the humility to look truly at oneself, the courage to accept change, the discipline to transform our lives so that we can live every moment of every day as our true selves – so we can be free.

And so, those are a few of the lessons I have been learning of late. It is good to remind ourselves of these fundamental principles, which are after all the foundations of all the rest of the limbs of Yoga, with the Yamas. This is crucial because Patanjali is telling us: to achieve liberation, one must live an ethical life. Without this, in the famous words of Pattabhi Jois: “all is just circus.”