Introduction to the Niyamas and how they are differing from Yamas
The 5 yamas (yama=discipline) that we have introduced are the first limb of the 8 fold path and are considered the root of yoga.
“Yama is the code of ethical conduct that helps in our behavior toward ourselves and the environment inside as well as outside. Yama is the foundation of yoga. The principles of yama are essential to evolution at every level. Yama being the foundation, its principles are also the structural pillars that support the whole edifice of yoga…”
B.K.S. Iyengar Light on Life, Page 247
The second limb of the 8-fold path of yoga are the five niyamas, or inner disciplines (ni=in) and yama =discipline).
They are (sauca) cleanliness, (santosa) contentment, (tapah) self-discipline as a help for purification, (svadhyaya) Self-study of sacred text, and (Isvara Pranidhanani) surrender of oneself to God. They are on-going practices and never finished just as we sweep the floor and do the dishes every day. They are practices that address our internal well-being through the increased sensitivity that comes as they become integrated into our lives…
“Niyama addresses directly and immediately the problems of our internal environment. If yama is the root of yoga, niyama (personal ethics) is the trunk that builds up physical and mental strength for self-realization… That is why it is possible to say that yama and niyama are the foundation, the pillars, and the culmination and proof of yoga authenticity.”
B.K.S. Iyengar Light on Life, Page 257
I have always appreciated Iyengar’s metaphor of our consciousness as a lens that is placed facing the Self (or the very essence of purity, Soul, or purusa) on one side with the other side facing the outer world. He explains that because we are so busy living our lives in the world our attention gets pulled outwards and all of our thoughts cause this side of the lens to get cloudy obscuring what is on the other side.
He further explains that our conscience is the face of the lens that is facing the purity within and is less likely to be tainted by contact with the world than the outward facing side.
“(The conscience) is the face of the lens of consciousness that faces the soul. It is less likely to be tainted by contact with the world than the outward face of the lens, which is in contact, through the senses with the world about us. When this facet of consciousness, which we call in English conscience is flawless, reflecting only the light of the soul, it is known in Sanskrit as the organ of virtue (dharmendriya)
B.K.S. Iyengar Light on Life, page 178
“Our desires, our selfishness, our intellectual flaws always tug us toward the world of diversity, where we judge issues, muddle through, and try to choose the lesser evil.
Conscience when it is flawless is the voice of our Soul, whispering in our ear. In that sense even a painful conscience is a privilege as it is proof that God is still talking to us.”
B.K.S. Iyengar Light on Life, page 179
The practice of yoga through the incorporation of the yamas and niyamas is to clean the lens of consciousness so that there is less and less of a separation between the inner purity and the outer world.
Yet, practically speaking how do we do this? It seems such a dauting task given all the responsibilities of our lives. Raising our families and paying the bills leaves little time for anything else. Here I think it is important to consider that the yamas and niyamas are not rigid rules for perfection but guidelines to help the body and mind function in a healthy manner. In the beginning it may be all we can do to make it to a weekly yoga class. Yet so much may have to happen to simply do this: leaving for work earlier, (which means going to bed earlier), not eating too much for lunch, taking fewer browsing internet breaks to assure that our work gets done, etc). All of these adjustments are incorporating the yamas and niyamas. Yoga is step by step. In the beginning they are disciplines but as we experience the benefits of practice and the lens gets a little cleaner, the motivation comes from within.
‘Yama and niyama are concerned with the habits of the body and the mind. Patanjali tells us that certain of these habits need to be eliminated and certain others maintained so that the body and mind may function in a healthy manner. What to eliminate and what to keep is a manner regarding which each man has to decide for himself. In order to come to a right decision, one must observe oneself…from such an observation one will be able to decide as to what hampers the healthy functioning of the body and the mind and what is conducive to healthy living. So yama and niyama are in terms of one’s own observation.”
Rohit Mehta Yoga the Art of Integration, page150
Next, we’ll look at each niyama in the coming weeks.