Theoretically, one moves on from the yamas to the niyamas once they’ve been mastered. The niyamas are the ethical observances that are the second limb of yoga. What really ends up happening is each limb is it’s own practice that falters and needs those on either side to remind us how to stay on course. Some of the yamas even tie into the practice of the niyamas.
The first niyama is saucha, purity. Walking with God in bramhacharya and telling the truth satya feel like first steps to saucha. That said, having a practice of saucha can also remind us to live out truth, which turns around and helps with satya. Still, purity is more than truth and different from walking with God. Purity is without stain or flaw. It is being all of one thing. Purity is all of you without outside influence, it strips away the world. While it can involve cleansing rituals to do this, it’s not just about being clean.
The ritual is about removing the things that are not the essential you. Getting back to the essential me after a long day usually includes decluttering my house, completing my daily asana practice, taking a shower, doing a face mask, brushing and flossing. Not all of that happens every day, but when it does, the ritual of those things done in that order gets me feeling like I’m me and not all the things the world has told me I should be today. This set of events allows me to first get away from all the things that happened and give tomorrow a new start when I declutter; doing yoga wipes out the expectations of the day and all the things I should have done or am working toward and all the places I’ve failed today; after the day is reset and my mind is clear of what everyone else wants, the rest of it is just cleaning off the physical remnants of the day.
Fortunately, this has a tendency to also get me ready for the second niyama. Santosha, contentment, comes next. At the end of the night, if I’ve done the above routine, I can go to bed content. Unless, of course, something that happened that day or that is due to happen the next day is haunting me. There’s no contentment then. That’s a lesson in contentment, though. It’s the thing that all the saints seem to know in their stories. Contentment doesn’t have an “if” or a “when”. It’s really getting comfortable in your own skin and your own life, no matter what’s going on with it. Contentment allows us to appreciate and sit in silence and sorrow just as much as joy. Some days, I can find contentment even with the world hanging over my head by consciously reminding myself to appreciate the things I have and who I am, but not everyday.
Tapas is a little harder to understand because of the many translations given in the books I’ve read. It’s most simply called self-discipline. Given what I’ve seen about the way it’s self-discipline is also meant to help us sit in silence and sorrow when those things aren’t comfortable, I don’t feel like it’s actually that simple. Also, catharsis is given as a possible translation and so is transformation. There’s some interesting metaphors about fire that remind me of a meme on Pinterest. It simply states “I light my way with the bridges I burn”. While this sounds distinctly against ahimsa, it beautifully captures my thoughts on tapas tied in with aparigraha. Tapas is another way of getting rid of that which no longer serves us, it’s just not things this time. These are the thoughts and preferences and identities that cost us saucha and santosha. When life sets the fire, we might as well let it burn off the excess, even though it’s definitely going to hurt, we can only be transformed if we bear it.
The fourth niyama is svadhyaya, self-study. It’s the self-study or inward look that helps us continuously find ways to see where we are missing saucha or santosha or tapas. When we’re done with the layer we’re on, a little self-study, a search for our divine core, or essential self can help us find the next thing to practice. In this, practice will never make perfect. The point isn’t perfect. The point is to know who we are at the purist level and to become content with that person, and let the fire burn off the rest.
The last niyama is ishvara pranidhana, surrender. I’ve also seen devotion to God for this one. I’ve always been a little bit of a control freak but it got better when I started practicing yoga asanas but long before I got into the philosophy or exposition of yoga. It started with acknowledging that my flexibility will be different from practice to practice. By the time I found the quote somewhere that yoga is a balance between control and surrender, or holding on and letting go, I had become a much less controlling person. I had already started letting go of many expectations for a variety of reasons. One of which was my son. Yoga helped me realize I had to let go of my expectation of who he was going to be. After doing so for my son, I was able to let go of my expectations of who everyone else is too. It was revelatory to just let people be who they are and not judge their choices just because I wouldn’t make the same one. Convincing others to just let him be who he is was significantly harder.
The other side of ishvara pranidhana is the devotion to God or divine being or fate. It’s knowing that the thing that weighs on your heart is a calling and then surrendering your life or sense of self to that calling. It can be difficult and it’s usually painful and probably one part tapas, but it’s definitely not passively standing by. Surrender and devotion to God and ishvara pranidhana is not a lack of action but making the choice to do the things while knowing the outcome isn’t in your hands or your control. I find there are asanas that help me remember this. The handstand that I still can’t do reminds me that once my legs are in the air, I don’t control the outcome. Child’s pose, much like the way people once prostrated before royalty, reminds me to bow to higher powers.
The five niyamas, especially when working with the yamas, also help on the mat and in life. They’re a second step that prepares us for what’s to come in life, no matter if it’s great or terrible. Given my lack of prowess and grace in these two limbs, I’m grateful for the third limb, which never fails to remind of them.
Reasons I love mermaid pose and it’s reminder of the niyamas on the mat: It’s not a simple pose but I feel like there’s a purity to both my love of yoga and the way it transforms as well as my love for mermaids in it. I have to be content with where I am in the pose or that today is just not the day for it. There’s a little burn sometimes to it too, as I work my body into what’s still a fairly new pose for me and it reminds me that there’s always a burn to growth. I still have to get into it in a deliberate way that makes me study me body and where I am today. Finally, the upward gaze along with the difficulty of keeping my foot in the crook of my elbow remind me to surrender where I am in the pose, and then to surrender spiritually. I suppose it helps that I end up looking at my mural at that point too.