Last week, I wrote about how one can apply Patanjali’s yamas to meditation. Yoga postures tend to dominate our social media feeds so we are quite familiar with the physical portion of yoga, the asana practice. But we tend to be less familiar with the concept of yoga as a science or a process of brining us more in touch with our true self. In the Yoga Sutras, one of the oldest and most regarded yoga texts written by the sage Patanjali, outlines the science of yoga in eight distinct limbs (or steps). The first limb, the yamas, describes the restraints that enable us to harmoniously live within a community.
While the first limb is about our behaviors as they relate to others, the second limb or niyamas, is about the behaviors as they relate to our own internal happiness, confidence and inner strength. The niyamas are the observances or supportive duties that we can use to create a positive internal environment enabling us to connect with our true self. Together, the yamas and the niyamas constitute the moral codes of yoga’s philosophy, science and lifestyle.
The niyamas are comprised of five core observances:
Saucha (purity) Is about keeping things clean. Our body, our minds and our living space. Things take up energy and when we have ‘clutter’ both around and inside of us our state of mind is going to bear the brunt. Our meditation practice is essential to our mental hygiene but it’s going to be impacted by what is going on within our body and within our environment. Impurities adversely affect our thinking patterns, clouding our innate wisdom and clarity. So take inventory of what is going in and around you (and no I’m not suggesting a juice cleanse). What are some attainable and sustainable lifestyle changes you can make to de-clutter and cleanse your life? Where can you find a little more calm and a little more order that could potentially support your meditation practice?
Samtosha (contentment) I love this one. It’s about welcoming what you get. It’s about releasing your mind of wanting something different and accepting what is. When we are constantly striving for something ‘different’ or when we have created a thought pattern that things ‘should’ be a certain way we foster the ideal habitat for suffering. There are a lot of expectations around meditation and this sets us up for frustration and struggle during our practice. But if we approach our practice as a time to just ‘be’ in whatever should arise we can begin to release some of these binding expectations. The number of minutes spent sitting in meditation is irrelevant. The number of times your mind wanders doesn’t matter. Let your mediation be a space to just ‘be’ and invite contentment into your practice.
Tapas (self-discipline) This literally translates to heat. It is the energy you conjure up to mobilize change or focus an effort. We have to call on this energy, or this heat because we’re proactively doing something that will improve our body, mind or spirit. And chances are these are things that we don’t ‘really’ want to do. It takes self discipline to take care of ourselves in a culture seeped in unhealthy habits. Let’s be honest, sitting down for our mediation practice isn’t always high on our list. If it didn’t feel like a chore at times it wouldn’t be so hard to do. It takes commitment, self-discipline and this ‘fire’ to bring us to our practice every day. But here is the thing, we all have self-discipline. So use it.
Svadhyaya (self-study) Literally translates ‘to recollect the Self’. This is about asking the eternal question ‘Who Am I?’ This one is not easy especially because the way we live can (and does) completely distract us from our true nature, our internal self. We are subject to constant stimulation and never ending messaging which prevents us from paying attention to what is going on inside. I’ve written about this here and here. It’s one of the primary reasons I believe we need meditation more than ever. We need a break from all of the noise and stimuli. We need to practice listening to our own internal needs and inclinations without external influences. Use your meditation practice as a true break from everything we deal with in the outside world. Let your inner voice, your true self be present in your practice, learning from and listening to what’s inside. Use meditation to encourage your true self to be loud – eventually louder than everything else.
Ishvara Pranidhana (devotion) This is the dedication or surrender to something higher. The offering to something greater than ourselves, the pinnacle of spiritual practice. Patanjali states that liberation, the highest happiness, can only come from a love of or communion with God. But once again, don’t get distracted by the anthropomorphic representation of God. Consider that there is a divine design, a benevolent essence in our universe and think about your contribution to this divinity. In simplest terms, it’s about the notion that this offering connects us to something greater. This connection makes our own capacity limitless and this is beautiful. I’ve shared my meditation recipe where I talk about finding the edges of your form. This gives you a tangible place to drop into, or go within. When I think of devotion in the context of this niyama, I think of the edges of my form actually disintegrating. So there is no outside of me or inside of me. It is all just me. There is true comfort here and I don’t think my words can do this comfort justice so I would encourage you to try it yourself. Connect to the greater universe in your meditation and feel the grounding effect this has on your practice.
The niyamas can truly serve us by opening up new capacities to nourish our body, mind and spirit. Together with the yamas, we can learn to live a simple, peaceful, disciplined life that enables our true self to flourish. Once again, think about these observances and how they can contribute to your meditation practice.
Mediate & be well.