The niyamas are the second limb of yoga, as outlined in Patanjali’s yoga sutras. Along with the first limb, the yamas, these two limbs together form the ethical code of conduct that creates the foundation bedrock of the yoga path. If you use the analogy of the tree of yoga, the five yamas and five niyamas could be seen as the roots of the tree, providing the stability and grounding for growth of the other limbs – without deep roots the tree wouldn’t be able to grow fully, and could also soon topple.
The yamas are ‘social restraints’ that we should be mindful of in our daily lives – things like restraining from stealing, lying, harming others and ourselves, sexual misconduct and envy (you can read more about bringing the yamas into daily life in this related blog post). Conversely, the niyamas are ‘personal observances’ that we should try and focus on and bring into our lives as much as possible – these include cleanliness, contentment, disciplined effort, self-enquiry and surrendering to ‘god’/the divine/the universe/something bigger than you, whatever this means to you.
By restraining from negative traits and cultivating positive traits, as set out in the yamas and niyamas, the rest of the yoga limbs will easily begin to interweave through our lives.
In week one of my 2016 Saturday workshop series on the niyamas we looked at the first niyama, saucha, which means cleanliness or purity. Patanjali dedicates two whole sutras to describing the benefits of saucha, showing how important he viewed it to be (he certainly wasn’t one to waste words!). In the first sutra (sutra II.40), he describes how, when we establish purity in our lives, we become distanced from our own body and untainted by contact with others’ bodies. We could of course translate this quite narrowly, by imagining ancient yogis living in caves where they couldn’t be tempted by other bodies until they reach a state where they become completely detached from the idea of a physical body, both their own and others’, and free from sensual, bodily temptation.
But it could also be translated in a way which is more accessible to the modern lifestyle: when we focus on purifying ourselves, externally and internally, then we no longer see people as just their bodies and physicality; instead we recognise that true beauty shines from within and comes from the level of the soul, not the body. Yet still, we recognise that the body houses the soul, so we treat our own body and other bodies with due care and respect.
The second sutra relating to saucha (sutra 11.41) goes on to say that purity of mind leads to mental happiness, the ability to direct and sustain attention, control of sense organs and true vision of the Self. So, having described the more ‘gross’, outer expression of purity in 11.40, which relates to the body, Patanjali now emphasise the more subtle, inner expression of purity, which relates to the mind. And, apparently, the benefits of a pure mind are pretty huge – wouldn’t we all like to have a happy mental disposition, great concentration, wonderful self-control and true knowledge of who we really are?! So, certainly, purity is something to try and cultivate within our lives.
As per Patanjali’s two sutras, we can investigate how saucha plays out in our lives on two levels. Firstly, how pure is our relationship with our own body? Starting at the outermost level, how is our personal hygiene? BKS Iyengar used to state the importance of showering and being clean before practising yoga. Well, this might not always be possible in our busy lives, for example if we’re rushing to a class straight from work, but certainly we can all hold to a basic personal hygiene regime, as a mark of respect towards ourselves and others.
But, external, body-focused saucha is much more than this. How about what foods and drinks we are putting in our bodies – do these serve to cleanse and purify our body or to toxify it? Similarly, what about other non-natural substances that we put into and onto our bodies, such as drugs, medication, creams and potions?
The more pure and natural the foods and body products we use, the healthier we will feel, both in mind and body. So here are some ideas to help you think about purifying your body:
- Consider buying organic, locally sourced foods where you can, and choose wholefoods over highly processed foods.
- Find natural water sources where you can – there is something magically purifying about untainted water.
- Try using natural oils such as coconut oil and argan oil on your skin and hair rather than chemical potions – if you can safely eat it, then your skin will be happy! Or, for shampoos and conditioners, there are many more natural, plant-based products available these days.
- Can you cut out smoking or cut down on alcohol intake?
- Are there any natural remedies that could supplement, or maybe even eventually replace chemical medication (under the guidance of a suitably qualified medical professional if needs be).
- How clean and pure is the air you are breathing? If you live in a polluted city, consider taking time out each week to visit the countryside and breathe the cleaner air there, or make regular weekend trips to the seaside – there is something so rejuvenating about breathing fresh, salty sea air!
- And finally, what ‘body and mind fodder’ are you allowing to enter your body? For example what books are you reading, what content are you trawling through on the internet, what films are you watching, what hobbies are you pursuing and who are you spending time with? Do these things bring purity into your life or toxicity? Can you identify any that actually make you feel pretty rough and that you’re ready to let go of and perhaps replace with a more wholesome alternative that makes your heart sing instead? (Warning, these questions require full honesty, and that’s not easy!) This last point overlaps with the inner purity that the article goes on to talk about but, still, look out for the physical effects that the ways you choose to spend your time have on you…
As for the inner purity, well this is in many ways more difficult. This is about watching our thoughts and trying to replace toxic, negative thoughts with purifying, positive thoughts. By starting at the inner level of our thoughts, the changes will ripple outwards to words and eventually actions. We really do create our outer world with our inner thoughts, so if our thoughts contain high levels of toxicity and negativity, then this will be reflected in our life experiences. By watching our thoughts, we soon come to realise just how negative many/most of them are – we would probably never talk to someone else as rudely as we talk to ourselves, and much of the time we would be mortified if others could actually hear what we were internally saying about them!
So really, in typical Patanjali style, he wraps up a hugely complex life-long endeavour in a tiny collection of short words – he is the king of concision! But therein lies the beauty and the challenge of walking the yoga path, or indeed any other path that leads towards developing self-knowledge and cultivating inner peace. No-one ever said it would be easy! But, if we can begin to watch our thoughts, the very act of spotting the toxic ones helps to shed them of some of their power and, over time, we can become more connected to the calm observer of the thoughts rather than the content of the thoughts themselves and, eventually, through dedication and endless practice and patience, we can even begin to change the nature of the thoughts from negative to positive – and such positivity shines back at us through the mirror that is our external life experience.
At first it can be really difficult to ‘thought-watch’ all the time (although, warning, it is compellingly addictive!), so to begin with perhaps use your yoga practice, whether that’s asana or meditation, to watch your thoughts. And, soon enough, you will see this practice start to filter into your wider world – after all, yoga doesn’t stop when we leave the mat, in fact that’s usually where it truly begins… 😉
Happy exploring, and tune in next month for thoughts and tips on bringing the next niyama, santosha (contentment) into your life, on and off the mat.