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What are the Niyamas?

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Hello dear readers, here we are continuing this deep dive which is aimed to take us beyond Ashtanga Yoga.

To recap, and for those who have come in “late”, we have discussed the difference between the brand name asana class of strong dynamic yoga known as Ashtanga yoga, and the actual yogic path going by that name. We have explored the meaning of mysticism, as a profound internal experience of connectedness with the Supreme, and located Ashtanga yoga as being a type of Mystic Yoga. (Part 3) We have pointed out that the mind is not the self (part 4), the atma, and that all yoga paths involve an effort to control the mind, rather than be controlled by it (Part 1).

We have also talked about the physical austerity inherent in the practice of Ashtanga Yoga, which requires the Ashtanga yogi have a fit and healthy body, (Part 3 and 4) and the fact that the austerity alone does not constitute yoga, rather, that being on the path of yoga means working towards a union with the Supreme.

We looked at a broad categorization of methods of trying to reach the absolute truth and lastly, we began exploring the 8 parts of Ashtanga yoga, sometimes known as the 8 limbs, giving an overview and discussion of some of the yamas or preliminary regulatory behaviours in relation to social life.

Today we continue with moving through these eight parts, looking at the niyamas, which are regulations or observances aimed at one’s personal behaviour and state of mind, leading to a mentality conducive to progress in Ashtanga yoga.

As we had mentioned last time, the sage Patanjali laid out the framework of Ashtanga practices in his Yoga Sutras, written sometime between 1500 and 2500 years ago, and while they are also found in other earlier sources, including the mighty Srimad Bhagavatam, for now I quote from Patanjali.

Yoga Sutras: 2.32

“Sauca-santosa-tapah-svadhyayesvara-pranidhanani niyamah.

“Cleanliness, satisfaction, austerity, Vedic study; and isvara‑pranidhana, surrender to the Supreme Lord – these five are niyama.”


Cleanliness and Purity/Sauca

Physical cleanliness is useful on more than one level.  External cleanliness lessens the likelihood of disease.  Disease will come sooner or later, it is part of the territory of having a material body, but it becomes a great hindrance on the path of mystic yoga, so efforts to stave off such events are well worthwhile.

One aspect of internal cleanliness relates to what is eaten, how one behaves to facilitate digestion and elimination and so on. A serious Ashtanga yogi eats for health alone, regardless of the desires of the tongue and mind.  Food is simple, vegetarian and minimal.


Impact of Food Intake:

Why vegetarian you may ask?  One practical reason is easy digestibility.  Food that is not digested well produces toxins in the body. The presence of toxins, known as ama in the Ayurvedic medical system, can be considered a type of uncleanliness. Even here in the West we use the term “Going on a cleanse” or “cleansing” to describe a temporary eating regime of light digestible foods combined with herbs and other methods to help the body “clean out.”  Some people go so far as to pay to have their colons washed out with copious amounts of water.  Internal cleanliness, as with external cleanliness, helps stave of disease.

But a far more profound reason for eating vegetarian food, and eating minimally (I am afraid I am no example of that latter behaviour, although I understand the principle), is that whatever pain you cause in attempts to control and enjoy the world around you, comes back on you. The statement that to every action there is an opposite and equal reaction is true on both gross and subtle levels.

The yogi is aware of this, and aims to be cleansed of the burden of such reactions, which impede his progress on the path of mystic yoga, therefore to increase them by unduly causing pain to others, be they animals, or even vegetable, is contradictory. It is like an elephant that takes a bath, then gets out of the river and throws more dirt over himself.

And yep, even vegetables feel pain. It is not, however, anywhere near on the same level as the pain and terror felt by the higher forms of life when they are (oh dear, how graphic am I going to be here?  I’ll try and keep it very general…) led, dragged or carried towards an area smelling of blood and death and hear the death throes of those before them and then hopefully, but only hopefully and not always, are killed, or at least knocked unconscious before the flesh is harvested from their bodies.

The yogi realises that to partake of that harvest will do their practice such harm, and provide such a burden that the likelihood of success becomes almost nil.


More aspects of Purity

There is another aspect to what we take into our body, in terms of cleanliness.  There are three subtle energies called the modes of material nature, and known respectively as tamas or ignorance, rajas or passion and sattva or goodness. These energies exert an influence on our consciousness and behaviour.  The yogi endeavours to be primarily influenced by the mode of goodness, which leads to peacefulness and ease of meditation.

The mode of ignorance is epitomized by dirtiness, sloth, laziness, intoxication, ignorance about how to best behave, madness and all unclean things.  Foods in the mode of ignorance move the eater in that direction.  These foods include old stale foods, fermented foods including alcohol, even things like mushrooms and eggs, and especially flesh foods. Foods in the mode of passion, overly hot and spicy are also avoided by an Ashtanga yogi, but in terms of sauca/purity/cleanliness, old stale foods, alcohol and flesh foods are definitely to be avoided.

In addition to these aspect of cleanliness or purity, that is, the external environment of the body, the internal environment of the body, what we take into our bodies, and the minimising of pain to others in order to minimise the karmic load, there is another vital aspect. Internal cleanliness also relates to the mind and heart. The mind of a yogi should become like a pool of pure crystal clear water. Their heart must be cleansed of all impurities and selfish desires. When this state is reached they are nearing their final goal, the ability to meditate one pointedly on the All Pure.  As long as the window of the heart is dirty, their view will be obscured.  And this is true for all forms of yoga, not just Ashtanga Yoga.

The difficulty of the Ashtanga yogi is that they attempt to clear away all these obscuring desires and impurities by their own strength.

I am fortunate enough to have been gifted a cleansing method that does not rely on my own strength, it only relies on my accepting it, and engaging in and with it. This is the process of mantra meditation. Mantras are designed specifically to cleanse the burdens on the heart and mind, the dust that has accumulated over years, even lifetimes.

They may be likened to water flowing from a tap.  If you have dirty hands, just rubbing them together is not an efficient method of cleaning them.  Some of the larger pieces of dirt will no doubt be removed that way. But if you put your hands under the water, even if you don’t rub they eventually become clean, and if you rub as well, that process becomes quite speedy.

However the Ashtanga yogi is attached to a sense of prowess, feeling I am determined and strong. I need no one. They prefer to go through a stringent technical process taking many difficulties on themselves. Sometimes this may be due to lack of knowledge. However if one gives up the gift of a simple and effective practice and chooses instead to battle on alone it can be seen that pride has covered one’s intelligence. That pride will eventually have to be humbled in order to succeed, for the ultimate gift of yoga is just that, a gift, to be received, not a sales item bought with one’s austerities and hard work.

That ultimate gifts is a state of full self-realisation, freedom from all the pains of material existence, and the experience of an ocean of transcendental happiness.  And the fact is, in this time and age, the attempt to reach that ultimate goal via the process of Ashtanga yoga will almost invariably end in failure. The process is just not designed for this chaotic and quarrelsome age. So why not accept all possible assistance as soon as it becomes available?

It is interesting to learn about these things, and I write about them in an attempt to let those who are interested know what they are getting into, the vanishingly small chance of success on the path of Ashtanga yoga, and the fact that there is a Yoga method specific to this day and age, which just requires just a little sincerity and humility to begin moving towards assured success.

We have only covered the first of the 5 niyamas in today’s blog, so I have more to discuss next time.

Hopefully you will join me then.


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