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    « New Workshop Jan 22, 1pm Firefly Yoga, Westwood, MA | Main | Core Concepts of Yoga Pratice: Satya »

    Repost of the Article on Niyama from 2009

    This is the second in a series of articles about the Eight Limbs (Ashtanga) of Yoga. You can read the first article, on Yama, by clicking on "Yoga" in the subject list on the left side of the page.

    This article explores the second limb of Yoga, Niyama, which consists of the five traditional observances of yoga. The five observances are purity, happiness, radiance, self-knowledge and surrender.

    "Saucha," or "Purity" is the first observance of yoga.


    In 1847, the great philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote a book entitled Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing -- one of those books you don't really have to read because the title says it all.1

    Purity in yoga, as in life, means being one thing -- and to be one thing is to will one thing, because being and will are not separate, not two things. As we focus, we are, and as we are, we do.

    Yoga is a joining, a coming together, of everything -- all the differences resolved into a single orchestration -- a return to the one from the many. It is a return from conflict and differentiation to a single, uninterrupted focus.

    Living purely means living in the world as one being -- and that one being a blend, a joining, of universal Two hands, one heart -- purity means all things aligned as one.and particular, part and whole, simultaneously. The person can see life from the broadest, most inclusive perspective, and at the same time from the narrowest, most specific perspective, without contradiction. This is yoga.

    Being pure means having a clear and consistent purpose in living -- one vision, with all parts of the mind working together. It means willing one thing, wanting one thing, living one thing, moving life forward, one moment at a time.

    Purity means integration of all parts into one seamless whole -- this is, in essence, what yoga is.

    From a operational perspective in the practice of yoga, purity means reducing internal conflicts, and aligning one's focus toward one, simple aim. It means bringing disparities into alignment and coherence, the way we bring all the frequencies of light into harmony to become one laser beam.

    Diversity becomes unity -- understanding ourselves as one while celebrating differences. The joining of the one and the many, without losing either, is the miracle of yoga.

    The one force powerful enough to bring everything together, to make everything whole again, to bring all of us into alignment, into "purity," is the power of love. When we eliminate oppositions and polarity through love and reconciliation, when we stop resisting the flow of love and appreciation in life, yoga comes into being and impurity becomes a thing of the past.

    Purity is a gift of yoga, of self-alignment -- purity comes into being as a result of yoga. Purity is not a means to yoga, but an attribute, a fruit of yoga.

    Purity as a "way of being" turns fear into understanding. Confusion becomes clarity and weakness becomes strength.

    Being purely oneself means that the flow of life that is coming through us is orchestrated in such a way that it culminates in one life-giving focus.

    According to the Yoga Sutras, purity conveys the attributes of clarity and transparency, simplicity and basic goodness. When we are pure, we become fresh and new again.

    Purity is traditionally associated with cleanliness -- it is much more than that -- but cleanliness is a good metaphor for purity. When we clean, we remove the things that don't belong, and restore something to its original freshness.

    The practice of yoga is the practice of alignment with Self, and the concept of purity needs to be understood in this context.

    Yoga happens on on all levels, but we usually emphasize four main areas: physical, or the body, mental, or thoughts, emotions, or feelings, and spiritual, or energy and abstraction.

    Purity of spirit means we are aligned with our original, basic purposes and aspirations -- we are restored to a sense of goodness, of generosity, and we are learning to live in peace by appreciating who and what we are, and who and what everyone else is, too. Pure of spirit means life-loving, life-appreciating.

    Purity of mind means our thoughts are aligned and harmonious. In meditation practice, we are actively releasing and letting go of mental conflicts and dissension. We are preferring that our thoughts be directed toward what we appreciate and what we want, and we are releasing any tendency to argue or push against things. We are not pushing against what we do not prefer and what we do not want. See the articles on meditation for more on this.

    Purity of emotions means we are cultivating feelings of happiness and peace. We are focusing on the glass being wonderfully half-full. We are loving, we are appreciative, we are humble and grateful. We are actively valuing experiences and life around us. We are faithful and hopeful in our focus -- in our thought, word and deed, and consequently our emotions and feelings are positive and good-feeling.

    Purity of body means we are appreciating and taking care of our body, paying attention to what works and what doesn't, and doing our best to stay healthy. Mostly it means not criticizing the body, but appreciating all that it is and does for us.

    The word "purity" means unadulterated, unmixed, clear, sheer, simple, perfect, free. It means the thing itself, without interference, without conflict or resistance or modification.

    Think about it -- pure sugar means nothing but sugar. One substance, not two or four. But what about being purely oneself? We are multifaceted, complex, integrated beings, diverse, composed of a multitude of different parts and aspects.

    A sparrow is purely a sparrow, even though the bird itself is composed of many different parts -- and all the parts come together as one to be a sparrow, to exhibit the being and the nature and the behavior of a sparrow.

    In a similar way, when we are purely ourselves, all of our parts, all of the different sides of us, all of our contrasts work together to manifest as a coherent, integrated being. There are no internal contradictions or resistances or roadblocks.

    To be purely oneself does not mean that you are all one thing, all the same. It means you exhibit or manifest one coherent recognizable focus. It may be a broad focus, multifaceted, as you are, but there are no internal contradictions or conflicts to interfere with you simply being you.

    Children are naturally pure, innocent, unself-conscious, full of themselves. They are our teachers of innocence and purity. Aboriginal people, country people, tend to be this way as well. Yoga is returning to this kind of simpler, more natural way of being. Uncomplicated. Straightforward. No divisions. Just pure enthusiasm, pure love, pure joy.

    In action, purity means steadiness -- like the zen proverb: when sitting, sit, when standing, stand, above all don't wobble.

    Yoga means reducing internal conflicts, eliminating internal resistances to our own flow, to our own unfolding "story," to life. In many ways, yoga practice is getting everyone and everything else out of our head and returning to ourselves, recovering what we know, celebrating what we want, and enjoying doing what we do, without internal resistance or conflict. Purity is how we began in life, and yoga is a return to that simple innocence.

    Purity begins with the understanding that a human being is composed of lots of different elements, like a chorus of voices, and all the elements have to be trained to align and sing together as one.

    Yoga is not a training of the body, but a return of the body to a more natural way of being. Yoga is becoming like a child again, but from the perspective of being an adult. This is why yogis often appear more youthful.

    Yoga sees the human body the same way it sees life itself, as a wonderful gift -- the body is not an asset, or an object, certainly not a hindrance or obstacle. The body is a platform for experience. The body is not the self, but an expression, a manifestation of the self. When the self is aligned, the body is harmonious and healthy and happy. Exercise is useful primarily because it gives us a way to care for the body, and the self-care helps bring us into harmony -- this is why its important to do exercise from a place of self-appreciation and self-support, not from a place of self-criticism or worse, self-rejection.

    When our body is healthy and working well, it becomes "transparent," problem-free. It is only when there are internal resistances, aches or pains, that the body stands out.

    Working with the body in yoga means focusing, finding a experiential "center" that helps us to begin to sense and organize and align the self. Asana practice is not really meant as a direct way of improving the body, even though a healthier body is one of the benefits. The purpose of asana practice is to provide a "seat" for alignment to occur. The improvement of the body and the health that happen as as a result of asana practice happen not due to the external practice of movement or posture, but instead, as a direct result of the improved internal energy alignment during and after asana practice, which, in turn, facilitates the improved flow of prana, or life energy, throughout the entire physical system. (I will be discussing this topic more in weeks to come, when I get to the section on asana.) In short, it is the mental and emotional focus, the internal energy self-alignment that occurs during asana practice that produces most of the health benefits of yoga -- they are not primarily due to the physical workout itself. The same is true of Tai Chi Chuan, a form of chinese yoga -- mind, breath and body-feeling working together produce all of the beneficial effects.

    Asana and vinyasa practice (physical yoga exercises) are primarily important for the energy effects they facilitate -- the improved flow of prana, life-energy, not for the muscle and bone exercise itself. But again, more on that topic in weeks to come.

    Saucha, purity, means that our thoughts, our feelings, our purposes and our actions are aligned, unmixed, free of conflict -- harmonious. We fall back on ourselves, on our simplicity and natural way of being.

    In observing the arising of saucha as a result of yoga practice, we feel ourselves coming together, heart, mind, and body, as one being, and we become simpler, more harmonious, less resistant to the expansion and flow of life.

    We feel transparent, seamless -- "at one" with life. We feel fresh, and "new again."

    When we are purely ourselves, we're less concerned with physical things, or material things. We appreciate life as a set of experiences rather than seeing it in terms of acquiring more things. Life becomes more about appreciation of the experience of living, less about desiring or needing to cling to material things.


    The second Niyama is called Samtosa.


    "Samtosa," Contentment



    Samtosa, usually translated as "contentment" is the second niyama, the second observance of Yoga.

    Contentment is being satisfied. It is being pleased and happy with one's situation in life.

    Life is a fairly unpredictable experience -- there are lots of ups and downs. Lots of things can go wrong. As much as people like to think they can get life under control by being smart or careful or disciplined, the evidence seems to point to the fact that, in truth, no one can control circumstances, at least not for long. The unwanted is often a part of our experience -- our best intentions and best efforts notwithstanding.

    So how are we to be happy and content? Some commentators have interpreted this niyama as the deliberate cultivation of equanimity and fortitude, disciplining oneself to remain dispassionate amid loss and gain by lowering one's overall expectations and numbing desires.

    Others have said learn to be selfless and live only for others -- renounce pleasure and happiness and know the contentment by only wanting happiness for others.

    Contentment is not a dispassionate equanimity, nor is it a begrudging acceptance or ignoring of the ups and downs of life. It isn't resignation and it is not the disciplined attenuation of desire.

    Neither is it a practiced self-denial and elevation of the self-hood of others. Contentment is not being content with self-sacrifice. There is a certain ease and freedom in being unselfish and non-grasping, but this is aparigraha, not samtosa.

    Contentment is being truly pleased and satisfied with one's situation. It is being happy.

    Samtosa is being purely and simply happy with life -- as it is, as one finds it. It is not getting life under control, or getting life to "turn out" the way you want it, and then being happy. It is the fruit of the practice of minute-by-minute selectively focusing on the goodness and beauty in life and seeing the negatives as nothing more than the future locations of happiness. Contentment is the result of having the courage, the determination to see life as a growth curve, not a gamble.

    Real yogis are happy -- vividly, joyously, irrepressibly happy -- like children. One who is in samtosa is truly appreciating and enjoying life. Life is a pleasure.

    Samtosa is seeing life, the world, through the eyes of Source -- seeing the world from a broad perspective, and being focused on the evident goodness and beauty or the greater goodness or beauty that is to come. Every shadow is seen as a temporary absence of light, every lack is seen as a container that needs to be filled, every hurt as a wrong that needs to be made right. In yoga we see only the wonder of life, the opportunity in life, the freedom in life, the future happiness of life, and we are happy. Spontaneously, innocently, joyously happy.

    When we practice yoga, we deliberately decide reduce conflicts and resolve stresses and release fears and doubts. We learn to value good feelings above all. In doing so, we cultivate and steep ourselves in happiness.

    Contentment, true satisfaction in life, is the emotional correlate of the state of yoga, deliberate alignment with self-as-joy.

    The practitioner of yoga deliberately cultivates feeling of friendliness, optimism, enjoyment and good cheer, because he or she understands that the positive emotions such as liking, valuing, appreciating, and having fun and taking pleasure, are indicators that the energy systems of the body are coming into alignment, and that the universal and the individual streams of energy are becoming more harmonious.

    Yoga sees life as naturally blissful (ananda), naturally enjoyable, and teaches that when we see the world from the broad perspective, we come into alignment with that natural joy spontaneously.

    And yoga teaches that negative emotions, such as sadness, anxiety, frustration, concern, upset or overwhelm, are indicators that we are at cross purposes with ourselves, that we have one line of thought set against another. When we are troubled emotionally, worried or hurt, it means that we have unwittingly set ourselves against nature and our own best interests. We have temporarily lost the sense of faith and trust in the goodness and wholeness and balance of life itself.

    Restoring ourselves to yoga, or alignment with the larger life around us, means restoring positive feelings and emotion. And that happens when we let go of trouble, when we let go of worry and fear, and embrace the goodness inherent in every particle of life itself.

    You can't fake contentment or happiness, by the way, and call it yoga. When you're happy, you're happy -- and you know it. Pasting a smile on an unhappy face, or practicing dispassion is not happiness -- its more like spraying floral room spray to cover a bad smell. Better to open the windows and air the place out. Better to release the reasons you have for being unhappy.

    Contentment, like everything else in Yoga, isn't work and it isn't discipline. It's the fruit of appreciation, the result of finding value in oneself and the world around you. When you find the perspective or point of view that supports you in accepting and appreciating first yourself and then others, contentment arises in you naturally, effortlessly.





    "Tapah," Radiance is the third observance, the third niyama.



    The word tapah is traditionally translated as "austerity," but there is no austerity in yoga. Yoga is peace, joy, abundance and success, on every level. Yoga is life affirming, not life-denying. There is no discipline, no austerity, no denial in yoga.

    In Western cultures, the taking on of suffering or hardship is so basic to our religious and cultural heritages (and it is part of most everyone's thinking whether they're "religious" or not) we fail to recognize that we see all growth, all development in terms of a need to suffer. Words like discipline (which really means to be a good disciple) or sacrifice (which means to make sacred) or duty (which means to be focused on one's purpose) get subsumed into a larger practice of being willing to sacrifice and suffer in order to progress.

    Western thinkers and writers, and western-influenced eastern thinkers and writers have projected the Judeo-Christian ideal of intentional suffering as a path to the good on to some of the ancient spiritual traditions of the east and distorted them.

    Tapah means the heat (energy radiance) that goes along with focus of mind. When the mind is focused in yoga, a coherent radiant energy is produced, which literally influences the physical world. In modern thinking, this is the yogic equivalent of what we call "energy work."

    I believe the ancients used the word concept of heat to convey the idea of radiance. Tapas means radiation of coherent energy.

    Heat is a non-mechanical energy transfer between a system and one of the elements in that system. A radiator heats a room. In the same way, a yogi shed or radiates yoga, alignment.

    A yogi is a coherent being -- pure, focused, aligned and energetically very powerful. And simply by "being" a yogi radiates alignment, health, intelligence and healing.



    "Svadhyaya," "Self-Knowledge" is the fourth observance of Yoga.

    A yogi practices appreciation of the self, cooperation with the self, and alignment with the self, and in doing so comes to fully know the self.

    In time, one eventually comes to understand the world itself as an expression of the self -- this is the real flowering of Yoga.


    To study yoga is to study the self -- to study the self is to come to know all things.

    In everyday life, people are disconnected from themselves. They are taught to understand themselves as a social or a worldly "identity" always trying to "be somebody" by achieving individuality as a state of social distinction and status. Identity is always a sense of self in relation to others.

    The state of self-knowing in yoga is a sense of knowing oneself that is rooted in being oneself, purely and completely, without any need for reference or comparison to others. We recover the sense of knowing ourselves the way a child "knows" themselves, without a false sense of identity imposed by others.

    We know ourselves the way we come to know that water is wet -- we put our hand in it.

    A yogi knows themselves experientially, directly, without mediation. A yogi is completely at peace with themselves, totally self-accepting and self-enjoying. The way a cat is a cat, purely and without any need for external validation or approval.

    In yoga, our work lies primarily in releasing resistance to ourselves. We first release resistance to our own thoughts and feelings, to the flow of life in our own individual being, and we then learn to release resistance to the the flow of life in the world around us.


    "Ishvara-pranidhanani," Surrender to our own source, our own largest purposes, is the fifth Niyama, or observance. It is traditionally translated as surrender to God, devotion, or alignment of one's purposes with those of God.

    Ishvara-pranidhanani begins with our willingness to surrender with and align to our own nature. And our own nature is seen in yoga as connected to a a larger Nature that is the basis of the world around us.

    Yoga is not religious in the Western sense, but it does hold that life has an intelligent source deep within it that creates and becomes the world we know. This source is not described as an entity or person, but functionally, as source and material and manager of life itself -- hence the most common translation of Ishvara: Supreme Controller.

    Ishvara is not a personal god -- it can be instead seen as that creative intelligence in us, in life, that becomes us, becomes life.


    Ishvara is a word used to make understandable the intelligent and creative aspect of life itself -- the nature of Nature. It is that aspect of all-that-is that manifests as the world, that becomes the world and enters the world as us.

    Ishvara is described in the Taittiriya Upanishad in the following way (the use of the pronoun "he" is obviously metaphorical -- source, nature, is neither he nor she):

    "He created all this, whatever is here. Having created it, into it, indeed, he entered it. Having entered it, he became both the actual and what is next what is beyond, became the defined and the undefined, the founded and the unfounded, the intelligent and the unintelligent, the true and the untrue."

    Ishvara as the creative intelligence that lies at the heart of all manifest life, continuously streams forth as life, becomes differentiated as all the different forms of life, and eventually becomes us. It is the self with a capital "S," that core presence-awareness, core energy, that becomes me and you and everything else.

    Think of it as the essence of life, existing as an energy vibration at the very heart of all physical manifestation, which is continuously streaming forth as the world.

    It is the core "self" that we ultimately align with in yoga. The intelligence, the "knowing" that becomes us and then rediscovers itself as we rediscover it through yoga.

    Ishvara-pranidhanani means complete alignment with the universal value that underlies and supports our individual existence. It is being in harmony with Nature, and having the support of Nature.

    The promise of yoga is that when we are aligned with the power that creates worlds, we also gain access and begin to harness that power -- thereby fulfilling our highest purposes.


    1If you'd like to read the book, though, you can find it here:

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