Principles of internal observance
The laws of Karma are inescapable for all human beings. Nobody can escape the subtle laws of cause and effect that govern our external and internal Cosmos. You may be King, President, a simple Yoga teacher or simply washing dishes, but on a spiritual plane we are all equal and all that really matters is how we can free ourselves from our trappings and ignorance that cover the true realisation of Luminous Spirit from within.
For a seeker of Yoga, the Yamas and Niyamas are the basic principles of restraint and observance that when followed, start to unlock a greater receptivity of Yoga from within. Without aligning ourselves to these two fundamental principles, it is almost impossible to awaken an experience of Yoga from within. Yoga today is indeed defined in various ways, but if you see anybody lacking these first two principles the Yoga they claim to be serving may be of a different kind.
In a genuine Yoga practice, we are trying to know ourselves a little better. What are the laws operating within us? Why do we suffer? How can our mind experience a greater clarity and freedom from within?
Yamas are principles of restraints that we follow in order to minimise the suffering we cause to our external environment. But ultimately they are tools to prevent the influx of negative Karma causing further distress and turmoil in our very own lives, blurring the state of Yoga from within us and causing delusion in our mind to what is real at all times.
Niyamas are principles of internal observance that are cultivated to act as a catalyst to experience a greater state of Yoga from within. These personal observances are guidelines to develop a better receptivity of Samadhi = Yoga and minimise the numerous patterns of afflictions that bind us. The root of all our afflictions is said to be Avidya, ignorance/nescience about our true nature, and it manifests further in the fabrication of Ego which in turn produces attachments, aversions, separation and fear of death. But before we discuss Niyamas, let's dwell a few moments on the nature of Avidya - ignorance. According to Yoga sutras it is defined as:
Ignorance/nescience is mistaking the non-eternal for the eternal, the impure to be pure, suffering to be pleasurable and finally the non-self to be the Self (YS 2.5).
Ok, maybe we ought to write a whole article on Avidya, but in short, the nature of it is that we see permanence in our external environment when there is none. Purity to be found in the ever-changing realm of sensual gratification and Pleasure to be consistent in the ever-changing field of Nature, and finally the mistaken identity of our body/mind organism to be the self, when in reality it is only the vehicle for its manifestation.
But in order for us to come to an inner realisation of the dormant state of Yoga from within, Patanjali lists out some personal observances that are to be followed so the state of Yoga may shine clearer from within. After being established in the Yamas, he urges us to pay attention to the following five principles of observance from within: saucha-santosha-tapas-svadhyaya-ishvarapranidhana-niyamah (YS 2.32). These Niyamas are five in number and are translated as:
5. A total surrender to the Lord
As mentioned above, they are there to help us awaken the dormant state of Yoga from within and minimise the suffering that comes from the various afflictions we get caught up in. Let us discuss them one-by-one to better understand why they are important to a practice of Yoga.
After the peak in our youth, our body slowly decays. Everything in nature is subject to decay and will deteriorate sooner or later. Keeping pure in body and mind is a first step to prevent this deterioration, but no matter how much we wash and clean our physical nature, we will soon come to realise that keeping clean in a realm of physical decay is impossible, yet we still engage in it as a first step to remove the dirt/dust that continually covers our Pure Spirit from within. A person who therefore engages in purity will naturally come to see the defects of the mind/body, loosen his attachment to it and from that hopefully become more restrained in his Pure Spirit from within. When Purity is observed, we may taste a higher sense of pleasant-mindedness, become more one-pointed, gain better control of our sense-organs and hopefully be more fit for the knowledge of our true inner Self (YS 2.41).
Now why is Contentment important? Well the simple reason being is that our true self, the Atman/Purusha, does not stand in need of anything. It simply is at all times, will always be and is free of change in nature. So if it does not stand in need of anything, we can never grasp it or experience it by the mere realm of our physical nature (Prakrti). It is rather our external outlook within this nature that determines our very experience of Spirit from within. So if there is no practice of Contentment - an acceptance of what is - the mind will always be under the impression that it needs to change everything, when in fact it is only our experience and identification with the fluctuations of our mind that needs to change. Spirit will always be pure in its own essence and hence when we practise Contentment, we will come to experience the dormant state of happiness that is consistent from within (YS 2.43). Normally when people say they are happy it is due to various circumstances they have been exposed to within time and place, but in truth, ultimate happiness stems from the realisation that we are not this body/mind organism but rather the manifestation of immortal spirit from within.
Now what is Tapas? That is an area of great debate, but for now let's just accept that it is a means of purification or austerities that are performed to remove the layers of dust that cover our inner essence and better awaken to the subtle patterns of our body/mind organism.
Vyasa in his commentary on the Yoga Sutras states that: 'Yoga is not attained by one who does not engage in actions of purifications. Due to the endless afflictions born from our samskaras (previous Karmas) and our mistaken identity about ourselves, we are caught up in a net of delusion that predetermines the way we see the world and experience our own inner nature' (YSB 2.1). We are therefore not able to see and experience the purity of spirit from within and hence Tapas are one of the means by which we may purify our samskaras and become more receptive to the Purity of Spirit from within.
The accurate translation of the word Tapas actually means 'heat'. The noun is derived from the root Tap and it means to 'heat up'. In a similar manner we 'heat up' our body, mind and sense-organs through a consistent practice of asanas, pranayama - or whatever our means of purification may be - in order to bring about a greater clarity of the true support of our body, mind and sense-organs. The practice of Sadhana, means of purification, is the very tool to bring about this inner perfection of spirit from within.
Svadhyaya, self-study, is the repeated expression of purifying utterances like OM, Gayatri and other sacred syllables and mantras. The study of sacred literature that contemplates the liberation of Self, such as Vedanta and other philosophical schools, are equally said to fall under this category.
The very purpose of repetition of sacred syllables and mantras is to still the clutter of the mind and empower the individual to a greater receptivity of Spirit from within. The study of the philosophical schools contemplating the liberation of the Self is there to guide the seeker in his/her process of a better experience of the self from within. A study of the definition from the various schools will never give full justice to the subject, but it will help the seeker in his/her navigation and articulation of this matter by bringing about a greater receptivity to name and form.
It is said that the Gods, Rishis and the Siddhas (perfected beings) may become visible to a person well established in svadhyaya and help the seeker/aspirant in their further growth (YS 2.44).
Ishvara-pranidhana is said to be the means of cultivating the perfection of Samadhi (YS 2.45). It is the last of the Niyamas, but it also has a separate reference in the Samadhi Pada (First Chapter of Yoga Sutras) as the easiest and most direct way to experience Yoga. After being informed about the gradual development of the mind through a methodological consistent practice (YS 1.12-22) we are suddenly taught this direct access that may help us break away from all previous difficulties and strain as a tool to bypass all the clutter of our mind and directly come to experience a state of Yoga from within.
This sutra does indeed break away from the stern intellectual systematisation of the Sankhya school of philosophy, which is said to be the pre-runner of Yoga. For whatever reason, the theory of God is abolished altogether in Sankhya, but in Yoga, God or Ishvara is the most simple and direct means to still the mind in its own essence. Here we can see how Yoga bridges over to Vedanta, when it articulates the essence of man to be based in Brahma, God, but fail to experience this due to our layers of ignorance.
The Yoga sutras define Ishvara to be a particular Purusha/Being that is untouched by the depositories and afflictions from Karmas with their unbreakable cause and effect. Nothing supersedes him and he is the seed of omniscient. He is considered to be the teacher of teachers because he is unlimited by time and space. He is expressed through the sacred syllable OM. He is to be meditated upon and repetitions of his mantras will bring about a true awakening to a vibrant state of mind and remove the obstacles that cause misery and affliction. (YS 1.23-29).
These are profound statements that reflect how Classical Yoga upholds a Ruler, Ishvara, as the superior essence and governor of the external Universe as well as our internal Universe.
Much is to be said about the concept of God, but Yoga does not favour any particular God. It simply states that a Divine Ruler is free of any name and form, but yet is the very core of our being in essence. The practice of Yoga does not, therefore, distinguish between religions and favour one God above the other. It simply states that he eternally exists and therefore any definition of him/her will always be limited by time, space and culture. Some definitions may be more accurate than others, but nevertheless, all definitions do justice to his Grace since he is part of everything.
In conclusion, we can see how the Niyamas are tools to purify the receptivity of Spirit from within. When observed with proper awareness, the seeker will be reminded of his immortal essence. We have discussed how the practice of Yamas may bring about a minimisation of the influx of negative Karmas that will provide physical stability for the mind to grow in receptivity of Spirit. In a similar way and on a more subtle level, the Niyamas will minimise the influx of disturbing Karmas on mental and emotional levels, facilitating a greater homecoming to what is.
When we are able to gradually see, breathe and rest with what is steady at all times from within - i.e. the Purity of Spirit - we may still experience the disturbing fluctuations of a troubled mind, but they will gradually lose their impact on us because we have experienced from within a deeper integration to a reality that appears more real and steady than the ever-changing fluctuations of the mind.
When Yamas and Niyamas are properly established, we are better fit to invoke the Royal essence of Spirit to be firmly established and seated from within. Then the practice of asanas becomes much easier because we know what our foundation truly is and who we are creating the asana/the seat for.
R. Alexander Medin
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