II.32 The observances are cleanliness, contentment, austerity, study of liberation and devotion (humility)
The niyamas (knee-yam-as - short ‘a’ sound), the second limb listed in the Eight Limbs of Yoga, are centered on one’s own personal discipline and practice. They are a guide to how to treat one’s vessel and live fully in health. In fact, both of the first two limbs of yoga discuss how to live a fully healthy life. What we in the West think of as “Yoga” doesn’t even get introduced until the third limb of the eight. Yoga is about living a fully healthy and fully functioning existence. The physical asana piece is only one of the eight pieces and not part of my discussion this month. Why? Because I have bias (yep, we are all working on stuff, right?!) and I find it challenging as a teacher when someone tells me they won’t “do yoga” because they’re not flexible. Truly I tell you, flexibility has very little to do with yoga. Many days my students and I practice yoga without a single asana (posture) in the session. Yoga is an avenue to health. It is a system that has persevered over 5000 years because human beings have always had a drive to feel better and be better. My passion is to teach my students how far their yoga practice can take them. At first, the asana practice asserts itself as an obstacle, and that is perfectly fine. It gives me this personalized platform from which to create a lesson plan for each student to identify and then utilize the other seven limbs of this yoga system.
To practice the niyamas is to make a conscious choice to work toward health and away from disease and dysfunction. As the yogis saw things, our body is a temple. It’s the only temple we have. We carry it with us always and if we are interested in having a healthy one, we better do some work. This “work” was where we began our discussion last month: in the mind. As I discussed, we have physical reactions to mental initiations. Period. One goes with the other. They are not separate in any way. This month, we are focusing on the body. In the following paragraphs I will list and explain the five niyamas and how they relate to our body’s health.
Cleanliness (shaucha), the first niyama, refers to keeping our physical body clean and pure. Eating vegetables, fruits, whole grains, staying away from overly processed foods, sugar and simple carbs, drinking lots of water, staying away from alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, etc. will help us feel better. Nothing new here. Just a solid reminder of what will assist our physical body in maintaining health. All from 5000 years ago!
Contentment (santosha-my favorite by far of all the niyamas) refers to a disinterest in accumulating more than one’s immediate needs of life. Find gratitude for what you have, people! Stop wanting, wishing, needing, and coveting stuff and you will feel better in your body. Just ask someone who used to be driven by accumulating more stuff who has changed their view-point. In the references for going deeper into this concept, I have listed an autobiography of a woman and her husband who did this and wrote about it. People tend to feel physically better when the drive for excess dissipates and they are not overloaded with too many possessions.
Austerity (tapah) is the ability to tolerate all of the dualities of life (i.e. hot and cold, over-stressed or nothing to do, etc.), to avoid useless talk and to perform tasks (How about staying off Facebook for a day every time you have a negative visceral reaction to someone’s post?!). True yoga practice asks one to endure and remain undisturbed by the lack of physical comfort. This niyama is particularly challenging for me. I HATE to be cold. It will actually make me angry if I am not present in my mind and body during the experience of feeling cold - which, in my opinion, is a pretty over the top bodily reaction to something so common. So, practicing my yoga, I use awareness of body to prevent cold when I can or breathe deeply and stay calm if I am in a situation where I can’t change things. No need to get mad.
Study (svadyaya) is the fourth niyama and refers to realizing where our personal work lies, owning it and working toward positive change. Read, work with a therapist, practice mindfulness, meditate, concentrate, and practice the eight limbs of yoga. Any one or a combination of these will help on your journey to self-awareness. There are a ton of positive physical ramifications to working on your “stuff”. Decrease in blood pressure, sounder sleep, better circulation, just to name a few!
The last niyama is listed as devotion to a higher power (ishvara-pranidhanani). Why would this make the list? Because humility is foundational for healthy living. There have been studies which have linked narcissism to earlier death rates, higher heart health risks and other illnesses. (Narcissistic Personality Disorder in Clinical Health Psychology Practice: Case Studies of Comorbid Psychological Distress and Life-Limiting Illness). If one believes they are the end all be all, it is not best for their physical well-being. For a practical real-world example, think about the last time you gave of your time, energy or talent to help someone. How did you feel when you got that thank you? Or saw that smile? Or just knew you made someone’s burden easier to bear? That’s right! You felt good! So, taking that idea and turning into a way of living is what this particular niyama is asking of us. Be kind, give grace, forgive, help, love and you will have a healthier body.
Hopefully I have educated you on some of the depth and breadth that yoga encompasses. It is such a wonderful system that we all have access to that can help us become healthier human beings!