Tag Archives: niyama


We are in the home stretch of the niyamas or observances in yoga. The fourth niyama, svadhyaya, is my favorite because it combines self awareness with intellectual study (well, this is my interpretation of svadhyaya), and these two pursuits seem to occupy a great deal of my time. Unlike shaucha, I can get excited about practicing svadhyaya.

One of the many things I like about yoga is that those sages who created the system thousands of years ago thought of just about everything. The spiritual practice of yoga has something for everyone: the intellectual, the wanna-be monk, the bodily kinesthetic type, musical folks, and those who live to serve. You don’t have to subscribe to one supreme belief and you don’t have to ardently practice one thing. They are manifold ways to grow on the yogic path (of course, you’re strongly encouraged to undertake every practice even if it’s not your forte).

Svadhyaya is often translated as something like “study of scared texts” and “self study.” But it’s not, as my teachers from India caution, “merely intellectual musing” instead, it’s “rigorous self analysis and development.” In academia, we glorify knowledge for its own sake, but in yoga, knowledge must have some practical application. Usually, this practical application has something to do with understanding and observing yourself (your thoughts, your body, your emotions, your triggers, your hang-ups, your pettiness, your darkest fears and wildest fantasies) so that you can work with your mind to achieve that cessation of fluxuation of the thought waves in the mind that is yoga.

Watching yourself on the mat as your body moves (or fights) its way through poses, reading the scared philosophical texts of yoga like Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras or the Bhagavad Gita, sitting in meditation and observing the mind’s chatter, witnessing your stress level rise while waiting in line at the post office, these are all ways to practice svadhyaya.

But here’s something else, a less obvious way to engage in svadhyaya: give up. Specifically, give up hope.

Flipping through Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart (Boston: Shambala, 2000) the other day, I stumbled upon this insight of hers: “To think that we can finally get it all together is unrealistic. To seek for some lasting security is futile…One has to give up hope that this way of thinking will bring us satisfaction. Suffering begins to dissolve when we can question the belief or the hope that there’s anywhere to hide” (39).

Is your head spinning like mine did when I read that? I have to give up hope to begin the path? (Easier said than done when it’s your name!) But hope is the thing that keeps us alive; it’s the thing with feathers that perches in the soul. It’s….ME!

My selfish, egotistical clinging notwithstanding for a moment, giving up hope is entirely counter-cultural to those of us in the Christianized Western world. I know that I have gotten myself through difficult times–clinically difficult times–by holding on to the hope that tomorrow will be better. I have the white knuckles to prove it. But, now, here’s the Buddhist nun telling us that the true Easter morning, the joyous light of a new day, actually comes when we give up hope. And it comes right now, not tomorrow.

Chodron goes on to link our addiction to hope with a deep-seated fear of death. Without retracing her argument here, I simply want to say that she underscores the importance of the present moment no matter how unbearable that present moment might be. When we relax in the chaos and discomfort of what’s actually happening, then and only then can we begin to build lives of compassion and wisdom. She ends the chapter by admonishing “Giving up hope is encouragement to stick with yourself, to make friends with yourself, to not run away from yourself…” (45). Although she doesn’t explicitly say it, staying present and abandoning hope leads us to our inner teacher.

Like most facets of yoga, svadhyaya likewise emphasizes the inner teacher. We don’t engage in intellectual study to find some sort of “answer” “out there”; instead, we engage in study to navigate our inner landscape and unearth the inner teacher, innate to all of us, that our rational, Puritanical, head-strong, and hopeful culture buried alive hundreds of years ago.

Once we dig up the inner teacher, then what? How do we listen to what she says? How do we know it’s the inner teacher and not our own chattering, anxious minds? I’ll have to get back to you on this one.


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And I don’t mean small portions of supposedly inexpensive food that you can mix and match for a complete meal. Oh no. By “tapas,” I mean both “heat” and “austerity.” Tapas is the third niyama, or observance, in the yogic system. In all honesty, tapas ranks up there with shaucha in terms of how poorly I observe this observance. Austerity is not my friend.

My training manual from India suggests some ways to practice tapas: “taking time to meditate before every meal…and [delay] sense gratification,” “waking up early to do yoga…especially if you are not a morning person,” and, finally, “fast twice a month.” Why would you do these things? “Through this kind of uncompromising strictness, one’s yoga practice blossoms, and bears fruit.”

Those of you who know me know that I really enjoy eating and sleeping. The above list suggest curtailing both. Yes, tapas and I are not intimate. But perhaps this blog post will change that.

All kidding aside, my stumbling block with tapas is the precisely the notion of “uncompromising strictness.” I don’t like to be strict with myself for reasons that reach way back into my personal history (and as such, will not be explored here). Suffice it to say, I’m scared of breaking or falling apart. This is one of the stories I tell myself. And it probably needs to stop being told.

In contrast to my fear of pushing myself and thus breaking myself, practitioners of tapas attest that the practice “cultivates confidence and willpower.” This sounds nice, doesn’t it?

In the back of my mind, I thought about tapas this morning. I got up at 6am to go rowing on the Ohio river with a club that I’m a part of. The row was coached, and as the coach coasted next to my shell and repeated instructions and offered strategies and tips in the new daylight, I thought about tapas. I thought about how much more I could push myself. And I wondered about those fruits.

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I can’t believe it’s been more than 2 weeks since my last post. In that time, I’ve thought of other ways to practice shaucha or cleanliness: using a tongue scrapper and a neti pot.

Tongue scrapping is something I do with vigor every day. I bought a simple tongue scrapper in India for about 3 cents–it’s a piece of metal shaped in a U. I hold on to the two prongs and drag the “U” part over my tongue, back to front. It’s heaven. Oh, sure, the stuff that I scrape off looks disgusting (usually some kind of yellow-brown mucus-y liquid), but I’m really getting my mouth clean. My teachers in India used to tell us that by using a tongue scrapper, we’re cleaning off all the bacteria that’s accumulated in our mouths while we slept, and it really does feel this way. So, next time you’re at Whole Foods, buy a $20 tongue scrapper. Or, buy a much cheaper one in India–they’re called “zippy” or “chippy” in Hindi. Oh: tongue scrap and THEN brush.

Now…the neti pot. It seems like everyone in the Whole Foods/Wild Oats/Organic/Yoga/Bring-My-Own-Bag/Metal Water Bottle/Subaru crowd already knows about the neti pot, so I won’t dwell on it here. As my teachers in India said, “we eat through our mouth 3 times a day and we clean our mouth 2, maybe 3, times a day. We eat through our nose all day long. We never clean our nose.”

The neti pot is like, well, a douche for your nose and sinuses. Warm water, sea salt, and a little bit of eucalyptus oil afterward will work wonders for your sinuses and your spirits. Compared to tongue scrapping, though, using the neti pot is wicked labor intensive. It takes me about 20 minutes or so mainly because I must make sure to get all of the water out of my system. Vigorous, side-to-side, kapalabhati breathing (or forceful exhaling) is the best way I know of to expel all that water from your nasal cavity. Also…one final note and then I’ll move on to Santosha….avoid using the neti pot right before bed. According to Indian lore, if you don’t get all the water out of your head and then lie down on your pillow, you might get an ear infection.

So….stay clean! Use a tongue scrapper and a neti pot.

Ugh, I can’t believe it’s taken me almost 4oo words to get to my topic today: Santosha, the second niyama or observance in the yogic system. Santosha (which, I seem to remember is pronounced “santosh”–silent “a”) means contentment. In many ways, this observance or niyama is the cornerstone of any yoga practice. And, in my book, it is the hardest aspect of a yoga practice. Standing on my head is easier than cultivating and maintaining a sense of contentment.

As the adage goes, “this moment’s pleasure is the next moment’s pain.” Have that second pint of beer or that chocolate cupcake now and feel the ache later–the headache or bellyache. But in the moment, we feel convinced that that cupcake or beer will feel so good. And maybe it does–but I think that “good feeling” we think we’re experiencing with the cupcake or beer is really just a kind of numbness.

By “numbness,” I don’t mean non-feeling; I actually mean something more like forced feeling. American culture seems to glorify constant intense feeling: we spend our lives roller-coastering from intense feeling to intense feeling. Consumerism is predicated upon this type of behavior: you buy one thing and it makes you “happy” or kinda high for a while, then you get used to or accustomed to your purchase, so then you need to buy something else to bring you that rush again. Ditto for cupcakes and beer in our culture.

Santosha or contentment is life on level ground. We get off the roller coaster when we decide to be at peace with how things are. Instead of having what we want, we want what we have (in this way, santosha ties in nicely with aparigraha). Yes, this is tricky not only because it runs completely counter to the dominant culture, but because it’s just tricky. None of us want to be doormats and sometimes that’s how we (and I mean “I”) view this concept. If I’m “content,”….then I’ll stick with a dead-end job or a dead-end relationship? No, no, no!

We can be “content” and make changes in our life. Being content is NOT the same thing as being stuck. Being content IS the same thing as responding to life’s challenges with wisdom and compassion. Practicing santosha is very similar, I think, to practicing non-attachment. Maintaining a balanced state of mind in the face of so much stress and (mis)information is the practice of both being content and not attaching or grasping at thoughts and things.

I have a translation of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood (Vedanta Press, 1953) that has a great quote in the commentary on Sutra 1.15: “non-attachment is the exercise of discrimination” (29). I like the concept of discrimination because it helps me unify santosha with my own Western desire to take the bull by the horns. I can be content and take action if I practice discrimination or discernment. If I make decisions from a place of wisdom and compassion (as opposed to making decisions out of greed or shame or woundedness or panic), then I can rest assured that my decisions will cause the least amount of harm to myself or others.

Well, contentment is a complicated subject in my book. I know there’s more–much more–I could say about it, but this post is already close to 1,000 words. So, I will close here with another quote from the Sutras: “There is no failure as long as we continue to make an effort” (Prabhavanada & Isherwood 65).


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Niyama #1: Shaucha

Well, we finally made it past the Yamas, the very first limb of the yogic system. Now, on to limb #2: the niyamas. Like the yamas, there are 5 niyamas. Unlike the yamas, though, the niyamas aren’t about things NOT to do, but rather things TO DO. Whereas the yamas were “restraints,” the niyamas are “observances.”

The first niyama on our list is Shaucha, or purity/cleanliness of body and mind. As my teachers in India explain in our training manual, “physical purity [i.e., shaucha] is a symbol of our goal for our bodies and minds in yoga.” In other words, simply keeping the body clean can help us keep our mind clean and focused on the moment.

If you know me at all, you know that the practice of cleanliness does not coming easily to me. As a child, it took my whole family to corral me into the bathtub every evening. Brother, sister, and parents chased me up and down stairs and through the back yard just to pin me down and jam me into the tub. As an adult, I still tend to be very comfortable being dirty because it makes me feel honest, like I’ve worked hard at something and have the sweat and grease to prove it.

To practice shaucha, my teachers suggest wearing light-colored clothing, bathing in lukewarm water, and cleaning oneself after using the toilet. As corny as it may sound, I believe the clothing thing really works. Think about your winter wardrobe. It’s navy blue, gray, and black, isn’t it? Think of how good it feels to break out the spring wardrobe–green, yellow, lighter blues, perhaps pink and purple, maybe even white. The idea is that wearing these lighter colors helps to lift our mood, and I think there’s something to that.

As a terrible American who enjoys lengthy, hot showers (I know, I know), the bathing in lukewarm water thing is really tough for me. In India, I bathed at about 4:45 in the morning by scooping lukewarm water out of a bucket. And, yes, it really did wake me up to bathe this way, but I had no other way to bathe. In the comfort of the United States, I have many ways to clean myself, including a lush, warm shower. I know, I know.

As for the bathroom self-cleaning practice, again, this was something I did out of necessity in India and enjoyed it but did not successfully transport the practice back to the States with me. [If you’d like to read a possibly humorous story about my attempts to wash myself after using the toilet, click here.]

I’m not sure what else to add. I do believe that as goes the body so goes the mind. Keeping the body clean and healthy helps to maintain the cleanliness and health of the mind. To me, a clean mind is one void of petty resentments and perpetual reenactments. A clean mind lives in the moment and knows neither the affliction of the past nor the anxiety of the future. Given how dirty and stinky my body usually is (although, at least I don’t fill it up with a lot of sugar and animal flesh…I do have that working in my favor) and how jumpy my mind is, I figure I have a long way to go to be clean.

I have to add that today is my birthday and it seems fitting to say something about purifying or cleaning the self for another year of life. But I’m not sure what that cleaning would look like (and even though I’ve showered today, I’m pretty sure I’m wearing a dirty shirt). We have so few rituals in this culture to mark our time.


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