This is part two of “Following the Eight-Limbed Path”, a series about Ashtanga yoga, read part one here
You might have heard the saying, “to change the world you have to start with yourself.” But what does that mean exactly? What can you do as a single person?
Incorporating positive activities and habits
Sometimes it might seem hopeless; there is a lot of suffering, conflict and injustice in our world. Can you actually make a difference? Yes, you can. We all can, but we have to look inward and be prepared to face ourselves. Which is not always easy, but ultimately worth the effort.
The second limb of Ashtanga Yoga is called niyama and refers to “rules”, or better yet, “guidelines”, prescribed for personal observance. Just like the yamas, the five niyamas are not exercises or actions to be studied. They represent far more than just attitudes, and are concepts that we can (and should) be aware of and incorporate into our daily practices as well as lives.
The first niyama is sauca and means “purity” and “cleanliness”. It basically means we should keep ourselves clean on both the inside and outside. The inner cleanliness has to do with keeping our organs healthy as well as the cleansing of the mind. We use the asanas (postures) to remove toxins from the body, while the pranayama (breathing) cleanses our lungs, oxygenates our blood, and purifies our nerves. But the cleansing of the mind might be even more important. To clean it from disturbing emotions like hatred, passion, anger, lust, pride, and greed.
From my experience, these emotions will probably come up at some point, for some not so much and for others more often. The best thing we can do is just to observe these feelings without letting them take over, just allowing them pass and move forward. We are not our feelings or our thoughts; we have the power to let them go.
The second niyama might be my favorite one, santosha. It means that we should be content with what we have. The ability to be at peace within and content with your life even if you are going through difficulties. It’s a matter of seeing these difficulties as part of the growth process and accepting that there is a purpose for everything.
Whenever I am going through a hard time I have to remind myself to focus on the positive things in my life, what I actually have and how amazing that is. How grateful I am for all that my life has brought me, both good and bad. It works; it puts me in a more positive state of mind and gets me more focused on what’s really important. Santosha basically means being happy with what we have rather than being unhappy about what we don’t have.
Then we have tapas, which refers to a disciplined use of our energy. To keep the body fit or to handle the inner urges without outer show. Literally it means to heat up the body, and by doing so, cleanse it. Tapas help us burn up our desires that stand in the way of connecting with the divine. Another form of tapas is also paying attention to our eating habits, our body posture, or breathing patterns.
Tapas can be giving up alcohol or food that makes you feel heavy and tired, for example. One tapas that challenges me personally is be giving up peanut butter — one urge I have a hard time controlling sometimes. I have to stop myself from buying it because I know the jar is going to be empty in two days. I do believe it is possible for me to control — it’s just a matter of making a decision and sticking to it.
The fourth niyama is svadhaya and means self-study. It basically means to intentionally find self-awareness in all our activities and efforts, and accept our limitations. Svadhaya teaches us to be centered and mindful of self-destructive tendencies. When my teacher in India, Sharath Jois, would be asked which books or texts he would recommend that we read, he would answer: “Start with studying yourself. Find the answers in you.”
To be more aware of ourselves in different situations is a good start, to observe how we react and then learn from those actions. It is also a good reminder of how we shouldn’t judge other people, everyone has a battle to fight. By starting with ourselves, studying who we are and being good examples, we can inspire and help other people on the way.
The last niyama is isvarapranidhana, which refers to the celebration of the spiritual or “to lay all your actions at the feet of God”. The practice requires that we set aside some time each day to recognize that there is some force larger than ourselves that is guiding and directing us.
Honestly, if you would have asked me five years ago about this niyama I would have given a very skeptical answer. However, today I do believe in a higher force, and that it will guide me in the right direction. I do believe everything happens for a reason, and that I can’t be in control of everything in my life — it’s not always up to me. Just starting to think like this was such a relief for me. When I managed to let go, trust the universe, and see where the wind took me, I felt a freedom I hadn’t felt before.
Start with you
So how can I change the world by applying the niyamas (and yamas) to my daily life? We can only do our best, and by starting with ourselves, being willing to look inwards, we have the ability to create a more loving and less anxious society.
Observe yourself, get to know yourself, cleanse out disturbing emotions, practice being happy with what you have, and surrender to the universe. Make yourself a priority and make the effort. Doing your asana practice is great tool to get you started.
You got this.
Read part three of the series here
Written by Anastasia Konstadinidis