Every day in the morning, women in traditional India use rice flour to create patterns known as kolam or rangoli on the floor just outside their house. Dots are joined with lines, reminding us how connecting stars to create constellations helps us understand the sky. Likewise, connecting data creates the whole, and joining the limited helps us explore the limitless. This household ritual is a metaphor for yoga.
The simplest meaning of yoga is alignment. This alignment could be between two body parts, two objects or two concepts.
In Indian astrology or Jyotish-Shastra, for example, when stars and planets are aligned in a particular way to create a beneficial pattern, the word “yoga” is used to describe it. The same word is used in social contexts for the coming together of seemingly unaligned things to bring about success.
Depending on the context, yoga has come to have different meanings; alignment of the mind with the body, or simply between different body parts. It could be harmony between the front and the back, the left and the right sides, or the upper and lower parts of the body.
Some might say it is the connection of an individual with society; others, the connection between two human beings, whether husband and wife, parent and child, teacher and student, or friends.
In a religious context, one can say it is the connection between the devotee and the deity.
Various adjectives are now used to describe how this connection is achieved. For example, “karma yoga” deals with connecting through action, where our individual activity is aligned to a larger social goal; “bhakti yoga” deals with connecting through emotions, with a person or a personal deity; “Gyan yoga” is more intellectual; “hatha yoga” more physical; “tantra yoga” favors rituals and symbols.
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Yoga is not only about the Asana practice; in fact “Asanas” comes third in the eight-limbed path of Yoga as described by Patanjali after “Yamas” or abstinence and “Niyamas” or observances.
We will explore the second limb of yoga; Niyama.
Niyama is the Sanskrit term for duty or observance recommended by yogic philosophy and teaching as part of the path of yoga. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, he outlines five niyamas as part of the second limb of yoga.
These niyamas are all practices that can be considered inner observances. They are a way of applying the ethical codes of yoga to the student’s own mind, body and spirit, helping to create a positive environment internally.
Practicing the niyamas is said to give the yogi the inner strength, clarity, and discipline that he/she needs in order to progress on his/her spiritual journey.
The five niyamas are listed as follows:
- Saucha: purification, cleanliness, and clarity of mind, communication, and physical body. This recognizes that the yogi’s external environment affects his/her inner purity. Practices such as meditation can help to cultivate the cleanliness of the mind specified by saucha.
- Santosha: contentment and acceptance of the world, oneself and circumstances exactly as they are. This means letting go of cravings for what one doesn’t have. Doing this is said to end one’s suffering.
- Tapas: asceticism or intense self-discipline and willpower, even through discomfort. This recognizes the need to sometimes do what is difficult or unpleasant in order to have a positive effect on one’s life and existence.
- Svadhyaha: study of the self, and the practice of self-reflection. This may include using the scriptures or sacred texts as a tool for introspection. It means seeing who one is in the moment as well as exploring one’s connection with the Divine.
- Ishvara Pranidhana: surrender to and contemplation of the Divine or Supreme Being. This includes dedicating and devoting one’s work to a higher power and dissolving ego-focused desires.