The second niyama is Santosha, which translates as contentment. Yes, this is the same name as our beloved little neighborhood yoga studio in Wheat Ridge, Colorado. In fact, I wrote an article about the name Santosha in April, 2012, and you can read it here. But for the sake of this series, I will write another explanation of this incredibly life-changing niyama, a.k.a. personal discipline.
Practicing contentment sounds pretty simple, and it is, but the effects of such a practice are anything but simple. They are devastatingly impressive. One can find many quotes about contentment from the Bible, Mother Teresa, Socrates, or even Lao Tzu. The subject is a popular one, because it is so powerful, accessible, and attainable for all of us.
The reason it is so life-changing is the effect it has on your outlook. When practicing contentment, you recognize all the blessings you have in your life, in whatever circumstances you find yourself. Santosha is a conscious choice to appreciate what you have, not focus on what you think you don’t have. It isn’t just giving up or “accepting your fate”. It isn’t complacency. It isn’t settling or even satisfaction when you’ve achieved a goal. It is actively remembering the benevolence that surrounds your every breath.
Think of the people you enjoy being around the most: perhaps their presence is so delightful because of their simple ability to be content. Try it for yourself, this practice of Santosha. Contentment fills an imaginary hole that otherwise existed in your heart.
By now you have learned the five Yama, the ethical disciplines, and Yama is the first of the eight limbs of Yoga. The second limb of Yoga is called Niyama. There are also five Niyama, which are the rules of conduct in regards to self discipline for self-purification.
The first of the five Niyama is Saucha which translates as cleanliness, and purity of body for good health and well-being. This is more than just bathing your body and brushing your teeth, and even more than washing the fruit you eat and keeping a clean house. It includes the work you do to purify the cells of the body, such as with healthy exercise and breathing clean air.
I love Iyengar’s statement on asana practice: it is like power-washing the cells of the body. Asana (yoga poses) cleans out the sticky goo of toxins stuck in our bodies, clearing out the adhesions in the muscles and soft tissue that is literally preventing the flow of prana (life force). Then pranayama (breath practice) infuses the body with prana, permeating the body with oxygen and the energy needed to heal and perform at optimum.
Saucha is that nice feeling you get after cleaning your house. Saucha is mental too, when you decide to read an uplifting book instead of watch a violent or negative TV show. Saucha in your speech is watching your tongue, avoiding gossip or profanity, and the warm, fuzzy feeling of giving a compliment instead of a harsh criticism.
Yes. Clean your body and eat clean food, free of pesticides and hormones and hydrogenated fats and genetically modified fake foodstuffs. Keep a clean environment in which to live, and a clean mouth that has a filter on your speech. Then notice the effect all of that clean living has on your inner peace and your sense of serenity. This is the practice of Saucha.
Aparigraha is the fifth and final Yama. It translates as non-greed, to be free from hoarding and collecting.
The interesting thing about this Yama is that when you really think about it, you can find not-so-obvious ways to practice non-greed. For example, applying Aparigraha to my yogasana practice means not grasping at perfection in a pose when my body is not yet ready. Iyengar Yoga actually teaches the student Aparigraha by using appropriate props, and accepting the current ability of the body of that day in a pose, and asking for no more.
How else can you practice Aparigraha? Most importantly, can you notice your personal habits in covetousness, and admit them to yourself so that you can make a positive change? We are all greedy, and this Yama challenges us to look for it, face it, and change.
Consider also that being ungrateful is actually a state of greed. Having things and taking things without sincere and constant thankfulness is just your inner hoarding monster collecting more stuff.
Be aware when greed becomes an emotional reaction to a situation. This is what helps us find the obscure ways we are greedy. Go one day on high alert for this one Yama, and see if you are surprised by how often greed controls your actions.
Not only stuff, but experiences can be hoarded. The question is, what do you take or collect that you do not really need immediately? In this way, this Yama is similar to Asteya, non-stealing. How about this: Do you ever describe yourself as insatiable, even if it is for something you consider to be of high value? Watch out…
The whole point of this Yama is to prevent us from acting from a feeling of lack, and instead act from a feeling of abundance and gratitude. Practicing generosity helps to alleviate greed, as does clutter-clearing your house of unnecessary things. This Yama, like all of them, frees your spirit and allows your heart to soar.
Brahmacharya is the fourth Yama, which translates as chastity, celibacy and continence. I remember when I was learning about each yama: non-harming, truthfulness, non-stealing… but when I learned about celibacy? Uh-oh. I knew I didn’t like the idea, and I knew my husband wouldn’t like it either!
And that’s exactly how people can misunderstand this yama. Although the translation is chastity, you have to remember the entire reason for practicing yama and niyama, and for practicing all the eight limbs of yoga: for spiritual enlightenment, for emancipation of the mind, for freedom.
So how would chastity help you with spiritual enlightenment? Before you stop reading, worrying that I’m going to tell you never to have sex again, let me explain the history first: the ancients believed that the loss of semen was a loss of energy and of life. Since our purpose of life is to attain spiritual enlightenment, losing any energy that would otherwise help us to attain that goal should be avoided.
This is where you can actually apply this yama: it is not demanding celibacy, “not one of negation, forced austerity and prohibition” as per B.K.S. Iyengar, but of conservation of vital energy for the benefit of spiritual attainment. When you realize this, it makes a lot more sense and is more approachable.
Mukhunda Stiles translates the sutra as, “By abiding in behavior that respects the Divine as omnipresent, one acquires an inspired passion for life”.
Not only is it recognizing and respecting the deep value of your own vital energy, it is seeing the beauty and vital energy in all beings. It is not wasting that vital energy, not wasting your life or taking for granted the lives of others! This! This is something I can follow, something I can believe in, and something beautiful to lead me down the right path.
In continuing the review of Yama, the moral injunctions/the culture of self-restraint, we review Yama #3, Asteya.
Asteya translates as non-stealing. Let me begin by saying this is not going to be a preachy blog on how you should not steal. I’m not going to write about something you already know. What I want to write about is a concept perhaps you haven’t thought about before: how do we steal from ourselves? How do you cheat yourself? Do you steal your own productivity with time-wasting activities? Do you steal your own accomplishments by robbing your efforts instead of supporting your efforts? Think about this for a moment: what would you have accomplished if your stealing self had not stolen from you? Now you know what I mean.
The actual sutra is II.37 Asteya-pratisthayam sarva-ratnopasthanam. “When one is established in refrainment from stealing, all jewels manifest”. Edwin F. Bryant writes in his commentary of this sutra, “Established in non-stealing, a glow of detachment and indifference radiates from the face of the yogi.” Suppose you are trying to lose weight: established in non-stealing, you build indifference to temptations that otherwise prevent you from accomplishing your weight goal. Suppose you are trying to get out of debt: steeped in non-stealing, detachment from possessions helps you to avoid wasting your money on unnecessary things.
Then there is the mind. The mind invented a fabulous tool so that it doesn’t have to admit to stealing: rationalization. Rationalization is a perfect way to steal while fooling yourself that what you are doing is okay. Are you taking more than your share? You may rationalize that because you got there first, you can take as much as you can carry. Are you hoarding? Here, besides being greedy, you are stealing your own self-respect.
If you practice non-stealing, you become known as one who can be trusted, one who has integrity, and virtue, and you also have self trust. These jewels are invaluable indeed.
Satya is the second Yama, which translates as truthful, honest, virtuous and genuine. Last week I wrote about the first Yama, Ahimsa which is non-violence, harmlessness.
Although the first in a list of the ancient texts always holds the greatest importance, these first two principals of Yama perfected together can change the world. Mahatma Gandhi sought to practice Ahimsa and Satya, non-violence and truth, and in doing so, freed India.
B.K.S. Iyengar writes in Light on Life, “The shame of violence, of harming others, is simply that it is an offence against underlying unity and therefore a crime against truth”.
In our daily life, Satya is more than just telling the truth to others. Self-deception is a favorite past-time of the mind, and it takes courage to face it and be truthful with ourselves.
In our yoga practice, we are truthful when we perform poses honoring the body’s current limitations and genuine when our poses arise from our true source, not from the ego.
In telling the truth to others, being truthful must always respect non-harming. Edwin F. Bryant explains in his book on the Yoga Sutras, “If observing one Yama results in the compromise of another, then Ahimsa (non-harming) must always be respected first”. If there is a truth to be spoken, it should not be spoken unkindly. To help with this, it is wise to use the four filters of speech: “Before you speak, ask yourself: Is it kind, is it true, is it necessary, does it improve upon the silence?”
Imagine a world where everyone honored Truthfulness and Non-harming. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world”.