In this article I offer practical tools and exercises to practice the first three Niyamas: svadhyaya and ishvara pranidhana, on and off your yoga mat.
What are Niyamas?
As we saw in the article on the eight limbs of Yoga; in the traditional Yoga system the second aspect of practice is called niyama or inner observances, which helps us build character and guides us to live life in its fullest, most joyful form.
The five niyamas:
Śauca - purity, cleansing
Santosa - contentment
Tapas - work, practice
Svadhyaya - self-study, self-inquiry
Ishvara Pranidhana - surrender the fruits of your actions
My yoga philosophy teacher in India used to tell us that we tend to wear coats: the student coat, the doctor coat, the daughter coat, the lover coat,... but deep down we are God (or the Divine, or the Universe, however you like to call it). This principle teaches us about self-study or self-inquiry, it's about knowing our true identity as Divine beings. In order to do that we must first realise that there are "identities" we create as we grow up - and the more we grow the more they become engrained in us.
If I ask you "who are you?" It is highly likely that you will reply something related to one of those identities (I'm a Yoga teacher, I'm a social worker, I'm a mum, I'm a sister) because that's the way we can feel a sense of belonging - which is one of our primary need as a human being. But beyond all your different "coats", who are you?
So how can self-study be applied in our day-to-day lives?
- I can start by studying concepts, books and texts about self-study and self-development to grow my understanding,
- If I struggle to recognise my patterns, I can ask for help to a therapist or a coach - who generally will act a bit like a mirror, reflecting back to me what I need to work on,
- I practice guided breathwork and meditation to teach my mind to be still and calm and start to get to know myself.
Let me offer other (perhaps not as obvious) ways to practice self-study:
- I practice other types of meditation, perhaps longer that I am used to, to allow myself to experience getting out of my comfort zone and notice any recurring thought-pattern,
- I practice journaling; writing down anything that runs through my mind after my meditation
- "We don't see things as they are, we see things as we are." Reflect on this statement.
There are as many worlds as there are people.
When we begin to understand that, we can start to cultivate more compassion and understanding towards other people. From the moment we are born we get influenced by our family, our upbringing, our education, our society, our experiences; which means that who we grow up to be, our personality, very much depends on those factors. Our personality is important to navigate the world, however it is not who we are. Who we are is almost inexplicable, it is felt, it is the energy that makes our hearts beat and the same energy that moves stars, it is Divine.
This final principle means surrender or more specifically surrender the fruits of your actions. It's a meaningful message as a last Niyama because Yamas & Niyamas tell us: become a better human by practicing contentment, cleanliness, self-study etc but at the end of the day you don't control anything.
Ishvara Pranidhana presupposes that there is a divine force at work in our lives. We must do the work to become more conscious, centered and elevated beings in order to feel fulfilled and at peace but the real peace comes from surrender, from knowing that once we have put in the work the result is not in our hands anymore.
How can surrender be applied to our day-to-day?
- I notice my response to things, do I feel fearful, excited, angry, frustrated? How is that affecting my life?
- I practice switching from fear-based mechanisms to surrender-based mechanisms. For example, I miss my bus and I'm late to my job interview, I release fear and anxiety and instead decide to trust that everything works out in my best interest - even when it doesn't seem like it.
Let me offer other ways we can practice ishvara pranidhana:
- I practice noticing what physical sensations arise when I need the moment to be "my way",
- I practice these in my day-to-day life so that when something big arises like the loss of a job, moving country, a separation, I have the tools to navigate those situations with more ease and surrender,
- I learn new things and practice being 'bad' at something,
- I cultivate my spiritual practice to remind myself that there is something out there that is much bigger than me.
We all yearn for freedom. Somehow we believe that control brings us the freedom we are looking for, but in reality it is quite the opposite. Self-study and reflection give us tools to understand ourselves and the world around us which brings clarity and a certain feeling of serenity for understanding why we are who we are but the real work comes now, when we do all the good things and release any expectation and open ourselves up fully to life. We start to live each moment with pure awe and joy because we have the deep knowing that we are divinely guided.
At the beginning of my spiritual journey that was a hard concept to grasp for me, I was comfortable in my victim-mindset of 'why does this always happen to me?' and I found it difficult to believe that life would always work out in my favour. I worked on my self-esteem and one day decided I deserved peace of mind and I deserved the best the world has to offer (even when it feels like the worst).
There hasn't been ONE time in my life where I felt like the hardship I went through wasn't for a reason. Every hardship has led me to a better place. Now, call this mindset, divine intervention, angel protection, I don't really care if I'm honest because it helps me feel at peace with life. And that's the most important thing.
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