THE EIGHT LIMBS OF YOGA—PART IV
Last week I began explaining the second limb on The Eightfold Path called Niyama. Coupled with the first limb, Yama, these limbs are designed to guide you through this life so that you live one full of dignity and compassion. Yamas, again, are ethical codes to abide by to live virtuously in society, while Niyamas are personal observances to abide by to live virtuously within yourself.
I previously shed some insight into the first 3 Niyamas—Sauca (purity), Santosa (contentment), and Tapas (discipline). This week I will complete the second limb by explaining the last 2 Niyamas—Svadhyaya (self-study) and Ishvara Pranidhana (devotion).
Svadhyana is the act of examining who you truly are. Through life’s lessons and by studying the sacred texts of sages who have come before us, you begin to understand that this body is merely a vessel for our divine nature. As Pierre Teihard de Chardin famously said, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” Self-study reminds you that you are already one with the divine and you have never left it.
Life presents endless opportunities for self-reflection. Through Svadhyaya you grow from each experience and hopefully learn lessons so that you won’t make the same mistakes next time. Each moment in life holds in it a key to understanding why we act or think a particular way. The more you consciously explore the details of your life, the more accepting you can become of the way you truly are, both in the this body and as a divine entity. The more you accept the way you truly are, the more you will also accept the way every person and living creature is too, allowing you to gain even more empathy and humility as you walk through this world.
The yoga practice of Svadhyaya also involves investigating the wisdom of spiritual texts and teachers so that you can gain a deeper understanding of the greatness that already lies within you and how you can harness it for a good life. Books like The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, The Bhagavad Gita, How to be a Yogi, and The Tao Te Ching are just a few examples of the myriad of Eastern wisdom and Yogic texts for you to explore. Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, B.K.S. Iyengar, Sadhguru, and Tirumalai Krishnamacharya are also just a few of the yoga masters for you to delve into and learn from. In addition, there are numerous of other texts and teachers that may not be associated with the Yogic Path but are nonetheless appropriate to investigate for yourself to see which ones align with your spiritual goals.
You have all heard a version of what Helen Keller said: “What I am looking for is not out there, it is in me.” All the lessons, all the joy and love and desires you may be looking for are already inside of you. Through the practice of Svadhyaya, you begin to re-wire the your old habits and empower yourself by becoming an engineer of the soul. You become the creator of your life as you gain a deeper awareness of the essence of who you truly are.
When is the last time you took a step back and reflected upon something that happened in your life, both good and bad? Did this process teach you something about yourself? What sacred texts do you study? What teachers do you look to for guidance and wisdom for your life? Do you think you need to take more time to consciously examine your choices? Do you see a pattern in your life—positive or negative? Where do you think this (pattern, habit) comes from?
Patanjali’s supreme insight for what it takes to lead a virtuous life is clearly demonstrated in the order in which he wrote the Niyamas. The first four are about looking inward, with each one progressively leading you closer to the ultimate goal of yoga: to surrender your ego and devote yourself relentlessly to a higher power.
Ishvara Pranidhana is the final Niyama which asks you to relinquish the fruits of your practice to the divine. Your practice now becomes an offering and thus, more sacred, for it evokes the truth of your inherent and undeniable connection to a higher entity. Ishvara Pranidhana instructs you to finally release your egocentric nature and bestow it to something greater than yourself. Through this, our lives become full of infinite grandeur and grace, serenity and love.
When you practice something you love with fervor and zeal, you begin to bridge the physical and spiritual worlds. I’m sure you’ve heard people speak of muses that inspire creative energy and action. When you are performing Ishvara Pranidhana, you are accessing the divine realm through the ritual of yoga and thus can be liberated from the endless cycle of Samsara.
This is a challenging Niyama, but one that is worth the effort. How close do you feel to letting go of your ego? In what ways do you practice giving up egocentric thoughts and actions? How do you feel when you dedicate yourself to someone else, a pet, or a higher power?
There is a powerful transformation that happens when you first look within yourself and then, after creating the best person you can be, giving it all back to where you originally came from. It is not easy, but nothing ever worth it is.
Humble yourself through the spiritual tools of Yama and Niyama, and see the grand power they possess and provide for your journey through this life.
As Swami Sri Kripalvanandaji said, “When you pick one petal from the garland of Yamas and Niyamas, the entire garland will follow.”