Patanjali, the great Indian spiritual teacher who codified a way to enlightenment that we know as Yoga, was well aware that the most troublesome of our problems are created between our ears.
Our thoughts are the demons that whip us mercilessly and drive us into pathways of overweening ambition, dark depression, or any of the other roads to misery.
There is a way to prevent these unruly thoughts from becoming a fierce and impenetrable forest of unknown dangers. That way is to make it a garden by carefully weeding and pruning out the undesirable growths.
In this article, I’m going to show you how to do this by introducing you to the second limb of Yoga, otherwise known as the five practices called Niyamas. These practices follow on from the five Yamas that form the first limb of Yoga which I discussed in my last article.
1) Cleanliness (Shaucha)
Yoga places great emphasis on cleanliness. You are urged to bathe before you meditate or worship, as ritual cleansing is an integral part of these practices.
However, Patanjali was clear that cleanliness does not stop at the body. Our minds also need cleaning and perhaps they need this much more than our bodies do.
The great sage Swami Sivananda used to say that being cut repeatedly with a sharp knife was preferable to harboring undesirable thoughts.
So what is this mental pollution that hinders you?
It is the strong emotions that sway us from the serene well-being that is our natural state. For example, anger, jealousy, hate, lust, greed and the various emotions that rise unbidden and drive us into actions that we frequently regret.
Mental cleansing has two parts. You have to clean out the accumulated debris of a lifetime and also prevent new garbage from collecting.
Meditation, mindfulness, breathing exercises like Pranayama, listening to devotional music and many such practices chip away at the mound of rubbish we carry around.
Remember that you are always going on a journey. There is the main journey of life in which you are born and, one day, will die. And in between you go on many side trips.
For example, watching your favorite TV show that contains a lot of violence is a side trip.
So to clear out the rubbish, perhaps you need to ask yourself, “Is this a side trip that I want to take? Do I really want to hang out in this world?” If you sincerely and mindfully answer this question you will find that your life changes effortlessly.
It will affect every part of your life – the books you read, the movies you watch, the friends you hang out with and the activities you do with them, in addition to much more.
And gradually, you will notice that your mound of rubbish will decrease.
2) Contentment (Santosha)
Pascal, who was a scientist and a philosopher, is reputed to have said that all of man’s problems arise because he is unable to sit quietly in a room by himself.
He was right and simply articulating what Patanjali and his fellow sages had discovered long before him. And they were not the only ones. The Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, observed that those who do not observe the movements of their own mind must, of necessity, be unhappy.
So contentment refers to a deep sense of acceptance and gratitude for one’s situation in life no matter what it is.
This contentment is the water from which well-being springs. Acceptance is the key to happiness.
But acceptance does not mean that you do not work to achieve the better vision of you. Particularly, if you have a vision, you should try to make it happen using every bit of your energy and talent. And as you strive to make it a better world, you acknowledge that the outcome of your efforts is not within your control and you are at peace with this.
In other words, you invest in the process, not in the outcome.
This is such a powerful teaching and so integral to the practice of Yoga.
3) Austerity (Tapas)
Tapas also means burning, and is what Patanjali referred to as discipline in spiritual practice.
In the modern world we think that a contented life is full of comforts like TV, fine clothes, expensive cars, large houses and so on.
But you readily see that there are many who have all this and more and are still miserable. That is because we think of discipline in terms of sustained effort to achieve a goal in the physical world like a successful career or a sporting achievement.
So we readily understand what Malcolm Gladwell means when he talks about ten thousand hours needed to achieve mastery in any field.
But the same kind of dedicated effort is needed to achieve spiritual progress and this is what Patanjali refers to here. That single-minded pursuit of mental equanimity creates an internal fire in which the mental garbage that we carry literally burns away.
There is a fine line here – as too much effort can itself become self-defeating and a fresh problem.
4) Self-study (Swadhyaya)
“Know thyself” is the most famous of the Greek Delphic maxims, and this is what Patanjali was also advocating.
We are firmly rooted in the ego and a sense of separateness from everything and everybody else. This “I” consciousness is so strongly rooted that we never even question it.
While we often accept that what we observe is not “us,” we forget that we can observe everything including our bodies, our minds, our thought processes and the world around us with vast and innumerable galaxies in an infinite space.
But by losing this witness point of view, and constantly identifying with a particular body-mind configuration, we suffer with its sorrows and exult in its triumphs.
However, it is possible to become steeped and anchored in the witness state and see that our separate identity is just fiction. That we are like an individual wave that arises from the ocean and dissolves back in it.
This constant reflection is known as Swadhyaya.
5) Surrender (Isvara Pranidhana)
As we look around the world and our own experience in it we readily see that luck or unexpected and unexplained circumstances affect everyone.
We see this happens repeatedly in our life and the lives of those we know. Sometimes we labor mightily with scant reward. Other times a minor effort yields a huge payoff.
Surrender means that we accept that this is the way the Universe is. It is unpredictable and we never have control. Often we have the illusion of control and we comfort ourselves with this. But if we look unflinchingly we will see that we are but bits of cork bobbing in a vast ocean.
Paradoxically, when we fully accept that we do not have control and will never have it, there is a huge sense of relief. We can be comfortable in the thought that we cannot predict the size of the wave that will hit us. But, even if it is a tsunami, we can learn to surf it rather than drown.
That is what surrender is, and is closely allied to the earlier concept of investing in the process and not the outcome – because the latter is outside our control.
By practicing the Niyamas that form the second limb of Yoga, you will find that your life improves steadily and significantly as the your mind gains pure clarity and a sense of peace.