Raja Yoga’s eight-limbed path to liberation was systematically designed by the sage Patanjali more then two millennia ago for any soul aspiring to find freedom in this very lifetime. With the foundation set in yama, the first limb, the next step on the evolutionary journey of consciousness allows a deeper focus. In this second limb called niyama (which translates as “observances” or “disciplines”) the aspirant builds on the previous limb by applying more specific practices that help cleanse and purify the body-mind system.
In preparation for awakening consciousness to its unified essential nature –the goal of yoga– the path involves a radical reorganization of behavioral-perceptual patterns that obstruct said realization.
As we go through life in a world that has become toxic and disconnected from the natural rhythms of existence, the body-mind system is assaulted on a daily basis by energies that distort and fragment our pristine natural state of being.
This inevitable consequence of living in our so-called modern world is at the root of the rampant ills of society. Whether it is a diseased body, a suffering psyche, or just a deeply unfulfilled life, yoga teaches us that it is blockages at all levels that keep us from living in the vibrant truth of a healthy and illuminated life.
Revealing the Atman Within
The first observance in niyama deals with the physical body. Yoga claims that the body is a temporary but sacred vessel that houses the indwelling soul –atman– which is on an evolutionary journey toward self-realization.
But if its powers, energies, and preoccupation are spent on constantly propping up a body that continually indulges in toxic patterns and behaviors, very little is left for the introspective potential that awaits the evolved soul. Therefore cleanliness of body, both inside and out, becomes a crucial practice on the path.
Cleanliness of body simply means taking care of your self. Eating light, healthy, organic, natural whole foods becomes a practice, as we struggle to cleanse from the processed, sugar-filled products that masquerade as food in our culture.
This is no easy task, as by design we get hooked on the simple carbs that most processed products contain. The lack of nutrition, which is the building block of a healthy system, diminishes and dims the body’s full potential to thrive. We are what we eat in a literal way, so that a system that is not nourished will have very little life force to pursue the high frequency potentials of a spiritually awakened life.
Being Mindful of Your Body and Mind
If the first observance of niyama is to be mindful of what you put into your physical body, the second is to cultivate mindfulness around what you allow to inhabit your mind. Purity of mind is the aspiration of this observance, as it is well known that the mind takes the shape of what it is exposed to.
The constant noise of television, for example, is the equivalent of junk food for the mind. The barrage of meaningless imagery, often violent and sexual in nature, consumes the idling mind, therefore inhibiting the precise focus required to awaken.
Purity of mind simply means choosing carefully what you allow into you consciousness, and this on the yogic path becomes an important daily practice.
Niyama encourages the study of spiritual wisdom as a means of populating the mental sphere with useful and inspiring information. This observance allows the aspirant’s mind to remain pure in its intent and purpose, therefore keeping it from getting distracted by the seductions of profane culture. This observance leads the adept to the cultivation of the next discipline: contentment.
By design, the imagery of culture activates the mind’s tendency to desire and want things. Whether food, products, or sexual objects, the message is “you need this to be happy” or “you are not enough without this.” Buddha’s timeless insight as outlined in his Four Noble Truths is that suffering is the result of the mind’s craving and aversion of phenomena. In that tension, no peace or contentment can be found.
The Cultivation of Contentment
Niyama encourages the cultivation of contentment by releasing the mind’s tendency toward craving what it doesn’t have and pushing away what it does. As the practitioner begins to let go of desires, she learns to meet things as they are, resting in what is and accepting what life gives you. Through this practice the mind stabilizes and becomes fertile for the realization of its deepest core.
Another crucial observance in niyama is simplicity. Again, if we fill our lives with too much complexity, too many things, too many engagements, too many distractions, little time or space will be left for the inner journey of awakening. Simplicity becomes a practice, clearing the space for the pursuit of enlightenment.
The final observance or discipline in niyama is devotion, often called Bhakti Yoga, and refers to the adoration of the highest principle. Whether we sing to God, follow our higher power, worship the Great Mother, or revere the natural laws of the cosmos, this observance focuses and orients the heart toward the Beloved.
Devotion to the Absolute
In fact, Bhakti Yoga claims that only through deep devotion to the Absolute can one achieve the final samadhi of unification with the One. One yearns deeply in total devotion until the individual self dissolves in the cosmic embrace of Brahma, the Source of all creation.
While the yamas are mere dictates on how to lead a good life, niyama employs actual practices so as to prepare the body-mind for the third limb. Each limb sets the stage for the next limb in an ascending commitment toward wholeness.
Patanjali stated clearly that one does all these practices only as preparation for meditation, and from there Self-realization. And in the final awakening, a return to the world to help heal and evolve the collective.
Eugene A. Alliende has been practicing meditation and yoga for twenty years and facilitates weekly meditation groups and classes at his healing center. His passion is the exploration of consciousness, and how a deeper understanding of our true nature can help heal the individual and the world. Read his book Dimensions of Being here