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The Yoga System

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Chapter 6: The Observances

Apart from the yamas, there is another set of prescriptions of yoga to every student, and these are the niyamas, personal observances or vows. We should not, as far as possible, allow ourselves to fall ill, physically or mentally, because illness is a hindrance to yoga. Saucha or purity of conduct, internally and externally, is a niyama. The lesson supposed to be imparted by the images of the three monkeys, one of them closing the eyes, another the ears and the third the mouth, is to see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil. One should not even convey evil by way of news, because this is to become the vehicle of the movement of evil from place to place. One should not commit evil even by giving expression to it in speech, by seeing it or thinking it. All this is internal purity. But external purity is not unimportant. People there are who think that yogis remain unclean in body. It is wrong to imagine that in advanced stages of yoga one should not put on clothes or take bath. That in conditions of meditation where one rises above body-consciousness one may not pay attention to bath, etc. is a different picture altogether. It is a consequence of spiritual expansion. Merely not to bathe or to be nude in the initial stage itself would be to put the cart before the horse. Health is as important as the power of concentration, for ill-health is a disturbance to mental concentration. Saucha also implies non-contact with those objects which communicate impurity or exert an unhealthy influence. One should avoid undesirable company; keep good company, or else, have no company.

A yoga student is always happy, and is never worried or vexed. Yoga prescribes santosha or contentment in whatever condition one is placed. Many of our illnesses are due to discontent. Contentment follows as a result of the acceptance of the wisdom of God. If God is wise, there is nothing to worry about, because in His wisdom He keeps us in the best of circumstances. Many changes have taken place in our lives, and many more may take place in the future. We have to be prepared. God's omniscience permits of no complaint. Man should be contented with what he has, though he may be discontented with what he is. Honestly felt needs will be provided where contentment and intelligent effort go together.

To be satisfied with the minimum of necessities for a healthy living is tapas or austerity. One should not ask for more. Austerity is that discipline by which one feels internally contented with the barest of facilities in life. The practice of the 'golden mean' in everything is tapas. Etymologically, tapas is what produces heat. It stirs energy or power within the yogin. The practice of brahmacharya and of the yamas in general stimulates supernatural power. The yamas themselves constitute an intense tapas. In a broad sense, moderateness in life may be said to constitute tapas. Sense-control is tapas. To speak sweetly, and not hurtingly, is tapas. To eat a little is tapas. To sleep less is tapas. Not to exhibit animal qualities is tapas. To be humane is tapas. To be good and to do good is tapas. Tapas is mental, verbal or physical. Calmness of mind and subdued emotions form mental tapas. Sweet but truthful speech is verbal tapas. Unselfish service to others is physical tapas.

Svadhyaya or sacred study is the fourth niyama. Svadhyaya is principally a disciplined study of such texts as deal with the way of the salvation of the soul. This niyama helps the student in maintaining a psychic contact with the masters who have given these holy writings. When one reads the Bhagavadgita, for example, not merely does one gather knowledge of a high order, but one also establishes an inner contact with Bhagavan Sri Krishna and Maharshi Vyasa. Svadhyaya is continued persistence in study of a scripture of yoga. Study is a kind of negative satsanga, when the positive company of a sage is not available. Svadhyaya is a help in meditation, because the student thinks here in terms of the thought of the scripture or of the author of the text. Japa of a mantra is also included under svadhyaya. Japa and study are both means to holy association and divine communion. Svadhyaya, however, means repeated study of a selected set of books on the subject of the Higher Life, and does not connote random readings in a library.

The last of the niyamas is ishvara-pranidhana or surrender of oneself to God. Whatever the commander orders, the army follows. Each one in the army does not start commanding things independently. Seekers of Truth take Ishvara as the Supreme Commander, and once they decide to abide by his will, their lives become the pattern of righteousness. Surrender to God implies acceptance of the divine ordinance and an abolition of one's own initiative to the extent that the seeker does not think individually but resigns himself to those circumstances which take place around him, without interfering with their occurrence. In advanced stages, the devotee is accustomed to all circumstances, and does not desire a change in their set-up. He does nothing with the notion of personality, but bears what comes. He does not wish to alter conditions, but tolerates everything. He allows things to happen, and does not wish to modify existence. To him, God is all. This is the essence of self-surrender in yoga. The yoga discipline requires that a student should score at least the minimum marks in the test of the yamas and niyamas. Students often commit the error of neglecting these fundamental observances in yoga and going to asana and meditation directly. Many even begin to think that they are already established in the yamas and niyamas, while they have not mastered even one among them.

Meditation is the seventh stage in yoga. It is like striking a match which produces the flame. The flame must be there if the striking is properly done, and the matchstick is dry. But the manufacture of the match is a long process, and it takes time, though the striking of it is a second's work. That the effort of meditation does not bring satisfaction in many cases should show that the preparation is not sufficient. Meditation is a flow of consciousness, not a jump, a pull or push of consciousness. A calm river flows on its inclined bed, without effort. So does meditation flow if the previous steps are well laid. The foundation is never seen when the building on it is seen. But we know how important the foundation is for the building. The invisible power which the yamas and niyamas exert is the foundation of yoga, and no one should have the hardihood to think that one is fully established in them. Caution is watchword in yoga.

The yamas and niyamas are the beginnings, which really last till the end of yoga. Even as education in the primary school level is important, since it paves the way for one's further mental build, the yamas and niyamas are the rock-bottom of yoga. The student enters the practical field of meditation after being built up by the tonic of yamas and niyamas, which provide the power and courage needed to face all obstacles. Meditation is not difficult to achieve if the necessary preparations are made earlier. The yama-niyama process constitutes the instructions in yoga psychology, which should give us sufficient warning on the path and make us vigilant pilgrims on the journey spiritual. With this, we place ourselves on the first step in practical yoga, viz., asana.