By Catherine Ghosh
In this article, Catherine Ghosh explores the depth of meaning behind each of the niyamas. She reveals a sacred and secret formula given by Sri Patanjali, which is also echoed by Sri Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, so that sincere Yoga practitioners may reach the perfection of Yoga safely and securely.
In the ancient story of the Ramayana, Lakshman draws a circle around princess Sita with his arrow, when he has to leave her alone in the forest. “Stay within the circle,” he cautions her, “and you will be safe. Step out of the circle and you will have no protection.” Connecting security with circles traces all the way back to antiquity as the archetypal force embedded in the perfect geometry of a circle links the human psyche with its own innate harmony.
The Yoga tradition regards circles, or mandalas, as symbols of enlightenment: sacred places where divinity dwells. In the Yoga Sutras, Sri Patanjali engages this circular structure to present his teachings by deliberately tucking the secret formula for “the perfection of samadhi,” or the last limb of the Ashtanga Yoga practice, into the first part of the text, via the niyamas. In tracing this perfect circle, the author—as Lakshman did for Sita—seems to want to communicate a safe arena to Yoga practitioners, beginning with the yamas and niyamas.
Like the yamas, the niyamas trace a mandala-like safe, sacred space within which our Yoga practice naturally thrives. This space is first characterized by its purity, which occurs in layers. The most visible layers occur on the outside. With the world’s current environmental crisis and escalating health problems, a sobering appreciation for purity has been spreading around the globe. In developed countries it is most notably reflected in caution about what we consume, ingest and discard. Such concerns are signs of a society that is beginning to turn toward saucha, or purity: the first niyama in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.
According to the wisdom in the Gita, saucha is the force behind all existence. Without it, we gradually, and inevitably, move toward our own extinction. Perhaps the rest of the world is just now trying to catch up with the wisdom of ancient yogis, like Sri Patanjali, who purports the importance of modeling a lifestyle that reflects purity. Our personal practice of saucha will not only improve our own lives, but that of our fellow earthlings as well. In chapter five, verse seven of the Gita, Krishna describes the actions of one whose “self is purified” as being untainted, for they are in service of the “self in all beings.” Pure behaviors therefore are those that honor and support all life around us and its divine essence. When we see the divine essence within all life, and become aware of ourselves as part of a sacred whole, our behavior toward all beings becomes pure. According to Patanjali, (2.41) it also grants us a vision (darshana) of our true Self, or atma.
Who are we? According to Yoga philosophy, we are made of a pure, spiritual substance. Our Yoga practice is the process that uncovers that pure Self. In chapter eighteen of the Gita, Krishna speaks about those whose actions are aligned with that pure Self as being “liberated and living in blissful worlds.” For our pure nature is joyful. This is what acting with saucha uncovers. According to Patanjali, the first step in uncovering our pure nature is withdrawing from activities that cause us to identify with our bodies. This is where our regular and cumulative practice of the yamas supports our efforts to enter into the consciousness of the first niyama.
Separating ourselves from perspectives that are influenced by our bodies is the first step in saucha. Not behaving in ways that are guided by such perspectives is the second. At its heart, the yogic practice of saucha is ultimately about uncovering our ability to love purely. Loving purely involves a pure focus on the object of our love. Sri Patanjali refers to this one-pointed focus on the Supreme Divinity in his Yoga Sutras. In chapter 2, sutra 41, after he introduces the niyama of saucha, Sri Patanjali speaks about the effects of practicing saucha. These include no longer identifying with the body, no longer interacting with others based only on their bodies, becoming joyful, no longer becoming overwhelmed by one’s senses and having a clear vision of one’s true Self. . .
Read the rest of this article in the Summer 2013 issue of Integral Yoga Magazine.