An Interview with Nischala Devi
Nischala Devi’s book, The Secret Power of Yoga, reinterprets Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras for our modern times and from a woman’s perspective. She views the path of Raja Yoga as a path with eight facets that are interconnected and interwoven. In this interview, she shines a light on the five yamas, illuminating what can happen when we live our lives according to our divine essence and higher nature.
Integral Yoga Magazine (IYM): You’ve studied the Yoga Sutras since 1973. How has your relationship with the Yoga Sutras, and specifically the yamas, evolved over the years?
Nischala Devi (ND): The Yoga Sutras are my love. I started teaching Raja Yoga in 1974 and, at that time, I taught them according to how I had been taught. Gradually, how I had been taught merged with my inner experience in meditation, but I didn’t have the courage to start expressing what I personally experienced. A few years later, I started to teach the Yoga Sutras again, yet in a new and different way—perhaps a more heart-centered way. Students responded with so much encouragement that it inspired me to start writing down some of the ways I was experiencing the sutras.
When I first began to study the yamas, I read them as “nons”: non-violence, non-stealing and so on. I thought of the yamas as restraints, as negatives. Now, I prefer to approach them from a place of what to do vs. what not to do. I like to reflect on them by asking, “What can I do to improve myself and to find my own heart in this?”
This is so important. The old world concept is that we’re bad people and we need scriptures to tell us how to be good so we can realize who we are. But, that’s not the way I look at life or scriptures. Scriptures can be a reminder of who we are. We can utilize them to remember who we are and how we behave when we remember who we are. When you know who you are, you have love and reverence for everyone. Maybe you’ve forgotten that, so go back. I think this is a very important concept: We don’t need to change the essence of who we are; we just need to remember. Our essence is already divine, we just have to remember that and live accordingly.
IYM: Sometimes the yamas and niyamas are referred to as the “Ten Commandments” of Yoga.
ND: I don’t think of them as commandments but as an inspired offering. When the biblical Ten Commandments were given, the people to whom they were given were in a very confused state. They forgot who they were in their essence and they were doing things that took them further away from that. That’s not a judgment, but rather a statement about the time during which the Commandments were given. The yamas and niyamas came to us during the Satya Yuga, an age when truthfulness and goodness reigned. It was a time when people knew who they were. When we study the yamas and niyamas we’re essentially considering how to live knowing we are divine beings.
IYM: Do scriptures need to change with the times?
ND: All scriptures have to change with time—not so much what they say, but the way they are approached and interpreted. For example, Patanjali took the philosophy and truths contained in the Vedas, Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita and simplified them; he reinterpreted them for what he saw as the needs of that time. He was a true reformer. I think we need to do that to keep our scriptures alive. Otherwise, they become stone rather than living scriptures.
IYM: How do you interpret ahimsa?
ND: Ahimsa doesn’t pertain just to acts of physical violence, but includes the words we use, our thoughts not just toward humans, but toward everything in creation. Do we think of ourselves as people with reverence and love for all? Do we see ourselves as violent by nature? Do we try to curb that violence through ahimsa? When the Dalai Lama was asked about his religion, he said, “My religion is kindness.” He’s very aware of the essence of ahimsa.
The yamas reflect our true nature—our inner and outer true nature, meaning: inward to ourselves and outward toward others. Ahimsa, to me, is about embracing reverence and love for all, including ourselves. Bathing ourselves in love and compassion, letting go of guilt and shame, is important and it reminds us of who we are inside: divine beings. Look at our bodies: the coronary arteries feed the heart. The oxygenated blood first goes into the heart. That means that the heart feeds itself first so it can nourish the rest of the body. I don’t think we really understand that—that’s the heart of Karma Yoga. When we have love and reverence for ourselves, we can have it for all, we sanctify every moment and we can experience oneness.
I’m reminded of Oprah Winfrey’s close friend Gayle King, who once was asked about what it felt like living in Oprah’s shadow. Gayle replied, “Why does everyone think I live in her shadow? I live in her light.” Ahimsa is about reflecting back the light in others as well as in ourselves…
Read the rest of this article in the Spring 2013 issue of Integral Yoga Magazine.