How the Niyamas can help us navigate Covid-19.
Lying in bed the other morning at 6am, my brain had already switched into ‘think’ mode. You may relate. As soon as I wake up, it’s like the switch flicks on. According to the science of Ayurveda, 2am-6am is vata time. Vata is the dosha of movement in our body and is responsible for transmitting signals and impulses from body to brain, governing our nervous system. I
When vata is aggravated, we wake in these early morning hours and sometimes don’t return back to sleep.
At 6am my mind is ready to get going and it wants my body to join the party. So over time I’ve found it easier to get up and start the day than lie there ruminating on all that is wrong in the world and my inner life. Today wasn’t that day so this blog arrived in my head.
There is a lot of push and pull around us now, change is quick. Do we have the capacity to fully grasp or process it? Probably not. Our human minds like order and repetition. And time to process. It is what keeps us feeling safe. At the moment, any given day can be like stepping into one of those carnival side shows with the crazy mirrors – distorting and changing our self perception. What projects back to us is not quite the truth but part of us entertains the idea that it might be. Until we get to the next mirror and see something else again. This is where the mind begins its dance.
A distorted view of our self and the world starts to become the ‘norm’. In the crazy mirror sideshow, we sometime look tall, sometimes wide and anything else in between. It’s kind of fun for a while but the novelty wears off and we just want to get out and feel normal again. So we find the exit and step into light and space. Except that for us right now, the exit is not obvious.
There are many subtle messages being collectively directed our way amidst the really big one that occupies our mind most of the time. If we have the quietness of mind to look beyond our immediate problems and all that seems ‘wrong’ in the world we might start to open up to other possibilities or ways of viewing this pandemic.
To be mentally strong now, it may help to look beyond the present circumstance, see that change is constant – whilst acknowledging there is much we can do right now for our self.
Finding steadiness within change is the key. In order to find steadiness, inward reflection is needed.
This is where the teachings of yoga offers so much. As a philosophy, yoga is all about internal reflection and finding a way to reduce suffering through that reflection. It teaches us that the mind is a function of our human system and what it projects is often not accurate.
If we dwell on this idea we begin to understand the difference between what is permanent (purusa) and what changes (prakriti). Life changes, the world changes and we are part of this change. Yoga also teaches us that deep within each of us there is an essential part of our self that doesn’t change. This core aspect of us (purusa) is what we are being asked to find right now. This is the place of steadiness, connectedness and trust – self realisation. It is our essential self.
It’s a big ask if you are just starting on the journey but the only other option is to keep blindly walking through that mirror sideshow, not really knowing who you are, struggling to find the exit.
So how can the Niyamas be a guide for us at this time?
The Niyamas (observations of self) are one of the foundational limbs of the Astanga Yoga path (the 8 Limbs of Yoga). They sit at number 2 (after the Yamas that form the foundation for how we operate in the world.)
The Niyamas are specific to our internal attitudes, and how we relate to our self. If they are not adhered to, we will be suffering in some way. And our actions in relation to the wider world will reflect this suffering. Here is an example:
Life is all about distraction most of the time – tempting options to step outside our own true awareness (think internet shopping) so it is easy to bypass the niyamas and put something inauthentic in their place. The niyama that typifies this is samtosha (contentment). It’s easy to have contentment (at least momentarily) when we have outside freedom – see a movie, catch up with friends, buy that pair of shoes. A little bit harder when you are asked to stay at home, see no one and not leave the house.
Suddenly we are searching for a contentment that isn’t dependant on the outside world. We have to find it within us! The irony from a yoga perspective is that this inner search is the only place true contentment will be found. As long as we keep looking outside it will remain a mystery. But how do we start the search? This is where the Niyamas can be a helpful path.
- Our life has suddenly revolved around hygiene. But it is not just the physical body we need to pay attention to now. Sauca is adherence to cleanliness on the outside, as well as in inner purity of mind.
This inner purity is achieved through lifestyles choices. This might be doing yoga or other beneficial practices, eating well, having harmonious relationships, finding that right balance between effort and ease in our daily tasks. It relates to the idea of forming an inner clarity. The goal is to clean the mind and give it lightness and transparency. Then we are less affected by what feeds back from the outside world.
There are so many practical ways to work with sauca. Turn off the news, have a day away from social media, take a walk in nature, sit in the sunlight, play with a child, read something uplifting. All are little things that we can do to keep our attention on what brings us clarity (sattva) and makes us feel complete, connected to ourself and those important to us.
The sensory faculties (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell) need to be supported in a positive and fruitful way when engaging in sauca. Choose a positive focus for the mind with your thoughts and actions, not one you know makes you feel negative.
- Samtosa (the second nimyama) is contentment, satisfaction. Patterns and predispositions will inform how this niyama sits with you. Are you the eternally cheerful type who finds the positive in most things? Or do you immediately go to the negative outlook? Watching your mind’s tendency can teach you a lot.
Behaviours are really ingrained and can be hard to shift. Yoga calls them (samskaras. If we want to embrace life and all it throws at us we may need to work on some of these patterns – which means having awareness that the ‘negative’ mind exists in the first place.
Finding contentment is about starting small. Look at the positives in your life and use that as your starting point around change. It might be that cup of coffee that brings you so much satisfaction in the morning. For me it is the sound of the first bird I hear singing around sunrise or watching my dog’s face as he runs freely on the beach.
You can cultivate samtosa gradually by finding these small moments of joy – positive actions, thoughts and the like. Small steps build to a greater impact over time. This gradual process is where the inner work is really achieved. We can’t necessarily create optimism overnight but we can choose it as a long term goal.
- Yoga promotes tapas or internal cleansing (the third niyama). Through right food, right lifestyle and feeding our mind with people and activities that support us as we can feel well. Tapas means ‘to cook’ and relates to self discipline. It is intimately connected to yogic anatomy and the belief that when our agni or digestive fire is strong, our body is able to withstand illness – emotional and physical – and other challenges.
The game changer is the breath. Anyone can use their breath. It is your own precious tool to promote tapas. Conscious movement of breath (pranayama) is one of the most cleansing practices yoga can offer. Sitting for 5 minutes with 6 rounds of nadi sodhana (alternate nostril breath) can bring clarity to an agitated mind. Lying comfortably with the hands on the belly and watching your exhale slowly lengthen can bring space to agitated thoughts.
We all have our own forms of working with ‘tapas’ but lockdown is a convenient time to let them go out the window. Exercise may be more challenging and the temptation to eat from boredom may be there.
This time can instead give us space to reflect on how we approach this personal discipline – are we living in alignment with what we really need for our bodies and minds? Are there ways we can help our self to ‘feel better’ and support our physical and emotional health. When we honour our self there is a positive flow on affect to everything around us.
- Yoga teaches us that through self inquiry or svadhaya (the fourth niyama) we moved towards ista-devata (personal path of light). It is the link back to ourself again. We come to this place of truth within us through an awareness of our own needs and thoughts. Looking inside, not outside. Meditation is a great form of svadhaya.
In more obvious terms, if we don’t reflect first, it can be easy to make poor choices. In a time of pandemic this is paramount. Each day we are being asked to make appropriate choices by the ‘powers that be’. If we don’t have the ability to reflect on our own behaviour, how we face society may get us into difficulty.
Perhaps you’ve read more books lately or spent more time reflecting on what you really desire from life. Maybe you have enquired into activities or studies. Or decided to make a garden or embark on another project. Perhaps changing your work patterns has become important. These are all outcome of svadhyaya or inner reflection.
This is cause and effect. We act and there is a consequence. If the act can come from reflection and right intention the outcome will support us in a positive way. This again radiates out into our wider world.
How we have been treating the natural world is one thing being highlighted right now. Svadhaya is perhaps what we need the most at this time.
- It does seem that the natural world is dictating the shots at the moment and we are trying our best to get it back under our control. Mankind has spent a part of recent history bending and shaping the natural order into something that suits us, rather than being observant to what exists around us and fitting into it. We are not the dominant force despite what we may like to believe.
If we look at Covid in terms of a larger world perspective, there is a global cleansing that is taking place – be it comfortable or not for us. Nature is fighting back. Is it possible that the attitude of believing we are outside this natural order got us to where we are now?
Isvara pranidhana comprises two elements – isvara (a greater force) and pranidahana (to surrender to). This the fifth niyama. This is not a religious idea, rather an acknowledgement of humility to something bigger than us. It is a wonderful reflection to bring into our inner life. If we are not living with an acceptance of something greater than us – in this case nature – we put ourselves as the authority of life rather than working in harmony with what supports us. We have to start viewing ourselves as part of a greater whole. Otherwise, more of what we are experiencing now is likely occur.
A basic understanding of this is the way we treat the land in order to grow the food we need to survive. If we work against the natural intelligence of nature, there will be implications for this process and we will suffer. If we can work with the land we form a relationship that benefits both and is sustainable.
It can bring great comfort and understanding to see where I sit in the larger scheme of the world. And it leads back to the sense that every thing I do as an individual has a collective impact. No matter how small.
We don’t have to try and control, instead accept that change is an inevitable part of life.
Patanjali talks about these internal practices before any mention of yoga as a physical practice. This indicates that right attitude is important for us to begin working with our body. The next limb of the Astanga path is that of asana (postures) – sthira sukham asanam is the foundation of our physical practice – the body needs to be stable and comfortable.
Sometimes on the yoga path though, the physical practice is the starting point – the yamas and niyamas evolve as a result. The order doesn’t matter.
When we acknowledge our internal world first, happiness extends out from us and is not dependant on external forces. Without this recognition we are relying on everything beyond us to keep us stable, happy and well. The yoga path is about finding that internal resolve. When we connect with it we empower ourself and create our own happiness – and resilience to move through the changes of life.
Namaste, Jill. x