Welcome to the Yoga Church Sunday Sermons

Niyama: The Foundation of Personal Practice


Yoga is a state of being AND the practices that help us reach that state of being. The practices of yoga are laid out in an 8-limbed path that includes everything you would suspect: movement, breath, meditation. But the path of yoga begins with what it means to live in right relationship. As we explored in our study of YAMA, yoga begins with ethics. With living in right relationship with others.

It continues with NIYAMA, which are the daily rituals we enact in order to care for ourselves. And this seems like a fitting teaching for the New Year…

This first introductory sermon helps us explore the question: Who are we becoming?

NIYAMA: Foundations of Personal Practice

REFLECTION QUESTIONS

Two big questions:

  • What does it mean to live in right relationship with yourself?
  • Who are you becoming? (through your thoughts, feelings, and behavior?)

And a few more to help us move in the direction of the Niyama-s:

  • How are you caring for your bodymind through diet and hygiene? How do you keep your bodymind clean?
  • How do you approach happiness? Do you expect it to come from the external world or from within?
  • How do you stay present in the heat of discomfort? How do you build and harness will power?
  • How do you understand yourself? What wisdom do you have faith in? How do you use this wisdom to shape your self-understanding?
  • How do you understand your place in the vastness of the cosmos? What’s the larger vision of Being that you’re dedicated to?

Transcript

Life is a cycle. It’s a circle. It’s an ever shifting rhythm. We wake up, we go through the actions of our day. We return to sleep. The sun sets and it rises. The moon waxes and it wanes. Winter gives way to the activity of summer. And summer gives way to the dormancy of winter. Our lungs breathe. Our hearts circulate blood. The ocean tides rise and fall. We wake up and we make choices. We move in cycles and rhythms and patterns.

So here’s a question that matters: Who are you becoming?

Let me say this another way: Who are you becoming through the patterns of your thoughts? Who are you becoming through the patterns of your feelings? Who are you becoming through the patterns of your actions? As we move through the cycles of time, our thoughts and feelings and actions accumulate. They build into something. They create the shape of who we are becoming.

We’re on a journey between the moment of our first inhale and the moment of our last exhale. This is a big deal. This is our life. Personal practice is the act of moving through this journey, moving through this life, with intention—of deciding to pay attention to the cycles and rhythms, of deciding to pay attention to the habitual patterning of our thoughts, feelings, and actions. Personal practice is the act of asking—over and over again—who am I becoming?

Our ancient teachers laid out a path of practice for us—a guide map—to help us realize the Divine Truth of our Being. This is a particular becoming. Let me say it again to make sure you caught it: Our ancient teachers are leading us on a path of becoming one with the Divine Truth of our Being. The ultimate teachings of yoga are grand. We ourselves are grand!

But most days, we’re all just trying to get out of bed on time. Trying to make decent choices and keep fear at bay. Trying to get back to bed at a decent hour. And keep our mind from racing. So while yoga is ultimately taking us on a grand journey of Divine realization, our practice begins in the midst of everyday life. And I just have to point out here… I don’t think it could begin anywhere else. Divine Mystery isn’t separate from life. It is life. It’s always and already who we are. The Divine Truth of our Being doesn’t change. But it can be hard to remember. It can be hard to notice the divinity within when we’re utterly absorbed in the emotional battles of everyday life. So it doesn’t surprise me that the path of yoga begins with what it means to live in right relationship with others.

In the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, we’re given an 8 limbed path of practice. It’s not a linear path. It’s not a 1, 2, 3, 4 that we’re mastering one step at a time. Just like life, it’s a circle. It’s a spiral. Yoga practice is a continual, ever deepening, exploration into every aspect of our being. And, as we’ve already studied, the first exploration is ethical behavior. We begin our practice with the very practical, everyday question of how to live in right relationship with others. The first limb of yoga practice is called YAMA—which means constraint. As yogi’s we’re expected to keep ourselves in check. We’re expected to avoid causing harm, to speak only of true things, not to steal, to manage the power of our sensory and sexual energy, and to live simply, which means we don’t hoard wealth or possessions.

This is an epic list! And just in case you’re slipping into self judgement as you hear it, let me remind you of the Divine Truth of your Being. Remember, the practice of yoga is taking us on a grand journey of Divine realization. Which means, and this is important, yoga is a practice of uncovering. We’re not trying to force ourselves into some societal idea of “goodness.” We’re working to expose the conditioning that has separated us from the reality of who we are. The yama-s are not a series of thou shalt not’s. They’re not a list of rules to follow. They’re a set of profound statements that describe our True Being—that describe who we are when we’re established in the Divine Truth of our Being.

This leads me to the 2nd limb of yoga practice, which lays out a plan of personal care that includes deep self-knowing. But it also includes everything from cleanliness to devotion. Because, in order to live in right relationship with the world around us, we have to live in right relationship with ourselves. In order to establish ourselves in nonviolence and truth telling, we must have self-discipline and self-awareness. In order to stop ourselves from taking more than we need and becoming overwhelmed by craving, we have to find an authentic sense of contentment with what we already have. In order to be vitalized by the power of our sensory energy we have to keep our body and mind clean. We have to have a sense of the higher purpose of our life.

What I’m describing here are the NIYAMA-s—the observances—the daily rituals that we enact in order to care for ourselves. The first two limbs of yoga practice are all about living in right relationship—right relationship with others and right relationship with ourselves. Please notice that Yama (the constraints) comes before Niyama (the observances). This feels deeply important. If the observances came first, if the ways in which we keep our body and mind healthy, find happiness, build discipline and awareness came first, we could get stuck. We could get stuck in a selfish sense of need. Yoga begins with the practice of living well with others—with not causing harm. Our self care is in service of collective care. These first two limbs of practice are a spiral. They’re a continuous moving back and forth. Moving in and out. Moving between caring for ourselves and caring for others. It’s a beautiful weaving. A beautiful balance.

So, with the teachings of yama and niyama in mind, let me return to the first question I posed here… Who are we becoming?

We’re all traveling the same path. We’re moving between the moment of our first inhale and the moment of our final exhale. In between, everything is always changing. We can’t stop the tide of change, but we can influence the course of change in our lives. As I already said, our thoughts and feelings and actions accumulate. They build into something. They create the shape of our life. They create the shape of who we are always becoming.

Every day, choice after choice after choice you are moving in a particular direction. Every thought, feeling, and action leads you somewhere. Do the choices you are currently making move you in the direction of becoming that you want to move in? This is an ongoing, never ending question. Who am I becoming through this choice?

The practice of niyama gives us a foundation for our daily habits. Every day is a cycle, every day is a series of choices. The niyama-s gives us a path, give us a plan, gives us a way to think about the choices we’re making. The niyama-s offer us five things to consider as we’re moving through the course of our day:

  • How are we caring for our bodymind through diet and hygiene? How do we keep our bodymind clean?
  • How do we approach happiness? Do we expect it to come from the external world or from within?
  • How do we stay present in the heat of discomfort? How do we build and harness will power?
  • How do we understand ourselves? What wisdom do we have faith in? How do we use this wisdom to shape our self-understanding?
  • How do we understand our place in the vastness of the cosmos? What’s the larger vision of Being that we’re dedicated to?

These are big questions. The niyama-s are an important, foundational part of our practice. And we’ll explore them one by one over the coming weeks. For now, I leave you with the broader question of becoming…

Who are you becoming? Day after day, decision after decision, habit after habit? Who are you becoming?

COMMUNITY COMMENTS

We all benefit from the wisdom of spiritual community. And community means more than one voice, so please add yours to the conversation. What did this week’s sermon and reflection questions spark in you?