Welcome to the Yoga Church Sunday Sermons

Niyama: The Foundation of Personal Practice


We’re coming to the end of our study of the niyamas (for now…) and I’m excited to share a guest sermon written by my friend and colleague Marci Becker. She offers deep reflection (that I know so many people in this community will relate to) and her hope for what’s possible when we’re able to do the hard work of personal practice within the container of supportive community.

Doing My Work & Minding My Business: A Recap of the Niyamas by Marci Becker

REFLECTION QUESTIONS

What does it mean TO YOU to practice cleanliness? What does it mean TO YOU to practice contentment in our ever changing world? How do YOU practice self-discipline and self-awareness? What’s the larger vision of Being that YOU’RE dedicated to?? What do the niyamas mean TO YOU? 

Are you doing anything differently in response to this study? In other words, how are the ancient teachings of the niyamas changing you? How are you integrating them into your daily life and practice?

Marci wrote: “When Summer and I were on retreat with her teacher Robin Rothenberg a few months ago, she introduced the idea of ‘conspiring with your duhkha’. Duhkha is a Sanskrit word that means ‘suffering’, ‘pain’, ‘discomfort,’ ‘constriction.’ Duhkha points to where you are stuck.”

  • Can you name the duhkha that’s present in your life right now? Where are you stuck?
  • What is this stuckness pointing toward? What’s contributing to this stuckness? What negative conditioning or unhelpful habits can you bring to the surface of your awareness in order to move toward freedom?

How to approach the yama-s & niyama-s:

This practice is based on Yoga Sutra 2.33 & 34, which outline the practice of pratipaksa-bhavanam. We’re told that when negative feelings/thoughts (anything counter to the yama-s and niyama-s) restrict us, the opposite should be cultivated. This is done through the practice of meditative awareness.

When negative feelings/thoughts are present meditate on the following questions (through sitting meditation or journaling):

  • Am I acting on this negativity? Causing (wittingly or unwittingly) someone else to act on this negativity? Or condoning (wittingly or unwittingly) someone else who’s acting on this negativity?
  • Can I identify the underlying cause of the negative feeling/thought?
    • Greed, anger, delusion, ignorance of True Self, ego, attachment, aversion, fear?
  • Is the negative feeling/thought slight, moderate, or intense?
  • What fruit will come from this feeling/thought? Or from any actions arising from it?
  • Does it support clarity or ignorance?
  • Does it lead to joy or suffering?

This reflection is the practice of Cultivating the Opposite (pratipaksa bhavanam).

TRANSCRIPT

For the past several weeks, we’ve been in deep study of the Niyamas: the 2nd limb on Patanjali’s 8-limbed path of Yoga. The Niyamas are described as ‘observances’. I don’t know about you but this study hit home for me! It left me speechless at times, cheering at times, and cursing at times. Am I the only one who thinks Summer is writing these sermons just for me?  And the mirror she’s holding up can be pretty hard to look into at times. But through it all, I still love the study of yogic philosophy. It is a never ending, deep well of wisdom. A well I return to often….to lower my bucket, fill it up, and lift up a deeper understanding….to draw out the wisdom I need in that moment. You see, like many of us, it can take hearing something many, many times before it starts to sink in and there are levels of depth to these teachings. I practice being OK with that. Taking what sticks at that time and doing what I can to learn and integrate, without beating myself up because I haven’t figured it all out by now. I practice having faith that I’m right where I need to be. That I don’t have to have everything figured out. Remember, there is no room for self-judgement in our yoga practice. We observe, we challenge, we grow… and we do it all with as much ease as we can. Effort and ease….but on the mat, and off. But don’t think that means it’s easy.

Let’s start with a quick refresher on what we’ve been learning about the five Niyamas that form the foundation of our personal practice. 

The first niyama is Saucha, which is purity or cleanliness. Summer tells us that “yoga is filled with purification techniques because an important goal of yoga is clarity. When our systems are gunked up, and we’re out of balance, it’s hard to think straight—it’s hard to see things clearly. It’s hard to stay connected to our highest aspirations.”  

The second niyama is Santosha, or contentment. And Summer writes that “When our minds are clear and we’re able to abide in our own True Nature, a natural happiness arises—the happiness of Being that exists beyond craving.”   

The third niyama is Tapas, which is self-discipline. Summer says: “The kind of effort required to build, contain, harness, and direct [transformative] energy is called tapas. … And it’s such an integral part of yoga, that [her] teacher wrote: “there can be no Yoga without tapas.” Tapas is heat… we need heat to purify, seal, and right our vessel.”  

The fourth niyama is Svadhyaya or self-study. Summer tells us that it means “to move toward one’s self.” There’s an understanding in spiritual traditions that as we move toward the Self we move toward Divine Mystery and as we move toward Divine Mystery, we move toward the Self. It’s an ever deepening spiral.”

And the fifth niyama is Ishvara Pranidhana or Surrender to the Divine. Summer writes: “In this teaching Patanjali is asking us to step away from our small self—from our ego and personality with its likes, dislikes, attachments, and fears. If we can trustfully surrender to something higher than ourselves, if we can dedicate our lives to something bigger than the limited vision of our ego-self, we might just discover the truth of our highest Self.”

That’s a lot! And any one of these on their own seems like a pretty tall order and the practice of a lifetime.

The Niyamas are all about living in right relationship with ourselves. And what I’ve learned over the past several years, is that this is more of a challenge for me than I’d like to admit. Living in right relationship with myself means putting forth effort for me…prioritizing practices that nurture me and help me become who I want to be in this world. Why does it sound so simple and easy as I write that, but super hard to actually practice? Like, logically, it makes all the sense in the world. It’s just always been so much easier for me to prioritize the needs of others; to meet commitments and deadlines imposed by and for other people. I’m working to try to understand this…to unravel it. It’s a deep layer of conditioning I picked up along the way. Sacrificing yourself for others is highly praised and valued in our society, especially for women, and even more especially for mothers. It’s a noble thing, perhaps, but it’s out of balance. And all that sacrifice at the expense of my own needs carries with it a lot of unspoken messaging that I am just starting to understand. What am I teaching myself and other people about how I value (or don’t value) myself.  I’ve definitely found myself in situations I didn’t want to be in, doing things I didn’t want to do because I felt obligated to someone else for one reason or another. I agree to things other people want me to do without stopping to think about whether or not that’s actually the right thing for me. Lack of clarity and this habit of sacrifice has left me feeling frustrated and overwhelmed more than once. I’m working to un-learn…but it’s a slow process. 

And, as well as I think I’ve shown up for other people through that sacrifice, I’m sure I could’ve shown up even better if I had been living in right relationship with myself. If I had prioritized my own needs and my personal practice. Because, in truth, this personal practice isn’t actually just for me. It serves me, that is for sure…..but it also serves my family, friends, and community when I can show up with more clarity, contentment, discipline, deep knowing, and surrender to the Divine. When I can show up to the right things in the right times from that space, I can only assume the experience is much richer for all involved. 

For the 10+ years I’ve been working with the Niyamas, Tapas has been most challenging AND can have a pretty big impact on everything else. Being steadfast and disciplined in my personal practice always felt too rigid for who I believed myself to be. I’m the ‘go with the flow’ person who couldn’t be rigid, if she tried. And that used to feel like such a good thing but I’m beginning to see it with different eyes. While I feel like I practice some aspect of the broader system of yoga everyday, I’ve definitely given myself plenty of permission to shy away from practices that are more challenging. So, while I feel like I can check the box of practicing, the transformation has been slower due to what I’m choosing to practice and what I’m choosing to avoid.  

Full disclosure: there is a super annoying inner rebel that I’m working with. She’s a pain to live with and her rebellion is not helpful. Like, there is this surly teenager inside, rolling her eyes when I say ‘hey, it’s time to practice’. I end up falling into cool-mom mode and don’t always make her do it. Or I figure out how to reduce the practice enough so she’ll at least agree to do it. To make it a little easier so she’ll at least try it. I can almost hear her: ‘UGH….why do we have to do this…I don’t want to and it’s too hard.’

We all have different things that get in our way. We struggle with different things. Tapas might not be yours. But for me, for now, this is where my work lies. It can be hard to do the things I know are good for me. And somehow it seems like it shouldn’t be. Why am I surprised this is hard work? It’s like I expect to always be on Easy Street and when I find myself on a detour, it somehow translates to a real good reason to just go home: to stop even bothering. Another layer of conditioning I’m working with is this idea that I should always be comfortable. You don’t have to look far to see so much advertising for products and services that create a more comfortable life. I’ve been learning consciously and subconsciously for years that the goal is to be as comfortable as possible. But that’s not actually it at all. The transformation I’m looking for doesn’t live in the comfortable. What if I saw discomfort as confirmation that I’m learning and growing and transforming….that I’m right where I need to be. What if I even looked forward to discomfort? Could I even celebrate it? That may sound crazy…but let’s remember the practice of Pratipaksa Bhavana that Summer talks about: cultivating the opposite. I might have to do the crazy practice of celebrating discomfort in order to find the transformation I’m looking for.

When Summer and I were on retreat with her teacher Robin Rothenberg a few months ago, she introduced the idea of ‘conspiring with your duhkha’. Duhkha is a Sanskrit word that means ‘suffering’, ‘pain’, ‘discomfort’. Duhkha points to where you are stuck. How can we use the discomfort we feel when things get hard? How can we remember that when it shows up, it might be just what we need? Summer shared “Tapas is the heat that builds up inside us as we put forth effort toward increasing our capacity to stay with the discomfort of transformative change.” So discomfort is simply a confirmation that we’re where we need to be if we want to transform. It’s step 1. Hooray! Let’s Celebrate! Welcome….I’m so glad you’re here. Then, what does it feel like to stay with it?

Lama Rod Owens talks about the importance of doing our work in his book Love & Rage: “If we don’t do our work, then we become work for other people.” For someone conditioned to sacrifice for others, this rang loud and clear for me. By doing my own work, I will in turn not inflict more work on other people. It reminds me of Zen Buddhist priest Reverend angel Kyodo williams teaching students to ‘mind your business’. Focus on your own work. You have enough of your own work to do. I have enough of my own work to do. I can’t do your work for you. You can’t do my work for me. But we all need to be doing our work, whatever it is.

And while we all focus on our own work, being in community makes all the difference for me.  While this is about living in right relationship with myself, I don’t have to do it all by myself. The love, support, and accountability we experience in community can make all the difference. Knowing that my experience is being witnessed and that I get the gift of witnessing others doing their work is something I’m extremely grateful for. The first time I was a part of something like this was in my original Yoga Teacher Training. I’m sure I had glimpsed it at times in other circles and relationships but never in such an open, authentic, and non-judgemental way. It was an unexpected part of the journey that I treasure most from that time. And it’s what I missed most when training was over. I’ve been searching for it ever since but it’s pretty hard to find in a society that is so focused on individuality. The world got turned upside down this past year in ways we never imagined possible. And as challenging and difficult as it has been, the unexpected part of that journey has been the development of this beautiful online Yoga Church community. I don’t know what I would’ve done without you. Thank you for being here….I’ve been searching for you for years. 

I’ll end with this prayer of gratitude: 

Let us give thanks for this ancient practice of yoga. 

For the wisdom it holds, the transformation it offers, and our time to practice together in community.

May we continue to do our work. May we mind our business. May we commit to our practice of clarity, gratitude, discipline, knowing, and mystery. 

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?