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The Five Niyama

Exploring the Five Niyama: A Journey to Understand the Essence of Yoga - By Tim Steel

Reading time: 5 minutes

Zen Ki had been training very hard at his asana practice and a certain degree of attainment had become apparent. Through the patient guidance of his teacher Kisen, he had begun to develop a conscious awareness of the Yama and had begun the integration of them into his everyday life alongside his love of Jammie Dodgers and a devotion to the delicious cakes sold in the tea rooms in the village.

Kisen was already seated and waiting for him as Zen Ki finally bumbled in through the door, happy as a paper bag playing with the wind with the suspicious tell-tale signs of fresh whipped cream around his face.

‘You’re late!’ Began Kisen somewhat sternly.

‘Oh sorry! Am I? I was busy, um doing busy things!’ Zen Ki replied.

‘Uh huh! In the tea rooms I suspect!’

‘No, No, No! Well ok, maybe yes! But how on earth could you know that!’

‘Just a lucky guess!’ Kisen couldn’t help but smile at his somewhat flustered student, ‘I’ve told you many times, you must practice on an empty stomach. Not one full of chocolate éclairs and a mug of cocoa!’

‘Sorry, this being a real yogi thing is much trickier than I thought it might be what with Yama this and Asana that, I just fancied a little treat! Anyway, I’m here now!’

‘Yes, I suppose you are.’ Replied Kisen gently settling back on his zafu. ‘Today, we are going to look at the second limb of yogic practice, the Niyama.’ He seemingly waited expectantly for a gasp akin to one experienced by a bystander at the side of the road at the Monaco Grand Prix whilst the Mc Laren F1 lead car thunders by, but none came. Zen Ki remained unmoved by such a suggestion, partially to be fair because he wasn’t really sure what the Niyama are but mostly because he was still wondering how Kisen had known he’d been in the tea rooms!

Kisen soldiered on. ‘So, the first of the Niyama is called Saucha and is all about cleanliness.’

Zen Ki desperately tried not to lick his lips in an attempt to make sure all the cream had disappeared from around them, whilst simultaneously trying to maintain some semblance of concentration. But fight as he might, his tongue was already exploring the outer reaches of its exploratory obligations and was happy to report it had discovered much that needed a deep clean and further offered the promise of more if only it had a little extra length!

‘Quite!’ Kisen mildly chuckled under his breath before carrying on. ‘This cleanliness is not just physical but also is linked to a purity in the way we speak, even the way we think.’

By now Zen Ki was deep in cleaning thoughts of his own and was vigorously trying to get the last bits of cream and that very nice chocolate topping from the further reaches of his lips!

Kisen looked on and shook his head, ‘Look, you need to know this, so stop eating and pay attention!’

Zen Ki sat upright and stopped licking his lips, happy and satisfied that his tongue had done an exemplary job of clearing his face of any signs betraying him of his earlier snoutings.

Kisen continued, ‘The second Niyama is Santosha, which is a deepfelt contentment for your life. It’s not that you won’t have good days and bad days, but an appreciation of your life just as it is, becomes established regardless of what the day brings.’

Zen Ki nodded like a Harvard professor of Astrophysics indicating as he did so a deep understanding of his contentment in all respects of his visit to the village tea rooms, the quality of the cakes found there, the excellence of the cream and the satisfying feeling as it made its way past the lions’ gate and down into his previously empty tummy. But the crowning glory of mental clarity he felt was that having consumed the aforementioned delight, he was content not to return to the cake shop on his way home!

Kisen spied him suspicious of his actual understanding but decided to continue without further investigation. ‘The third one, Tapas, is about self-control.’

‘Oh, I love Tapas!’ injected Zen Ki.

‘Really?’ Kisen was caught somewhat surprised and this was reflected in his tone.

‘Yes, for sure. I really like the potatoes with a little bit of onion and,’

‘Not Spanish Tapas ya fool! Do you not ever think of anything other than food? You should be nurturing a sense of austerity, perseverance, and self-discipline, not planning ya next nose bag!’

Zen Ki looked a little flat. ‘I don’t always think about food. Sometimes I think about, ‘He paused momentarily, ‘Well ok to be fair, I do think about food a lot! My nanna always used to say that an army marches on its stomach and we are basically yogic soldiers on a mission to…’

Kisen interrupted, ‘No! No! we aren’t! We practice the yoga ultimately for the benefit of all sentient beings. Our practice is to study the self and work with our expression in the world. We seek to make that expression kinder, wiser and more in tune with the natural divinity that surrounds us threading its way through all aspects of our being. That is what the fourth Niyama is all about, Svadhyaya, not marching to the beat of a sergeant majors drum!’

‘Oh, I see!’ replied Zen Ki now definitely feeling set upon and a little sorry for himself! ‘Is there a fifth as I don’t seem to have been very on the button with the others?’

‘There is’ Kisen smiled, it’s possibly the most important as it reminds us of our accountability, it’s called Isvara Pranidhana and is all about surrendering just as we are, right now to a sense of the divine. To God.’

Zen Ki swallowed slowly, and his eyes widened, ‘Gosh!’

‘No, God!’ insisted Kisen.

‘Yes quite!’ Zen Ki was quiet for a moment and considered the situation as to whether he should surrender to the Lord as he was or get a change of clothes first!

Then question upon question burst naturally forth like the blossoming of the most beautiful flower ‘How could I, Zen Ki, possibly be acceptable just as I am to the divine Lord of all creation. To God, omni present in every respect, Goodness what on earth are the implications of that? Is the very rootless source of my ordinary life, seamlessly established within the endless bounds of an absolute God? I sense I am ‘It’, whatever that is, but ‘It’ is so much more than I.’

Kisen smiled a warm loving smile and nodded, ‘Yes, it seems to me very much that that is indeed the case. We are all rootlessly rooted into the divine, as I treat you, so I am treated. If I take from you, I lose. But if I give to you, I immediately receive, be it forgiveness, love or even a cream cake from the little village shop.’

Somewhere deep within Zen Ki, he recognised the natural truth of what Kisen was sharing, ‘The truth he thought has a certain taste to it. A little bit like one of those chocolate éclairs!’

Kisen persisted, ‘These continue the road map that the Yama had previously established, don’t be concerned if they haven’t blossomed yet as they will as the deeper yogic limbs naturally flourish.’

The two of them shared a smile and Kisen settled back and sipped his tea.


Tim Steel

Tim has been teaching and practicing yoga for over thirty five years and is an ordained Soto Zen Buddhist monk.