Niyama 4, Swadyaya, self-study

Yoga Sutra 2.44: svadhyayat ista devata samprayogah

Polish door (RKG photo)

Svadyayat: through reading and chanting sacred texts. Ista: desired, chosen. Devata: divinity. Samprayogah: union, fusion.

Union with the chosen divinity comes from the study of self through the sacred texts. (trans. Bernard Bouanchaud)

B.K.S Iyengar tells us in his Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali that “Traditionally, svadyaya has been explained as the study of the sacred scriptures and recitation of mantra, preceded by the syllable AUM (see 1.27-28), through which the sadhaka gains a vision of his tutelary or chosen deity, who fulfills all his desires.”

Barbara Stoler Miller in her Yoga, Discipline of Freedom, elucidates the function of mantra: “Through the repetition of and meditation on specific mantras, the yogi can commune with a chosen deity, who can then aid his spiritual practice.”


Swadyaya—self-study—Sometimes an unwelcome task/sometimes an obsession.  If only I would learn everything I need to learn with each experience, but I never do and so I keep on repeating the lessons.

How is this sutra related to the practice of Tapas?

How important is it to work with a teacher or mentor? Will another person help me find clarity and guide me from possible self-destructive or egoistic tendencies swadyaya may induce?


How do I define the canon of “sacred texts”? Is it static, ancient, or dynamic, evolving?

Donna Farhi, in Yoga Mind, Body & Spirit says that “Any activity that cultivates self-reflective consciousness can be considered swadhyaya.”


How does knowledge of myself lead me to Divine knowledge and vice-versa, How does Divine knowledge lead me to understand myself? Is the Self a mirror? If so, what does it reflect?


Bernard Bouanchaud asks us to ponder the implications of this sutra in the Modern Age: The Yoga Sutras were written in a time and culture that emphasized the sacred. Contemporary Western culture is secular and sacredness that does not conform to accepted religion is often rejected. In such a context, what word can replace “divinity” (devata) in this aphorism?

Door detail (RKG photo)


Through meticulous attention on the sounds of the mantra, consciousness grows inward and focuses sharply. Further meditation on a chosen deity can provide a vehicle for insightful experience.This Niyama gives the yogin another powerful tool for transformation.


Nischala Joy Devi in The Secret Power of Yoga suggests that this niyama challenges us to examine our beliefs and our attachment to our beliefs.She encourages us to allow our view of reality to grow and change as our hearts soften in practice.

There’s a parallel in zen meditation: I am not my thoughts. I am not my emotions. I am not my body.

Sutra 2.44 suggests that mantra and deity visualization can help us cut through long held beliefs.

Niyama 3, Tapas, Heart Fire

Yoga sutra 2.43: kayendriyasiddhirasuddhiksayattaapasah

Kaya; the body. Indriya: the eleven sense organs, including thought. Siddih: power, perfection. Asuddhi: impurity. Ksayat: by the destruction, elimination. Tapasah: discipline, asceticism, austerity.

By eliminating impurity, a disciplined life brings perfection and mastery to the body and the eleven sense organs. (trans. Bernard Bouanchaud, The Essence of Yoga)

White Starburst (carolyn grady photo)

Tapas, the third yogic niyama, or code for living well, is another means for personal evolution. We don’t embark upon these practices for the sake of austerity or novelty or egoic gratification. T.K.V. Desikachar (The Heart of Yoga) stresses that Tapas must not cause suffering, “everything about tapas must help you move forward.”

Tapas is the inner fire or discipline which keeps the yogin practicing. Lethargy would be its opposite. One of the definitions of the word YOGA is “discipline,” so it’s easy to see how  Tapas is related to daily practice.

What is it that draws me to my mat day after day, year after year? It’s the fire that burns in my heart center, awakening a sense of embodiment that yearns for asana to express itself.

Yoga Scholar, Bernard Bouanchaud, asks us to consider the relationship between contentment, santosha which implies acceptance and Tapas, the fire that burns impurities. I’d ask, how then does Shauca, or purity itself affect or deepen the Tapasic experience?

A tidbit of trivia I learned from Wikipedia: One who undertakes tapas is a Tapasvin.

A primary purpose of yoga is to become aware of, to channel, and to utilize energy. Yoga can be considered a form of Tapas. Certainly it is integral to the yogin’s life. In Yoga Mind Body & Spirit, the popular teacher and New Zealand yogini, Donna Farhi says that, “Far from being a kind of medicinal punishment, tapas allows us to direct our energy toward a fulfilled life of meaning and one that is exciting and pleasurable.”

The other elements of the ashtanga yoga are inter-related practices. Pranayama and Asana help to stoke the fire. Pratyahara assists the Tapasvin in focusing the energy. Brahmacharya, the moderation of one’s vital energy, is a natural extension of Tapas. Its practice helps keep the heart fire bright and pure.

Pink Explosion (carolyn grady photo)

Farhi quotes Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodron,  “What we discipline is any form of potential escape from reality.”

It’s Tapas that helps me put some ooomph into a daily pranayama, so the practice does not become dull and listless. Tapas propels me and holds me on my dietary regiment. I pray for Tapas to light the flame of my teaching, service, and for inspiration for this blog!

Niyama 2, Samtosha, Contentment

I write so much about longing and the un-contented parts of my life that it’s hard sometimes to acknowledge those areas of my existence that are perfectly or imperfectly just fine.  I often feel a sense of contentment after writing, especially in free writing in a journal—as if I’ve purged the “vritti” out of my system.  There is however, a sense of contentment that comes with acknowledgment of longing as a perennial aspect of the human condition. And a deeper contentment is possible through recognition of the longing as an expression of the Divine.

orchid (ckg photo)

II.42 samtosad anuttamah sukha-labhah

Samtosat:through or by contentment   Anuttamah:the strongest  Sukha: of happiness   Labhah: obtaining, gain

Contentment brings supreme happiness. (B.Bouanchaud)

The result of contentment is total happiness. (Desikachar)

From contentment and benevolence of consciousness comes supreme happiness (BKS Iyengar)

When at peace and content with oneself and others (Santosha), supreme joy is celebrated. (Nischala Joy Devi)

This sutra can be linked with Sutra 1.13 : tatra sthitau yatno’bhyasah

Persevering practice is the effort to attain and maintain the state of mental peace.

In an earlier post, I wrote about practicing through emotions. Linking these two sutras, Patanjali says that the way to mental peace is through persevering practice and by practicing contentment, or mental peace, we’ll achieve happiness.

Santosha, or the practice of content-ment, is the ability to feel satisfied within the container of one’s immediate experience. (Donna Farhi)

Family gatherings often are times when I see sides of myself that I don’t like (a Living Mirror). They can be occasions of great dis-contentment for me. They are also the times of my greatest happiness. Trying to navigate them and remain centered is a worthwhile goal for anyone. Amy Weintraub in Yoga for Depression ties Santosha  with a quotation from Swami Kripalvanandji “My beloved child, break your heart no longer. Each time you judge yourself, you break your own heart.” She says that “both self-love and self-acceptance grow with practice.”

Is contentment the aim of yoga practice?

Is all suffering alleviated through contentment or do we look at the sufferings in our own lives in a contented fashion?

Does happiness imply a different vision of suffering?  Or can the two emotions exist simultaneously?

Is total happiness only possible through a practice of contentment?

If all life is suffering as the Buddha tells us, why should we bother trying to attain happiness?

Does contentment imply a turning away from the difficulties of life, an acceptance of poverty, cruelty, and violence in the world?

Won’t we be missing out on much of our human emotional range if we practice contentment?  Won’t we become zombies? Can one’s passions be ignited while one is content?

Are there any other effects or side effects of contentment?

Is it possible for contentment to exist on a greater scale, say in a community or in a nation?  Would this be the same as peace?

What is the relationship between contentment and peace?

Is there a relationship between contentment and the practice of svadhyaya (self-study)?

What is the relationship of asana practice and contentment?

The sutra tells us there is a direct relationship between contentment and personal happiness.  With contentment, one’s emotions are brought under an even keel, and the fluctuations of the mind are stilled.  Isn’t this the purpose of yoga?  I search for sukha in each pose, to feel joy while my body works on the edge of pain.  This has incredible implications for those suffering from emotional lability.  Can I learn to accept where I am at at any given moment? This is contentment and the sages say that by working on this, I will attain the supreme gift of happiness.

Patanjali tells us something profound, yet really simple: be content and you will be happy.  Want what you have and don’t want what you don’t have.

Yoga Ethics 5, APARIGRAHA, noncovetousness

Form and Meaning Arises (carolyn grady photo)

One who perseveres on the path of noncovetousness gains deep understanding of the meaning of life. (trans. B. Bouanchaud)

I DO pray for aparigraha to blossom in my life like a spiritual flower showering me with the clarity and buoyancy of a saint. This yama, suggests I relinquish that which I hold onto. I need to lessen my grip. It’s a manner of looking at the world, myself, my relationships, and of course, my STUFF.

This late December season which holds my birthday as well as the Christmas potlatch does tend to stoke the fire of WANTING. This wanting always throws me off a bit because I’m usually  contented with life and feel the need to GET RID of stuff in life-simplifying gestures.

As I grow older, less becomes critically important for me to own/do.  The years teach me what I can do without.  When Mike’s grandmother was in her nineties, she used to tell us “less is best.”  The year we lived in a small apartment in Bombay taught the whole family how little we could live on/with—and still have a happy life. It was a blessing that I didn’t always appreciate. After I returned to the States,my life in India took on a special radiance that I slowly realized came from simplicity and a lessening of the grip STUFF has on me. This awareness also grew from a growing sense of the riches present in my life, a sense of overflowing abundance.

Nischala Joy Devi ( The Secret Power of Yoga) discusses Aparigraha in terms of “awareness of abundance, and fulfillment.”  By meditating on abundance, noncovetousness naturally disappears. When practicing lovingkindness or metta meditation, I add abundance to the fourth line of the mantra: May I live in ease and abundance. It’s part of the process of evolving away from my poverty mentality.

A poem from my collection Barefoot & Upside Down:

the crumbling bark café

beneath an overcast sky

I lean against a tamarack

and spy the red-shouldered

hawk’s eyes on me

there is nowhere to hide

from her keen sight

we both keep still and watch and breathe

eventually her mate circles and cries

I feel so big and my body

growing earthen

overhead the clouds fly like planes

two red-breasted nuthatches in a dead jack pine

poke their beaks in decaying wood

it’s lunch at the crumbling bark café

I imbibe the tender wind

the moist air

splash in the ditch singing in overflow mode

wonder if I’ll see the garter snakes this year

a ball of glorious reptilian copulation

surprised me once before

seeking the specials du jour

I find a young sapsucker

tapping holes on a cottonwood bole

a chestnut-sided warbler intently feeding

in the old sap wells where insects

swarm to sugar

and a female oriole

so sophisticated  in yellow and black

explores hole to hole along a horizontal ring

slipping her slit tongue again and again

my belly growls

why do I never have enough?


Bernard Bouanchaud takes us deep into the heart of this Yama: ” When the mind no longer worries about acquiring and keeping goods, we understand where we come from, where we are, and where we are going. We discover the meaning of existence….”

Yoga Ethics 4, Moderation, Brahmacharya

rhododendron bud (carolyn grady photo)

So how’s your energy level lately? What is it that you’ve become manic about? Summer sports, writing, gardening, studying, a work project, yoga classes? Too much working, too much recreating, too much tweeting, too much online, too much shopping, too much eating ~ the list is endless, isn’t it? And to make matters worse, there are  possibilities to substitute one excess for another ad infinitum.

Or is it that you’ve become a slug and can’t seem to find the ooomph to get up and do anything? The day swings along each merry hour and you have not moved an inch – as if time stood still for you? Have you noticed your energy slumping more and more with each passing year? Ever wondered if there was a way you might reconnect with some of the juice of your youth?

Yoga sutra 2.38: brahmacarya-pratisthayam virya-labhah

Vitality appears in one who is firmly set in moderation.

The fourth principle of yoga ethics is Brahmacharya, aptly named after the god of creation, Brahma. It is linked to the energy which creates the universe. How can you harness this energy? That is the task of the yogin. We learn and practice continence of thoughts, emotions, movements. Wasted energy is like credit card debt; there is interest to pay long after the initial expenditure.

We begin to see and then to direct the flow of energy through our being. And we do so moderately. In the Secret Power of Yoga, Nischala Joy Devi uses the example of eating:

“If you are accustomed to eating three large meals a day and many snacks, begin to eat less at meal times and half as much when you snack. Instead of two handfuls of nuts, take one.

The tendency would be to eat only one meal and eliminate all snacks. That would swing the pendulum from one extremes to the other. Remember, the idea is to practice moderation. we already know how to be excessive!”

Classical Yogic scholar, Georg Feuerstein links Brahmacharya directly to the practice of chastity. He translates the sutra:

When grounded in chastity, [great] vitality is acquired.

Since the practice of yoga is such a demanding endeavor, Feuerstein suggests that “such vigour is indeed imperative.”

What does this really mean in our practice and in our teaching? Iyengar practitioner and teacher, Aadil Palkhivala discusses this topic in an informative article, “Teaching the Yamas in Asana Class.” I have excerpted his piece on brahamcaharya:


We practice brahmacharya when we consciously choose to use our life force (especially the energy of sexuality) to express our dharma, rather than to frivolously dissipate it in an endless pursuit of fleeting pleasures. Brahmacharya reminds us that our life force is both limited and precious, and sexual activity is one of the quickest ways to deplete it. As yogis, we choose to use the power behind sexuality to create, to fulfill our mission, to find and joyously express our inner selves. The practice of brahmacharya is not some archaic form of moralizing, but rather a reminder that, if we use our energy wisely, we possess the resources to live a fulfilling life.

We can teach brahmacharya by helping our students learn to use the minimum energy to achieve the maximum result. Teach them not to use small muscles to do the work of large muscles, and to bring their minds into the poses so that their bodies do not become fatigued. Also, teach your students to channel lines of force and internal power, which will add energy to their lives.

In all poses, teach students to keep the lift of the pit of their abdomen, and explain to them that this actually conserves the life force. Tell them that dropping the lower belly splatters our life force out in front of us. Once conserved, this pelvic energy can be channeled up to the heart. In this way, we can continually teach brahmacharya in class, encouraging students to lift the pelvic energy toward the heart center, the home of the indwelling Self. After all, isn’t this the true purpose of a complete yoga practice?


Are there ways you have found to practice continence or moderation?

Have you noticed any shifts or increases in your energy level?

I’m going to practice by diminishing those handfuls of nuts I gravitate towards every afternoon, and by paying more attention to lifting the pit of my abdomen when I practice asana.

Do you believe you can?

Barefoot College is an amazing story of faith in action. There is the vision of its founder, Bunker Roy, the faith of every single middle-aged student, the confidence of every village the women students come from and return to electrify, and the belief of Barefoot supporters around the globe. If you’d like to know more about them, check out the PBS Religion and Ethics story.

In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali cites faith in the first book, thread #20. It is linked to spiritual consciousness. Is it possible to have a spiritual consciousness without faith? Well, yes, but it would be very limited, circumscribed by human potentiality.

Nischala Joy Devi offers a contemporary interpretation of Patanjali in her book, The Secret Power of Yoga. She says identification with Supreme Consciousness is enhanced (her interpretation of Patanjali) by “faith, dynamism, intention, reflection, and perception.”

lake erie state park rock in sara's hand

Faith implies a power unseen, and in the Barefoot College case, a power unheard of. It doesn’t usually happen in a day though. Faith is a gift, yes, but it is a grace that can be trained by taking gradually larger steps. It’s often linked to disciplined practice and development of energy. Your asana practice can be greatly influenced by a constant diet of faith. In every pose you attempt, feed yourself a dish of faith, no matter what else is going on. No matter what physical or mental ailments you may be undergoing, sup on faith and your asana will feed you in return.

Not only can faith feed your yogic development, when faith is pointed at social issues, the world changes. Take a look at some of the incredible steps taken by Social Edge bloggers such as Global X, Kiva Chronicles or, Forging Ahead.

Kausthaub Desikachar of the Krishnamacharya Healing Yoga Foundation cites the importance of faith and confidence in healing:

There is a word for faith in Sanskrit that Patanjali uses in the Yoga Sutra-s. The word is “sraddha”. This is a very beautiful word, which comes from the root “dha” – to hold or sustain. The idea behind the word sraddha is that if we have faith, it will sustain us or hold us and not allow us to fall down. Yoga Sutra says that when we have faith, we will have confidence and through this we can achieve anything, even in times of difficulty.

Let’s make a commitment together to foster faith in one another. Ditch the competition. It only brings you down anyway. No one ever wins.

It’s through healing on many levels that we come to abide in our True Nature. Yoga teaches us to heal contemporary as well as ancient wounds. Learning to open ourselves to faith should be an integral part of our yogic development. Knock loudly on that door and watch what blasts through. You may never be the same, nor will I.

Poland door (rkg)