The five yamas, which I have previously discussed, are a guide for how to interact with others. They are ahimsa (nonviolence), satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), bramacharya (moderation of the senses), and aparigraha (non-possessiveness). The niyamas, by contrast, are guideposts for how to interact with ourselves. The five niyamas are: aaucha (purity), santosha (contentment), tapas (austerity), svadhyaya (self-study), and ishvarapranidhana (self-surrender).
Saucha means purity. We must be internally pure before going forward on the rest of the path. In Ayurvedic medicine (ancient Indian medicine), this means cleaning the insides of the body, including the nose (neti pot), the eyes, etc. These are daily rituals, providing physical purity prior to spiritual purity. The idea of purity being the first step to personal spirituality is not unique to yoga. Jewish women participate in a mikvah, a ritual bath, each month, and native american cultures use sweat lodges. But why is it so important?
Only when we are clean, both internally and externally, can we begin to move forward. It allows us to shed all the gunk that is stopping us from moving forward. It is why people do spring cleaning - at the time of rebirth, we crave cleaning out the old. Snakes and birds shed and molt in order to prepare for moving forward. And the great Phoenix literally burns to ashes and is reborn from them. There is no doubt in my mind that this shedding, this cleansing, this purification is vital to being able to take the next step, to move forward on the path.
Spiritual purification also allows us to find our own path. For much of my life I have taken as gospel whatever people say (though I tend to be argumentative, I have a need to agree, be taught by those I believe are "more advanced" than I am). When I read a book, I agree with it. Why? Because it sounds right. When I read legal briefs and arguments, I often find both sides equally convincing. I am certainly able to determine which is "more right," but it is more agreeable to, well agree. When it comes to my teachers, whether as a child, in law school, in yoga, or just in life, I want to absorb all that they have to say. Without often questioning, I just accept, and when teachings conflict, I get confused. These past few years, but more powerfully these past few months, I have been questioning my teachers more and more. I have read and disagreed the first time through. I have pushed back with my own thoughts. And I have been lost and confused. It's scary to begin to disagree with your teachers. It's scary to not know which argument is right. The Buddha said that we should not believe him because he says so, but we should try out his teachings and decide for ourselves.
I have finally begun to find my own path. What it took was clearing out the old gunk - in this case, other peoples' journeys and paths and ideas. I have learned from them, and will continue to learn from them, but they need not define me. At some point, I had to find my own way. This is, after all, the greatest thing about being a Westerner in the 21st century. We have access to literally thousands of paths, ideas, and ways of seeing the world. There is no forced dogma on how we must live our lives. Instead, we can take a little Jesus, mix him with some Buddha, and top it off with some Islam, all with the background of Judaism. Why not? We can learn from them all. This is both amazing and scary. What do we do with all the information we obtain? How do we reconcile it? This is where purity comes in.
We have to be pure and open in order to accept that which will make us strong and let go of that which makes us weak. A teaching may not speak to us, and that is okay. Our inner purity gives us the strength and courage to know how to do what is right for ourselves. The greatest example of this happened to me in a law firm. I was once asked to do something with which I did not agree for ethical reasons. I wrote a memo to the two most senior female partners at the firm telling them I could not finish the assignment as they had asked me to do it. I thought I could lose my job. Instead, they clarified, gave me more information, and everything worked out perfectly. Purity is important wherever you are - from a law firm to a yoga mat. Your own path, your own strength guide you in each moment of your life.
Tomorrow's first class is the moment where I test that purity for the first time on the mat - sharing my story with others. I have to follow my own path. Tomorrow is the day I begin to share it more personally (as opposed to sitting in my living room writing about it). I am so grateful, everyday, for the amazing teachers who have helped get me here. I know that as I venture out, I will be coming back more and more. But these past few months have given me the strength to do the venturing, to find my own voice, and to begin to share it. This is just the beginning. Purification is a daily ritual.
Thank you for being a part of the learning. Of course, I have learned more from your comments than anything I have written. Most importantly, I have been reminded that we are all in this together; we can help each other clear out the old gunk, throw ideas around, and find that which speaks most truly to us. Thank you.
Namaste and Blessings.