Centuries ago a legendary Indian sage, scholar, grammarian, and yogi named Patanjali wrote his seminal Yoga Sutra to clarify and preserve the ancient oral teachings of yoga. His book describes the workings of the human mind and prescribes a path for achieving a life free from suffering.
Perhaps because Patanjali’s Sutra focuses on attaining the personal freedom that comes with self-awareness, we sometimes forget that his teachings have deep relevance for those of us struggling with the mystery of human relationships. Learning to live with others begins with learning to live with ourselves, and the Yoga Sutra provides many tools for both of these tasks.
The connection between Patanjali’s teachings and improving our relationships may not be apparent at first glance. The concept of relinquishing the ego is the thread that weaves the two together. When we act and react from our individual ego, without the benefit of proper perspective and compassion, we are certainly not practicing yoga—and we are also potentially harming those around us. Patanjali’s Sutra gives us tools for improving our relationships by stripping away the illusions that shield us from connection with our true Self, with others, and with life itself.
Among the most valuable of these tools are the niyamas, the second “limb” of Patanjali’s eight-limbed yoga system. In Sanskrit, “niyama” means “observance,” and these practices extend the ethical guidelines provided in the first limb, the yamas. While “yama” is usually translated as “restraint,” and the yamas outline actions and attitudes we ought to avoid, the niyamas describe actions and attitudes that we should cultivate to overcome the illusion of separation and the suffering it causes. The five niyamas are: purity (saucha); contentment (santosa); austerity (tapas); self-study (svadhyaya); and devotion to the Lord (isvara pranidhana).
When I first began studying the Yoga Sutra, I balked at this first niyama because it sounded so judgmental. The newly formed yoga groups I associated with tended to interpret the teachings of Patanjali in very rigid ways. Some foods, thoughts, activities, and people were impure—and my task was simply to avoid them.
To me, this concept of purity implied that the world was a profane place that threatened to contaminate me unless I followed a strict set of moral rules. No one told me that the intentions in my heart mattered; no one suggested that rather than rules, saucha represents a commonsense, practical insight: If you embrace impurity in thought, word, or deed, you will eventually suffer.
As time went by, saucha began to take on another dimension for me. Rather than seeing it as a measure of my action or of its outcome, I now see saucha as a reminder to constantly examine the intention behind my actions. I have been inspired by the philosopher and author Viktor Frankl, who said he found meaning in his life when he helped others find meaning in their lives.
To me, his words capture the essence of saucha: the intention to act from compassion rather than selfishness. When I treat others with compassion, I am practicing saucha, and at those times my relationships are as pure and connected as they can ever be.
By including contentment as an active practice rather than a reaction to events around us, Patanjali points out that peace of mind can never finally rely on external circumstances, which are always changing in ways beyond our control. Santosa requires our willingness to enjoy exactly what each day brings, to be happy with whatever we have, whether that is a lot or a little. This second niyama uncovers the hollowness of achievement and acquisition; while material wealth and success aren’t evil, they can never in themselves provide contentment.
We can easily practice santosa in the beautiful moments and joyous experiences of our lives. But Patanjali asks us to be equally willing to embrace the difficult moments. Only when we can be content in the midst of difficulty can we be truly free. Only when we can remain open in the midst of pain do we understand what true openness is. In our relationships, when we accept those around us as they truly are, not as we want them to be, we are practicing santosa.
Tapas is one of the most powerful concepts in the Yoga Sutra. The word “tapas” comes from the Sanskrit verb “tap” which means “to burn.” The traditional interpretation of tapas is “fiery discipline,” the fiercely focused, constant, intense commitment necessary to burn off the impediments that keep us from being in the true state of yoga (union with the universe).
Unfortunately, many people mistakenly equate discipline in yoga practice with difficulty. They see another student striving to perfect the most difficult poses and assume she must be more disciplined and therefore more spiritually advanced.
But difficulty does not in itself make a practice transformational. It’s true that good things are sometimes difficult, but not all difficult things are automatically good. In fact, difficulty can create its own impediments. The ego is drawn to battle with difficulty: Mastering a challenging yoga pose, for example, can bring pride and an egoistic attachment to being an “advanced” yoga student.
A better way to understand tapas is to think of it as consistency in striving toward your goals: getting on the yoga mat every day, sitting on the meditation cushion every day—or forgiving your mate or your child for the 10,000th time. If you think of tapas in this vein, it becomes a more subtle but more constant practice, a practice concerned with the quality of life and relationships rather than focused on whether you can grit your teeth through another few seconds in a difficult asana.
Svadhyaya (Study of the Self)
In a way, the fourth niyama could be considered a hologram, a microcosm containing the whole of yoga. One day this winter in a beginner class a first-time student asked, “By the way, what is yoga?” A thousand thoughts flooded my mind; how could I answer truthfully and succinctly? Fortunately, an answer came spontaneously from my heart: “Yoga is the study of the Self.”
This is the literal translation of “svadhyaya,” whose meaning is derived from “sva,” or Self (soul, atman, or higher self); “dhy,” related to the word “dhyana” which means meditation; and “ya,” a suffix that invokes an active quality. Taken as a whole, svadhyaya means “actively meditating on or studying the nature of the Self.”
I like to think of this niyama as “remembering to be aware of the true nature of the Self.” Svadhyaya is a deep acknowledgment of the oneness of the Self with all that is. When we practice svadhyaya, we begin to dissolve the illusory separation we often feel from our deeper self, from those around us, and from our world.
I remember studying biology in college and being struck by a “new” concept the professors were just beginning to teach: ecology, the idea that all living things were interrelated. For spiritual teachers of all cultures and all eras, this is no new concept. They have always taught an ecology of the spirit, insisting that each of us is connected to each other and to the whole.
In yogic practice, svadhyaya has most traditionally been concerned with the study of yoga scriptures. But in truth any practice that reminds us of our interconnection is svadhyaya. For you, svadhyaya could be studying Patanjali’s Sutra, reading this article, practicing asanas, or singing from your heart.
Isvara Pranidhana (Surrendering to God)
Patanjali defines “isvara” as “Lord,” and the word “pranidhana” conveys the sense of “throwing down” or “giving up.” Thus, isvara pranidhana can be translated as “giving up or surrendering the fruits of all our actions to God.”
Many people are confused by this niyama, in part because yoga is seldom presented as a theistic philosophy (even though Patanjali states in the 23rd verse of the Yoga Sutra that devotion to the Lord is one of the main avenues to enlightenment).
In fact, some yoga traditions have interpreted isvara pranidhana as requiring devotion to a particular deity or representation of God, while others have taken “isvara” to refer to a more abstract concept of the divine (much as Twelve Step programs allow participants to define “Higher Power” in their own way).
In either case, the essence of isvara pranidhana is acting as best we can, and then relinquishing all attachment to the outcome of our actions. Only by releasing our fears and hopes for the future can we really be in union with the present moment.
Paradoxically, this surrender requires tremendous strength. To surrender the fruits of our actions to God requires that we give up our egotistical illusion that we know best, and instead accept that the way life unfolds may be part of a pattern too complex to understand. This surrender, however, is anything but passive inactivity. Isvara pranidhana requires not just that we surrender, but also that we act.
Patanjali’s teachings demand much of us. He asks us to walk into the unknown, but he does not abandon us. Instead, he offers practices like the niyamas to guide us back home to ourselves—a journey that transforms us and all with whom we come in contact.