Whereas YAMA (Earth) is to embrace the Oneness and connection with all life, thus dissolving our sense of lack, the impulse to assert ourselves over others, the need to compete, to win, to put others down and so on, the WATER element nurtures life and provides a necessary element to the earth's fertility. This requires a deeper understanding from Patanjali's view "from above" or "from within."
WATER refers to the RIVER of LIFE in the spine. On the 8-Fold Path NIYAMA signifies our living "in the spine." This means: living centered within (not self-centered, however). So whereas with EARTH we dissolve material desires and attachments, with WATER we live in the flow of energy and divine grace within. When Jesus Christ was asked "Where is the kingdom of heaven?" (he was constantly telling parables that started "The kingdom of heaven is like ..... "), he replied simply (and for once without another parable): "The kingdom of heaven is within you."
The Bhagavad Gita says the astral body, or subtle spine, or "kingdom of heaven," is like an upturned tree. The Bible has repeated refences to the "river of life" or the "tree of life."
WATER also has specific qualities of consciousness both as the element of water on our planet and also as the grace of Spirit when it flows within and through us. Water symbolizes purity. Flowing to the lowest point and toward the sea, it is humble and offers itself in service and surrender. Water is necessary to life. Water that overflows the banks of EARTH can, however, become destructive and dissipated. EARTH could be said to be masculine and WATER, feminine. Yet both require strength: the one in relation to outer realities; the other, in relation to being inward. The male reproductive organ is outside the body; the female organ, withdrawn and within the body.
EARTH (Yama) can sometimes express itself as dogmatic, reflecting the beginning student's affirmation of rejection of material attachments and desire to establish himself in his spiritual practices. We should exercise forebearance around such people because this may be a necessary stage for them (provided they don't lapse into judgmental attitudes or worse). WATER (Niyama) reflects the calmness that comes from having established positive attitudes and actions and doesn't need to express its qualities outwardly in self-affirmation.
EARTH brings us peace, just as we feel peaceful in nature. Cessation of attachments and destructive behaviors brings great relief to the nervous system, our conscience, and our soul's love of peace. From that state of peace, the WISDOM of WATER floats to the surface of consciousness. It is only when we are peaceful that insights come to us. This is not unlike taking a vacation and, once away from one's routine, finding that new ideas for one's work come to you. When our actions proceed from non-attachment, we see more clearly what is true and needed.
Similar to YAMA, there are five distinct aspects to this second stage. CLEANLINESS (Saucha) is seen in all path traditions and spiritual paths in the more obvious forms of ritual cleansing, fasting, and dietary habits. Patanjali wrote from a higher point (but one that would endorse such wholesome practices, as well). For as Jesus put it in the Sermon on the Mount: "Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God." Centered within, in deep meditation, the face of God is revealed as pure light, His heart as pure love, His voice as the sound of AUM (Amen), and so on. On a human or social level, being mindful of boundaries, avoiding gossip and judgment of others, avoiding the habit of rescuing people, interrupting their speech, helping in ways that are truly helpful (and not out of critique or one-upmanship) are examples of being clean. Cleanliness has its EARTH (yama) corollary in ahimsa (non-violence) discussed in the last article.
With perfection of Saucha comes the power (known as a siddhi) to transcend the physical compulsions of the body, its organs and functions. In a long meditation, perhaps of many days, one is free from hunger or the need for the bodily functions of elimination.
CONTENTMENT comes naturally to one who has given up material desires. It thus pairs naturally with the YAMA aspect of asteya (desirelessness). Bliss and joy bubble up from the deep waters of contentment, or SANTOSHA.
AUSTERITY (TAPASYA) is another aspect of NIYAMA, but one greatly misunderstood. This word in the English language conjures up hair shirts, self-flagellation, long fasts, lying on a bed of nails, wrapping wet sheets around the body sitting in the Himalyan snows and all sorts of less than inspiring images to modern sensibilities. First of all, its YAMA corollary is BRAHMACHARYA, self-control of the senses. That makes sense, of course. But as NIYAMA is grace and being centered in the Self within, AUSTERITY is the natural by-product of both BRAHMACHARYA and NIYAMA and it refers to the practice, habit, and state of remaining Self-aware in the midst of all activities. The true practices of tantra, including the famed powers over nature that can be summoned, proceed in part from the powers yielded over natural impulses and redirected inward where WISDOM and knowledge of all things is revealed to the inner sight. Indeed psychic power is the fruit of AUSTERITY.
SELF-KNOWLEDGE (Swadhyaya) arises from living more within. From this comes the power to commune with and be guided by astral, higher Beings. It pairs with Aparigraha: the YAMA aspect of non-attachment to one's body, possessions, or identification with ego. Whereas aparigraha brings knowledge of past lives, swadhyaya brings us in contact with astral Beings. Those who attempt to do this through short-cuts such as passive, trance channeling do so at great risk to themselves. Such can be sure that what they attract will not be saintly and high-minded souls. Often this aspect has been described in terms of studying the scriptures. As the Yoga Sutras are a scripture, no one could argue with this practice, for sure. But true Self knowledge, which is wisdom itself, comes in inner silence.
The fifth and final aspect of NIYAMA is devotion to God (Iswara Pranidhana). With the previous four aspects clearly focused upon living more inwardly and with non-attachment to senses and their objects, we may wonder how devotion fits in. The path to enlightenment as two basic stages: the first is to go within and break the hypnosis of matter identification and fulfillment. The second is more existential and relates to our sense of separateness (quite apart from personality traits, habits or anything outward) which remains with us until final liberation. The natural flow of WATER and the river of life in the spine is, or should be if enlightenment is the goal, UPWARD, moving progressively through the stages of awakening which follow and upward in the spine toward the highest centers where the soul resides and enlightenment comes. Giving ourselves to the Supreme Lord, the highest reality, Infinity, Love, Light itself is to aspire to return to the Oneness and the Bliss which is our Father-Mother and transcendent Truth. Devotion aligns with the yama aspect of truthfulness, for the highest truth is that God is the only reality.
Some of the practical manifestations of niyama include such things as regular fasting, calmness under all circumstances, keeping a part of mind in the watchful, Self-aware state at all times, having periods of silence, retreat, and seclusion, practicing active contentment even when desires are aroused, chanting, practicing the presence of God (through japa, mantra, inner chanting and mindfulness), enduring extremes of hot, cold, or other conditions that we cannot necessarily control in the moment, even-mindedness, cheerfulness, study of the scriptures and truth teachings, introspection, and seeking spiritual counsel from time to time or as needed.
Blessings to all,