Feet at Feet, Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu
Feet at Feet, Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu

I read today that an American dictionary has named “austerity” the word of the year for 2010. Apparently they have seen a significant spike in how often this word is looked-up in online dictionaries. Perhaps a sign of the current economic climate, however I choose to see it a different way. It is the best news item I’ve heard reported in ages.

Austerity is ‘Tapas’ in Sanskrit. Tapas is one of the Niyamas or “observances” of the Ashtanga or Raja Yoga system (and not a Spanish appetizer), that form the ethical framework of yoga. This ethical framework comprises both ‘restraints’, or “Yamas” and ‘observances’ or “Niyamas”. The Niyamas or observances are practices which help to plant good, more positive seeds in our minds. They include:

Saucha (purity of body, mind and speech)

Santosha (contentment…yes, we need to practice it consciously!)

Tapas (austerity)

Swadhyaya (study of scripture, or self study)

Ishwara-pranidhana (surrender of ego to ‘God’)

The Yamas or “restraints” are practices which help to remove some of the bad seeds we may have inadvertently planted in our minds. The Yamas include:

Ahimsa (non-harming, of others or of self),

Satya (truthfulness),

Brahmacharya (control of the senses; abstinence, celibacy),

Asteya (non-stealing, coveting), and

Aparigraha (non-accepting of bribes or gifts; in other words, “don’t be bought”).

In order for the purification of the soul to occur, there has to be what the Greeks call “metanoia”, a total and radical change of mind. This is what the Ashtanga, or 8-Limbed System of Raja Yoga can accomplish. The system comprises:

  1. Yama (restraints; social code)
  2. Niyama (observances; private, what we do when no-one is watching)
  3. Asana (steady, comfortable posture or “seat”)
  4. Pranayama (control or restraint of prana; “breathing practices”, generally)
  5. Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses, going inward)
  6. Dharana (concentration)
  7. Dhyana (meditation)
  8. Samadhi (superconscious state, by whatever name you prefer)


…But I didn’t mean to go so far in this post.

Traditionally the integration of these ethical practices into one’s life would take place even before practice of asana (postures) or pranayamas (breathing exercises) were undertaken, as the system is intended to be practiced in order. Today we generally jump in without knowledge or notice of this ethical framework. I once had a student well-versed in Buddhism ask me, “Where are the ethics in yoga?” Here they are, in the Yamas and Niyamas.

So, why exactly are people looking-up ‘austerity’? Where are they hearing it? It doesn’t really matter I think. Most people that I see are so completely overwhelmed by life. We are looking for ways to have less, to do less. Maybe we don’t even realize it.

What would an actual conscious practice of austerity mean? Well, we could talk about simplifying our lives, getting rid of unnecessary things, extra things, but it is important to remember that ultimately we are working to develop the mind , so we need to analyse and to observe what are our attachments. This will suggest where we can start to be ‘austere’. So it’s not necessarily giving away all our belongings or denying ourselves in extreme ways, certainly not harming ourselves. But what will it mean to me to forego that cup of tea in the morning? Or maybe take it without honey? But if it’s only about the ‘not-having’ then that doesn’t work. The foregoing of tea should help to show me how attached I am to outcomes of my liking. And that in turn may help me to see how my mind works in other situations. It’s a small start.

Here’s what I think. Never mind New Year’s resolutions. Yoga has given us a system so practical, so effective and so all-encompassing. A real way to live life. Take one of the Yamas or Niyamas and spend a few days thinking about it, observing it in your life (that is, observing without judgment), let it percolate fully, and then see what small steps may be taken to put one of them into practice. It is said that if a person focuses only on one of the Yamas, the others, in time will all naturally, and without effort fall into practice as well. And do it before New Years, don’t wait until you feel the emotion of the collective. Do it alone. Do it now (as was Swami Vishnu-devananda’s motto)! Yes.


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