Sanyam is usually defined as ‘restraint’ in English, yet ‘restraint’ does not convey the exact meaning. The word sanyam is composed of the two Sanskrit roots sam and yam. Yam is like yama in the Yoga Sutras: a state of mind that you hold and are able to cultivate and develop. Sam means total: the total personality, the total expression, the total behaviour, all the dimensions of human nature. Therefore, sanyam literally means that all the dimensions of the human personality are taken through a process of transformation and beatification, and that state is maintained and developed.
Sanyam works at various levels: first the sensorial level, second the mental level, and then at the psychic and spiritual levels. Sanyam, or the process of transformation, applies to each and every expression in life, including behaviour, attitude, speech and thought.
What is the purpose of sanyam? The psychoanalysts of the past and modern ages have described different states of consciousness. The mind is the interactive consciousness, the surface of consciousness. There are further classifications according to the intensity of experience: conscious, jagrat; subconscious, swapna; and unconscious, sushupti. Yet, what is the conscious mind, what is the subconscious mind and what is the unconscious mind?
We can describe the experience of jagrat and how one responds to the activities of the conscious mind. Right now you are outside and there is light everywhere, everything is illuminated. You can see as far as you want to see, there are no obstructions in the way: that is the conscious dimension. However, you cannot be aware of the entire conscious dimension at the same time, just as you cannot be aware of your total surroundings or environment at the same time. You don’t know what is happening behind you, yet you are not sleeping. You don’t know what is happening beside you, yet your eyes are open. You don’t know what is happening below you, yet you are aware. So where is the focus?
Here is an example. You are looking at me, the torch light of your attention is on me, yet many things are happening around you. There is the sound of birds singing and the noise of cars and music. There are objects, trees, flowers and buildings around you and behind you. You know they exist, yet if you want to bring them into focus, you have to consciously listen to them or look at them. The focus, the torchlight of consciousness, is awareness, attention. If you look somewhere, the consciousness shifts. You are awake, you are not sleeping, you are not dreaming or fantasizing, yet if you simply look away, the focus shifts. Therefore, even in the conscious dimension, the awareness is limited to the present experience that the senses are attached to.
The senses have their own limitations; they cannot be aware of the entire creation all at the same time. You can look north, east, south or west, yet not in all four directions simultaneously. That is the nature of jagrat consciousness. Everything is illuminated, yet the focus of awareness is only on one object, which is highlighted due to its involvement with the senses. What happens in this process? While you are watching that building, someone behind you gets out a gun and takes aim at you. The same thing happens in the mind also. All these various expectations and ambitions that you cannot face develop. They manifest while you are looking the other way. You do not even know where they have come from, yet suddenly you find yourself confronting that obsessive passion, that obsessive aggression, for no apparent rhyme or reason. One minute ago you were at peace with yourself and one minute later you are disturbed. All this play happens in jagrat, the conscious level.
What is swapna, the subconscious? Inside the building there is light, but no direct sunlight. It is dim, and if you need to work there, you turn on the light. The light in each area of the building illuminates a particular area only. The subconscious is like the conscious mind, but instead of being fully illuminated by the all-pervasive sunlight, it is now illuminated in parts by individual bulbs, which represent the memory, the impressions, the thoughts, ambitions, strengths, weaknesses, desires and passions. All these areas are being illuminated independently, not by homogeneous lighting, but by individual bulbs which only illuminate that particular area. Therefore, when you go to swapna, it is neither bright nor dark. Each bulb represents an individual experience, memory or quality. That is the subconscious.
The characteristic of the unconscious is absence of light, absence of awareness, absence of knowledge or experience. Everything exists, yet there is no connection, no relationship, just as the colours and forms of trees and flowers exist at night, but you don’t see them. Everything continues to exist, waiting for the light to shine. This is the unconscious.
The activities and contents of the conscious, subconscious and unconscious are reflected in our life and in our character. In each individual, the limited conditioned nature is tamasic. The purpose of sanyam is to transform these tamasic states of consciousness, which at present are focused only on association between the senses and the object, so we can derive the appropriate wisdom and experience.
If you want to generate electricity from a flowing river, first you need to contain the flow by building a dam that holds it, lets it build up and gradually, in a controlled manner, allows it to pass through an outlet with force, thus creating another type of power, hydro-electric power. You are not drying up the entire riverbed; you are ensuring that the normal flow in the river becomes the cause of a greater energy source for a particular purpose. This controlled and guided action is known as sanyam.
The practice of sanyam is firstly sensorial. The association with the senses: visual and tactile impressions, smells, sounds, taste, has to be curbed, as it is the senses that give birth to cravings and desires. The eyes look at a flower. They recognize and appreciate the beauty, the colour, the smell. Suddenly a desire comes: “It’s beautiful, I want it!” It is natural for this desire to come up. However, this desire has two parts: the first part is recognizing that the flower is beautiful, the second part is wanting to possess it. The association of the sense organs with the object has given birth to a desire to possess it. The beauty was seen by the eyes, yet the idea of possession came after the beauty was appreciated by the mind. This applies to everything: luxuries, houses, cars, stereo sets, TV sets, boyfriends, girlfriends, everything comes in this purview, and then emotional and intellectual responses are evoked.
Managing these emotional responses is the next item of sanyam. If you stop at the point where you say, “The flower is beautiful,” that is sanyam. If you bring to the second part, “I wish to possess it,” then it is no longer sanyam; it becomes swartha, selfishness. Sanyam is appreciation of beauty; swartha is the desire to possess it. Sensorial sanyam has to come first. There is nothing wrong with a desire for pizza, but if you think about it every day, the desire becomes an obsession. Therefore, first the senses have to be managed through sanyam.
After the senses, the four instincts: ahara, craving for fulfilment and satisfaction; nidra, craving for relaxation, sleep and comfort; bhaya, insecurities and fears; and maithuna, sensual passions, have to be managed through sanyam. We become so caught up in our own instinct-generated thoughts that we bind ourselves to different ideas, objects, environments and climates, both external and internal. If we can learn not to bind ourselves through the tiny proddings and associations of the instincts then a lot of mental and psychological problems can be solved.
One simple idea can become an obsession and become so powerful that it can change your mental attitude and behaviour completely. This is known as instinct and often there is no conscious control over it. Many people’s behaviour is compulsive; they are compelled to behave in a certain manner. Some people cannot live without being negative; they will always find a way to pass a snide remark, yet they don’t realize they have done so. This absence of awareness of one’s own actions, behaviour and attitude is also changed by sanyam.
It can be said that food is required for the body, pleasure for the mind and sanyam for the soul or atma. The body cannot survive for long without food. Food nourishes and vitalizes the body, therefore we exist. Food creates prana, which maintains the physical structure. If you don’t eat, the prana will gradually become depleted, the vitality will go and the body will become weak and sick.
Pleasure plays the same role for the mind. If one is continually under pressure and tension, the mind gets bogged down in a very black state from which it cannot extract itself. To remove that state, pleasure is necessary. It refreshes the mind; it refreshes the mental pranas. If you read a good book, the mind changes. If you watch a good movie, play, joke and laugh, there is a temporary shift. These temporary shifts take the mind away from its areas of frustration and anxiety, and revitalize it.
Sanyam plays the same role for the soul. The soul is an energy. It is a shakti like the mind is a shakti; however, it is more subtle than the mind. The body is the gross manifest form of this shakti, the mind is the subtle form of this shakti, and the spirit is the causal form of this shakti. Are we looking at the body and mind and ignoring the soul? We take care of the body and mind as we identify with them, and they are more visible, tangible and understandable, yet the spirit is the real Self within us, and that energy becomes affected by the states of mind and body.
The only way to release the energy of the spirit is through sanyam. In this context, sanyam means to hold a balanced attitude so that the instincts, obsessive desires and dim, unlit areas of the psyche that drag us away from expressions of the heart or soul can no longer distract us. We restrain selfish impressions that the mind or the senses would naturally gravitate towards. In this way, sanyam helps realign the consciousness so we express the energies of the soul.
The body, mind, emotions and spirit have to be seen as one unit. In this way, we can understand how to reach the dimension of the spirit by using the body and mind to express compassion and love, the language of the heart.
Sanyam in itself is a complete sadhana that can take a whole lifetime to perfect. You can perfect any posture in one month. You can learn kriya and kundalini yoga and have good experiences in six months. However, to master sanyam can take a whole lifetime of persistence every day, fine-tuning the radio of the head, fine-tuning the radio of the emotions and fine-tuning the radio of the sensorial experiences.
Real yoga is sanyam, not asana, pranayama and meditation, as sanyam transforms and beautifies the entire dimension of the human personality. Asana, pranayama and meditation are only pastimes, fun and games, ways to enjoy life; the real yoga is sanyam.
22 October 2004