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The Niyamas Explained

Let’s dive into the Niyamas! As I have repeated countless times, yoga extends far beyond mere physical postures; it encompasses a profound philosophy that bestows timeless wisdom for leading a meaningful and balanced life. I discussed yoga’s broader principles in my recent articles; The Yamas Explained and The 8 Limbs of Yoga Explained.

In this article, I will be continuing the journey through the eight limbs of yoga and delving deeper into the Niyamas. We will further explore and heighten our awareness of how yoga extends beyond the confines of the mat and into every aspect of our lives.

The 8 Limbs of Yoga

To give you a short summary of the eight limbs of yoga; in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, a key text on yoga written over 2000 years, the eight-limb path of yoga is used to demonstrate the central principles of yoga. The eight-limb path is a clear framework that you can return to again and again to deepen and expand your understanding and practise of yoga. The eight limbs comprise: the Yamas (moral disciplines, ethics), the Niyamas (positive duties or observances), Asana (posture, physical movement of the body), Pranayama (breathing techniques), Pratyahara (withdrawal of senses), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation) and Samadhi (enlightenment).

To refresh our memory, the Yamas serve as the foundation of our yoga practice and are primarily concerned with the world around us, our interaction with it and are a guide of how to act towards ourselves and others. Non-harming is at the core of the Yamas. The Yamas inspire us to cultivate compassion, live in our truth, respect boundaries, find balance and let go with grace. As we move around in the world with a non-harming approach, we create the peace, energy and time required for spiritual practice.

An Overview of the Niyamas

The Niyamas build on the practice of the Yamas. Niyama can be translated as “observance”. In contrast to the Yamas, which are concerned with cultivating a mode of life that limits the destructive harming of oneself or others, the Niyamas refer to the more subtle inner landscape of a practitioner’s life. The Niyamas take us deeper into the private and personal sphere, prompting us to cultivate constructive actions towards ourselves and our spiritual journey. Georg Feuerstein, a modern yoga scholar, wonderfully sums it up: the Yamas are what we do when others are watching, the Niyamas are what we do when no one is watching. In a sense, the Niyamas are the private counterpart to the Yamas. Both the Yamas and the Niyamas can also serve as signposts, indicating whether we are distracted and perhaps attached to external matters that might impinge our aim to cease “the fluctuations of the mind”.

Lets explore these five remarkable Niyamas:

1. Saucha (cleanliness, purity)

The first Niyama, Saucha, calls for both spiritual and physical cleanliness. At a basic level, it involves purifying the body as a preparation for spiritual practices; this resonates with the age-old proverb that “cleanliness is next to godliness”. Contemporary purification rituals can include taking care of and keeping our physical body clean, keeping our living space and possessions clean and cared for as well as adopting a healthy diet. Some texts translate Saucha as simplification and when viewed from this angle, we can understand that this Niyama is about clearing out the clutter of our life (metaphorically and literally), identifying what is important and what can facilitate our yoga practice and streamlining.

The Kriyas, or purification rituals, can also be a part of the practice of Saucha. The body is seen as a sacred temple in the Hatha Yoga sect (a small branch of Tantra yoga which arose in the 9th century) and the Kriyas help to keep the body cared for, pure and clean in every possible way. Some of these Kriyas can look shocking to contemporary Western yogis and can include wet and dry enemas and swallowing yards of muslin cloth to name a few. Other Kriyas such as Neti Pots, which help to cleanse nasal passages, have actually started to grow in popularity in the West.

Like many of the Yamas, the concept of Saucha also goes beyond the physical body and the material world and involves cleansing our inner landscape by uprooting negative thoughts and emotions. A useful way to view Saucha is through the lens of compassion, both within your relationships as well as towards yourself. There is purity in your relationship with others and yourself and purity, or cleanliness, to your intentions and actions. It is important to note that it is not always possible to have only pure thoughts and here is where the self-compassion practice becomes especially important; an ill-intentioned thought does not make you a “bad” person. Through mindfulness and self-awareness, we can work towards cultivating a positive and harmonious inner world.

2. Santosa (contentment)

In a culture full of desire and endless pursuits, Santosa stands as a countercultural force. Santosa invites us to find contentment with our present circumstances. As a society we are taught to always be striving for more; having more, being more and doing more. We are fed the notion of habitual discontentment, dissatisfaction and feeling like something is missing. We think to ourselves “I will be happy when I meet someone to spend my life with”, “I will be happy when I earn X amount of money”, “I will be happy when I move house” and “I will be happy when I lose X amount of weight”. That kind of happiness is always a shifting goalpost, forever out of reach. We realise that we are never satisfied.

Santosa calls for an attitude of contentment for our current situation in life; this can be easy when life feels good and especially challenging when you do not perceive things to be going well. Can you be relaxed, open and accepting to the truth of your life and the circumstance of your life?

Contentment does not mean complacency. The practice of Santosa invites us to find contentment with our present circumstances whilst remaining open to growth and improvement. We appreciate where we are on our journey, but we remain motivated to improve our circumstances. For example, during physical yoga practice injuries are more likely to occur when a practitioner pushes, forces, and overexerts themselves in a pose that they find challenging. These injuries are caused by an impatience and dissatisfaction with the practitioner’s perception of their physical yoga practice. Santosa is the appreciation of where you are at, whilst maintaining that heat or discipline (Tapas, the next Niyama) to continue to press forward. Meaningful change begins with acceptance, and contentment for what is, even if you are striving for better things.

The simplicity offered by Santosa brings less stress and more stability in the uncertainty of our lives. The practice helps us to recognise the difference between our wants and our needs; we become less attached to the external world and more connected to our inner selves. Embracing contentment creates a solid foundation for a sustainable spiritual practice.

3. Tapas (heat, self-discipline)

Tapas, or self-discipline, is the key ingredient for keeping motivated and committing to your journey with yoga, and pretty much anything in life where you need to commit for the long haul and be consistent. Tapas requires practitioners to push their physical and mental boundaries as part of their spiritual practice. Sometimes translated as “heat” or “burning spiritual passion”, Tapas refers to the passion, drive and courage required to undertake the practice of yoga. You can apply the principle of Tapas not only to your yoga practice but also to other aspects of your life. Passion, courage and drive are required so that you can stay committed to your goal. Self-trust, discipline and the compassionate extension of your limits are required so that you maintain consistency on your journey towards your goal.

Again, there are many Tapas practices that might be shocking to the Western yogi including enduring intense heat, sleeping on a bed of nails, extreme fasting etc. Tapas for the householder (those who lead a life engaged in social and familial responsibilities as referred to in many yogic texts) is a willingness to endure intensity for the sake of transformation. For the householder, commitment to your meditation and yoga asana practice, as well as the other limbs of yoga, is Tapas in action. It takes a huge amount of self-discipline to commit to practice but from that consistency not only physical strength but also mental resilience will be created. Vigorous yoga styles such as Ashtanga Yoga or Vinyasa Flow Yoga are the embodiment of Tapas. Other physical activities, for example running, can also build this inner fire for a yoga practitioner. These styles of heat generating activities create a sense of catharsis and control; the self-purification aspect of Tapas. Some parts of this practice can also include embracing difficulties and painful situations as a tool for growth.

However, it is crucial to avoid taking Tapas to the extreme and causing physical harm. The catharsis and control that Tapas creates can addictive and harmful. Balance is at the heart of yoga. Tapas is designed to be transformative; using self-discipline to create positive changes in your life. Yoga is also about non-harming (remember, Ahimsa the foundation of the Yamas) and therefore, we can think of Tapas as stepping out of our comfort zone, just enough to challenge us, but not so much that it causes harm and distress. The aim is not to seek out pain but to not run from the inevitable pain that is part of all growth and change.

4. Svadhyaya (self-study)

Svadhyaya refers both to the study of spiritual texts as well as the deep and introspective study of your inner landscape.

In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali did not specify specific texts but rather, recognised that understanding could be gleaned by studying the experience of other yoga practitioners. Devotion is not enough; intellectual grasp and knowledge about yoga is integral. Svadhyaya as study of spiritual texts can also include chanting, mantras, prayers and reciting yogic texts. This aspect of Svadhyaya is a combination of performance (chanting for example) and studying.

Svadhyaya is also about becoming spiritually reflective and understanding oneself through self-reflection and the study of yoga. Engaging in self-study allows us to discover our limits, accept them, and work towards personal growth. Deep self-reflection and questioning what it means to be human will help you begin to understand the nature of the human mind and gain wisdom and insight. A useful word to describe this aspect of Svadhyaya is contemplation. We are not analysing ourselves to determine why we are the way we are, but rather, understanding that being human is to always be changing and evolving and you are simply observing the narratives of your mind.

5. Ishvara Pranidhana (surrender to God or the Absolute)

Understanding Ishvara Pranidhana and what it means for you is especially a part of the practice of this Niyama. Translated as surrender to God or the Absolute, Ishvara Pranidhana can bring up some difficult feelings for practitioners. Many people find the concept of God difficult to discuss because of the social and cultural baggage that the concept carries as well as the close links to death and other uncomfortable aspects of life. It is important to note that yoga is non-dualist. The tradition of yoga does not prescribe the notion that we should worship a God, or Gods, instead it recognises that we are all connected and part of something bigger. Therefore, the meaning behind the translation of Ishvara Pranidhana, surrender to God or the Absolute, is much subtler than you first might think.

Ishvara is roughly translated as “God” and Pranidhana can be translated as “to dedicate”, “to devote”, or “to surrender”. However, when you look at the translation in more detail in the Yoga Sutras, Ishvara is described as a person who has never been caught up and bound by the world in the manner that ordinary people have. Ishvara is a model of what the yoga practitioner wants to become. By intensely focusing on Ishvara, a practitioner is focusing intensely on the state that they aspire to.

Ishvara Pranidhana is about marvelling and being in awe of the world and the wider universe around us. Think of those first pictures taken of the Earth by astronauts in Space. Those pictures completely altered our cultural landscape, and we began to recognise how small, and frankly insignificant, we are in the vastness of the universe. The world is a beautiful place and when we slow down and find stillness, we can fully appreciate and find awe in its beauty.

When we accept the complexity and the mystery of the world around us and the broader universe, we surrender to the truth of life. We cease to try to control everything in our lives. We surrender to the outcomes of our actions, whilst still committing to the action itself. It is only in releasing the hopes and fears of the future and the ruminations and analysis of the past that we can truly be in the present moment. Ultimately, the present moment is all we have and all that we can guarantee.

Ishvara Pranidhana is about transforming your yoga practice into an act of devotion, surrendering to the journey, releasing control and intensely focusing on the state of being that the journey of yoga aspires to; the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind as detailed in Yoga Sutras.

Final thoughts to inspire you

In this exploration of the Niyamas, we have delved into the inner landscape of yoga and discovered the profound philosophy that extends beyond the physical postures. As we journeyed through the eight limbs of yoga, we learned that the Niyamas, the positive duties or observances, form the foundation for our personal and spiritual growth. These five remarkable Niyamas - Saucha (cleanliness, purity), Santosa (contentment), Tapas (self-discipline), Svadhyaya (self-study), and Ishvara Pranidhana (surrender to God or the Absolute) - offer timeless wisdom for leading a meaningful and balanced life.

Saucha encourages us to purify both our physical and inner selves, cultivating compassion and understanding within our relationships and towards ourselves. Santosa challenges the culture of endless desire and invites us to find contentment in our present circumstances while maintaining the motivation to grow and improve. Tapas is the fire that fuels our commitment and consistency on the path of yoga, pushing our boundaries without causing harm. Svadhyaya encourages us to study both spiritual texts and our inner selves, fostering self-reflection and personal growth. Finally, Ishvara Pranidhana invites us to surrender to the awe and complexity of the world, releasing the need for control and finding fulfillment in the present moment.

As we embrace the Niyamas, we embark on a journey of self-discovery and spiritual transformation. The Niyamas guide us in cultivating positive actions, thoughts, and intentions, allowing us to lead a more harmonious and purposeful life.

Yoga is not just a series of physical exercises; it is a way of living that encompasses a profound philosophy for personal and spiritual development. By understanding and incorporating the Niyamas into our daily lives, we can truly extend yoga beyond the mat and experience the profound benefits it offers. Let us embrace the wisdom of the Niyamas and continue to deepen our connection to ourselves and the world around us, creating a life of balance, contentment, and spiritual growth.


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