When we talk about yoga as asana (postures), we are only referring to one of 8 Limbs of Yoga. There are 7 other foundational pillars that make up the 8-fold-path and if we only focus on the postures, we are ignoring 90% of the practice. In The Yoga Sutras, Patanjali states that each of the 8 limbs is equal to the others and necessary.
What Are the NIYAMAS?
The niyamas are a guideline of ethical principles that ask us to be reasonable and decent to ourselves. The word niyama translates to “observances”. Where the yamas relate to how we show up in the world, the niyamas relate to how we show up for ourselves.
1. SUCHA: Purity
Purity can be interpreted in many ways. For me, it means to purify my body, my thoughts, and my words. Through the physical practice of yoga, we purify toxins and stuck energy, which frees up space and energy channels. It helps us to move through each day a little bit lighter, mentally and physically. As we purify ourselves from clutter, distractions, heaviness, and the things that do not serve us, we are more open and clear minded, and can then show up for ourselves in ways that we were previously unable to.
This cleansing process can look different for everyone. It might be increasing your physical activity, or being more mindful about how many toxins you put into your body. It could be doing a juice cleanse on occasion, or perhaps just cleaning out your closet and donating what you no longer use. Whatever form it takes, it’s ultimately about lightening the load we carry.
2. SANTOSHA: Contentment
II.42 “By contentment, supreme joy is gained.”
Patanjali says that to be contentment means to just be as we are, without going to outside things for happiness. To me, it means to fulfillment and happiness from within. Have you ever purchased a new piece of clothing, or something that you really wanted, and felt happy afterwards? Of course you have! But have you also noticed, that after a short period of time, that same item that brought you gratification at one point no longer brings forth the same feeling of joy? It ends up being just another thing hanging in your closet, and sooner or later you have to go out and buy more stuff to recreate that feeling.
The idea of contentment as explained in the Sutras is a way to turn what you already have into enough. One way that I apply this to my life is with a daily gratitude practice. Gratitude and contentment is all about perspective. You can come from a place of scarcity or you can come from a place of abundance. You can view your life as always lacking, or you can choose to be grateful and acknowledge that where you are, who you are, and what you have is enough because you are alive and breathing.
Practice accepting and embracing what you have, and who you are, exactly as you are in this moment.
We don’t always need to be seeking more. If we can just view each moment as complete, we can dispel the idea that there is something more to be had, something else to “get”. The truth is, everything that you truly need, you already have within you. Contentment is falling in love with your own life.
3. TAPAS: Self-discipline
II.43 “By austerity, impurities of body and senses are destroyed and occult powers gained.”
The literal translation of tapas is “to burn”. In the physical practice of yoga we talk about tapas as the inner fire. We build and stoke this internal fire through the repetitive practice of movement and breath. This allows us to “burn out” what is no longer needed like stuck energy, heaviness and toxins.
In yoga, having a daily practice is referred to as Sadhana. Sadhana basically means spiritual discipline, and it’s about just doing the practice itself as a means of fulfillment and consistency. Not because you are seeking to attain a certain goal, rather just for the sake of practicing. It becomes the process of clearing out the junk, removing what doesn’t serve us and being more mindful about what we put into our bodies.
Through this process we begin to see ourselves shedding unwanted weight physically and mentally, metaphorically and literally speaking. We are then freer and lighter, more open and expansive, more in control of our minds which has a direct connection to our bodies and how we treat them.
Staying in a posture, even when it’s uncomfortable, is how I experience tapas in my own personal practice, and how I teach it in my yoga class. It’s when you are in boat pose on that 10th breath, and all you want to do is give up, but you don’t. It’s getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. That is tapas. It’s the willingness to stay, even when you don’t want to; it’s standing in your power and moving through the hard stuff to find a sense of ease on the other side. It’s showing up to our mats even when we don’t feel like it. It’s cleaning the house even when we don’t feel like it. It’s following through with commitments.
Tapas invites us to choose discipline and growth. Through asana, we learn the discipline on our mats so we can turn around, take it out into the world, and apply it to our lives.
4. SVADHYAYA: Self-study
The fourth niyama is about remembering who and what we are at our core. The ancient yogis, and many other spiritual leaders, believe that beyond the identities and physical form, we are all made up of consciousness. The process of self-study or self-observation is like peeling back all the layers that cover us up to learn who we are at the core of our being. Isn’t that the million dollar question? What is my purpose here on earth? Why am I here, and what am I meant to do with this life?
It’s through this process of studying, reading texts and scriptures, and observing ourselves that we can get a little closer to finding out who we are.
t’s a lifelong process and it can show up in many forms. You can observe yourself on your yoga mat and notice how you react to challenges. Do you get pissed off at the teacher for making it hard, or frustrated when your balance is off? You can observe yourself in conversations with your loved ones or when someone pisses you off. Do you curse at the person in traffic that just cut you off? Or can you stay calm and collected, equanimous through each experience whether it’s pleasant or unpleasant.
This is all about expanding your self-knowledge and reflecting upon your life with acceptance. It doesn’t matter what God you believe in. Your study can be listening to Oprah or reading the bible. Whatever floats your boat.
5. ISHVARA PRANIDHANA – Surrender
The fifth and final niyama is the idea of surrendering to God or The Divine, or Mother Earth Karama, or whatever you believe, in order to attain Samadhi. Patanjali says Samadhi is “tranquility of the mind, which is only possible when we dedicate everything and are free from all attachments”.
Here we are asked to surrender control and be open to allowing the universal forces to work for us. This shit is SO HARD. To give up control? What? For me, this is the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do, but when I am able to really surrender control and just accept that whatever is happening is happening, everything is easier. It’s like a big sigh of relief.
Releasing this control can be something so basic like when your dog chews up your entire couch (yes, this happened) and you can’t do anything about it because it’s already fucked. You release control. It can also be something much deeper and more painful like losing a loved one. You cannot stop death, so instead, you release control.
Ishvara Pranidhana asks us to open our hearts, surrender our egos, and accept the higher purpose of our being. We learn to stop fighting life and just start going with the flow of things, and when we can do that, things begin to flow more effortlessly. It’s about being soft and strong all at the same time. What does that even mean? Being soft enough that you are open. Being strong enough that you can trust.
In our physical yoga practice, we can use savasana (corpse pose) as an example of surrender. At the end of each yoga practice, our final pose is savasana, where we surrender all effort, physical and mentally. We let go completely and allow the body to just be. We give up any desire to control or change anything about the present moment, and allow ourselves to just be as we are.
Taking It All In
The niyamas are an invitation to choose this life. It takes us out of the mindset that life happens to us and lays down a guideline where life can happen for us. And we are the ones in the driver’s seat. No one else is responsible for your happiness, and no one else can take care of you the way you can take care of yourself. There’s no need to look any further than our own hearts. All that you need is already within you.