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How to Live The Niyamas (on and off the mat)

By Elana Love

THU AUG 26, 2021

The Niyamas are the 2nd limb of yoga, and the internal practices for a healthy and harmonious personal life! They are made up of five observations for how to care for oneself on a body, mind, and spirit level. The niyamas and the yamas are a journey, a practice you gently integrate into your life over time. Don’t worry about perfection, just do the best you can. When you work on one principle, the rest will begin to follow. Here are the five niyamas and some suggestions for incorporating them into your life on and off the mat.

Saucha

The first niyama is Saucha, or purification. Many yogis see this as overall "cleanliness." The ancient yogis believed that all the impurities in our environment can affect our state of mind and prevent us from attaining wisdom and spiritual liberation (moksha). Yogic practices like asana, pranayama, and kriyas help us cleanse our bodies internally and energetically. Being mindful of what we consume in the way of food, drink, entertainment, etc is also important to keep a clear and centered body and mind. Ridding ourselves of external impurities can include our physical hygiene, as well as our physical space. Remember that the yamas and niyamas apply to action, as well as word and thought. So it's important to do your best to not gossip or speak with hate toward others or yourself.

To practice this niyama, it is important to have a good daily hygiene routine (shower, wash face, brush teeth regularly) and keep your home environment clean and tidy. Also, replace negative self-talk with positive affirmations, and if you don't have anything kind to say about someone else, consider if you need to say it at all. To practice on the mat, keep your airways and energetic channels (nadis) pure by including pranayama (breathwork) and kriyas in your yoga sessions.

Santosha

The second niyama, Santosha, is contentment or acceptance. Similarly to aparigraha (of the yamas), it is about being satisfied with what we have rather than wanting something more. In our society, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking we need more or better to be happy, but when you focus on valuing what you do have, you actually give yourself the opportunity to appreciate it. You use what you have and do what you can within your means. While santosha, or accepting what is, might feel like spiritual bypassing, normalizing, or ignoring reality to some, it is actually not at all. Conversely, it is a necessary first step in taking right action and moving forward. Acceptance is simply the willingness to see clearly, and that sometimes includes becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable so that you can face it and move through it. So you could ask yourself: Is there anything in my life right now that I am running from? Maybe you can turn toward it with open eyes and loving acceptance so that you can transmute it into something better.

Another beautiful way to practice Santosha off the mat is by practicing gratitude. Every day, think of 1-3 things you are grateful for and think about all the abundance surrounding you. Check out my Gratitude meditation for help! On the mat, remind yourself that you are enough, however you are showing up today. Rather than comparing yourself to others or pushing yourself to do what the teacher says without honoring your own needs, simply meet yourself where you're at and accept your body with love for whatever it's truth and capacity is today.

Tapas

Tapas, the third niyama, is a big one: willpower, intense fiery self-discipline, asceticism, perseverance, heat. According to the Yoga Sutras, when our will conflicts with the desire of our mind, an internal fire is created which can burn away mental and physical impurities to create transformation. This inner fire can be a source for spiritual energy as that friction created by our self-discipline helps us maintain control over our unconscious impulses and behavior. Visualize the heat you are building fueling you through the challenge or urge you are having.

To practice off the mat, think about where in your life you could practice a little more self-discipline. Think about where you can persist through a challenge to expand your capacity and get a little more comfortable in the uncomfortable (still honoring the other yamas and niyamas of course). You could bring this into your on the mat practice in the exact same way. You could also practice more Tapas through a more consistent practice, dedicating yourself to practicing yoga or meditation 10 minutes a day and then following through with that even when it feels hard. Remember, sometimes pushing yourself and riding that edge of your comfort zone is exactly what you need to grow.

Svadhyaya

In yoga teacher school, I would remember Svadhyaya, the fourth niyama, because it always sounded to me like "study harder" in a thick east coast accent. Svadhyaya means self-study and contemplation. Life presents us with endless opportunities to work on ourselves, learn, and grow, but we have to take time to reflect on ourselves, get curious, and ask questions in order to become our best selves. If you are reading this article and on the yogic path, then you are most likely already interested in your personal development, and that's great, because this is one of the core elements of any spiritual practice. It's not that you aren't already perfect and enough just the way you are, but it's that your life would be most fulfilling and impactful if you are able to tap into your full potential.

Studying the sacred yogic texts or other spiritual scriptures is a great way to practice Svadhyaya, as it helps us see our true divine nature and who we really are at our essence, beyond our current emotional state. Another fun way to put this into practice is to take personality tests like the 16 personalities (based on the myers-briggs), enneagram, or human design. You could also get your astrological birth chart read, talk to a therapist, or simply take time to journal. Reflect on a recent challenge you've had in your life, and ask yourself what you can learn or how you can grow from it. What did it teach you about yourself?

On the mat and throughout your physical yoga practice, always remember to be as curious as possible. Explore the subtleties and try new things with your body. Ask yourself questions like "can I go deeper in this pose?" rather than just forcing yourself to (which can lead to an unsafe and unsustainable practice in the long-term).

Isvara Pranidhana

Isvara Pranidhana, the fifth and final niyama, means to surrender to the divine. It is devotion to something greater than ourselves. This is where letting go of our constant identification with the ego comes in. Of course the ego is a necessary part of being human, and can even be useful in some ways, but we must sometimes dissolve this egocentric nature and disconnect a little bit from the material world every so often to remember our true nature and that everything we do is connected to the universal consciousness. Every spiritual practice has an element of Higher Power, and in Yoga, everything is divine. You are Divine. Isvara Pranidhana is trusting in your divinity and that of the universe, beyond the workings of your mind and this physical material plane of existence.

To practice, try to let go a little bit of that need to control everything in your life. Realize that you can only analyze, "figure out," and work through something so much with your brain before you just need to listen to your heart and deeper intuition. There is always a balance, and I find that most humans live more in the mind than in the heart. On the mat, I enjoy embodying Isvara Pranidhana by leaning a little more into the backspace of my body, finding where I can surrender a bit more as I am practicing an intense posture, and letting myself be fully held and supported by the earth when I am in a resting pose. You could also practice this niyama through Karma Yoga, or selfless service/action.

Conclusion

If you want to know about the Yamas (1st limb of yoga) or about where these limbs fit in to the bigger picture of the 8 limbs of yoga, check out those articles by clicking on the links. I'd love to know how you practice the yamas and niyamas in your own life, so feel free to send me a message and start a conversation! And if this article was of any value to you, please share on facebook or other social medias, and tag me as @elanaloveyoga on FB or @awholelanalove for IG. Thanks for reading!