The Niyamas can be translated as the observances, and these are, along with the Yamas, the moral ‘guidelines’ that help us move towards a more authentic self. Niyamas are more related to how we conduct ourselves.
Niyamas are the 2nd limb of a step-by-step on the realization of Yoga.
The principle is that once we reach the 8th limb, we finally attain the full union between mind, body and spirit. Of course that each limb can be practised and applied by itself. It is actually really nice and common that during a Yoga class, focus is placed in one Yama or Niyama and developed throughout the whole practise. Another great way to practise Yamas and Niyamas is by focusing on one or two per week and acting accordingly every day.
The 5 Niyamas Patanjali focuses on are:
Also described as self-purification, this moral observance can be interpreted in many ways.
One way could be to think and focus about the food you eat, what you drink, how you keep your house and your hygiene.
But also think how much toxic media you consume, how that fills your inner self with unwanted thoughts and anxiety. Or who do you meet with, is the company nurturing or is it filling you with bad energy?
Saucha is not about feeling ‘ guilty’ after eating too much on an evening, or having few drinks with colleagues, or even about watching too much news on a day. It is about what is good for you and how you can detox from the bad energy you consume from time to time. There is always a decision behind an action and many times it is made unconsciously. We tend to act by impulse or because it is already a habit. Being able to change that pattern takes a few seconds of consciousness: eating 3 slices of pizza instead of 5, drinking 2 glasses of wine instead of 6, watching tv until 10pm and not until midnight, going to an activity you know will make you good but that laziness is trying to stop, and there are endless examples on how we can work towards feeling more clean.
It is also about ourselves, not only about the external options. How many negative thoughts do we have everyday? How can we clean our minds from guiltiness, from feelings that should not be there but we feel are installed in our minds?
Yoga is a great way to bring everything to the mat to let it go. Being able to focus in the present through asanas and positive thinking allow us to clean our body, mind and spirit. The concentration and focus on breathing techniques will help towards a healthier inner self. We don’t need that many things in our bag, we can live with much less and have a bag light and full of great things.
And it is also all about balance and how you cope with that balance. If one day you are not that balanced, can you deal with the guilt and let that guilt go away and understand it just happened? Can you try to avoid certain things you know will harm you? And if you can’t avoid them, can you avoid the negative thoughts that will come after that and be more compassionate with yourself?
At the end it is all about trying, making efforts to feel better, and everyone feels better in different ways. Go into the mat, think of something you want to let you and practise towards that. It helps. 100% sure.
The Sanskrit term, altogether, may be translated as ‘complete contentment’.
Contentment about what we are, what we have, what we can do now. Please, don’t confuse this with unambition or laziness, as these are unrelated terms. Contentment is more about acceptance of what it is now, and you can always be ambitious to improve but always with peacefulness of the actual results of your efforts.
Actually, it is quite ambitious to be able to practice contentment. It is not easy to accept things as they are, understanding those things that we can and can’t change. Santosha is more about a present inner peace. With ourselves and with others. How many times do we look and get influenced by what others have? How many times are we dissatisfied with our own life for comparing ourselves with others? Learning to be content is also about letting go of external influences and prejudices or what has to be, and be able to reduce the craving and desires we might have just by looking and seeking what is happening around.
Many yogic texts discuss Santosha at different levels. Intent is one of them, as trying to give the best of us in any particular task, and accepting what comes out of it. Practising Santosha will also support other virtues like compassion, non stealing, as we have a better relationship with our inner self.
In our Yoga Asanas, Santosha can be practised by doing the best we can, and accepting our body limitations and being content with the movements we can achieve today.
In Sanskrit, Tap means to burn, to give out warmth. It can be considered as fire, as your passion, what makes you burn to have a personal discipline, undertaken to achieve a goal. It is important to mark that different ancient texts describe tapas as a different meaning but they are all related to efforts towards an objective. In this post we are focusing mainly on Patanjali’s Tapas interpretation.
Tapas are usually translated as self-discipline, austerity. But it should not be seen as a negative or scary Niyama. Discipline is key to attain our objectives, and this observance is another step for us to be able to grow at all levels.
Tapas can be applied on and off the mat
On the mat: it is hard to commit to a daily practise. And you don’t have to, remember all the previous Yamas and Niyamas about not being tough on yourself and accepting what it is leaving models or prejudices aside. Now, it is true that we should try to commit to a number of practices per week, or to a number that you think is doable for you, and stick to that. Yoga practise, as any practise requires time, effort, and discipline. It is beautiful to see the changes in our body and our inner self, it is amazing to overcome obstacles to be able to be on the mat anyway, at least 10 minutes. This is what Tapas is all about. To commit, and to do it. It does not mean to overdo it if it is not something you can physically do, it is about little efforts every day or every week to be able to reach an objective, whatever that goal is, you will only be able to attain it by committing to your practise.
If you lack time (I know how it feels) try to at least practise 20 minutes a day, maybe you will need to wake up earlier or have a longer lunch break, but the sense of accomplishment that you will have after doing it will be worth so much. You don’t really need to do an Ashtanga practise everyday, you may just want to lie in a child’s pose for most of the practise from time to time, and that is ok, because you had the discipline to go on the mat and that is already an effort.
Off the mat: we know that in order to reach specific goals, consistency is key. Again, this is not about overdoing it to the point it becomes unhealthy for you, it is all about being consistent. Try to establish smart goals that you know you can reach, and stick to your schedule as much as you can. Always keep that schedule ‘ open’, life happens and you know that things can change from one day to the other, but the fact that one day you are not able to commit to your task, won’t make you stop towards that goal. Consistency, positive thinking about yourself, tenacity, all this does not mean you have to literally ‘suffer’ but effort is always needed to reach peace with your thoughts, with your mind and with your action. And then everyday, you will feel rewarded and that is one of the fruits already of your efforts.
In the 4th observance, sva means “self;” dhyaya translates as contemplating, or reflecting upon. Many interpretations led to this observance, and also modernism brought new ways to apply Svadhyaya, compared to traditional ancient texts as Patanjali’s sutras. In general, it means self-study, but what does self study means?
In the western world, with the appearance of Psychoanalysis, many people started to study their behaviours, childhood, conscious and unconscious mind. This is not related to what self-study means for Yogis.
It is more related to understanding to ourselves as a whole, as a being that just is, and trying to find our truth and inner self. The eight limbs of Yoga would help towards enlightenment.
A traditional technique that Patanjali mentions in this book that could help focus in the present moment is mantra recitation: repeating a word or group of words that have spiritual resonance. Patanjali emphasizes the use of the now famous ‘ Om’ , that is the sound of pure consciousness resuming birth, life and death. By focusing on one word a person can fully focus on that, leaving aside other thoughts, which would bring them closer to the pure sense of consciousness, without the constructs of the mind.
Also, studying sacred scriptures such as the Bhagavad Gita – highly recommended by the way – also helps towards the study and interpretation of our atman – our true self -. Studying these works help us build our own divinity.
To make it easier to understand, imagine an onion. It has so many layers until you reach the edible part! Those layers could be interpreted in ourselves as different levels of consciousness, starting from the body, passing through the mind, and reaching the soul, spirit, or atman. That edible part of the onion is our atman. It is necessary to isolate each layer to reach our purest root.
In a more modern interpretation, this niyama is related to anything that help us study our emotions, desires, objectives, our real essence. Meditation is a technique that helps the mind to quiet to feel the existing presence and the being sensation. Being, without thinking. We are more than our minds and we usually think we are our thoughts.
On the mat, Svadhyaya is a great Niyama to practise. Being 100% focus on our postures, on our breath throughout the practise, of the physical sensations we have with every pose change, the strength and balance needed, our change in breathing patterns, all can help to focus on the sensations and in the present moment. And knowing when to say enough is also a task, we need to study ourselves and know when to continue and when to stop.
Last but not least, the 5th Niyama, could be hard to understand at the beginning. Isvara, which translates as ‘Supreme Being’, ‘God’, or ‘True Self’ and Pranidhana, means ‘fixing’. Usually, it can be interpreted as “devoting oneself entirely to the Divine’’.
When we mean divine, we do not mean a specific religious god. It is a broader concept, as surrendering to our inner divinity and to the universe itself.
It is not easy to understand what this exactly entails and how it should be practiced, this is why over the time many interpretations arose.
In Yoga, there is an idea that something more profound and pure exists than ourselves and at the same time in ourselves. That is the meaning of ‘ God’ in Yoga. This Niyama teaches us to surrender to what simply is, to align with the universe. It brings all the other Yamas and Niyamas together, by letting go, by devoting ourselves to a higher power. It does not mean though that we should stay doing nothing and waiting that the world will bring to us, it means mainly that our duty in life should be surrendered to the broader existence and that even when we take care and commit to our duties, then we should let go any expectations and let it be.
It sounds complicated, and easy, at the same time, isn’t it? We are so stuck in our minds that we force ourselves to be ‘ better’ and punish or feel guilty if we do something wrong. We can’t let go.
It is all about trying to have discipline in our acts and emotions, without harming ourselves or others, by being compassionate with ours and others actions, and by giving ourselves to a higher purpose.
Meditating and practising Asanas is a great way to let go, to peel that onion and stay only with our true essence, without toxic thoughts, being calmer and present is the only way to reach samadhi, the highest state of consciousness, our eight limb.