Yoga Fundamentals: Building Character with the Niyamas

As part of the Eight-Limbed Path of yoga, the Yamas and Niyamas serve as a set of guidelines for relating to ourselves and the world around us. The second of these limbs, the Niyamas refer to duties directed towards ourselves or inner observances. Intended to help us build character, when we work with the Niyamas, we’re guided from the grossest aspects of ourselves to the truth deep within. Let’s take a closer look at each of these five principles and how we can apply them both on and off the mat.

Saucha: Purifying Mind and Body

Translated as ‘purity’ or ‘cleanliness,’ Saucha refers to purity of mind, speech and body. Cultivating Saucha also gives us the ability to recognize habits we have that no longer serve us. When we clean away habits that do not contribute to our sense of wholeness, we engage in self-care. Self-care includes both avoiding harm and nurturing our strengths.

On our yoga mat, Saucha is less about ‘cleansing’ our bodies and more about letting go of the clutter in our minds. This clutter can take the form of attachments, assumptions, and judgments. By entering our practice with fewer expectations, we are more able to be in the moment and to enjoy the presence that moment provides.

The same is true ‘off the mat’ as the practice of purity asks us to slow down and do one thing at a time. Giving our full attention to the task or person at hand allows us to experience the purity of this moment and be fully present. It can also help us be more aware of making healthy diet and lifestyle choices. Through regular practice we become more mindful of how our choices impact us– physically, mentally and emotionally. 

Santosha: Finding Contentment     

The word Santosha means ‘contentment’ as well as ‘delight, happiness, joy.’ It comes from an attitude of acceptance for our life, ourselves, and of whatever life has brought us. When we are content and free from cravings or desires, we more easily find happiness.

Closely related to the concept of equanimity, Santosha encourages us to accept and appreciate what we have and what we are right now. Through the practice of Santosha, we learn to accept whatever circumstances present themselves, whether they be pleasurable or painful. From there we can move forward in our life and practice with more ease and contentment.

On the mat, practicing Santosha means letting go of assumptions and expectations of ourselves. By not comparing ourselves to others or pushing beyond our limitations, we find contentment.

The same is true off the mat: being content with who you are and what you have right now and resisting the urge to think, “I’ll be better/happier when . . .”  Instead, focus on what is good in your life at this moment. You’ll be amazed at how quickly you realize that things are better than you thought.

Tapas: Tending Our Inner Fire

Tapas literally means “heat,” but can also be translated “self-discipline” or “burning enthusiasm.” Essentially Tapas is our inner wisdom and fiery passion that feeds our sense of purpose. Tapas helps us cultivate a sense of determined effort, passion and courage toward change. It serves to focus our energy, creating fervor and increasing strength and confidence. Our asana practice can be considered a form of Tapas for the body. Meditation, on the other hands, is a form of tapas that purifies and focuses the mind.

In practice, some days the simple act of showing up on our mat takes immense effort. Once we arrived, Tapas doesn’t strictly mean physically pushing ourselves harder. Sometimes it will mean making time to be still and observe the mind. At other times it’ll mean working on a particularly challenging pose.

Tapas off the mat manifests as having the courage not to listen to the critical voices in our head that tell us we’re ‘not strong enough’ or ‘not good enough’ to apply for that new job. With repetition, we can ‘burn’ away impure or self-defeating thoughts and cultivate greater self esteem and inner strength.

Svadhyaya: Reflecting on the Self

Svadhyaya literally means “one’s own reading’”or “self study.” The fourth of the Niyamas, Svadhyaya invites us to make space to look within and listen to our deepest wisdom. By practicing self inquiry, we become more aware of the things we do that harm us as well as the things that serve us or bring us in closer contact with our true self. Additionally, self study leads us to further educate ourselves in whatever inspires and fascinates us, deepening our knowledge.

One way to practice Svadhyaya is to study our habits on the mat. A wise person once told me that how we do one thing is how we do all things. Observing our habits and inclinations on the mat provide a window into our patterns and habits off the mat.

Off the mat, taking time to read spiritual texts (whether yogic or from another spiritual tradition) can deepen our knowledge and lead us into deeper introspection. And, of course, making time for quiet reflection and a regular meditation practice provides opportunities to look closely at our thoughts, beliefs and relationships so that we might know ourselves better.

Ishvara Pranidhana: Surrender to the Divine

Isvara Pranidhana is often translated as ‘surrendering to God’ or a higher power. For some, it may easier to interpret it as embracing divinity in the wonder of the natural world or surrender to the highest quality you contain and wish to embody. Regardless of your definition, the practice of Isvara Pranidhana asks us to recognize that which is larger than ourselves. Once we’ve done so, it invites us to humbly surrender our egos to that greater force and acknowledge the interconnectedness of all things.

To embody Ishvara Pranidhana on the mat, we must come to our practice with a heart of devotion. We can start with an offering or light incense or a candle. Then, we focus on whatever form the Divine takes for us, and intend ourselves to surrender, to let ourselves be moved.

Off the mat, we practice it by offering love, kindness and forgiveness both to ourselves and others. Through expressions of gratitude, affection and concern for the welfare of others, we affirm our oneness with all through the Divine.

Like the Yamas, the Niyamas provide powerful tools for cultivating our relationship with ourselves and others. If you are interested in reading more about the Yamas and Niyamas, I highly recommend Deborah Adele’s wonderful book, The Yamas and Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice. In it you will find real life examples as well as other ways to apply these guidelines to your life. Be well!

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