In addition to the physical postures that many of us associate with the practice, yoga encompasses an expansive system of philosophy, meditation, breathwork, lifestyle, and behavior principles. The 8 limbs of yoga described in the sacred text of the Yoga Sutra are an example of the various disciplines involved in yoga. The second limb contains the niyamas: important practices of self-discipline, observance, and spirituality. These practices provide an ethical guide to living and a moral code of conduct. The niyamas are important principles to not only enhance our yoga practice, but influence the way we take care of ourselves and how we live from day-to-day.
The 5 Niyamas in Yoga
What makes the niyamas particularly special is the multiple layers of meaning they each contain, allowing them to grow with you in your yoga practice. As you study the niyamas over time, you may discover new interpretations of them as you evolve and understand yourself in new ways. To help you begin your reflection of these principles as they relate to you, here are the five niyamas and why they are important in yoga and life.
Saucha is the principle of cleanliness, or purity. This idea can show up multiple ways in your yoga practice and life. Physical yoga postures, pranayama, and meditation are all intended to purify the body and mind. Saucha can also refer to the cleanliness of a physical space, the purity of the food we ingest, or the cleansing of bad habits that prevent us from reaching our full potential. Even the people we surround ourselves with can influence the purity and cleanliness of our thoughts and attitudes.
Saucha is an important practice in that it helps us bring our best to any situation in life. As our body, mind, environment, and thoughts become pure, we are able to operate from a place of better energy, peace, and focus. In yoga, even the simplest act of keeping our mat clean and yoga props organized shows a deep respect for the practice, and maintains a sacred space for it.
See Also: Practicing Saucha On and Off the Mat
Santosha is the practice of contentment. This principle reminds us not to covet or envy the possessions or achievements of others, and practice gratitude for what already exists in our lives at this moment. In our yoga practice, it is a reminder to be accepting of how our body is currently able to perform a pose or how our mind might wander in meditation.
When we are content with who we are and what we have through the practice of santosha, we can achieve true happiness. We are better able to bring mindfulness to each day and focus our attention on what is most important to us rather than what we lack. This principle also helps us overcome the trap of seeking perfection, allowing us to adapt to whatever comes our way — no matter how imperfect it is.
This practice emphasizes self-discipline. It means doing the things that we may not want to do, but will help us better ourselves and reach our goals. Tapas also references an internal fire, or purifying through heat. This could refer to the sweat you experience while holding a challenging pose in a yoga class, or even being able to withstand the heat of friction in the form of discomfort that comes with change.
The principle of tapas is an important way to develop the determination needed to face and overcome great challenges in life. Tapas teaches us to get comfortable with being uncomfortable in our personal growth journey. We develop the discipline and commitment to improve any area of our life, as well as the ability to develop healthier habits or break unhealthy ones as needed.
Svadhyaya is the principle of self-study, or inner exploration. Through reflection and observation of ourselves, we can identify the unconscious patterns that influence our experiences in life. The exploration of how we enter or leave a difficult pose in yoga, for example, can give us insight into the way we approach challenging situations in life. The practice of self-study can also refer to the study of sacred texts such as the Yoga Sutra, or the Bhagavad Gita. These texts allow us to see that our experiences are universal and develop greater compassion for ourselves and others as we go through them.
The greatest benefit and importance of practicing svadhyaya is getting to know ourselves better. When we deeply understand ourselves, we are able to know what we need, what obstacles are likely to get in our way, and how to put ourselves in a better position to succeed. As we observe and study our own habits, we can figure out ways to improve all areas of our life and learn from our mistakes along the way.
5. Ishvara Pranidhana
This practice of devotion, or surrender, can refer to either surrendering to a higher power, or to our higher self. In yoga, we may see this in action when we surrender to a challenging pose or surrender to what our body needs on any given day. In daily life, it can appear as developing greater trust or cultivating a deep sense of authenticity within ourselves.
Ishvara pranidhana is an important practice to help us acknowledge the universal connection of all things. Through this realization, we become more open and connected to something bigger than ourselves. We can begin to see our daily yoga practice not just as something that benefits ourselves, but as a devotion to something greater that allows us to stay healthy and vibrant so we may contribute to the world at large. In addition, as we practice the art of surrendering, we are better able to experience life as it comes without trying to control it.
Now that you understand the 5 niyamas, take note of how you may already be incorporating them into your life and practice without realizing it. With greater awareness, you can see your daily actions in a new way.