The five Niyamas are tools to cultivating happiness and inner freedom along the path of yoga. Following on from last months post: Why You Don’t need a mat to practice Yoga; breaking down the first limb, this blog will delve deeper into the eight limbs of yoga by breaking down the second limb: the niyamas.
We know from our last blog that the Eight Limbs of Yoga set us up to live a purposeful and meaningful life. If diligently followed, they take us down a path to freedom, or bliss (and we all want more bliss right)?
Here is an overview of the eight limbs of Yoga.
The eight limbs
- Yama (ethical standards or integrity)
- Niyama (self-disciple and spiritual observances)
- Asana (postures)
- Pranayama (breathing techniques, or breath control)
- Pratyahara (sense withdrawal)
- Dharana (concentration)
- Dhyana (contemplation, or meditative absorption)
- Samadhi (liberation, bliss or enlightenment)
Just like the yamas, there are five niyamas. They are mostly concerned with self discipline and spiritual observances.
Have I lost you already?
I know, I know, Self Discipline isn’t very sexy these days. But consider this: learning to feel more free, joyful and at peace will most likely make you feel more sexy than ever!
Shaucha is about releasing the impurities in our lives, both physically and mentally. It is a call to action to consider deeply what we place into our body. What foods and beverages do we use as fuel? What books, shows, and other material do we take into our minds? What products do we surround ourselves with in our homes and daily life? What conversations do we have that may be toxic? The idea is to allow all impurities to be replaced with goodness, and when we do, our life-force magnifies. The body becomes energised and the mind is clear.
In a practical sense: try replacing one thing in your life with something a little better. Over time, as you continue to upscale your replacements, you’ll slowly be removing toxins from your life. A piece of fruit instead of cake, tea instead of coffee, a bout of gossip with a chat about the latest great invention. A reality tv show with an art class. One thing at a time, just keep going.
To be content is more than just being happy. In fact, we can be content even when we are sad, or when things aren’t going our way. This is my favourite practice, and also the most difficult. Cultivating contentment is about being grateful for what we have, and also feeling acceptance for what is here in front of us in each moment. It is crucial to see contentment, not as something that spontaneously arises, but rather something that must be cultivated.
On a practical level I have found two practices to be the most powerful in cultivating contentment. The first is formal gratitude practice, and the second is the Four Foundations of Mindfulness that is taught in Buddhist practice. Of course, this is my personal experience, and I am sure there are many other ways to find contentment. The point isn’t how we get there, just that we do.
The word tapas literally means “heat," and refers to the heat that is generated through determined effort. Tapas can also mean austerity, or even perhaps will-power, and refers to the mental discipline of sticking with something that may be difficult or unpleasant in order to achieve a positive change for our lives.
Woking out in the gym is a great relatable example of Tapas. A tough work-out may hurt, even a lot, but we know that it’s the only way the muscles will grow strong. We know we have to apply effort and discipline to achieve the desired outcome, and that affects our body, and our life, in a positive way.
We can bring Tapas to just about anything in our lives: the way we study, work, wash the dishes, or raise our children. To bring tapas to each act means that we are giving our wholehearted attention in the hope of the highest possible outcome.
Svadhyaya (self study)
Svadhyaya can be translated into, “To recollect, to remember, to contemplate, or to meditate on the Self.” It is the process by which we turn inward to examine ourselves. We become self-actualised, gazing intently into the nature of who we are and into the truth of our union with all things. We remain curious, un-set in our ways, asking questions of our existance. Svadhyaya can also mean the study of the sacred texts and teachings that point to the true nature of the self.
On a practical level, meditation, asana, or reading material that turns the attention inward are all great ways to begin to look more deeply into who we are. Retreats, workshops, therapy work or inquiry can all be valuable self-actualising experiences too.
Ishvara Pranidhana (devotion or surrender)
This can be one of the most daunting or triggering of the Niyamays as it asks us to surrender to something larger than ourselves. Ishvara Pranidhana can be translated as “trustful surrender to God”. It is about dissolving our egocentric nature and looking for the greatest union that exists: the union with higher power.
If the idea of God or higher power triggers you, it can be helpful to see this as surrendering to your own higher power: to the divine self within you, the beyond-thought space of consciousness itself. Ultimately, that divine within you is the same as the divine within all beings, and the divine within the world.
Take some time to go through each of the Niyama’s and find the places you do well, and the places that could do with some polishing. And always remember, you don’t need a mat to practice yoga.