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The Five Niyamas: Observances of a Yogi

Updated: Aug 31, 2021

In our last post about The Five Yamas, we broke down the disciplines of a Yogi, which are Ahimsa (non-harming), Satya (truth-telling), Asteya (non-stealing), Brahmacharya (proper use of energy), and Aparigraha (non-attachment). These five practices are the first steps to living a life in alignment with the Yogic tradition. In this article, we'll discuss the 5 Niyamas, which are the observances of a Yogi.

Check out part one of this article Deepen Your Yoga Practice with the 5 Yamas

The Niyamas are Saucha (Sow-Cha) (cleanliness), Santosa (San-Toe-Sha) (Contentment), Tapas (Ta-Pas), Persistence, Svadhyaya (Sa-Va-De-Ya-Ya) Self and spiritual study, and Isvarapranidhana (Ish-Va-Ra-Pra-Nid-Hah-Na) Surrender.

#1 Saucha (Cleanliness)

Good hygiene is always to be practiced by the Yogi. Ayurveda, the ancient sister science of yoga, suggests a rigorous cleansing of the physical body every day, including purification of the skin, mouth, nose, and eyes. Ayurveda suggests daily sweating to expel excess toxins and eat whole foods rich in fiber to promote digestion. Additionally, taking digestive herbs such as ginger is recommended to keep the body flushing and moving waste.

So, your body is clean. Now what? Saucha not only speaks to the impurities of the physical but also to those of the heart and mind too. We western folk can liken these impurities to "bad habits." A bad habit can be smoking, excess drinking, and eating, or it can be as nuanced as negative self-talk. Think about the number of times you've walked into a yoga class and immediately began to compare yourself. "He's stronger. She's thinner."

The unconscious negativity we allow into our minds acts as toxic sludge, creating an inhospitable environment for our souls. Of course, we are human, and negativity will creep in. The Yogi's way would be to recognize the thoughts, acknowledge the thought, and move on from the thought. Much like meditation, we can track these pesky narratives, take a deep breath and choose not to entertain them.

#2 Santosa (Contentment)

Ever had the thought, "When I get that, then I'll be this?" You can fill the blank with virtually any of your earthly desires! "When I get rich, then I'll be happy," "when I get thin, then I'll be loved," "when I get married, then I'll be worthy." Or maybe you're a chronic "starter over-er." You jump from partner to partner, house to house, location to location, job to job, and so on.

A common misconception is that contentment equals complicity, but that is just not true! We have been conditioned to think the next best thing is right around the corner, and if we only work a little harder, we'll get it. Goals are a significant and necessary part of being successful, but what about the present moment? Can you be truly grateful for everything you have right now as well as everything you don't have?

Is it possible that you do have enough and you do not need more things to feel satisfied in your life? Contentment can be best brought in during deep meditation by way of a mantra. "I do enough. I have enough. I am enough."

#3 Tapas (Persistence)

A tasty Spanish bite-sized snack or a fierce dedication to the yogic tradition? We love our happy hour treats, but this kind of Tapas requires a little more focus. The root word Tap meaning, "to burn," suggesting a fiery form of discipline. Practicing Tapas on the mat looks like doing it even when you don't want to. It means staying in chair pose for that extra thirty seconds when you can feel your booty is about to burst into flames. See, we told you it was a fiery practice!

However, Tapas is not powering through yoga or fitness classes when you're injured or fatigued. In fact, for those of us who are more inclined to push the limits, taking a child pose when necessary can be more of an act of Tapas than pushing through the class itself. The idea here is to find comfort in the discomfort and use fire's energy to burn through distraction and find clarity.

#4 Svadhyaya (Self Study or Spiritual Study)

The word itself is made up of Sva, meaning own, self, or the human soul, and Adhyaya, meaning lesson, lecture, or reading, and can imply the practice of studying scriptures, as well as a method of studying the Self. You may have noticed that the S is capitalized here. This is not a mistake.

Often in the spiritual texts, Self (capital S) is referred to as higher Self, or inner knowing, and self (lower case s) is referred to as our ego or earthly identity. Svadhyaya is all about understanding the Two S's to determine which one is running our lives. When we approach our heart and mind's inner workings, we must practice curiosity rather than judgment.

Next time you have a negative thought or react to a situation in a less than favorable way, pause and breathe. Check the narrative and flip the script! Ask yourself, "what could have triggered my reaction?" and "How am I really feeling?" It's questions like these that allow us the space to process what is going on.

The little self will always be your worst enemy, tearing you down every chance it gets. Nothing frightens the ego more than a curious mind. In addition to practicing self-study, you can also begin to dive into yoga's traditional spiritual texts. We suggest starting with The Yoga Sutras, which describe the eight branches of Ashtanga Yoga and teach the details of being a Yogi.

#5 Isvarapranidhana (Surrender)

Surrendering yourself to the present moment is when you've finally decided you're done fighting your emotions. At this moment, when we have seemingly lost control, we are free to experience a state of bliss. The word surrender has typically been associated with "giving up" or "losing the war." This, however, is simply not true. Surrendering yourself means you're accepting of life. When you're in acceptance of life, you aren't judging the situation; you're observing it.

Again, like meditation, we watch the tides of life flow up and down, up and down. When something doesn't go our way, do we panic? Try to control the situation? Lose our minds? Grip to a reality that no longer exists? Life flows like the ocean, and as a Yogi, we get to ride those highs and lows. We don’t attach ourselves to any fluctuation, just enjoy the swells.

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