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Yoga beyond the mat: Niyamas (Part I)

Updated: 15 hours ago

In this article I offer practical tools and exercises to practice the first three Niyamas: sauca, santosa & tapas, on and off your yoga mat.




What are Niyamas?

As we saw in the article on the eight limbs of Yoga; in the traditional Yoga system the second aspect of practice is called niyama or inner observances, which helps us build character and guides us to live life in its fullest, most joyful form.


The five niyamas:

  1. Śauca - purity, cleansing

  2. Santosa - contentment

  3. Tapas - work, practice

  4. Svadhyaya - self-study, self-inquiry

  5. Ishvara Pranidhana - surrender the fruits of your actions


Śauca

Sauca teaches us about the importance of cleansing and purifying. In the Yoga tradition, there are a lot of cleansing techniques (some that will sound extreme or weird, like cleaning your swallowing a piece of cloth to clean your colon) because cleansing is essential in order to prepare the self for practices that will eventually lead to enlightenment. Cleanliness or cleansing can be applied to all layers of the self - physical, energetic, mental, emotional, spiritual.


So can cleanliness be applied in our day-to-day lives?

- I bathe, brush my teeth and keep myself clean,

- I help my body in its detoxification process (by starting the day with a glass of water and squeezed lemon or by praticing breathwork for example),

- I clean my home and keep my desk or my practice space tidy.


Let me offer other (perhaps not as obvious) ways to practice cleanliness:

- I engage in a daily meditation practice to ensure that my mind stays clean of clutter and unnecessary judgments and thoughts,

- I choose to wash my tongue of any un-welcomed judgement and impure words,

- I practice purity in my relationships by being present during conversations,

- I practice staying pure to the moment instead of distorting reality with expectations, judgements and opinions.


When I was in India, our Yoga teachers taught us about sauca very early on, highlighting the importance of attending each practice clean and ready. Showers were to be taken before the practice, we had to wear appropriate clothing and make sure our practice space - shala - was clean and tidy before and after the practice. It taught me that this applies to everything else in life, the way you present yourself to things, people or situations is what you will receive back.

Approaching life with purity means to approach life with the intention to be pure with something instead of trying to make something pure; practicing presence and truth by letting go of preconceptions, expectations and judgment that often cloud our perception of reality.

Santosa

The principle of contentment is an important one because it teaches to open ourselves up to the beauty of everything that is around us. The Yamas and the first Niyama - sauca - prepare us for santosa and the ability to feel content and satisfied with all of the beauty of life: the great, the good, the not great and the bad. It's a reminder that life is complete in each moment.


How can contentment be applied to our day-to-day?

- I practice gratitude daily to connect to a sense of joy and satisfaction that I can then translate into my daily life,

- I practice noticing how I tend to move towards things I like and avoid the things I don't like and how much energy I expend doing that,

- In my meditation I connect to a sensation of feeling enough and complete by reminding myself that I can only find fulfillment within myself, not outside of myself.


Let me offer other ways we can practice santosa:

- When I am feeling frustration because something isn't going the way I want, I remind myself that life is perfect as it comes to me right now and emotions are just emotions if I allow them to arise, exist and pass,

- I notice when thoughts such as "when I have this...I'll feel..." arise and return to contentment,

- I practice doing things for the joy of doing them instead of doing them to achieve a certain result.


Life is filled with beauty, all around, look at nature! Each flower has its own colour, scent, shape and size, each cloud and storm has a purpose and each ray of sunshine too. Us humans, we somehow believe that we have control over life, and we do to some extent: we can control our actions and choices but we cannot control the outcome of our decisions. So contentment is essential to avoid suffering.


Connecting to a sense of deep inner peace and joy; when was the last time you took a walk in nature and opened yourself up fully to the beauty that was there?

Tapas

Tapas literally means 'heat' and can be translated as catharsis, self-discipline, practice or transformation. Just like the process of cooking transforms food, the process of 'cooking' ourselves through disciplined practice transforms us.


How can self-discipline be applied to our day-to-day?

- Creating a daily Yoga routine that I stick too,

- During difficult times, I choose to go into the fire instead of running away from it, knowing that something better will come.


Let me offer other ways we can practice tapas:

- I practice staying in my unpleasantness one extra minute and consciously notice what it feels like to be in the fire,

- I practice making choices that bring about transformation and strength and notice when I tend to be over-indulgent.


Tapas teaches us that transformation can only happen if we are willing to throw ourselves into the fire of uncertainty and discomfort and hold on for the blessing. Self-discipline and 'heat' creates energy that is able to feed what we want to create, giving us the strength necessary to achieve what we want. We become fearless.


Self-discipline is essential in order to make everything we learn here, a reality. Reading and researching is wonderful but practice is where real transformation happens. A lot of people are attracted to the idea of feeling better and more at peace but they are not willing to put in the work.

Knowledge without practice and discipline is just knowledge, it won't bring about the changes that you are seeking. There is a real sense of courage, strength and trust that comes with tapas.



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