LIVE LIKE A YOGI
Using the Yamas and Niyamas to Enhance Your Practice and Your Life
Part 2: The Niyamasby Sheila Ewers
Last month, I introduced a conversation about how yoga practitioners can use the ancient teachings of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras as a handbook for creating a life of greater equanimity and purpose. In Part 1, I described the Yamas, or ethical restraints: five practices that can regulate our relationships with others and the world around us. In Part 2, I focus on the Niyamas, or inner observances, which provide guidance for purifying our consciousness and directing our focus toward the higher Self. The Niyamas are subtle, but they can be cultivated in every area of our lives.
SAUCHA: Cleanliness/purificationAncient yogis recognized that everything we surround ourselves with impacts our state of mind and our ability to attain wisdom and peace. The practice of saucha, however, reaches beyond the external environment to include purification of the body and the mind. It requires conscious regulation of what we consume, including food, drink and entertainment, and it involves releasing old patterns, habits and beliefs that create impurities in the mind.
On the mat: Postures, breathing and meditation all serve as purification techniques, but the time we spend on the mat also provides us with an opportunity to observe the desires, judgments and stories that we create around our efforts. Practice focusing your awareness on each inhalation and exhalation more fully as you move from posture to posture to help you develop a pure relationship to the moment as it unfolds and to let go of what clutters your perceptions.
SANTOSHA: ContentmentMost people can relate to the kind of longing that convinces us that we will be happy “when . . . ”: when we get the perfect job, meet the perfect partner, save enough money to retire or travel to a dream location. We imagine contentment as a state of mind that derives from circumstances that are favorable and harmonious. But the principle of santosha suggests the opposite. It urges us to cultivate contentment no matter our current situation. Our work in this domain requires us to locate contentment within ourselves and our souls rather than external circumstances and to nourish gratitude and acceptance even amid change and turbulence.
On the Mat: Notice where you experience resistance during your practice. Do you feel frustration when you struggle with balance or fatigue? Do you grow impatient with the poses you enjoy the least? Practice gratitude in the moments that feel unsettled. Celebrate your resilience when you wobble, your perseverance when you feel weak. Cultivate curiosity and compassionate objectivity— learning to witness each response and accept your practice exactly as it unfolds.
TAPAS: Self-disciplineThe literal translation of “tapas” is “heat,” the kind that derives from effort and creates transformation. In Sutra 1.14, Patanjali tells us that practice gets firmly grounded when done with great sincerity over a long period of time without interruption. In a world focused on immediate gratification and quick results, it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that physical, mental and spiritual progress in yoga occurs over the course of a lifetime. The fiery discipline of tapas keeps us on the path and helps us to cultivate the willpower necessary to overcome desires that can lead us astray.
On the Mat: When you cultivate heat through effort on the mat, you train yourself in the practice of tapas. Commit to a daily practice to develop a routine. Practice holding postures longer than five breaths to build stamina. Learn to explore safe “edges” in the body that test your resolve and encourage you to discover greater determination. As you develop these techniques in physical practice, they will flow into the rest of your life, keeping you on the path even when obstacles appear.
SVADHYAYA: Self-studyTo understand what it means to study the inner Self, we must first understand what yoga philosophy teaches about it. Reading sacred texts and learning the discoveries of saints and sages who grew acquainted with the landscape of consciousness can be beneficial. In the Sutras, Patanjali identifies one of our greatest sources of suffering as avidya, ignorance of our true nature. Yoga teaches that we are all part of a great ocean of consciousness, infinite, eternal, whole and connected. But as we move through our lives, we forget our essence and we attach to ego identities that are shaped by the roles we play in the world, our relationships, our attachments and our aversions. This ego clouds our ability to truly know the infinite Self of Consciousness. The practice of svadhyaya invites us to remember our true nature. As we observe the fluctuations of the ego and begin to listen for the “still, small voice within,” we move into alignment with consciousness itself. In remembering who we are, we begin to fuel the inner light of awareness and break the cycle of craving and attachment that creates disharmony in our lives.
On the Mat: The way we show up to the yoga mat often mirrors the way we show up in our lives—and this can be a rich opportunity for self-study. Scan your body for tension to notice patterns of held fears and anxiety. Notice the pace and depth of the breath to discover messages of stress or fatigue. Watch the shifting ground of your thoughts and emotions to see the stories and self-talk that drive your desires. As you begin to strengthen the witnessing faculty of your own mind, you will begin to see beyond what shifts and changes to what is eternal and stable in your Self.
ISVARA PRANIDHANA: Surrender to a higher sourceThe last of the Niyamas, isvara pranidhana can often be the most difficult to embrace. At first glance, the word “surrender” can connote giving up or failure, but in this sense, it means to set down the defenses of the ego so that grace might flow through with greater ease. We can consider this something like paddling through a mighty river. Our efforts never cease; in fact, the work can be quite intense, but the goal of all of the paddling is simply to guide us into the center of the current, where we might be carried with more ease. So too with the practice of yoga: As we navigate the great river of consciousness flowing through our own lives, we open ourselves to a power that begins to direct our path, and the more easily we learn to surrender to the flow, to work with rather than against it, the more smoothly the journey unfolds.
On the mat: The end of every yoga class invites us into the practice of surrender through savasana. This final pose, translated as corpse pose, gives us an opportunity to be still and embody the insight, effort and awareness we cultivate through the rest of our work. Make this the pinnacle of your practice. Let it become a time, as its name suggests, to allow the ego to die in service of a higher power—your higher power—so that when you emerge, you move into the world unified with the source of all consciousness that flows through you.
Founder of Johns Creek Yoga and Duluth Yoga Center, Sheila Ewers leads daily yoga classes and yoga- teacher-training classes, and hosts retreats locally and internationally. She has been published in online magazines, including Elephant Journal and Writers Resist. Reach her at [email protected].