The five Niyama (observances) to balance your practice and life
Whilst the Western world’s portrayal of Yoga is one of creating shapes with our bodies (Asana) on a sticky mat, there is so so much that the system of Yoga can offer us. It is a state of being rather than something that we DO. Yet there are also wonderful maps and techniques that we can use to understand Yoga.
In our classes you are introduced to powerful pranayama techniques that can either fire up or calm your nervous system. You practice grounding and setting intention. You take time to acknowledge Country. You learn mindfulness tools to stay present with your experience. You work with the energetic anatomy of Nadis and Chakras through movement, bandha (energy locks) breath and attention. You gain a deeper understanding of Yogic philosophy as themes are weaved through each class. All of this is Yoga.
One framework that is particularly useful when learning about everything that the system of Yoga has to offer is the Indian sage Patanjali’s 8-Limbs of Yoga in the Yoga Sutras.
Asana (the body posture) is just one of these 8 limbs (the 3rd) and in this article we wanted to introduce you to the 2nd limb of Yoga according to Patanjali — Niyama.
As well as offering an an explanation of these Niyama you’ll also find some practical tips as to how you can bring these qualities into your Yoga practice to deepen your experience.
The Niyama are 5 observances or qualities that we can bring to our practice of Yoga.
While the Yamas (the 1st limb) are ethical and moral guidelines as to how to act in the world, Niyama are more inward focused and are to be personalised for your own personal practice.
Below you’ll find some ideas about how to incorporate the Niyamas in your Yoga.
The first Niyama Śauca (pronounced Shaucha) is translated as purifying or cleanliness.
This quality can relate to our body, mind or environment and all are important in terms of creating the best conditions to practice. Yoga itself is a way of cleansing your whole system (a Kriya). The movements and breathing combined with a focused mind all work together to shift stuck energy and assist in its free flow.
This quality can relate to our body, mind or environment and all are important in terms of creating the best conditions to practice.
- It is advised to practice Yoga (especially asana and pranayama) at least 2 hours after eating to ensure that the body has digested food from the stomach. This is not always possible depending on your schedule and health conditions but is optimal for your practice if you can!
- Showering or washing prior to class could also help you create a feeling of entering the space cleansed and ready for practice.
- It is also very important to abstain from any alcohol or drugs prior to practice for both body and mind to be clear.
- Setting intention at the start of practice creates a container and a focused mind.
- Mindfulness techniques help your mind to stay present and relatively free from the busy thoughts of life, work and family.
- See your Yoga class is an opportunity to leave the stresses of life behind for some time.
- It is also important to notice how the media you are consuming (especially social media and the 24 hour news cycle) affect your mind prior to class. You may also find it helpful to cleanse yourself from toxic information overload and even negative people or places around you
- Be mindful of your own speech and refrain from gossip in the lead up to class in order to arrive in a mind-state that is more conducive to Yoga.
- When practicing at home it is important to create a space (even a corner of the room) that feels sacred and special. Infuse your space with good vibes and perhaps items that have special meaning to you. When you enter this space to practice you are encouraged to show up with full presence.
- You may also feel called to clean out a messy cupboard or drawer to invite in some of that Sauca energy (although we know too well that cleaning jobs at home can be never ending so don’t use this to procrastinate from practice!)
- When you enter the Yoga room at Bright Yoga Space, enter it as though you were entering a temple. Can you see your Yoga practice as a way to invite in reverence, just for your hour or so on the mat?
- Enter the practice space in silence, perhaps even 10 minutes prior to class, in order to transition from the doing of your day into the sacred presence of Yoga.
- Leave the questions or conversations with friends for after class in reception and honour your and others’ opportunity to be quiet and still (gosh we don’t always get many of those!)
- And finally, be gentle on the Earth and look after the environment around you. Use natural cleansers for washing your mat, your space and yourself, and tidy up your Yoga space and ensure it is clean and ready for the next practice.
Santoṣa (santosha) means contentment and also a quality of acceptance and optimism.
Let’s not confuse Santosa with a weakness of boundaries that means we accept anything that happens to us or with a bypassing of the difficulties that might happen in life and covering them over with toxic positivity. That is not what Santosa is about.
Practicing Santosa means that you learn to accept what has happened (because it is the past and cannot be changed) with a fierce heart. To see the best in a situation, finding understanding and wisdom even in difficulty. And to practice gratitude for what you do have in each moment.
Mindfulness practice teaches us that our suffering is increased when we resist the difficulty. Cultivating the ability to accept situations that are outside of your control without judging them, leads to a greater sense of peace.
- Practicing Santosa invites us to be completely honest about our inner experience and allow it to be exactly as it is. Contentment is a quality of understanding and allowing our experience without needing to change it. It may not be joyful, it may be grief, shame, anger, fear or any of the myriad of feelings we can hold. Yet, we commit to holding it and seeing it for exactly what it is.
- In your Yoga practice you can take time at the start of your class to be curious about how you are today, in this moment and set an intention to honour and allow that experience to be exactly as it is. Taking three breaths in and out as you feel the sensations and emotions that are present can be useful. You may also wish to gently say “I belong here exactly as I am” as a San Kalpa.
- You might also like to bring Santosa into your life by starting a daily gratitude practice. Write in your journal each day something or someone that you are grateful for. This is a such a mind-altering practice!
Santosa invites you to honour where your body and energy are for practice and modify as you need to.
Tapas is the discipline of practice.
Tapas is what gets you out of bed on a cold, dark winter’s morning to step onto your mat. Tapas lays that foundation of a consistent practice, and consistent practice leads to transformation.
My teacher used to say that you come to Yoga once a week for maintenance, twice a week to see change and three times a week for transformation! Consistent practice of Yoga really does transform you, from the inside out.
Perhaps you could see Tapas as a slightly opposing energy to Santosa. Where Santosa is yielding and allowing things to be exactly as they are, Tapas invites you to be the co-creator of change. Both of these energies can co-exist together, it doesn’t have to be one or the other. You can have both… and….
Tapasya is a Sanskrit word meaning “the generation of heat and energy” within body and mind. So Tapas is the fire in your belly that embraces challenge.
- Perhaps this is a commitment to a 15 minute daily meditation for 30 days. Focusing the mind is a form of discipline.
- Maybe this is challenging yourself to get to a 6am class.
- Or, your discipline practice could be to challenge yourself to try a new asana or to increase your time practicing Bhastrika (Breath of Fire)!
- For you, Tapas might be challenging yourself to a 75 minute Yin class or even a 3 hour Restorative retreat to SLOW DOWN!
When you notice in class or on your mat or cushion that things feel difficult, this is also an opportunity to practice Tapas. Rather than reducing the intensity can you stay for another few breaths, and maybe a few more — building your capacity to be with discomfort. Provided it is safe and not injurious, these can be the times for the biggest transformation, when you can stay, with focus and discipline, to move through blockages.
Svādhyāya (pronounced Svaahd-yaah-ya) means the study of the self.
This study of the self can be through experiential practice through the many techniques offered in Yoga and also through wonderful tools such as journalling, working with a mentor/teacher and sitting in circle with others on the path (Kula).
This ‘self-study’ can also be through the formal study of books and articles and scriptures (even poetry, music or art of all kinds — creating art and appreciating it can be part of this journey of the study of the self).
In fact, by reading this article summarising the Niyama in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras you are practicing Svādhyāya and deepening your understanding of yourself through this Yogic map. If you’d like to read the whole book you can find it here (there are many different translations this is just one we recommend.)
You may like to invite this Niyama into your practice by:
- Committing to reading one of the sacred texts (it could be The Yoga Sutras or another Yogic text but could also be a text from your spiritual lineage or a book of poems (we love The Radiance Sutras by Lorin Roche or Rumi’s poems). Choose one passage to read each day (or week) and read it with an open mind and heart. Let its wisdom soak in and find the ways that it might resonate with your own experiences and truths. Or use Oracle or Tarot cards each day to uncover your inner wisdom.
- Commit to journalling after class. Set a book next to your practice space and allow yourself to write a couple of pages of whatever comes to mind at the end of practice in a stream of consciousness. After a month look back over what you wrote and reflect on any pieces of wisdom.
- Attend a sister circle, mens circle or a Satsang event to sit in circle with others in the community. These experiences offer an opportunity to learn from the wisdom of those around you and to share your innermost experiences and be witnessed by others in a safe space. Doing this self-study in community offers an opportunity to have things you might not see about yourself reflected back to you in a transformative way.
īśvarapranidhāna (ish-varra-prannee-daahna): Isvara is the notion of a ‘personal god’, ‘Supreme Being’ or ‘pure consciousness itself’ and pranidhana can mean a ‘laying down’ or ‘offering up to’ so this Niyama is translated to mean ‘devotion’ and ‘surrender to God’
Hold on… is Yoga religious? Do we need to believe in a Supreme God to practice Yoga?
This Niyama can be a tricky one to understand, especially if you’ve had a difficult experience with organised religion in the past. While there are many religions and definitions of God, the principle of ‘the divine’ is nearly universal in all human beings and understood as a force greater than themselves.
This could be Nature, Mother Earth, Buddha Nature, Universal Consciousness, Spirit, The Source, Life itself, Oneness, God, Loving Awareness or whatever resonates most for you. In the Yoga that we share (shaped but not encumbered by in its Hindu roots) it is part of your journey of deepening your practice to find the language that suits you.
In this sense Isvara is a spiritual, not religious, concept.
In this modern Western world, where we see ‘rational thinking’, ‘scientific knowledge’ and ‘critical exploration’ as being above concepts such as faith, this Niyama can feel inaccessible. Yet social and scientific theories are constantly evolving as new information is uncovered and so there is an element of faith and devotion required to science too.
To bring īśvarapranidhāna into your practice you could:
- Offer your practice up to something greater at the beginning and end of your class. This act of devotion is an offering of the commitment and energy you have created by stepping onto your mat or cushion to the greater good. When we chant Lokah Samastah Sukinoh Bhavantu at the end of class it is an offering. “May all being be happy and free and may my thoughts, words and actions contribute to their happiness and freedom.” There is a belief implied here in this mantra that we are all connected and that we, as beings, all deserve happiness and freedom in equal measure.
- If there is something difficult present in your life you may like to create a small ceremony or simple prayer, not asking God to fix your problems but offering them up to be held by something greater. There may be an image that helps this process — Mother Mary, the Buddha, Quan Yin (the boddhisattva of compassion), one of the ancient Goddesses or Mother Earth perhaps — imaging them holding your problems with you so you don’t hold them alone. Turn it over to them and ask for your struggles around this issue to be eased. As an alternative or addition to this practice, you may like to write some words on paper or a leaf and offer this up to a fire or a body of water.
May the explanations of these Niyama assist you in finding ways of deepening and strengthening your own Yoga practice.
If you have any questions at all please contact us here.