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Five Pillars Yoga

Exploring the Eight Limb Path: The Niyamas

Week Two: Positive Behaviors and A Guide to Right Living

Over the next few months we’ll #GoDeep into Patanjali’s Eight Limb Path. If you’re just checking in, be sure to read our intro post on the path itself and its first limb, the yamas.

This week’s focus is the yamas‘ sister limb, the niyamas. While the yamas are practices concerning our relationships to others, the niyamas are practices we can do on ourselves. They are activities for right living with a focus on health, happiness and devotion.

The Niyamas 

  • Saucha: cleanliness
  • Santosa: contentment
  • Tapas: purification through discipline
  • Svadhyaya: self-study
  • Isvarapranidhana: devotion to a higher power

Much like the yamas, the niyamas are multi-layered practices with immediate applications and deeper possibilities of integration.

Take saucha. Have you ever practiced next to a really smelly yogi? Or maybe realized that you are that really smelly yogi? Cleanliness in body (and mat) is part of a balanced practice: Honoring your physical self sends a subtle but strong message that you care about your whole self and your practice. Off the mat, saucha extends to keeping our thoughts, actions and intentions honorable. Both interpretations are about distractions: What is keeping you from focusing on what’s really meaningful? Lack of clutter only helps clarify.

Santosa is the flip side of aparigraha. The niyama asks us to focus on contentment, while the yama cautions against possessiveness. Both send the same message: Be grateful for what is.

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Defined as internal fire or heat, the concept of tapas often comes up in yoga class; you may have heard your teacher mention it when you’re doing something taxing or uncomfortable, like holding utkatasana for forever. In that context, the idea of “building tapas” means stoking your internal fire and generating heat and energy to fuel your practice. On a deeper level, tapas means being able to sit in that fire, to stay centered and calm amidst discomfort and even fear (Will I ever be able to straighten my legs again?). Through the heat of our discomfort an internal alchemy occurs and cleansing arises; purification is on the other side of challenge.

In many ways, embarking on a yoga practice can be like taking a master class in your Self. The mat is an intimate and contained space to examine your reactions to frustration, emotional release, surprise and impatience, to name a few. Svadhyaya, the act of self study, encourages mindful navel-gazing. Being aware of our patterns and expectations only helps us come into right relationship with others.

God, Creator, Allah, Divine Mother, Gaia… whoever you do or do not pray to, isvarapranidhana is about recognizing and softening to the universe. If belief in a higher power is not your thing, think of isvarapranidhana as an awareness of the interconnectivity of life and its participants. Our actions ripple; by focusing on ourselves in positive ways through the first four niyamas we arrive at the practice of isvarapranidhana ready to look outside of and beyond ourselves.

Rather than dictates or decrees, the yamas and niyamas are invitations to reflect more deeply on actions we are already engaged in. Profound in their simplicity, they create a clear framework from which to explore right living and Right Intention.