“Niyama” means a set of observances. The Yamas is about one set of conduct, as relates to the external world. The conduct to observe in the Niyamas is more personal and internal.
This limb has five branches.
Tapas – Disciplined use of energy
Svadhyaya – Study of scripture and self
Isvarapranidhana – Surrender to the spirit
This is a profound sort of cleanliness, and it encompasses both internal and external kinds. Outer cleanliness is the more obvious sort: keeping yourself and your environment clean. We all like to have a clean studio in which to practice, and we know you can’t focus if you’re worried that your environment is full of mold and mildew. Similarly your organs can’t function optimally if they only get preservatives and no vitamins – so cleanliness of the inside of the body is just as important as what is outside your skin. Pranayama and asanas are wonderful for purifying the body to attain saucha, cleansing the lungs and oxygenating the blood.
We exist in constant interaction with our environment – always give-and-take. Consider this in terms of the people with whom you surround yourself. Do they have the qualities you wish to have? Yes, everyone has flaws, and it’s important to fully accept your loved ones flaws and virtues. But think — are you devoting your time to people who inspire and bring out the best in you? Accepting someone is flawed is good, but if someone’s deeds are actually toxic, you can accept the person without condoning the conduct or allowing it your environment.
Inner saucha is keeping yourself clean of toxic emotions that can cloud your mind and hurt your connection to your spirit. Hate, anger, greed, lust, delusion, and pride can all distract you from the positives in your day to day life. One of the best times to let go of negativity is at the end of a class, in lotus or half-lotus before savasana. You’ve had an entire hour or more to get some space from these negative emotions, so as you’re breathing, you can visualize inhaling peace and strength, and exhaling the negative feelings.
Santash is contentment, or being happy in the present. In studies about happiness, one trait that consistently appears in happy people is gratitude. They think every day about being grateful for what they have rather than envious or disappointed about what they don’t have. Even if they have goals and are working to achieve something they don’t currently have, they are still grateful for their health, family, current levels of achievement.
Dwelling on the past, whether it’s someone who just cut you off in traffic or someone who was hateful to you five years ago, prevents samtosa, because dwelling on the past means you’re not present. That also causes problems achieving saucha because the self is still stuck in yesterday’s dirt! If someone was cruel to you, there’s no need to accept that behavior and allow it into your life again. However, there is no need to cling to it either.
In Illusions , Richard Bach points out that “What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly.” Situations aren’t necessarily good or bad – they just are what they are. Notions of good or bad are what we attach to them. Accepting that something just is what it is, and taking control of your own feelings, is a major step on this path.
Another aspect of santash is mastery of your senses. The Buddha said “Suffering comes from attachment.” It’s easy to let your senses rule you when we live in a culture that indulges and pampers them. Seeing a pretty thing and wanting to own it, smelling a rich food and wanting to indulge in it – these are things we live with every day. Consuming mindfully, allowing some wants as well as needs, is healthy! We don’t advocate extremism. But your life will be simpler and better if you have the ability to step back and say, “I am not my senses. My senses and cravings do not govern me. I can decide whether or not to want this.” Remember, one of the rewards of yoga is spiritual liberation.
Tapas literally means heat. It’s often associated with spiritual austerity. It harnesses the cleansing power of fire, burning up desires that stand in our way, and fueling ourselves with energy. It can mean spiritual suffering or ecstasy. When you’re in class and your muscles are burning, it is discomfort, which is a form of suffering. You stay in the pose because your mind is disciplined – and that discipline is the tapas. Do you feel lighter and happier after class, as if your stress has burned away? The more consistently you burn away negative emotions, the easier it is to let go or resist in the future.
Praticing tapas burns off negative energies, clearing a path towards spiritual and mental evolution. It is a striving for nirvana or moksha – striving for perfection, serenity, enlightenment. You may have heard stories or seen pictures of ascetic yogis following difficult practices, like holding poses or standing in the hot sun for incredible lengths of time. They do this to transform ordinary consciousness. As impressive as these feats are, they are not realistic for most peoples’ day-to-day life. Part of the work of class is transforming consciousness through the mental discipline needed to hold poses in heat. You practice tapas unknowingly when you focus and challenge yourself for a goal: achievement in a sport, developing a healthier life, losing weight, defeating stress. Tapas integrates all aspects of you towards perfection.
This fourth branch is about study, both of scripture and of self. To gain better understanding of yoga, you may want to read Iyengar’s Light on Yoga or Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. By understanding the principles of yoga better, you will understand yourself better, as yogic principles are ways of living harmoniously in the world. It’s not enough just to read the words – it’s thinking, “How do I fit in with these ideas, and vice versa?”
Any activity, though, that cultivates self-aware reflection, is svadhyaya. You can practice this while washing the dishes, driving to work, or getting your groceries. It is about participating in life activities mindfully, being aware of our own actions and participation, and even to acknowledge and welcome our limitations. It is about being grounded rather than reactive.
This last branch, isvarapranidhana, literally means “to lay all your actions at the feet of God.” However, this is a useful principle in any and all beliefs, even atheism. This is about letting go of egoism and recognizing the unifying principles of the world. The Buddha pointed out that suffering comes from attachment, and that the more you cling to a desire or an injury, the more power it has over you. Clinging to things in life, getting very upset that something out of your direct control changed your plans, or getting distracted by things that are ultimately unimportant will slow your spiritual growth. Isvarapranidhana is about laying these actions and concerns down, and surrendering ego concerns.
If you’re practicing an asana, are you getting the full benefit if you’re clinging to what others might be seeing in you, rather than considering the rotation of your hip or your spinal alignment? What if you are worried about what to make for dinner, or whether your boss called? If you can surrender these concerns that are not relevant to your pose, and just be present in your pose, then you have made a good step towards isvarapranidhana.