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The Five Yogic Observances (Niyamas)

The five Niyamas, sometimes referred to as the “yoga-dos” or observances, make up the second of eight limbs of Classical Yoga (the Yamas being the first), outlined by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutra (2:40-45). Like the Yamas, scripture says that if you practice these observances:

  1. Cleanliness

  2. Contentment

  3. Discipline

  4. Self-study

  5. Surrender will cause no suffering to yourself or others. The Niyamas are guidelines for how to be in relationship to one’s self. They are tools for cultivating happiness, and self-confidence, and we are presented with opportunities to practice them in our yoga practice and our everyday lives. Through mindfulness, you can change your attitude toward yourself and the world to become healthier and happier.

Saucha (Purification)

Some schools of thought label Saucha, or purification/cleanliness, as the aim of the entire system of yoga, because when the body and mind are both clean, there are no distractions left in the system to keep us from attaining higher consciousness. Though pure purification is a lofty goal, yoga teaches that each time we eliminate a toxin from our body or mind, we become lighter and more attuned to the core of our being.

By practicing yoga and meditation, you will inherently become more self-aware and will notice a profound effect on your diet by eliminating poor and unhealthy food choices, as well as no longer entertaining negative thoughts.

In your physical practice, set the intention of creating a pure and radiant body and mind. Step onto the mat with an eagerness to gain a deeper understanding of yourSelf. To help cleanse the body, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika prescribes certain practices called “Shatkarmas” (like the breath of fire or the bellows breath) to help you attain this cleanliness (HYP, Chapter 2).

Santosha (Contentment)

To understand Santosha, one must first understand that it is not complacency or laziness. The kind of contentment described here is one where we are grateful and accepting of our lives and what has been brought to us. In this way, Santosha is choosing to be happy over any negative attitudes. If something is going awry in your life, though the storm rages against you, you choose to be happy and act from that place of happiness.

Santosha is an attitude that is free of dissatisfaction. You have no expectations, so, therefore, you cannot be disappointed when they aren’t met. Yoga describes dissatisfaction as one of the great veils of misunderstanding and suffering, therefore it is to be removed because no one who is dissatisfied can realize higher consciousness.

Reframing suffering can help us to be more content. Instead of identifying with our suffering or its causes, focus on the lesson that is to be learned from it and transcend the menial dissatisfaction of the moment. Again, this is a choice, one we are constantly making in every moment. Though, like all mental tendencies, contentment must be practiced.

Tapas (Self-Discipline)

Tapas consists of activities or practices that perfect the body and senses and increase spiritual fervor. It is those things we do that push us in the direction of positive change while burning away negative habits (both physical and mental). Tapas literally translates to mean “heat” or the “fire of transformation”, but it also means self-discipline. It’s doing the things we know we should do so that we become happier and healthier beings.

Tapas was once described to me as the things we do that rub us the wrong way for all of the right reasons. Like a rough rock, tapas tumbles us around throughout our existence so that we become the smooth and radiant diamond. In spiritual practice, it may mean meditating at the same time every day. In physical practice, it may mean practicing postures that create a sense of discomfort in your body and energy. But in both cases, you do the practice anyway and through that, you bring yourself step-by-step closer to mental illumination.

The other side of tapas is called Tejas, and it means the resplendent light of our efforts. For example, if you work out and eat healthy (tapas), you will be healthy and clear headed (Tejas). It’s the diamond that you get from working the rough away.

Svadhyaya (Self-Study)

One goal of Svadhyaya is to know thyself on all levels and to know your true Self (apart from the veils of the ego). It’s the journey to know how your mind moves, its tendencies, its attractions, and its aversions so that you can better set yourself up for success. Through understanding yourself, you can work to unwind generations of habits and thinking patterns. When you know your mind is working, you can recognize when you’re acting in harmony with your goals and when you’re acting against them.

In your practice, every posture is an opportunity to become more aware of your mind and body, their feelings, and to study any restrictions. It’s an opportunity to be aware as you explore and experiment. Ultimately, we study ourselves to move beyond the limitations of the ego to experience higher consciousness.

Ishvara Pranidhana (Surrender)

Ishvara Pranidhana purely means to surrender one’s actions to God or a higher power. Now, in yoga “Ishvara” literally translates to mean “your chosen deity.” Even if you’re an atheist, you can still recognize that this is something greater in the universe than yourself. Another way to think about this concept is to perform your practice or duty without any attachments to the outcome. Do it simply because it is yours to do and not for reward. This idea of selfless duty allows us to do our practice without any hindrance or grasping from the ego. We don’t meditate for enlightenment. Enlightenment happens because we meditate.

Later in the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali describes the difference between Dharana, concentration (the first stage of meditation), and Dhyana, meditation (the second stage of meditation). Meditation isn’t something that we practice, per se, but it’s a state of being that spontaneously happens when conditions favor it. Our practice in this process is to create the conditions, meaning practice Dharana. If we try to achieve the state of meditation, we will never get there. But during concentration, there is a moment of surrender that happens and we’re able to experience the state of meditation. This is the practice of Ishvara Pranidhana.


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