The niyamas, or restraints, are another set of practices outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. If the yamas have a lot to do with our behavior toward others, practicing the niyamas, we cultivate good habits toward ourselves that help us live better lives. There are five of them as well, and they are:
1. Sauca: purity, or cleanliness. No doubt you’ve heard that “cleanliness is next to Godliness.” The idea behind sauca is to keep yourself and the things in your life clean and in good order so that they can function their best and help you live your life well. Knowing the connection between the body and the mind, if feed your body junk, or take drugs, for example, can you really expect to feel and do your best? You wouldn’t put sewage in your car and expect it to run well.
There is a more subtle, internal aspect to this practice also. It’s a good idea to examine what kind of things you’re feeding your ‘mental body’ also. For example, if you spend all your free time playing violent video games, you are feeding your brain these images. And it’s hard to have a peaceful mind when your brain is fed a steady diet of violence. Does this mean we should just avoid all of the unpleasantries of life? Not at all. It just means we should be mindful of what we choose to ingest—literally, and figuratively.
Of course, the tendency to keep things clean and pure must be met with brahmacarya, or moderation. Going to extremes with is ultimately self-defeating.
2. Santosha: contentment. We’re all seeking contentment, aren’t we? As elusive as it may seem at times, it helps to remember that positive states like contentment can be cultivated. There are many ways–and everyone will have their own. For me, yoga, music and laughter do the trick.
Another way to increase contentment is to cultivate gratitude. Why is it that we’re so quick to recognize the things that go wrong in our lives–when we seldom stop to acknowledge the little things that go right. For example, I was able to go to yoga class this morning because a myriad of things went right. Just to name a few–my car started; I had gas in my car; I had food to eat for breakfast; I didn’t have a wreck on the way; the teacher had the same luck and showed up and was generous enough to share her knowledge with us; my body was healthy and pain-free enough to participate…the list could go on and on.
We so rarely notice our non-headaches–the absence of problems, pain or suffering, we just become aware of these things when they show up. Waking up to the presence of non-problems goes a long way toward cultivating contentment.
3. Tapas: heat, or “glow.” I think of tapas as having to do with perseverance, self-discipline and enthusiasm. We all have days in which we don’t want to go to work, exercise or do something that’s good for us. What makes us work through our resistance? Tapas.
Sometimes it helps to remind ourselves of why it’s good for us to do something. When I feel like blowing off my yoga practice, I often tell myself – I never regret doing yoga, only not doing it. To get the benefits of any practice, we need sustained effort and discipline over time. Tapas. Of course, burnout and injuries are all-too-common facts of life and we need to be mindful—and moderate—in the way we use our energy (again, brahmacarya).
Other times we think too much about things–getting into mental arguments with ourselves about what we should do. In these cases, we need to just let go of the internal chatter and just focus on doing what we know we really need to do. Because in the doing it—in the showing up—we’ve already made progress. We’ve strengthened our tapas.
As with all of these practices, tapas can be cultivated. We may not start out with much self-discipline, but by making one little change every day adds up to a lot of progress - and momentum - before too long.
4. Svadyaya: study. Here’s another example of a practice that has both external and internal aspects. Learning and study are vital to personal development. Whether we’re practicing a new hobby, studying the yoga sutras or a new language, learning is good for your brain and your mental health.
The other side of the coin, though, is self-study. We should regularly engage in honest self-reflection, which should include examining not only the things we could improve, but the things we’ve done well. Viewing ourselves with honesty (satya), the self-discipline of tapas and the kindness of ahimsa, we can begin to see where we need to make changes in the direction of becoming the person we want to be.
5. Isvara pranidhana: surrender. This practice is often described as devotion to God—or surrendering the fruits of our labors to God. As beautiful of an idea as this is, this interpretation may not immediately resonate with everyone. It can be useful to think about Isvara pranidhana as a practice of surrendering the illusion of total control.
As much as we would like to be in control of our lives—and of course, having a certain amount of control of ourselves is desirable—at some point, we have to acknowledge and admit that we can’t control everything. All we can do in life is show up and do our best, and then leave it. Forget about the outcome. If you’ve done your best, you can rest in the knowledge that you’ve made your contribution—and remember that the ultimate outcome is not totally up to you.
Ultimately, the niyamas are about improving your working relationship with yourself, in the service of the greater good. Incorporate them into your life and see what happens!
In case you missed part one: Yoga Philosophy You Can Use: the Yamas