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Living a yoga lifestyle through Niyamas

The path of ethical discipline - Niyamas

Maintain a positive environment in which to grow; and self-discipline and inner-strength necessary to progress along the path of yoga


Saucha's the first of the niyamas, the active observances.  It involves keeping things clean, inside and out.  Saucha means both physical and mental hygiene.  We want to keep our thoughts uncluttered so we can feel free from afflictive emotions; we keep our bodies and environment in order to create a sense of calm.  A mind trained by meditation has more complexity and orderliness.  Physical orderliness can also affect the mind.  So get rid of clutter, scrub floors, simplify our lives – all these are expressions of saucha.

But do not get too hung up on the idea of literal purity.  When we work at purifying the body, we begin to understand that it will never be perfectly clean.  Patanjali says, "look more deeply at what the body is:  The more you clean it, the more you realise that it is an impermanent, decaying thing.  Saucha helps break up excessive fixation with your body, or the bodies of others."

When we learn to disidentify with the body, the Yoga Sutra suggests, we can get in touch with our essence – the part of us that's pure and free from aging, disease, and decay.  When we understand our true undying nature, it is easier to stop striving for physical perfection and instead rest in joyful awareness.


In nearly every translation of Yoga Sutra II.42, santosha is interpreted as the greatest happiness, the underlying joy that cannot be shaken by life's tough moments, by injustice, hardship, bad luck.  Contentment is really about accepting life as it is.  It is not about creating perfection.  Life will throw whatever it wants at us, and we ultimately have little control.  Be welcoming of what we get.

We can practise this on the mat quite easily, by acknowledging our tendency to strive to do a perfect pose and accepting the one we have got.  There's no guarantee that we will get enlightened when we do a backbend with straight arms, for instance.  The process of santosha is relaxing into where we are in our pose right now and realising that it is perfect. 

If we release our mind from constantly wanting our situation to be different, we will find more ease.  It is not fatalism; it is not to say we cannot, just for the moment, can we let go of the war with reality?  If we do, we will be able to think more clearly and be more effective in making a difference.

During those times when we do not feel content, just act for one moment as if we were.  We might kick-start a positive feedback loop, which can generate real contentment.  It might feel absurd when our inner landscape isn't shiny and bright, but the simple physical act of turning up the corners of our mouth can have amazing effects.  Smile – it changes everything.  Practising smiling is like planting the seed of a mighty redwood.  The body receives the smile, and contentment grows.  Before we know it, we're smiling all the time.  Whether we're practising asana or living life, remember to find joy in the experience.


Tapas is translated as "self-discipline," "effort," or "internal fire," and the Yoga Sutra suggests that when tapas is in action, the heat it generates will both burn away impurities and kindle the sparks of divinity within.

Tapas is the willingness to do the work, which means developing discipline, enthusiasm, and a burning desire to learn.  We can apply tapas to anything we want to see happen in our lives, such as cultivating an attitude of loving kindness, contentment, or non-judgment.  In yoga, it is often seen as a commitment to the practice.

Connect to our own determination and will.  Holding a posture is tapas.  We are restraining ourselves from moving and are watching what happens.  In this way, we build the capacity to tolerate being with strong sensation, and we get to answer the question:  What is our real limit?  And we develop the skill of witnessing, which is one of the most important skills of classical yoga.

The effort we use when we engage tapas is directed toward cultivating healthful habits and breaking unhealthful ones.  Asana is tapas, but if we become an asana junkie, then our tapas is to stop practising asana.  One goal of tapas is to stop anything we do mindlessly because we've become habituated.  When we use our will to overcome our conditioning, we free ourselves from the many unconscious actions that cause suffering.  Discipline is actually a path to happiness.


Happiness is our nature, and it is not wrong to desire it.  What is wrong is seeking it outside when it is inside.  To tap into the wellspring of happiness that lies within each of us, dedicate ourselves to svadhyaya, the art of self-study, of looking within and asking the eternal question: Who am I?

The Yoga Sutra suggests that the study of the Self leads us toward communion with the Divine. It is a lofty aim, but we can develop svadhyaya as we move through everyday life.  Some traditions see study as a contemplation of the ultimate.

Develop the capacity to find the answers without chastising or lauding ourselves in the process.  The highest spiritual practice is self-observation without judgement. Svadhyaya is a skillful and systematic investigation of how things are.  When we practise self-observation, we begin to uncover and address the unconscious patterns governing our lives.  When we can notice, but not judge, what we are doing and how we are feeling in every moment, we open a window to empathy for ourselves and gain the stability we need to extend it to others.

Study sacred texts, such as the Yoga Sutra, the Bhagavad Gita etc.  That's where the wisdom side develops.  If we are only looking at the Self, it is easy to lose perspective.  When we read the texts in service of svadhyaya, we will read something that really resonates, and we will begin to understand that ... all beings experience these things.  Study helps us understand the universality of life experiences and thereby increases our compassion for ourselves and others.

Ishvara Pranidhana
Dedication to the Highest / Surrender

Few dispute that the last of the niyamas, Ishvara pranidhana, is the pinnacle of spiritual practice.  Yoga Sutra II.45 says that liberation – the highest happiness – comes only from a love of, communion with, and surrender to, God.

To embrace Ishvara pranidhana, it helps to understand what "God" is.  We do not have to believe in an anthropomorphic representation of God to accept that there is a divine design, a benevolent essence in the universe.  It is about offering oneself to the divine matrix.  It is letting our own holy essence guide our actions and catching the sacred power of life.  This higher power is there for all of us, Patanjali says. That is the promise of the Yoga Sutra.

We can capture Ishvara pranidhana in any moment.  We can always pause to look for the higher essence in any situation. 

Emphasise devotion, and service, making an artistic offering to the greater good, and bringing more beauty and love into the world.  If we do that, we won't need to think about not hurting anyone or not lying or stealing.  If we dedicate our heart to loving and serving God, all other things fall into place.

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