Updated: Jan 7, 2021
I'll admit, I was pretty naïve when I started yoga.
I knew it was going to change my life and that was good because I was ready to completely transform some patterns that no longer added joy to my heart or my life, but I had no idea how deep the practice was nor how much work would be involved in ‘properly’ walking the path. Now, two decades later, I am still learning and watching myself transform and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I recently wrote about the Yamas, the first five principles that outline the ancient ethical or social pathways for the yogi to follow and here I will explain the following Niyamas, which are more like personal precepts to help you establish and maintain a grounded and authentic yoga journey. They are essentially teachings to show you how to live with respect and in alignment with others and at the same time, how to know, accept and love, oneself.
The general idea is to make both the Yamas and the Niyamas your guiding light, every single day, but that’s not to say you are going to be able to do that, every single day. We’re human after all and we all have our moments, but with these guidelines to follow, it does make our work a lot easier because they not only help train our mind, body and spirit, they help us unify the lost, forgotten, distorted or disembodied aspects of ourselves, and that is ultimately what yoga is all about.
Unification of all layers of being.
So here’s what you need to know about each of the five Niyamas with some suggestions as to how you can put them into practice in your life right now.
1. Saucha – purity and cleanliness
Sounds simple enough. I mean, how hard can it be to keep your body clean, your mind clear and your thoughts pure, on a daily basis? Well, assuming a certain level of personal hygiene is a given for most people, consider the effort required to monitor what circulates your mind every twenty-four hours so you can take the ‘high road’ mentally, at every opportunity? Not sounding so easy now is it?
Traditionally the principle of Saucha is applied to body, mind and speech, but it’s important to understand that the term “body” is not only one’s own physical body but your external environment and the energy or frequency that one occupies. How un-cluttered or spacious your living and work spaces are, as well as how grounded and clear your personal energy is. The mind aspect refers to the quality of your thoughts and how they shape your inner world, whilst the speech aspect indicates the need for responsibility with how we express the spoken word. Together, both encourage awareness around the importance of thinking before a single vowel passes our lips because the words we utter do have power and they do leave either a positive or a negative imprint, once spoken out loud. Intention is everything.
If applied with focus and pure intent, this one principle has the potential to change many aspects of your life and your relationships, including the one with yourself. Spring cleaning is all about Saucha and those moments we feel compelled to do the dishes, vacuum under the bed (finally) or wash the shower curtain before mold claims it for good. Doing some basic housekeeping and maintaining a dust-free house, is practicing Saucha, or maybe for you it’s more about rinsing through your thoughts and replacing destructive self-hate dialogues with positive affirmations and gentle words of encouragement. I’m sure we can all relate to that one because as humans we all struggle with mind mastery and putting the past to rest.
Saucha is also about being more mindful about your speech and owning if you have a tendency to use words as weapons in the form of gossip, sarcasm and general critique, both written and verbal, because let's be honest, this is a bad habit many of us have been guilty of at some point. When we have worked on clearing our own shadow and resolving our samskaras (karmic stories) to a certain degree, we are more likely to practice Saucha with regularity, clarity and compassion, for self and others. If we are harboring old grievances, self sabotaging with abusive inner dialogue or living in a pigsty because we couldn’t be bothered to clean up once in a while, Saucha will be a struggle for sure.
The "upgraded" 2020 version of Saucha is all about maturely accepting one another's perspectives and allowing space for differences of opinions, experience and integration and to see the "purity" in the other person as an equal child of God who just happens to be experiencing "reality" from a different perspective to ours. With all the division that has manifested within the spiritual community this year, this first Niyama should be compulsory.
It all comes down to our ability to love and forgive ourselves really and for many people, that is a hard task.
2. Santosa – acceptance and contentment
This Niyama has the potential to attract spiritual bypass more than any other because many misconstrue the invitation to embody optimism and positivity, as a way to bandaid-up and avoid feeling and acknowledging their pain. It is important to remember that the pre-cursor to contentment, is deep inner work. One cannot heal unless one has done a certain level of transformation and moved through various rites of passage to come out the other side, matured and re-birthed. It’s always a messy process.
As humans we are programmed to avoid confrontation unless absolutely necessary, which is why so many in 2020 chose, albeit unconsciously a lot of the time, to pretend the bad sh*t wasn’t happening and that certain truths about the way the world is run and who is running it, just weren’t possible. They did this because they didn’t want to sit in discomfort and attempt to be comfortable within that, instead choosing to hide behind their yoga practices, trying to OM the angst away. Real growth however, only comes from sitting in the dark - alone - and witnessing what is no longer serving or working. That's what a "dark night of the soul" means, so welcome the fear and work to process the wounded stories that need to be dealt with.
Santosha invites us to see truths – both personal and Universal - without our usual blinkers on, in order to love it to death. To accept it exists and to be brutally honest with ourselves and where we are avoiding transformation because until we do that, healing cannot take place. First you need to admit where you are now - as in, the present moment and your life - and then surrender to what is. For example, in 2020 with so many social structures crumbling and multiple truths about how corruption fuels pretty much every industry we can think of (and has for eons), all coming to the surface of our conscious minds and social media platforms for all to see, without exposing the darkness, we would never be able to heal nor establish the balance and equality that we seek and need as a collective. This is why it’s been so disheartening to witness so many spiritual folk pretending that things like pedophilia and satanic sex rituals involving children don’t exist, when there is overwhelming current and historic evidence to suggest, support and prove otherwise. Not to mention myriad witness testimonies.
If more people found the courage to look at their inner obstacles and blocks to receiving uncomfortable truths and acknowledge the part their own soul has played in perpetuating these dense and dark programs, perhaps the rift that manifested in our global community could have been avoided or at least, lessened, during 2020. When we accept what has been our reality in the past, we can come into the now moment to discern whether we can honestly be happy and joyful staying in that same vein, or if true contentment and soul satisfaction is better achieved by choosing to break free of the paradigm.
"Sh*t happens" as the tee shirt says and putting our hands over our ears to chant mantras, is not going to provide the power or the answers we need.
3. Tapas – discipline and endurance
This one’s a no-brainer really and it’s the essence of yoga in a nutshell. Without practice, one cannot advance or perfect anything, whether it’s mastering handstands or finessing one’s hand writing. Tapas is the foundation of all the Niyamas, inviting us to get down and just “do the work”. Daily discipline is required to progress along the path of life, not just yoga and that means setting intentions and sticking to them. Whether that’s making a juice, meditating or walking the dog at the same time every day, it doesn’t matter. It’s about showing up in the moment as best you can and giving your all.
This of course is going to differ as we change and shift each day, but the idea is that you don’t let the excuses take over or capitulate to the temptation to distract. Even if your favorite TV show threatens to overlap with your practice or you’re just feeling plain lazy, Tapas demands consistency and conscious participation. It requires endurance and in regards to being an advocate of yoga, a spiritual activist or someone who uses their intuitive gifts to stimulate community awareness, this means not faltering, even when those around you throw arrows or daggers at you in an attempt to silence you or pressure you into giving up. You know you always feel better about yourself when you make the effort and apply yourself, so hold strong and don't be defined by those who are not able to receive or respect your light for whatever their personal reasons.
This is perhaps what most people struggle with - not starting something new, like a fitness regime - because they think they need to be fit before they can go get fit! Or that they need to be flexible in order to go to a yoga class to increase their flexibility. Watch the distracting chatter in your head and take charge of your ego and your yo-yo thoughts because this is how you pull yourself out of a rut and get back on track.
It’s also how you learn to appreciate and respect yourself and I don’t need to remind you of the harsh reality that if you can’t show up for yourself, nobody else will.
4. Svadhyaya – self study and learning
Reading copious religious and sacred texts is not every yogi’s cup of herbal tea, but that is not all that Svadhyaya is about. This Niyama is about applying oneself to continual education, be it tackling Sanskrit or expanding your world views on politics, poetry or even paper maché.
At its core, Svādhyāya instructs the yogi to be open-minded and receptive to “the teaching”, whatever the teaching is, so that could be watching a documentary on a current topic to expand your knowledge or encouraging someone to inquire and investigate a certain text or theory, with a critical, conscious mind. It also asks us to allow ourselves to absorb new information so that it enhances our awareness and educates us, instead of just seeking to debunk or reject anything that doesn’t initially resonate; or that only a select few are espousing. It basically encourages us to keep an open mind and to use our cognitive thinking so that we may grow and learn more about the world we live in.
Remember that truth is (always) first rejected, then ridiculed, then received. It takes most people a few months to unpack a new concept and then try it on for size and then another good length of time to filter it through their personal lens and light fields. Most people aren't even aware that they are also being unconsciously influenced by inherited stories and familial bias that unless acknowledged and cleared, will continue to impede their present-day ability to digest and process new or challenging information.
Of course we can use our discernment and either take on what we discover, or not, but the practice invites us to at least consider and create the space to explore and entertain different perspectives, teachings and texts and to always remain the student. “Beginners mind” applies to this Niyama because in truth, we are all continuously learning and un-learning as we journey through the maze that is this life.
When we stop learning and start believing we know it all and that we are ‘right’, then we most have certainly lost our yogic footing.
5. Ishvara Prandihara – devotion and surrender to God
Most people acquire a phobia about the word ‘God’ from a young age and whilst there are many religions and definitions of what I like to call ‘Creator’, all humans share a common vibration that is undeniable, regardless of creed, color or constitution. Essentially, "God" can be defined as a benevolent energy that is greater than oneself, so whether you call this force Oneness, Pachamama, Love, Light, Great Spirit, Brahma, Buddha, Jesus or Mother God and Father God, really doesn’t matter. If you can arrive at the place of acceptance that there is a greater "power" or "entity" than the human that is responsible for keeping everything in the world "working" and living in synchronicity, then you are connecting with the energy of Ishvara Prandihara. All it takes is the choice to surrender to the unknown and trust you are taken care of when you do so.
Perhaps this is why so many struggle with the concept of God, because when they witness so much poverty, grief and destruction in the world it makes it extremely difficult to trust there is a purpose to it all. Our mind will always doubt, but our soul knows this to be true and this is exactly why we must dig deep and find and keep the faith in our own ways, because everything (and everyone) in this world is here for our benefit and to help our spirit grow. All we need do is see the gifts in both the pleasureable and the painful and understand that life is a repetitive cycle of yin and yang, of light and dark and of up and down and that when we master our reactivity to what is and anchor in love, we start to appreciate this intricate dance that both creates and destroys, at once, within and without.
Our primary task is to remember we are a part of that primal, holy pulse.
Whatever 2021 brings us, it will be real and it will be necessary for our individual and collective growth, so I encourage you to start making time to connect with the Yamas and Niyamas and to let them under your skin so you can receive the new, release the old and embody more of who you are meant to be in this life.
Breathe deeply, tread lightly and don't forget that YOU are actually the yoga.