The second element of Patanjali’s ancient teachings of Ashtanga Yoga described in the Yoga Sutras are the “niyamas,” or observances. While the yamas are guidelines for interacting harmoniously with others, the niyamas are practices that we undertake to take care of ourselves.
The five niyamas Patanjali described are:
Ishvara Pranidhana: Devotion
Let’s examine each of the niyamas a little more:
Shaucha is about taking care of our bodies, homes and things. When we keep ourselves and our belongings clean and tidy, our minds can feel more calm and at ease. For more tips on tidy living, check out our blog post on decluttering while paying it forward by giving away what you don’t need. Beyond being clean on the outside, shaucha can extend to what we feed ourselves and the products we use in our homes. Choosing more natural options will likely help us not only live better, but also longer - certainly something worth working on!
Samtosha is about appreciating what we have. If we’re not careful and mindful, it is easy to fall into the trap of perpetually wanting more instead of being grateful for all that is around us. Samtosha extends beyond material things, as it’s not uncommon for us to want to be stronger, more beautiful, more flexible, more everything. Wanting more isn’t a bad thing, as it can be a motivator that drives us to achieve our goals. But no matter how much we achieve, there will always be people who have more and less than us – being able to be grateful for what we have now while still being motivated to do more in life is an art that we can cultivate through the practice of contentment.
Tapas can be a confusing observation on the surface, but it refers to the fire we light through challenge. By putting ourselves into a little fire – whether that is physical challenge in our yoga practice, or mental challenge by working on a difficult goal outside our comfort zone – we grow by pushing through a little heat. In yoga practice, tapas can feel obvious when holding a powerful pose until it gets a little uncomfortable, but we can also feel it in yin poses as we hold and feel our tissues start to soften and melt away old tensions, maybe even old habits. Just as in nature, a little fire can be essential to new growth.
The ancient Greek axiom “know thyself” is reflected in svadhyaya, or self-study. To really know what we want in life, and what will make us happy, we need to practice self-reflection. Through non-judgemental self-study, we can examine our strengths without getting egotistical, and our weaknesses without belittling ourselves. This can be a very difficult practice, but we can then evaluate how to grow where we want to, rather than being swept along the fast-moving currents of life. It is only by knowing ourselves that we can connect from a place of honesty, love, and acceptance with others. When we know and live up to our own values, we gain incredible strength and power that permeates throughout our lives.
Ishvara Pranidhana: Devotion
Ishvara Pranidhana can be interpreted as “devotion to the Lord/supreme being/true self,” making it potentially one of the more politically charged elements of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. But you don’t have to be religious to find meaning and opportunity in devotion. Our devotion can be to the good we seek to create in the world, and that expression of love and compassion can certainly be a reflection of something divine in all of us. Humanity has diversified greatly from the time when Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutras 5,000 years ago, with many people still living a life grounded in religion and others not. No matter our views on the subject, if we look into the deeper meaning, Patanjali’s teachings still help us find common ground and harmony at a time when humanity may need the help more than ever.