Yoga as we practice today stems from Patanjali’s 8 limbs or branches of yoga.
If we think of our yoga practice as a tree, the Yamas and the Niyamas can be considered the first two limbs from which our yoga practice begins to branch out.
The 8 limbs of yoga are Yama (self restraints), Niyama (self practices), Asana (poses), Pranayama (control of the breath), Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), Dharana (one-pointed concentration), Dhyana (meditation) and Samadhi (enlightenment).
These two branches can be looked at as the dos and don’ts of yoga. Niyamas are the dos or daily practices and Yamas are the don’ts or self-restraints.
This article will deep dive into the Niyamas and how they serve us on our yogic path. The topics we’ll cover will be:
- What are the Niyamas?
- Working backward to go forward
- The Difference between the Yamas and Niyamas
- The 5 Niyamas explained
- How to connect to the Niyamas during yoga practice and in daily life
Let’s dive right in.
What Are the Niyamas?
Within our yoga tree, each of the 8 branches has its own powers and responsibilities. Their purpose is to thrive on their own and work together with the other branches to grow and sustain a healthy and lush yoga tree.
The Niyamas branch serves as a road map for self-discovery and self-care. They point out how we are in relationship to our thoughts, habits, and beliefs.
The 5 Niyamas are the self-purification practices or codes of conduct for living soulfully and in harmony with your inner and outer world.
Working backward to go forward
Yoga students typically begin their yoga journey through the third limb of yoga, Asana (poses), discovering Yama and Niyama later down the road.
To be honest, I didn’t learn about the Yamas or Niyamas until I was sitting in my first 200-hour yoga teacher training with 8 years of practice under my belt.But when I discovered them, I knew my fundamental understanding of yoga would never be the same.
This working backward is actually on purpose because it is through dedicated yoga practice with the body and breath that we uncover the inner workings of our mind and begin our journey back to the Self (spirit or soul).
The difference between the Yamas and the Niyamas
Yamas and Niyamas control the yogi’s passions and emotions and keep them in harmony.
Niyamas are what we should do in relationship with ourselves and yamas tell us what we should avoid doing in relationship with society. Both can also apply conversely to self or society but in this context that is the main differentiator.
One helpful tip I use for remembering the difference between the two is this simple mnemonic, “Niyamas are the me-yamas” referring to the main difference which is that Niyamas are about the relationship you keep with yourself, and Yamas are the relationship you keep with others.
The 5 Niyamas
Tapas: Self Discipline
Svadhyaya: Self Study
Isvarapranidhana: Celebration of the divine
Let’s look at each Niyama and see how each offers us a gateway into the inner workings of our mind, heart, and soul.
Niyama #1: Shaucha (purity)
This Niyama is about connection to what we consume internally and externally and how we show up for ourselves and in the world.
Shaucha in action can be keeping a clean and tidy space in order for energy to flow freely and unobstructed.
You might feel this Niyama tugging at you when you want to begin cooking dinner but there are still dishes in the sink from last night and you feel the need to clean them and refresh your entire kitchen before beginning to cook a new meal.
This is the essence of Saucha. The need for cleanliness, purity, and order.
It’s the Niyama that taps us on the shoulder when our thoughts are self-harming so that we have the choice to clear away distractions and create an inner environment that is optimal for our growth.
Another way I’ve noticed it come up is through my work or aspiring quality of life. If I’m writing a yoga class that feels off, I’ve noticed it’s this commitment I have with Shaucha that keeps me working to refine it.
If one of your values is offering a product or service that is as pure as it can be, honor this part of you by bowing to it and calling it by its name, Shaucha. After all, what is love without purity?
What does Shaucha feel like when I embody it? Practicing this Niyama can create beauty and clarity in our life by minimizing distractions and clutter in our inner and outer world so we can give our energy and attention to what truly matters.
Less is more mentality.
Shaucha is not about being perfect, it’s about being aware of what you are ingesting into your system and surrounding yourself with and asking yourself if it’s serving you or polluting you.
Niyama #2: Santosha (contentment)
Santosha is the practice of contentment and being happy with what is. It’s the opposite of comparison also known as the thief of joy.
When we look at someone else’s life on social media and see their highlight reel we might feel like we are lacking something or become discontent with our reality. I like to think of it as – contentment connects and discontent disconnects.
Reaching for the next goal thinking we’ll finally be happy when we get X thing is what keeps us on the hamster wheel of accomplishments. Instead of appreciating what we do have instead of what we don’t.
Santosha is not about complacency or stagnating because it’s healthy and important to have goals and dreams. Santosha is about practicing gratitude for what we do have.
When we compare ourselves to the paths of others, we lose our freedom.
practice this Niyama by stopping to notice how far you’ve come, all that you’ve overcome to be at this point in time, and nourishing your heart with gratitude.
You can bring one hand to your heart and one hand to your belly, take 3 deep breaths and allow yourself to state out loud one thing you are grateful for.
What does Santosha feel like when I embody it? It can feel like laying down a heavy boulder we’ve been carrying on our shoulders with big letters that say “everything we are not”. Replacing it with a crystal that fits in our hand that says “You are enough”.
Like a candle burning, if we focus on the wax that has been burned off we miss seeing the beautiful light burning bright right in front of us.
Tap is Sanskrit for “to burn” and that is exactly what we can think of when we think of tapas. Burning away the impurities that might come up on our Niyama journey.
We toss it into the fire for it to be transformed, as fire does.
Ask yourself, what needs consistency and tending to? What matters to me but that I might be avoiding because it feels hard?
Sometimes we might embark on a journey and find ourselves starting off strong only to lose steam when we find out how much work and effort the new habit or skill will take.
Connecting to Tapas Niyama can help us light the spark to see our endeavor through. In truth that spark is always burning, all it takes is adding some kindling.
Tapas builds our consistency muscle.
In Ayurveda, our tapas might need different approaches depending on our dominant dosha type.
Pitta dosha: Tapas is strong and might need balancing out with hobbies or meditation.
Vata dosha: Tapas in vata is irregular and might need grounding through regularity and rituals.
Kapha dosha: Tapas can be dormant and might need activating practices that generate heat in the body.
This Niyama is about mental, emotional, and physical strength. Getting yourself to do the uncomfortable things you don’t want to do. The workout that we know we should go do even for 10 minutes when we feel sluggish and unmotivated.
The healthy meal that we should cook that we know will better nourish us instead of the fast food that we are tired of eating but that feels convenient.
It’s also not to say you are not allowed to be unconscious and treat yourself or skip the workout because sometimes that is important for self-care and moderation is key.
But it’s also about being able to hold yourself accountable for your actions. Tapas will magnify our resistance and burn away self-sabotaging habits.
We can toss the impurities of Shaucha into our tapas fire for it to be transformed.
What does Tapas feel like when I embody it? It feels like empowerment. It’s choosing to embody truth instead of convenience.
Community is an amazing asset to aid you in engaging Tapas. As much as it’s about self-discipline and holding yourself accountable, don’t isolate yourself into inaction.
Surround yourself with one trustworthy friend or join a group that will help you light a fire and push you to be your best version as well as hold you accountable.
Niyama # 4 Svadhyaya (self-study)
True knowledge begins with self-discovery.
Often in yoga, we start to discover different things about ourselves while in meditation, in a yoga pose, or while reading sacred yogic texts.
We begin to notice our thoughts, habits, and the way we show up in the world.
On this quest, we might find an unraveling of what we thought we knew about ourselves and realize we might not know as much about ourselves after all.
This is the essence of Niyama Svadhyaya because it is through illuminating who you are that you realize who you are not.
Sometimes this can lead us to want to explore more about ourselves to reach the totality of who we are and it’s important to remember that self-study has no end. This is because our true Self is unbound and limitless.
If we try too hard to obtain self-knowledge we might fall into the rabbit hole of endless self-improvement and a feeling like we are in a constant state of needing to fix ourselves. This is not the purpose of Svadhyaya.
In fact, this can lead to spiritual materialism which is when we feel we must acquire more and more spiritual knowledge in order to be whole. This can only lead to constriction and a sense of lack.
On the flip side, instead of chasing endless roads to finite knowing, we can surrender to the fact that we are whole and that the true Self is always available to us at any time.
All we need to do is surrender and continue the path of self-study to transform nonserving habits into sustainable ones.
What does Svadyaya feel like when I embody it? It feels like keeping a daily journal practice and practicing being the observer of your habits, wants, and reactions. It feels like loving curiosity and freedom to continue evolving. It feels like expansive awareness.
Isvarapranidhana: Celebration of the divine
The final stop on our Niyama journey is Isvarapranidhana (celebration and contemplation of the divine).
This Niyama is all about surrender. Surrendering to what is and what is out of your control.
We can do this by coming into a child’s pose at the end of the day, saying a prayer, or taking 3 deep breaths as we connect with our inner landscape.
It is important you take a step back at least one time each day to put down what you are carrying and surrender to the bigger picture.
In the grand scheme of it all, we are simply a microcosm or the macro, whether you believe in a higher power or not.
This fact alone is liberating and a cause for celebration.
Honor the spirit or source that resides inside ourselves or through an external manifestation such as God, Kirshna, or a revered guru.
This Niyama is not about pushing dogma or religion. It’s about allowing for this surrender to serve as a reset for anything that might feel very heavy or that might be feeling out of our control.
Recognize that life never promises certainty, in fact, it promises us nothing. It’s up to us to recognize the sacred dance we are having with life.
What does Isvarapranidhana feel like when I embody it? It feels like taking a few moments of silence each day to listen inward. It feels like closing your eyes and going to the center of your brain bringing yourself back into the now.
How to connect to the Niyamas During yoga practice and in daily life
The Yamas and Niyamas are the embodiment that our yoga practice really does start when we get off the mat.
If we use the visual of carrying our yoga mat in our hearts then we can imagine our Yamas as rolling out our mat to practice next to our neighbor and the Niyamas as the mat we practice on in order to embrace ourselves while practicing.
Regardless of where you are at in your Yama and Niyama journey, trust that you are exactly where you need to be and open yourself up to receive their teachings.