Last month we began to explore the 8 Limbs of Yoga and how these ancient teachings can be applied to modern life today. We delved into the 1st of the 8 Limbs, the Yamas: Ahimsa (non-harming or non-violence in thought, word and deed), Satya (truthfulness), Asteya (non- stealing), Brahmacharya (celibacy or right use of energy and Aparigraha (non-greed). If the Yamas are to be understood as outward looking ‘restraints’ then the Niyamas are the Yin to their Yang and can be interpreted as inward looking, internal practises and perhaps not things we need to plaster all over Instagram… Niyamas are referred to as positive duties or observances – the prefix ‘ni’ is a Sanskrit verb which means ‘inward’ or ‘within’ and Patanjali taught that by following the 8 Limbs one can advance on the spiritual path towards enlightenment and bliss.
So, what are the Niyamas and what do they mean? Similarly, to the Yamas, there are also 5 Niyamas:
Saucha – cleanliness
Santosha – contentment
Tapas – austerity, discipline or burning desire
Svadhyaya – self-study or self-reflection, and study of spiritual texts
Isvarapranidaha – surrender to a higher power
Now, I am no ancient sage and would be practising some serious non-satya if I claimed to follow all of the 8 Limbs of Yoga but I am a Yoga teacher with a great respect for these teachings and a burning desire to understand Yogic philosophy at a level which makes it relevant and applicable to modern life. When I completed my initial Teacher Training in Rishikesh so many of these teachings went completely over my head and seemed unobtainable but after years of teaching, practising and studying Yoga I have come to understand the Yoga Sutra’s as a guideline for living a life of meaning and my personal interpretation on the Niyamas is as follows:
Sadly, not as simple as taking a bath before rocking up to a yoga class (though it’s normally a good idea too!) it’s more about cleansing yourself holistically; body, mind and spirit. There’s a reason that Asana (posture) comes after the Yamas and Niyamas and Saucha suggests that before we embark on the physical practise of Yoga we should purify ourselves so we come to our practise from a place of positivity so the magic of Yoga can really occur. They say you shouldn’t go to bed angry and the same theory applies here, before practising Yoga learning to leave any bad habits or negative thoughts off the mat. In the Sutras this is described as a necessary step to detach ourselves from the physical world around us and prepare ourselves for meditation and Asana practise. If our minds, bodies and surroundings are cluttered it can make yoga practise far more challenging and if our thoughts are elsewhere and ‘impure’ it can be increasingly difficult to be present.Saucha can extend to our diets, our homes or environments, our thoughts and to exploring more tradition cleansing techniques such as Neti – nasal cleansing or Candle Gazing.
The Bhagavad Gita, a well known Yogic text teaches us not to look outside of ourselves for happiness but to look within ourselves and to practise contentment for what we have. We live in a society that is essentially teaching us to consistently compare ourselves and constantly strive for ‘better’. Social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook are stages for us to feed our egos but also where our insecurities can magnify. This Niyama is perhaps the most challenging to adopt in our modern plugged in lives. Roosevelt famously said “Comparison is the thief of joy” and Santosha in practise is finding contentment and joy in where we are. This applies on the mat by finding contentment in where we are with our practise rather than becoming frustrated or angry when you can’t get yourself into a pose or fall out of a balance. Santosha does not mean we stop trying and adopt an attitude of laziness but it simply means finding acceptance and gratitude for what we already have and what we already are.
Tapas (austerity, discipline or burning desire)
The word Tapas is derived from the root Sanskrit verb ‘tap’ which means ‘to burn’, and evokes a sense of ‘burning desire’ or passion. Another translation of tapas is heat, so it is often interpreted as encouraging practices that light our inner fire. Tapas is a personal practice or personal observance meaning that it has nothing to do with imposing your passions, your views or your yoga on anyone else. Tapas is not about preaching; in fact, it may mean the restraint of not forcing your views on others. To quote Ekhart Tolle ‘Tapas can mean cultivating a sense of self-discipline, passion and courage in order to burn away ‘impurities’ physically, mentally and emotionally, and paving the way to our true greatness.” So, in this way we can understand this Niyama as a means of self-discipline and finding passion in what we do. On the mat this could be interpreted as practising Yoga even when we don’t feel like it and having the discipline to cultivate an inner fire and genuine desire to develop ourselves by applying this element of Tapas.
Svadhyaya (self-study or self-reflection, and study of spiritual texts)
One of the less cryptic Niyamas and easily applicable to life today – making time for self-study and self-reflection is increasingly difficult in our increasingly connected world. The term Svadhyaya literally means ‘one’s own reading’ or ‘self-study’ and is undoubtedly a way to deepen our yoga practice way beyond our yoga mats. When was the last time you took any time out for self-enquiry and looking at what drains you of your energy and what enlivens your spirit and lights you up? By making time for genuine and undistracted self-study we open the doors to ‘yoking’ or ‘uniting’ with the true self. Meditation or journaling can be one way of bringing this Niyama into your life – one place to start could be keeping a Gratitude journal and making time for reflection. The study of Spiritual Texts is also a way to delve deeper into your Yoga practise and understand this ancient philosophy. Books such as the The Bhagavad Gita,
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Kundalini: The Mother of the Universe or Great Systems of Yoga can be a great place to start.
Isvarapranidaha (surrender to a higher power)
The very last of the Niyamas of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and said to be the most important of them all. ‘Isvara Pranidhana’ is made up of
two words; Isvara, which translates as ‘Supreme Being’ and Pranidhana, which means ‘fixing’. In most translations of this Niyama, we’re advised to ‘surrender’ to this higher power and to cultivate a trust in something bigger than our own physical reality and essentially, to make each action an offering to something bigger than ourselves. This can be observed in Yoga practise when we set an intention or in Bhakti Yoga, the yoga of devotion, by surrendering our energy to something higher. This Niyama is a very personal one and encourages us to contemplate our own beliefs and understanding of the universe. By making space for more enquiry into our own believes we are also opening the doors to more self-reflection, self-discipline, contentment and more presence. Applying these ancient teachings to our modern lives can be a deeply therapeutic and healing journey to discover our true selves.
“Yoga is the journey of the self, through the self, to the self” – The Bhagavad Gita
The Secret Power Of Yoga by Nischala Joy Devi 
How To Be A Yogi by Swâmi Abhedânanda 
A road-map of the Yogic schools.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Charles Johnston 
This concise work describes an early stage in the philosophy and practise of Yoga. Dating
from about 150 B.C., the work shows dualist and Buddhist influences. Required reading if
you are interested in Yoga or meditation.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika translated by Pancham Sinh  The oldest extant work about Hatha Yoga, including the full Sanskrit text.
Thirty Minor Upanishads by K. Narayanasvami Aiyar 
Thirty shorter Upanishads, principally dealing with Yogic thought and practice.
Karma-Yoga by Swami Vivekananda 
Can work be holy? Yoga Vashisht or Heaven Found
by Rishi Singh Gherwal 
Excerpts from the shorter Yoga Vasishta
Kundalini: The Mother of the Universe
by Rishi Singh Gherwal 
A source book on Kundalini; includes an English translation of the Lalita Sahasranama, theThousand Names of the Goddess from the Brahmanda Purana.
Great Systems of Yoga by Ernest Wood  A review of the Yogic systems.
Relax with Yoga by Arthur Liebers 
About Liz Joy Oakley
Liz Joy Oakley is Head of Vibes at MoreYoga and teaches Yoga & Meditation specializing in Yoga for Anxiety. Liz came to Yoga after being diagnosed with Malignant Hypertension and Generalized Anxiety and left the Fashion Industry to work in Wellness and help others to lead healthier lives holistically.
Liz is passionate about helping people achieve a healthier, happier lifestyle and aims to cultivate joy through her work. She now works in London facilitating workshops and events based around yoga, meditation, improving mental health, happiness, nutrition and wellbeing.