Last month, we explored the yamas, the first limb in the 8 limbs of yoga (the yogi’s path).
The niyamas, the second limb, are self-care qualities to embrace as a yogi. When we practice the following techniques, we cultivate a healthy inner environment that is conducive to our personal development, helping us to move through life with mental clarity, contentment, self-discipline, self-awareness, and humility.
Saucha, the first niyama, means purity or cleanliness. Cleansing our bodies, minds and environment can contribute to more clear headedness and bring us closer to our natural state of joy. I do feel some aversion to the word “purity” because I don’t believe that anyone is “impure” or “unclean.” However, the interpretation of purity that resonates with me has to do with accepting ALL aspects of ourselves.
Traditional yogic practices for purity, called kriyas, range from practices as simple as using a neti pot to more wild practices like drinking warm salt water to induce vomiting to cleanse the stomach.
I think it’s noteworthy that these practices for purity utilize aspects of ourselves we might consider gross or undesirable (like mucus and vomit). It is interesting to ponder how even the messy parts of ourselves are important for helping us function, and we cannot “cleanse” ourselves without getting intimate with our messy parts.
Instead of trying to deny what we deem broken, wrong, or “impure,” what if we could embrace and accept these aspects of ourselves without shame? What if we became intimate with the parts of ourselves we think we don’t like?
Here are some ideas for what practicing saucha might look like:
- Observing the spaces we inhabit and noticing if any changes can be made to make it feel more open and spacious
- Eating foods that nourish us and give us energy, and minimizing foods that don’t
- Without judgment, noticing negative feelings like resentment or disappointment and, instead of pushing them away, considering the lessons they have to teach us
- Being purely in the moment with others without an agenda or trying to “fix” them
- Meditation to declutter the mind and find glimpses of stillness
When we practice saucha, we accept all aspects of ourselves while releasing what no longer serves us so that we can move through the world with mental clarity and make space for what matters most to us.
What are some aspects of yourself you dislike? That you would prefer to deny or push away? Consider what it might feel like to drop those judgments and love and embrace yourself wholly.
Choose a room or area in your home of office and spend 15 minutes cleaning and decluttering the space. Notice the way it feels to be in the room both before and after the cleansing process.
Oh, how we humans love to defer our happiness. I can’t count the number of times I’ve thought, “Once covid is over, I’ll be happier because…”
This is where Santosha, meaning contentment, comes in.
Santosha literally translates to “complete acceptance,” and it’s a little different from happiness, although happiness is a byproduct of this niyama. Santosha recognizes the completeness in every moment and understands that things that happen are not inherently good or bad, but neutral.
When we stop grasping for the good and avoiding the bad, and start accepting the moment wholly, this is Santosha.
That’s all well and good when life is easy. But what about during times of distress and chaos? When covid is hurting our loved ones and disrupting our lives? When we are hurting from injustices in the world or wrongs done to us?
As much as we can find contentment in our happiness and good fortune, Santosha challenges us to ALSO find contentment in our sadness, depression, anger, disappointment, and anxiety.
In the midst even of hurt and grief, Santosha empowers us to reclaim control of our emotional state rather than giving it away to external circumstances or people.
The only moment that truly exists is this moment. When we are purely with our present experience, accepting the process rather than striving or grasping for things to be different, we find contentment.
This doesn’t mean becoming apathetic and doing nothing to change a difficult situation. The opposite! When we accept without grasping, we can see clearly that even in chaos, we are whole. From a place of wholeness rather than lack, we can more readily and effectively step up to the challenges in life. Then, we may find that our challenges become stepping stones rather than chasms.
A gratitude practice is a useful tool for finding contentment. What are 3 things you are grateful for in the present moment?
For the rest of the day or week, notice the stories you are telling yourself. Notice what connotation is attached to those stories. Are they positive or negative? Either way, play with reframing those stories in an objective, neutral way. What parts of the stories are facts and what parts are your feelings and opinions? (No judgments here, just exploration)
Tapas, the third niyama, means fire. It is our self discipline to listen to our inner wisdom, show up for ourselves and build our tolerance for unpleasantness and chaos. It’s about looking at the big picture instead of instant gratification.
Why do we need self discipline? Discipline teaches us to stay strong and centered in times of stress. When we stick with our yoga practice or other constructive habits even (and especially) when we don’t want to, we practice tapas. Then, when crises in life arise, we are that much stronger in the face of the challenge because we’ve been training for this moment.
A key here is that we are making a choice that is in line with our values again and again even when it is uncomfortable and maybe makes our lives harder in the short term. What that looks like is different for everybody.
Since I naturally have high energy levels and enjoy the instant gratification of a strong physical practice, tapas for me can mean slowing down and sitting still to meditate, as that is more uncomfortable and takes more self discipline than a rigorous practice (for my mind and body).
Off the mat, for me, it means making values-based decisions rather than impulsive decisions even when it’s inconvenient or I think I might receive backlash.
When we choose constructive habits that take us out of our comfort zone, and then practice them again and again even when we don’t feel like it, we might be surprised to discover our resilience and learn how capable we are of making positive change in ourselves and the world. And then, when everything falls apart around us, we will be able to maintain an unwavering strength in the face of it all.
Consider whether the habits and patterns in your life are in line with your values. Of the choices you make, which contribute to the long term well-being being of yourself, the people around you, and the greater world? Which choices are indulgent?
Choose ONE change you’d like to make in your life. Could be a healthy eating habit, journaling, meditation, spiritual practice, movement practice, skill to learn, or charitable effort. Commit to spending time on this habit daily for the next week or month, even if it’s only 10 minutes.
A lot of what we think and feel on a daily basis comes from subconscious beliefs and biases about the world that we carry, often without even knowing it.
It is easy to get caught up in all of these beliefs layered on over the years. We mistakenly think that all of these characteristics are who we are.
In yoga, it is understood that underneath all of this – our personality, social conditioning, hopes, dreams and fears – is an inner self that is divine.
Svadhyaya, the 4th niyama meaning self-study, is about uncovering that divinity by getting fascinated with what’s going on inside. When we study all of these aspects of ourselves with the wonder of a scientist, we start to learn who we really are.
For example, when we have a reaction to something, we can get curious about where it came from. Likely, the reaction came from some underlying, often subconscious, belief we have about ourselves or others or the world.
As we study ourselves we are able to recognize that we are not our beliefs, personalities, history, or thoughts. We may carry them with us, but we know that they are not fundamentally who we are. And this realization frees us by teaching us to slow down our initial reactions and act more in alignment with who we truly are beneath it all.
The stories we tell ourselves shape our world. There is no objective truth because our stories become our truth. We can look at the same situation and tell an empowering story or a disempowering one. Think of an opinion you have of something (perhaps of yourself, someone else, or society) and ask yourself what the underlying belief is beneath this opinion. No need for judgment or to change the belief, simply see if you can identify it.
For one whole day, set an intention to observe yourself and the way you react to the world around you. Notice how you move through your day, things you tell yourself and others, and how your mood changes when something goes differently than expected. Observe these things with the curiosity and detachment of a scientist. Think of your findings as fascinating clues into who you are.
Ishvara Pranidhana: Surrender
Ishvara Pranidhana, the last niyama in yoga, means surrender, particularly to something higher than ourselves.
In yoga this is the Higher Self. Some may say God, others may call it their purpose in life. It can be higher values, the Universe or the forces of nature.
In a world where everything feels out of our control, Ishvara Pranidhana invites us to realize that we never had control in the first place.
Letting go of the need to control helps us engage in life with more joy, integrity and humility. It helps us stop making our attitude dependent on whether or not we got our way.
Contrary to inaction or helplessness, practicing surrender helps us rise to face hardships in life with skill and ease.
For example, we often feel powerless when witnessing the injustices of our time. Sometimes we shrink away from taking action because these challenges seem insurmountable. We go back to our own lives where we feel we have more control. I see this kind of detached apathy in spiritual communities often and I believe it is a misapplication of yogic principles.
When we practice Ishvara Pranidhana and surrender to a purpose higher than ourselves, we are MORE likely to feel compelled to rise and take skillful action. Because justice, integrity and love are concepts higher than us.
When we stop grasping for control, we let go of what we truly can’t change, but rise to the occasion and do what life is asking us to do in accordance with our higher values, without being attached to the fruits of our labor.
This is how we truly practice yoga, “unity,” because when we see that we are connected with everything else, we will surrender to a higher power not just for our own sake, but for the liberation of all.
What do you believe in that is greater than yourself? Are your thoughts and actions in accordance with this?
For the rest of the day, notice how your body and mind respond when something doesn’t go your way. Can you relax into the moment instead of tensing and resisting?
I would love to hear if any of these self-care practices resonated with you. What are some of your favorite self-care practices (on or off this list)? Let me know in the comments.