Decoding the Yamas and Niyamas - Part 2

Welcome to Part Two of our exploration into the philosophy and ethics of yoga!

The Yamas we talked about in Part One tell us how to treat others, and the Niyamas focus more on how we treat ourselves. These practices aim to cultivate a way of living that serves you best. The Niyamas are the second limb in an eight-limbed path that yoga comprises of, based on the ancient Yoga Sutra scriptures of Patanjali.

In this post we’re going to be diving into what these practices look in real modern-day life, breaking them down in a simple and easy to understand way. We’ll also talk about how they might actually be of value to you as we look at the evidence-based research and explore a couple of ways that you can easily incorporate them into your day to day life.

And remember, I’m not trying to tell you what your values should be! Some of these practices may resonate with you, and some might not. But I encourage you to always challenge and question your beliefs, behaviours, and ethics, to cultivate a life that is right for you. I’ll offer you the traditional scriptures and a scientific evidence base, and the rest is up to you.

There are 5 Niyamas:

  1. Saucha: Cleanliness and Purity

  2. Santosha: Contentment

  3. Tapas: Discipline

  4. Swadhyaya: Self-Study

  5. Ishwar Prandi Dhana: Devotion

Let’s break them down and explore them in a little more depth. For each Niyama we’ll explore what it is and how it relates to modern life, how it might bring value to you, and some inspiration on little ways that you could start bringing these practices to life.

Saucha: Be Clean

This refers to the cleanliness and purity of not only your body and living space, but also of your mind and speech. The idea of cleanliness and purity is up to your own interpretation. It’s about looking at the things that are in your control and choosing to clean up what you see. Are my thoughts positive? Are my words kind? Is my bedroom floor tidy? Am I taking care of my body?

How could this improve your life?

Aside from the obvious hygiene and physical cleanliness benefits, the concept of ‘clean’ can mean different things and have different meanings to people. “Clean eating” may be healthy for one, toxic to another. But if your cleanliness practice consists of things that serve and benefit you, striving for cleanliness is a worthy pursuit, with quite unique benefits for everyone.

Your mental state is closely linked with your environment. You can see in our last post how this ties to the Yama of Aparigriha, or non-possession. Removing the clutter and creating a space that makes you feel happy and calm can have an amazing impact on your mental clarity.

And then we can talk about cleaning up our thoughts and behaviours. There are clearly enormous benefits to this, which I can’t even begin to describe here. But learning to be aware of your thoughts, emotions, and behaviours is the single most powerful thing you can do for your mental health and overall wellbeing. It ties so closely in with all of the Yamas and Niyamas, but here especially.

How you might bring this into your life:

  • Hatha Yoga actually outlines a set of physical and mental cleansing techniques called Shatkarmas. Many involve salty water in various orifices or pretty intense breathing exercises, so if you’re interested in practicing them, I’d definitely recommend doing it under the guidance of an experienced practitioner.

  • Clean up your self-talk by getting rid of the negativity. There are lots of tools and exercises you can use to help with this. One of my favorites is MindSpot, which offers free and evidence-based online tools and courses to work on your mental health and self-talk. Also check out Head to Health, which is a government-created mental health resource.

  • Clean up your planet by participating in a clean up in your local area. Check out Clean Up Australia, or an organisation that runs planet positive events in your community

  • Create mindful rituals around physical self-care. Washing your hair with love and kindness towards yourself, brushing your teeth with gratitude, and relishing in the feeling of freshly washed sheets. Taking in these moments can have surprisingly profound impacts on our brain and its wiring, which we dive into in our next Niyama, Santosha.

Santosha: Be content

Contentment doesn’t mean being happy all the time. It’s about learning to stop fighting with our emotions. Constantly wanting more, wanting better, wanting perfect. Pushing away the hard things and avoiding bad feelings. It’s exhausting! Santosha is about slowing down with two very important processes: mindfulness and acceptance. This means recognising what is and accepting it without judgment. From here, you can build on practices like gratitude, loving-kindness, and self-compassion.

How could this improve your life?

Here I want to talk about a very interesting theory called Self-Directed Neuroplasticity. This idea was developed by psychologist Rick Hanson, and the concept is pretty basic at its core. Our brains have a bias for remembering negative information rather than positive. Our brains also tend to use the neural connections that are the strongest. When we deliberately spend more time absorbing positive experiences, they are encoded into our brains, and those neural connections become stronger, and therefore preferred by the brain. Essentially, we can wire our own brains to turn a passing sense of contentment into a lasting trait. It’s a little more complicated than that, but this concept was a game-changer for me. Click here to learn more, and keep reading below for some tips on how to do this!

How might you bring this into your life?

  • Self-Directed Neuroplasticity has a really simple evidence-based practice that you can use called ‘Taking in the Good’. The steps are simple:

  1. Notice a good experience occurring, or create one

  2. Hold onto the positive experience for around 10-30 seconds. That’s just a couple of long, deep breaths

  3. Absorb the experience, paying attention to all of your senses, imagining the experience soaking into you

  • Gratitude is another easy but powerful practice to introduce into your life, and there are so many ways to do it. Some people prefer more tangible practices like gratitude jars or journals, whereas others prefer reflecting with a loved one or with themselves. But as with the practice above, you’re essentially training your brain to identify the positive things, and with practice, it becomes far easier to recognise and gravitate towards the positive.

  • Formal meditation and mindfulness practice is another way to start practicing santosha. Again, there is a lot of ways to go about this. Basic mindfulness skills training involves learning to be aware of your breath and bodily sensations, and accepting whatever is going on. Then you can experiment with practices such as Loving-Kindness meditation, which involves sending love and compassion to others and to yourself.

Tapa: Have a Healthy Dose of Discipline

In the scriptures, Tapa refers to austerities that are practiced to develop willpower and express dedication to God. You can see these kinds of practices in faiths all around the world, such as fasting and observing vows. But discipline means very different things for different people and has a unique role to play in each person’s life.

When I think about Tapa and discipline, I think about what it means to work towards my goals enthusiastically and passionately. Sometimes to reach our goals or get the outcomes we want, we have to do the hard yards and do things that aren’t pleasant. We work on healthy habits and practices that make us better people, even though it’s hard. For me, that’s what discipline is.

What discipline should not be is toxic. Working yourself into the ground, burning out, being hard on yourself just to feel like you are doing enough, suffering just for the sake of suffering. You are already enough, and you are more than your productivity. Ironically, the hard and unpleasant work might be healing your relationship with discipline.

How could this improve your life?

Your relationship with discipline is going to be a large determining factor in your overall success in life when it comes to making and meeting goals. When you do examine this within yourself, you might have to be prepared to learn some hard truths about yourself. What is stopping me from reaching my goals? What beliefs are holding me back? Is the way I’m doing things truly making me happy, long term? Understanding these things could have a huge impact on how you live your life. As I said, the hardest bit is often not the discipline itself, but your relationship with it.

How might you bring this into your life?

  • Accountability works differently for everyone. Some people have an innate sense of accountability, and others prefer external sources of motivation. I love the model theorised by author Gretchen Rubin, who says there are 4 types of people: upholders, obligers, questioners, and rebels. Each type of person has a different level of internal and external accountability. In general, understanding how you respond to discipline will help you cultivate it in a way that’s less toxic and more productive.

  • We all have those tasks that just seem like a drag. Next time you find yourself resisting a job, bring it back to your “why?”. How is this activity bringing value to my life, or bringing me closer to my goals? If it isn’t, why am I doing it?

  • If, like me, you have a history of perfectionism or toxic discipline, consider whether this might be the time for you to challenge those thoughts and behaviours, and work on what discipline means to you. Or on the flip side, if discipline is a challenge for you, maybe working though those barriers with someone could be a way for you to start building that practice in a healthy way. In both cases, a professional therapist or counsellor could be valuable.

Swadhyaya: Keep Learning

This Niyama refers to the study of scriptures and philosophy. But more broadly than that, self-study is about recognising that our learning journey is never over. And most importantly, our process of learning about ourselves is forever evolving and growing, and it is such an important practice to keep being curious about our own minds.

Patanjali defined self-study as ‘non-interrupted study for long periods, with full and unconditional faith’. But honestly, study can take whatever form that works in your life. Whether that's listening to a podcast in the car, going to a counseling session, or maybe just shouting across the room "Hey Google/Siri/Alexa/Cortana!"

Learning is humbling by nature. It requires us to put down our ego, embrace the things that we don’t know. That might mean some vulnerability, but the benefits are worth it.

How could this bring value to your life?

When you learn about new things and engage in novel activities, your brain releases dopamine, white matter gets denser, and neural pathways get stronger and faster. But more than that, its fun! Curiosity is one of the purest joys in life. Seeking new things to learn can lead to new passions, meaningful hobbies, and maybe even new social connections.

Growth mindset is an area of research that has garnered significant attention, particularly in the fields of education and child development, but proves incredibly beneficial in all ages. The idea is based in neuroplasticity and psychology. Basically, understanding that your brain has the capacity to learn new things and improve when we’re faced with challenges. Believing that we can learn and grow, helps us learn and grow!

Learning novel information also plays a role in preventing age-related cognitive decline and dementia by keeping your brain active and healthy.

As we’ve mentioned already, learning about yourself and understanding your thoughts, emotions, and behaviour can be a hugely important part of your life. Some people cringe at the whole ‘Self-Improvement’ rhetoric, but it doesn’t have to be like that. Learning about yourself can come in whatever form feels right for you, and you can try lots of different paths, which will probably all teach you lots of different lessons. Stay curious and non-judgemental, and see where it takes you.

How might you bring this into your life?

  • You all know I’m a massive fan of therapy and counselling. I don’t think I can understate the importance of talking through your experiences with someone who can help you tease out your thoughts and behaviours. This isn’t just for people who are experiencing distress or a mental health concern! Everyone should have the opportunity to work on their own mental wellbeing.

  • Do something without trying to be good. There’s something insanely liberating about giving yourself permission to be bad. Be creative! Write poetry that doesn’t rhyme, paint pictures with gluggy paint, or dance in your living room like a total dork. Learn and make things for the sake of having fun and trying something new, put aside pride and success and just go for it

  • Tap into your inner child, and start asking weird and wonderful questions. We have the entire collection of human knowledge at our fingertips, so use it! Why IS the sky blue? Do penguins have knees? How does long division work? All mysteries within our grasp. My point is, embrace curiosity and learning, you never know what you might learn along the way.

Ishwar Prandi Dhana: Devotion

Traditionally this Niyama is related to devoting yourself to God (referred to as ‘Ishwar’ in Vedic philosophy). Yoga beyond everything else is a spiritual path, but it is also about finding meaning in something bigger. This doesn’t necessarily mean organised religion! If spirituality is a concept that makes you squirm, I get it, because it took me a long time to wrap my head around. I love the definition of spirituality developed by Dr Brene Brown:

Spirituality is recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion. Practicing spirituality brings a sense of perspective, meaning, and purpose to our lives.

So Ishwar Prandi Dhanda is all about letting go of the ego, celebrating your aliveness, and living a life that expresses your values to the fullest.

How could this bring value to your life?

Studies pretty consistently find that people who have some sort of ‘existential’ practice, such as religion or spirituality, tend to be happier and healthier. On one hand, it generally provides a strong sense of community and social connection, which in itself is fantastic for wellbeing. But more than that, it gives a richer meaning to both suffering and joy.

Viktor E Frankl, a neurologist, psychiatrist, and Holocuast survivor, wrote a book called ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’. I could write a whole post on this work in itself, but one quote says it really simply:

Those who have a 'why' to live, can bear with almost any 'how'.

How might you bring this into your life?

  • Well, this is the big question, isn’t it? The good news is, no one is asking you to go out and buy prayer beads and incense and move to a mountainside to chant and pray. The brilliant thing about this path is that it can be 100% yours, so throw out your stereotypes and preconceived ideas about what spirituality should look like!

  • If religion is already something that brings you value, draw on that. If it’s something new to you, start slow, and with an open mind. Give yourself permission to experiment and learn, without any judgement or expectations on yourself or others.

  • A great starting point is meditation. There are many schools of meditation, just as there are many schools of yoga. Drawing on Brene Brown’s definition of spirituality being grounded in love and compassion, one great place to explore is Loving-Kindness meditation. It starts to build on this idea that we’re all connected by this strong and innate sense of humanness, bound by universal experiences, and bonded by compassion.

  • That’s what devotion means to me. It means being devoted to kindness, both for others and for myself. It means equality, celebrating both our sameness and our diversity. And it means that Ishwar isn’t something you believe in, it’s something you do.

I hope you've enjoyed this little into to yoga philisophy! If you haven't read part one where we talk about the Yamas, click here!

Keep your eyes peeled for more exploration into the Eight Limbed Path, and let us know if there are any other topics you'd like to see!

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