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 accountabil