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The Niyamas Of Yoga: A Yogi's Guide To Ethical Living

Amanda Tarlton, RYT-200
Contributing writer By Amanda Tarlton, RYT-200
Contributing writer
Amanda Tarlton, RYT-200, is a contributing writer for mindbodygreen. She earned a B.S. in Business Management from Wake Forest University and her RYT-200 certification from Yoga Alliance. She has previously written for USA Today, Self, Scary Mommy, Taste of Home, Reader's Digest, Fox News, and Girls' Life Magazine.
Close up of a beautiful young girl doing yoga outdoors, breathing

First found in "The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali," the niyamas are one of the eight limbs of yoga—if you think of yoga as a tree, the niyamas are one of the eight "branches" toward enlightenment and total awareness. There are five niyamas, and they all act as a sort of moral code, as they teach us how we should treat ourselves as yogis to become more self-actualized beings.

If you want to incorporate the niyamas into your own yoga practice—and in your life off the mat—here's everything you need to know to get started:

1. Saucha

The first of the niyamas—saucha—translates to cleanliness, or purity. And it doesn't just apply to your body—it applies to your mind, too. Physically, it means nourishing your body with healthy foods (think unprocessed, whole foods like fruits and veggies), practicing good personal hygiene, and keeping the space around you (from your yoga mat to your house) clean. Mentally, saucha means cleansing your mind of negative thoughts and judgments.


2. Santosha

Santosha is Sanskrit for "contentment, or happiness." But that doesn't mean you're supposed to be happy all the time or settle for "good enough"—it simply means being grateful and appreciative for what you currently have or where you currently are in your life. 

"Santosha means 'contentment,'" says yoga instructor Caley Alyssa in our 28 Days to Yoga Bliss class. That said, it could look a few ways: It might be accepting that you can only do a half split while still working toward your full split, or being grateful for the stability of your breath while facing a bout of anxiety. Santosha also teaches us to recognize that rather than search for happiness in external things (like your career or marriage, for instance), we can find it inside of ourselves.

3. Tapas

Translated to discipline or austerity, tapas is often considered the least pleasant of the niyamas. It challenges us to incorporate more self-discipline in our lives by overcoming any obstacles stopping us from being our best selves. 

For instance, tapas could be setting your alarm 10 minutes earlier (even if you're not a morning person) to have time to practice yoga or giving a presentation at work (even if you hate public speaking) to advance your career.

Because tap means "fire or heat" in Sanskrit, tapas also involves chasing your passions—those things that light the fire in you—and refusing to give up.

4. Svadhyaya

Svadhyaya means self-study in Sanskrit. It encourages us to look within ourselves and become more mindful of our thoughts and feelings. "This requires steadying the nature of your own mind and your own reality," Alyssa adds

By becoming more aware, we're able to have better control over our mindset and our actions as we cultivate a stronger relationship with ourselves. Besides doing daily activities like meditating and journaling, another easy way to practice svadhyaya is to ask yourself introspective questions throughout the day, such as "How do I feel about this? How do I want to feel about this?" or "Why do I think this? Is there another way to think of this?"


5. Ishvara Pranidhana

The last of the niyamas (but certainly not the least) is ishvara pranidhana, which means surrendering to a higher being or a higher self. That doesn't necessarily mean God or another deity—it can also be the universe or the collective consciousness.

Alyssa agrees: "In order for a full acceptance of life, we must face all of life's situations with equanimity and surrendering to the will of spirit, God or energy," she explains.   

Essentially, ishvara pranidhana teaches us that we are all connected and that there is a greater force at work, one that we cannot control. It encourages us to let go and practice nonattachment both on and off the mat. This might look like surrendering in savasana at the end of your yoga practice or letting go of a bad habit or a need to control things in your everyday life. This last niyama is all about trusting the outcome.

How to practice the five niyamas.

Feeling inspired but also a little overwhelmed? Remember that the niyamas are something to work toward, not something you're expected to be perfect at every day. The more you practice them, however, the more natural they'll become in your life.

"They're very personal guidelines," Alyssa explains. "Or perhaps better described as modes of conduct." That said, each of these guidelines will look different depending on who you are and what you'd like to personally achieve. 

"Classical yoga has eight limbs on one gigantic, magnificent tree growing toward super-conscious awareness," she continues. "Just one of those limbs contains the niyamas." So whether you're a seasoned yogi trying to reach this level of awareness or just wondering how you can enhance your yoga practice (after attempting all the styles of yoga), these five niyamas are a great place to start. 


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