Niyama: Yogic Guidelines for Peaceful Living (Part 2)


The first step in Pantanjali’s 8-limbed path of yoga (a path laid out by Pantanjali describing specific steps one should take in yoga practice), is Yama.  Last week we reviewed Yama, which is described by Yoga Journal as ethical standards focused on how you think & act (particularly with people, places, & things around you) and how practicing Yama can positively affect mental health.

Today I’d like to touch upon the second step in the 8-limbed path of yoga, the sister to Yama, known as the Niyamas.  Yoga Journal gives a very vague definition of the Niyamas, stating merely that they “have to do with self-discipline and spiritual discipline.” I have also seen some authors and yoga practitioners describe Yama as practices we engage in toward others and Niyamas as principles we practice toward ourselves.  Here, I think that no single definition 100% captures my own philosophy of Niyama.  Rather, I find that combining definitions and finding the definition that resonates most with us and with our students is most useful.  As a teacher trained in Integrative Yoga Therapy (IYT), I am partial to our own definition of the Yamas & Niyamas (though I concede that even this definition is vague and could be more in-depth).

In Integrative Yoga Therapy, we are taught to think of Yama as principles to live by and Niyamas as qualities to aspire to.  The thought being that living by these principles and aspiring to these qualities provides focus on the process of transformation and personal development.  Briefly described, the Niyamas are:

  • Saucha (cleanliness). Some practitioners also define Saucha as purity.  We can practice Saucha in multiple ways – by practicing effective self-care, by keeping our homes/desks/living spaces organized and orderly, and by refraining from activities that feel “impure” to us.  Yoga Journal goes on to state that Saucha is as much about keeping our energy clean as it is our physical surroundings.  This may be best conceptualized as practicing a little bit of karma by being cognizant of others, acting considerate, and simultaneously recognizing our separateness from people in our lives while being respectful of the connection we share.
  • Samtosa/Santosha (contentment).  The opposite of Santosha is (unsurprisingly) discontentment.  In Western society and mental health settings we may see this arise most often in the form of anxiety and/or depression.  Santosha is about accepting your limitations and cultivating an attitude of gratitude for what you have rather than focusing on what you don’t have.  Santosha also teaches us that by practicing contentment today, we may actually be able to better achieve our goals because we are fully focused on the task at hand rather than distracted by negative self-talk, criticisms, or harsh judgements (all of which actually distract us from our goals and also generate anxiety).
  • Tapas (heat/spiritual austerities/perseverance).  Tapas is about dedication.  Whereas we work with Santosha to find contentment, by practicing Tapas we resist complacency and work steadily, with focus, toward our goals.  As Yoga Journal states, “Effort is required to make anything bear fruit in the physical world, and yet we have to balance tapas with samtosha-effort with contentment. If we try to force things, we will end up doing harm.”  In terms of Western psychology, I like to think of Tapas as a concept closely tied into Marsha Linehan’s concept of Mastery.  Linehan developed Dialectical-Behavioral Therapy (DBT), a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy originally developed to help people with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). DBT helps clients practice emotional regulation, mindfulness, distress tolerance, and interpersonal effectiveness.  One component she recommends for emotional regulation is to pick something you like to do, do it well, and do it regularly (preferably daily).  The argument being itisn’t necessarily WHAT you do that makes the difference, but how competent you feel about doing it.  By practicing Tapas in our daily lives, we can help increase our Mastery and thus help improve our mental health.
  • Svadhyaya (study of one’s self).  Svadhyaya is about observing and reflecting on our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.  It is also about dedicating ourselves to continued personal growth and developmentand focusing our awareness internally rather than externally.  One way I practice Svadhyaya in my own life is to reflect on my interactions with others, particularly after an argument or debate.  While so often the gut reaction in these situations is to determine the wrongdoings of whoever we are debating with, I find the practice of Svadhyaya particularly essential to maintaining my own sense of personal wellness and keeping my relationships healthy.  By engaging in self-study we can determine what triggers us in particular situations and weight whether our reactions are 1) warranted by the situation and 2) worth their possible consequences
  • Isvara pranidhana (surrender).  As a counselor specializing in substance abuse, I often see correlations between what I practice as a yoga student/teacher and what my client’s practice in their recovery meetings (Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, etc).  In general, the very first step in any of these 12-step lineages is to admit powerlessness and the second and third are to surrender to a higher power of your choosing.  Thus, yet again I find the similarities between yoga practice and more Westernized forms of mental health treatment.  By surrendering ourselves we free ourselves from a life of constant pursuit of our goals and learn to accept our lives exactly as they exist today.  I have seen time and time again that it is when my clients struggle to be in control (of their lives, of their emotions, of their friends/family/colleagues) that they are also at their most stressed, anxious, or depressed.  Surrendering isn’t about giving up, but about realizing that there is only so much we can control in the world and being okay with that realization.

Below, I’ve posted one of my favorite infographics describing the Yamas & Niyamas, generated by Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati.  I like this infographic because it briefly & easily captures each of the Yamas & Niyamas and visually outlines the opposites of each.  Now that I’ve described each fully and drawn some correlations between the Yamas/Niyamas and Western mental health philosophies, I’d like to spend next week’s post addressing these connections more in-depth and advocating with research for the appropriateness (or inappropriateness) of these practices with specific mental health concerns.

Note:  As yoga teachers, students, advocates, or mental health practitioners it is essential that we recognize the difficulty in practicing any or all of Yamas & Niyamas.  As human beings, it is easy for us to become imbalanced in one area at the sacrifice of another.  For example, too much truth can be harmful if not countered with the practice of ahimsa, asteya, and svadhyaya.  A true yoga practice is about living in the constant ebb & flow of all of these practices rather than dedicating ourselves wholeheartedly to one while forgetting the rest.  Thus, we must refrain from pushing our students too hard single-mindedly in any one direction.