The Comprehensive Guide to the 5 Niyamas of Yoga

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Like many yogis, I began my practice with purely physical goals, looking to break a sweat with some vigorous Sun Salutations and build strength with Warrior poses. And also, like many yogis, I eventually discovered that beyond the physical asanas (poses) lay a profound philosophy that would transform my practice and reframe my entire outlook on life.

Now, as a yoga teacher, one of my favorite things is to witness this slow-burning transformation within my students as they gradually pick up bits and pieces of yoga’s philosophical teachings.

In particular, I’ve found the niyamas – a set of founding principles in yoga philosophy – profoundly helpful in cultivating a mindful and meaningful life. As I deepened my yoga practice over two decades, I have been continually amazed at how the ancient wisdom of yoga remains relevant to our modern times.

Personal development is a 40 billion dollar industry and is growing every year. There is much value in seeking professional guidance through coaching and counseling. But you can also begin a journey of self-discovery by diving into the world of yoga and allowing its founding principles to permeate your daily life outside the four corners of your yoga mat.

The niyamas are more than just lofty philosophical ideals – they are practical tools to help you live a more intentional and fulfilling life. Join me on this exploration as we unravel the significance of the niyamas and learn how to use them, creating harmony within yourself by living a balanced yogic lifestyle.

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Yoga Philosophy as a Lifestyle

What exactly does it mean to live a yogic lifestyle? Do you have to practice every day for an hour-long session? Or sit in Lotus Pose, meditating for a certain amount of time? Do you have to eat a vegetarian diet or live in Lululemon leggings? 

Living a yogic lifestyle is simpler than you might think. You don’t have to leave society and become an ascetic monk. You don’t even have to step onto your yoga mat every day. 

At its core, yoga is a philosophy first, supported by a movement practice rather than vice versa. The sage Patanjali defined 8 Limbs of Yoga in the ancient Sanskrit texts, the Yoga Sutra. This foundational text outlines the philosophy and practice of yoga in a systematic format of 8 “limbs” or areas of focus. 

The third limb of yoga is the physical asana practice most of us are familiar with. But there are seven other limbs, meaning practicing yoga must extend far beyond the mat. 

Yoga guru and spiritual teacher Sadhguru explains it like this: 

“Bending and twisting your body benefits your physical health, but there is much more to being a yogi. Some sense of being a little more than the physical body is important. Even if you are not like that 24 hours of the day, at least a few moments in a day, you should be a yogi.” 

Practicing yoga is not just about spending time on your mat but connecting to the underlying philosophies that provide a foundation for physical practice. 

To understand the core concepts of a yogic lifestyle, we must take a couple of steps back from the third limb of asana practice and examine the first two limbs: the yamas and niyamas. 

Yamas and Niyamas

Within yoga philosophy, the yamas and niyamas make up the first two limbs. Collectively, they provide ethical and moral protocols to guide yogis along the eight-fold path. 

The yamas focus on ethics and define how we should interact with the external world. They emphasize qualities like compassion, honesty, and moderation. The niyamas are more about personal conduct, focused on individual virtues and self-awareness. Think of them as guidelines for living a mindful and healthy life – physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

The yamas are relatively straightforward to adapt to daily life: Be kind to others, don’t steal or be greedy, tell the truth – you get it. The niyamas, on the other hand, can be more challenging to implement since they require individual effort and self-discipline. 

Forming healthy habits is all about taking small, actionable steps. That’s where the niyamas come in. Despite their ancient origins, the wisdom of the niyamas remains highly relevant and applicable to modern living. 

The five niyamas are: 

  1. Saucha (purity)
  2. Santosha (contentment)
  3. Tapas (discipline)
  4. Svadhyaya (self-study)
  5. Ishvara Pranidhana (surrender) 

Now, let’s examine these virtues in greater detail, exploring practical ways to incorporate the niyamas into life on and off the yoga mat. You’ll soon discover how these principles can infuse your yoga practice with purpose and add meaning to your everyday life. 

1. Saucha - Purity

If you’ve heard the phrase, “Treat your body as a temple,” that’s a fundamental interpretation of saucha. This niyama translates to purity or cleanliness, both internally and externally. Practicing saucha means removing so-called impurities from your life to achieve optimum physical health and mental clarity. 

Think of an “impurity” as anything that disrupts the natural harmony of existence. These could be tangible items creating visible clutter or abstract ideas like arrogance or jealousy. 

Saucha on the Mat

When you do any of these things within your yoga practice, you are practicing saucha:

  • “Clean” or precise alignment
  • Smooth transitions as you flow between postures
  • Keeping a tidy practice space and cleaning your mat after use
  • Practicing poses that unblock energy, increase circulation, or build body heat
  • Pranayama breathwork, or simple deep breathing, which increases lymphatic flow
  • Refraining from self-critical or judgmental thoughts while practicing

Saucha off the Mat

To incorporate more saucha into your everyday life, here are some suggestions to try:

  • Eating “clean” (nutritious, whole foods) or maintaining a balanced diet (following Ayurvedic guidelines, for example)
  • De-cluttering your home or workspace
  • Mindful media consumption considering the types of images and news you feed your psyche
  • Screen breaks and tech-free time to decompress from mental overload
  • Noticing your internal dialogue and clearing your mind of nagging thoughts or negative self-talk
  • Purity or clarity of speech by saying what you mean 

Chances are you’ve been doing many of these already and didn’t even realize you were practicing yoga by tidying up your space. Next time you’re about to leave your clean laundry piled on a chair rather than folding and putting it away, try using the virtue of saucha as motivation to complete your task.  

2. Santosha - Contentment

The second niyama, santosha or contentment, is vital to maintaining positive mental health. Some people might use the words “contentment,” “happiness,” and “satisfaction” interchangeably. In regards to santosha, however, contentment transcends fleeting moments of happiness. 

Santosha represents a stable, lasting happiness not connected to material possessions or personal accomplishments. It’s about learning to see and accept reality for what it is –  not in a complacent way, but from a place of present-moment awareness. 

Santosha on the Mat

Take a santosha-infused approach to your yoga practice by considering these scenarios: 

  • Accept your level of practice as it is. For example, beginners should practice according to their abilities rather than jumping into the splits or a handstand immediately. 
  • Avoid comparing yourself to other yoga students by accepting that everyone’s bodies and experiences are unique. 
  • If external noises or distractions arise during yoga or meditation, there’s no need to fight against them. Accept them as part of your practice and take the opportunity to practice mindfulness
  • Honor your body’s limits without forcing yourself into a position that might cause strain.
  • Appreciate that every practice session is a new experience. Some days, your balance may feel off, but rather than berate yourself about falling out of a pose, accept that you’re having a wobbly day and shift your perspective to one of curiosity. What feels different about your experience that is causing you to wobble? Is there some minor adjustment you can make to change your experience? 

Santosha off the Mat

Practicing santosha in your day-to-day life is often about your outlook. It can look like: 

  • Viewing the world with tolerance, an open mind, and without prejudice
  • Appreciating challenges as learning opportunities and not avoiding unpleasant experiences
  • Accepting people for who they are without trying to change them
  • Setting realistic goals and celebrating small wins rather than becoming overwhelmed by a far-off goal
  • Accepting our imperfections so you may appreciate each step in your personal growth
  • Keeping a gratitude journal as a constant reminder of the things in your reality that contribute to your lasting happiness

Santosha helps you roll with the punches and shift your perspective, if not towards complete positivity, at least towards curiosity or a place of neutral observation. When you live more presently, you’ll likely feel less anxious.

The next time you find yourself stuck in gridlocked traffic, accept there’s not much you can do about it, and take the opportunity to put on your favorite playlist or catch up on an audiobook. See how santosha works? 

3. Tapas - Self-Discipline

Tapas, the third niyama, is about cultivating self-discipline and committing to healthy habits. The Sanskrit word “tapas” comes from the root word “tap,” meaning to shine, heat, or burn. Thus, it perfectly describes the inner fire that motivates and keeps us going. 

Maintaining any daily routine requires some amount of self-discipline. Tapas goes a step further – you stick with your habits not just out of rote behavior but because you are committed to your intentions and personal growth.

Tapas on the Mat

In general, the physical effort and strength of practicing yoga require tapas. Here are some specific instances where you might apply tapas to your yoga practice.

  • Use your mental fortitude and inner fire to hold an intense pose for one more breath when your muscles burn. 
  • Avoid skipping the postures you “don’t like” because they’re challenging
  • Giving equal time to both sides of the body in intricate poses, not only doing them on your “easy” or “good” side
  • Keeping a consistent practice schedule
  • Use self-discipline to use patience when practicing, not pushing yourself into a pose you’re not quite ready for, no matter how strongly you want to achieve it.
  • Apply mental tapas during long holds of restorative poses to keep your mind from wandering off.

Tapas off the Mat

Individual goals and routines vary greatly, but here are some general ways to practice tapas in different areas of your life. 

  • Maintain a habit-tracking journal to monitor your progress in adhering to health-focused goals. 
  • Set daily time limits on your phone’s social media applications.
  • Develop a consistent bedtime or morning routine, including quiet time alone, reading, journaling, making tea, or physical activity like yoga.
  • Use financial discipline by adhering to a monthly budget
  • Setting and maintaining boundaries in your relationships
  • Committing to rest when your body or mind becomes overworked

All of the niyamas help us take responsibility for our health, experiences, and spiritual growth. Following them requires the consistent, intentional effort of tapas. When facing a challenge, connect to your inner fire and keep going!

4. Svadhyaya - Self-Study

The fourth niyama is another essential facet of personal growth and emotional health: svadhyaya, or self-study. This niyama encourages us to observe ourselves from a place of curiosity, examining our thoughts, actions, and beliefs. We can foster a stronger connection with the world through a more profound understanding of ourselves.

In the age of constant distractions, it’s more important than ever to set time aside for mindful self-reflection.  

Svadhyaya on the Mat

Yoga itself is self-study in action. However, here are some ideas for bringing more svadhyaya into your practice.

  • Record yourself practicing, then watch the video to observe your alignment and note areas for improvement or progression. 
  • Keep a practice journal to write down your thoughts, emotions, and insights.
  • Step out of your comfort zone and explore different styles of yoga. If you’re used to a strong Ashtanga or Baptiste practice, try taking a yin or restorative class and notice how your experience changes. 
  • Approach your practice through a lens of curiosity. While you’re flowing or holding a pose, turn your awareness inward and take note of what thoughts or feelings arise in each moment. 

Svadhyaya off the Mat

Self-study may consist of small, daily habits or a more structured approach. Here are some beautiful ways to encourage your svadhyaya. 

  • Regularly integrate yoga and meditation or journaling. 
  • Seeking out interactions with people who hold differing viewpoints from your own (in person or connecting virtually) 
  • Being mindful of your own biases and reactions during conversations with others
  • Exploring shadow work
  • Enrolling in a personal development workshop or program, like the Mindvalley self-discovery programs
  • Continuing education, either academically or skill-based
  • Participating in courses like yoga teacher trainings that include elements of personal development   

Self-reflection can bring peace of mind and more meaningful relationships with others. When you better understand your humanness, you learn to recognize and appreciate the same qualities in others. Connecting with your inner self is the first step in creating a more empathetic and understanding world. 

5. Ishvara Pranidhana - Surrender

Finally, we’ve arrived at ishvara pranidhana, the niyama of surrender. It’s the most spiritual niyama and the one many find most challenging. When translated, ishvara means “supreme being,” and pranidhana indicates laying something down. 

So, we can understand that ishvara pranidhana is to lay something down at the feet of our highest power. It’s like saying, “Let go and let God,” or “Trust the universe.” 

This concept is an amalgamation of all the preceding niyamas. If you have been disciplined and honest in your self-reflections and accept your circumstances, you can let go of any anxieties worrying about what will come. Knowing you have done your level best in all circumstances, you can leave everything else to a higher power with a sense of tranquility. 

Ishvara pranidhana is a vast concept and a lifelong endeavor for most of us, but there are concrete ways to practice surrender daily. 

Ishvara Pranidhana on the Mat

Your yoga mat becomes a sacred space when you practice with the intention of surrender. Here’s how: 

  • Incorporate a ritual of devotion into your practice by lighting incense or a candle or saying a brief prayer of gratitude
  • Let go of your expectations or planning a specific sequence and just flow
  • Take a Child’s Pose or resting posture when you need to
  • Don’t skip Savasana!
  • Surrender to discomfort in intense or challenging poses, like releasing your hips in Pigeon Pose or feeling your leg muscles shake when holding a Chair pose.

Ishvara Pranidhana off the Mat

Practicing small acts of surrender helps you cultivate peace of mind. Here are some ways you might practice ishvara pranidhana in daily life: 

  • Take small leaps of faith by saying “yes” to new opportunities that interest you
  • Allow yourself to feel emotions entirely rather than fight against them
  • Embrace change during life transitions, unexpected events, or altered plans
  • Release attachment to outcomes. Imagine when you’ve turned in an important work project or submitted an application for an educational program. You’ve done everything within your power already, so you can trust that it will come at the right time if it’s meant for you.
  • Amid travel delays – a canceled flight or traffic jam – rather than getting frustrated, understand that there must be a reason for the delay and trust that you can adapt to the situation.
  • During a disagreement with someone, rather than trying to control the outcome or convince the other person to take your viewpoint, surrender to the natural flow of conversation and see what you can learn from the situation. 

While the concept of surrender is profound, it becomes easier with practice. If you can practice flowing with life rather than trying to control it, you’ll feel more at peace and connected to the world. 

Adopting the Niyamas to Modern Life

Interestingly, the niyamas overlap with many qualities deemed essential for building character. Accountability and discipline (tapas), self-reflection (svadhyaya), authentic communication (saucha), embracing challenges (ishvara pranidhana), and cultivating a positive attitude (santosha) are all steps in personal growth. 

Though we might call these qualities by more modern names, they are prevalent within the personal development industry and have lasting positive effects on overall well-being.

Adopting the niyamas into your life off of your yoga mat can improve relationships as you take accountability for your thoughts and actions. It holds collective relevance, expanding the idea of personal growth, shifting your perspective, and connecting you to the shared human experience of those around you. 

Of course, as Sadhguru said, nobody expects yogis to practice yoga 24 hours a day. Following the niyamas doesn’t have to mean you never indulge in eating junk food or sink so far into surrender that you never experience frustration. 

Just like the physical practice of yoga poses, living by yogic philosophy takes practice. Start with one or two small actions per day, and eventually, they will become like second nature, bringing a sense of tranquility to every aspect of your life.