Yoga Philosophy, Yoga Practice

Yoga On and Off the Mat: exploring the Niyamas as a plan for personal success

This article was first published in canfitpro magazine Sept/Oct 2017 issue 

In part 2 from my article Yoga On and Off the Mat: Exploring the Yamas as guidelines toward compassion and equality, I bring to you part two of this topic that focuses on the Niyamas. From the eight limbs of yoga, the Niyamas ask us to look inward at our habits or samskaras and how we treat ourselves. It is a success plan to cultivate happiness and self-confidence. The five Niyamas are: purity, contentment, discipline, self-study, and surrender. They can be used as guide posts for when we are feeling a little off centre, or practices for everyday self-care.  

Saucha / Purity:

Saucha refers to the cleanliness of our environment, our personal hygiene, and even our thoughts. Essentially, do we take care of ourselves? Is the space around us organized and clean? Do we tend to hold on to stuff from the past? Do we keep ourselves groomed and presentable? And just as important, is the steady stream of thoughts in our head positive or are we constantly overwhelmed in doom and gloom, complaints, or telling ourselves we aren’t good enough?

On the mat: Noticing our thoughts as we move from pose to pose. Are we mentally beating ourselves up through our practice because we aren’t strong enough, flexible enough, skinny enough, “insert the blank” enough. Focus instead on shifting our thoughts immediately to those that are empowering: “I’m growing stronger every week”, “my yoga practice brings me clarity of mind”.

Off the mat: Tackle that cupboard. We all have them, that space where everything goes that you don’t know what to do with. Donate things you are no longer using or things that bring back painful memories from the past. Clear the clutter. You will be amazed at how good you feel.

Santosha / Contentment:

Santosha is the attitude of gratitude. Even through the darkest times, finding something no matter how small to be grateful for, changes our mood and can ultimately change our physical health. Along with gratitude is acceptance. The ability to make peace with the hand we’ve been dealt. To change what we can and have the courage to accept what we can’t.

On the mat: Focus on positive thoughts throughout our practice using mantras and affirmations. Practice poses that bring joy, such as heart openers and back bends like chest expansion, camel pose, dancers pose, bow pose, anything that opens up the front of the body, creating more space for breath and feelings of expansiveness.

Off the mat: Keep a gratitude journal. Write down all of the things you are grateful for and look at it often. Upon waking each morning and going to sleep at night, think of three things that you are grateful for.

Tapas / Discipline:

Tapas is literally translated from Sanskrit to mean ‘fire’. In this way, we stoke the fire to get things done. We have the discipline to do what needs to be done, to make the sacrifices needed in order to achieve our goals. If we are training for a marathon, we need the discipline to run everyday. If we want to deepen our Yoga practice, we need the discipline for daily self-practice. We must do the work.

On the mat: Stay in the pose. No matter how uncomfortable you are (not actual pain that may cause injury), no matter that your muscles are burning and the sweat is dripping off your nose. Stay in the pose. Find your breath and just be there, ride it out. It’s amazing how good you will feel for having succeeded where you thought maybe you couldn’t.

Off the mat: Stick to your schedule. It shouldn’t be all hard work and no play (see bramacharya from part 1), however, having the discipline to put yourself to bed at a reasonable hour, to not skip your personal workouts, and to eat healthy all have a profound impact on how we feel.

Svadyaya / Self-Study:

Svadyaya involves all learning, whether from studying outside sources to learn about a new subject or taking the time to look within. Our brains are powerful beyond our wildest dreams, and the ability to constantly learn new things about life or ourselves is a gift. Read, journal, meditate, explore, and be curious.

On the mat: As you move from pose to pose, or within the pose itself, take time to listen to what your body is telling you. Are you able to find the space between ‘ouch’ and too easy? Pay attention to your breath, is it constrained by too much effort or flowing with ease and fullness?

Off the mat: Keep a journal to write down and explore your thoughts, your reactions, and to just lay out the ‘mumble jumble’ of thoughts in your head. Write through your problems, the decisions that need to be made, your heartache, and of course what you are grateful for.

Ishvara Pranidhana / Surrender:

Translations of this Niyama include a devotion to God or supreme being, a surrender to a higher power or the universe. You can adjust these words to fit your personal belief system as needed. The point is that we do everything we can and then we let it go. In recognizing our spiritual side, that we are all universally connected, we are also able to more deeply understand and accept our humanness. We are not super heroes and we don’t have to be.

On the mat: This can be explored during our meditation practice. Whether it’s a moving meditation as we flow from pose to pose, or the few minutes of stillness before or after our practice.

Off the mat: Have we done everything in our known power to fix the problem or solve the issue? Is it in the past and unchangeable? Then let it go. Get off the hamster wheel of your endless thoughts and move away. Surrender to what is and what will be.

The majority of us in the western world become curious of yoga philosophy only after practicing the physical side of yoga for a long time. If you have ever taken a yoga class, you’ve probably felt at some point the harmony of mind, body and spirit – when breath and movement become one. That is the magic of yoga. The Yamas and Niyamas are practices we bring into our daily life to keep that magic present, to be present ourselves in actions and reactions. No matter where you are on your yoga journey, know that it is just that – a journey. One of my favourite sayings is “we call it yoga practice, not yoga perfect”. My only advice is to practice with compassion and forgiveness, and enjoy the ride. You will be amazed at what you discover.


The Yamas and Niyamas are further explored in YogaFit’s Level 2 certification course.


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