Yoga Niyamas: What my students have taught me.

I don’t have any kids, but I have been feeling lately how I imagine a mother must feel as she watches her children make the same mistakes as she did–mistakes that you have to make, that you learn from, but mistakes that she wishes she could have had warned of nonetheless.

The more that I teach, the more that I am able to watch my students’ practice progress daily. The progress of a dedicated student, whether a new or seasoned practitioner, never ceases to amaze me. But as I watch this process unfold, time and again it becomes incredibly clear that yoga powerfully impacts and transforms not only the physical body, but even for the student who practices yoga only for the physical benefits, the mind and the spirit will undoubtedly transform as well.

The true core of yoga is in the niyamas, which are often defined as “internal contracts.” But what I have found is that these are not contracts at all. If one practices just the physical practice of yoga regularly, these five “contracts” are absorbed internally. It seems like a daunting task to undertake, to consciously embody and understand saucha, santosha, tapas, svādhyāya, and Ishvarapranidhana but I see students incorporate these internal qualities more fully everyday, simply by coming to their mats.

The physical postures create saucha. The practice feels good, and we find that it feels even better when we keep our bodies clean by eating well and staying away from toxins–we learn that it is no fun to practice hungover and the yoga practice is more fun than a night of drinking. The practice itself cleans our bodies as we sweat, and clears our minds, cleaning our thoughts.

As the practice of santosha is insinuated into our bodies and minds, our minds become more pure because we begin to feel happy with ourselves.  We no longer need to criticize, or think hurtful things about others. Santosha, or complete contentment seems to occur when we keep finding that each goal that we perceived to be an “end” or a “win” turns out to be not an end, but a new beginning, like the edge of the ocean as it meets the horizon. When we work hard and we don’t win, we find we can and we must go further.  We still feel good. We must be okay. Everything must have been okay before, too.

As we find santosha, we realize that all this time, even just in our physical practice on our mats, we could have stopped trying to be “better,” could have focused less on future goals and more on the present moment. I have pushed myself to do things that didn’t feel good because I was afraid to speak up when something hurt, or was worried that others would think I was weak, or not “advanced” enough. I realize now that in actuality, no one else cared or thought anything about what I was doing. This realization is SO freeing, so beautiful to watch, and gives the practitioner a new sense of courage. Santosha, or complete contentment, leads to tapas, or the ability to build heat, to build true desire, confidence, courage, the ability to physically intensify without weakening internally. Tapas is often defined as “heat” but it is not the heat of a firecracker, but the heat of a slow-burning flame that if tended to, never goes out.

As we discover santosha, and as we find tapas, we cannot help but to have a deeper sense of curiosity about ourselves. We begin the practice of svādhyāya, or self-study. Finding the courage to look within without judgement, undoubtedly we find depths and possibilities in ourselves that are deeper than we ever imagined. Ishvarapranidhana — we realize that anything is possible.

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