In The Yoga Sutras, Pantanjali describes the second limb of yoga as the niyamas translated from Sanskrit to mean observances, specifically in relationship to yourself. The niyamas help us build the foundation of yoga and treat ourselves with more love and respect, shedding our suffering and freeing us from the vrittis of our minds.
Becoming aware of the five niyamas—on and off your yoga mat—can help you build your practice or support cancer recovery. The five niyamas are:
Saucha—purity or cleanliness
Ishvara pranidhana—surrender to a higher power
"When people first experience tapas, there is often a sense of discomfort, a desire to squirm away from the situation because it is so authentic." — Richard Freeman
Saucha translates as purity or cleanliness and not only refers to purifying our physical bodies or space, but it can also be applied to our thoughts or actions. When we come to our mat with purified minds and bodies, we show respect for our practice and ourselves, and the people around us—a fresh towel or mat or clean thoughts that don't judge or condemn others.
And just like a cluttered space can mean a cluttered mind, the way we show up for our practice or the way we clean our space or body can show up in our lives, as well, with us not being present by being lost in cluttered thoughts or having our buzzing phones or devices nearby, or even being distracted by our unclean bodies or minds.
Saucha can also relate to purifying yourself by cleaning up your relationships, getting rid of toxic and unpure actions that are no longer serving you. Saucha keeps us tuned in to ways we can find more purification in our lives—on or off our mats.
Santosha or contentment is another way we show up with non-attachment and non-coveting with an acceptance of what is. Whether we're on our yoga mat or living our lives, we accept our situations with love and contentment and are able to do the same to those around us.
We don't desire to have what others around us have or wish to be able to get into more advanced poses. Santosha allows us to accept the present moment as it is and not get lost in our desires for outcomes or negative thoughts that we might have about ourselves or others. When we can distill our lives down to those precious moments for which we are grateful—seeing the sun rising over the mountains or waking up to another day—we find contentment. Santosha becomes abundant in all aspects of our lives when we practice it on our mat.
Tapas comes from the Sanskrit word tap, which translates as "to burn" and, according to Eckart Tolle, tapas evoke a sense of fiery passion on or off the mat. While it might be hard to get out of bed to do your yoga practice or meditate before work, over time you develop a passion to get up—maybe because it makes you feel better or maybe because it burns away your lethargy and makes you more optimistic.
Patabhi Jois, the founder of Ashtanga yoga, is known for saying, "Yoga is 99 percent practice and 1 percent theory," and I like to think of tapas as why that's the case. No matter how much you read about non-attachment or theorize about the nature of your mind, the literal burning of your tapas on your mat (or in your life) truly brings about non-attachment, contentment, and non-violence. No matter how much you analyze and theorize, you're still in your mind. But tapas allow us to move those theoretical thoughts into our bodies and burn them away through our self discipline and practice.
"Yoga is 99 percent practice and 1 percent theory."—Patabhi Jois
Self study, or svadhyaya, is about observing your habits on and off the mat. You may notice that your mind wanders during certain poses or that you resist certain feelings, and you can then take that knowledge off your mat and see how it shows up in your everyday life. When I first started yoga, for example, I was constantly distracted by my phone or sometimes thoughts, but over time by studying myself, I could change my behavior and notice how much more present I showed up in every aspect of my life.
Pantanjali describes the last niyama as ishvara pranidhana, which translates as surrendering to God or a higher power, and though yoga isn't spiritual for everyone, the practice definitely opens up your ability to surrender to consciousness or something bigger than yourself. I'm not sure if it's the tapas or the ritualistic components of my yoga practice—chanting, sun salutations, or meditation—but yoga connected me to my spiritually and helped me connect to something higher than myself. I come from a long line of atheists and was pretty agnostic when I first began my yoga practice, so this was really big for me.
Regardless of your belief system, as you practice, you can't help but find more surrender in your life—surrender to the nature of time, surrender to what you can't control, surrender to the body when you're humbled by a pose or have to take a rest day or chemo treatment, surrender to hard work over pleasure. Whether we like it or not, we can't control all aspects of our lives all the time, and our yoga practice teaches us to let go. When we let go, we have the opportunity to escape our suffering and experience pure consciousness, and that is the true practice of yoga.