Yoga City NYC: Niyama

This article was originally published at

The second limb of Patanjali's ashtanga yoga is the five niyama or observances. Where the yama gave us a list of things to avoid, which were discussed last week, these principles continue the ethical work by providing ways to to deepen our practice and increase our connectedness. Saucha (cleanliness), Santosha (contentment), Tapas (discipline), Svadhyaya (self-study), and Isvara Pranidhana (surrender to god) all help lead us away from chaos of the body and mind and towards a deeper understanding of our shared awareness.

Alex Phelan continues her conversation with Swami Sadasivananda, Mark Wolz, Lesley Desaulniers and Nikki Costello, asking the what, why and how of the niyama in their daily lives and practices.

How are the Niyama different from the Yama? Why the distinction?

NC: The yama teach us how to be with ourselves and others. The niyama turn one towards the internal relationship with oneself and the divine. The yama are external and the niyama are more internal.

MW: The yama are things I'm asking myself to avoid. And the niyama are observances, things I'm asking myself to remember to do. By observing the practice of the niyama, we strengthen our spiritual commitment and our connection to other people.

LD: The niyama are really the yogi's behavior towards him or herself. The more you practice the way you treat yourself, and your attitude towards yourself, this work will be reflected in the way you treat others.

SS: The niyama safeguard and reinforce the yama. The niyama help you overcome vices and replace them with virtues. Is there a niyama that you find challenging or practice very intensely?

SS: It is difficult not to accumulate, even spiritual things, so Saucha is important. You start in your physical environment, creating order and purity, and from there the cleansing process becomes more internal. Holding onto a permanent or historical sense of the self creates a delusion becase we are changing moment by moment. It's important to practice saucha or purity in the mind so that you can live in the present.

MW: One I resist a lot is surrender, because the ego is so strong.

LD: Santosha is one that I always meditate on. Really being here and letting this moment be enough; letting every experience have its fullness is santosha. Feeling that sense of contentment independent of internal or external conditions.

NC: Not anymore. When I first came across them, it took some time to draw parallels between the niyama and what I already inherently understood. These were things that had to cross over from a language I already knew into a more practiced, experiential thing.

How does svadhyaya or self-study feature in your practice?

SS: Svadhyaya is a way of studying your own mind from inside, but also of extracting the best of external ideas. In my life I do two types of svadhyaya, the study of one's own mind through introspection and the study of the scriptures. These are means for purification of the mind.

MW: I think of svadhyaya as studying sacred traditions where the wisdom of people who've seen something beyond is pointing me in that direction. It's a looking in and looking out at the same time; but ultimately anything I'm going to learn will have to relate to my own experience.

LD: In moments when I'm feeling off-center, I will copy out the sutras or some other scripture as a practice to bring it into my body and my consciousness. Whatever you do that connects you to the Self in that higher way is svadhyaya.

NC: I continuously study and this is the bedrock of my teaching. Studentship and self-study are essential to teaching.

How do you interpret Isvara and what role does surrender play in your practice?

SS: I think of spirituality as living in greater awareness, which encompasses god. Practically it means surrendering the fruits of your actions to isvara, the one force that governs, from within, every single being. Another way to think about this is to serve humanity.

MW: I have a sense that what we could call god is a cosmic consciousness that is way beyond what we can fathom in our human mind. And that's acceptable. We don't have to be able to see it, touch it or even understand it. And that is what I feel I surrender to, that energy that connects me with everyone else.

LD: Isvara means to me that there is something higher and deeper than my worldly preoccupations, than my stuff. That guiding force is within and when we practice we have the opportunity to connect to that source. It's not only surrender, but dedication so that my life is less selfish.

NC: The teachings of yoga are vast and ungraspable by the intellect alone. I am simultaneously in awe of this wisdom even at the moment when I do grasp something, I know that to be grace.

Do you have any suggestions for how to personally cultivate the niyama?

NC: When I first started practicing I soon realized that the breath was the most accessible way to understand the niyama. Through the breath we become humble and reverential.

SS: It is said that the highest form of tapas is meditation, so is speaking truth. The best way for most people to maintain these practices is to have a spiritual diary.

MW: To observe cause and effect - especially when something is not working. When my heart or mind is unsettled, its a matter of observing and looking to the niyama to try to figure it out. Not to judge it, say its bad or stop it, but to try to figure out: where did it come from?

LD: Practice, and if it’s difficult, then practice again. The key is to shift our attention away from the outside and bring our attention to our own minds, our own selves and our own lives.


Swami Sadasivananda is the head of the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Center in New York City. As a renunciate or sanyasa, he has taken the vows to continue the teachings of Swami Sivananda and Swami Vishnu-devananda. He teaches hatha yoga classes as well as courses in meditation, philosophy and the practice of keeping a spiritual diary.

Mark Wolz holds a BS in Psychology and an MA in Anthropology. He is primarily trained through the Integral Yoga Institute, but also finds his influences ranging widely through the NYC yoga community. Mark is teaching two 5-week courses on the yama and niyama starting in January of 2012 at Integral Yoga, check out our YogaCityNYC events listing for more information!

Lesley Desaulniers has been studying yoga and meditation since 1996. In her early twenties, Lesley was a resident at Ananda Ashram in upstate New York, where she intensively studied Sanskrit, meditation, philosophy, and Hatha yoga. She was later certified by master teachers Sharon Gannon and David Life and went on to teach at the Jivamukti Yoga Center in downtown Manhattan. She teaches at Prema Yoga in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn.

Nikki Costello is a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher. She has been teaching yoga for 18 years and was previously certified in Jivamukti Yoga and Anusara Yoga. She has studied with teachers such as Sharon Gannon, David Life, John Friend, Kevin Gardiner and Mary Dunn and in 1997, she became a student of the Siddha Yoga path. Nikki can be found teaching at the Kula Yoga Project.

Alex Phelan ( teaches anatomically influenced and alignment conscious yoga in New York City.


web pressConnie Holen