Practicing with the Niyamas
Infusing asana with Tapas, Svadhyaya and Ishvara Pranidhana
by Cyndi Lee
Yoga encourages us to practice diligently, listen carefully, and stay open to the outcome.
When my chocolate poodle, Leroy, acts restless or bored, I roll out my yoga mat. The simple act of setting up my home practice space with blanket, mat, and bolster reliably triggers a sense of well-being in Leroy—and in me, too. Before I even get down on the floor, I can feel the gathering together of body, breath, and mind that both empties and nourishes me. And I know that in an hour and a half, when I come out of shavasana, that familiar sense of being grounded and light at the same time will infuse my entire being.
But then what? I go back to the rest of my life. I call it my “post-yoga practice,” and it refers to the 22.5 hours of the day when we yoga practitioners aren’t working on asana, sitting in meditation, or practicing pranayama. This is when we meet the world around us, resolved to stay as present, open, stable, and clear as we felt after our official practice session ended.
This resolve is fueled by the niyamas, the guidelines for how to live a yogic life spelled out in the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali. The last three—tapas (effort),svadhyaya (self-study), and Ishvara pranidhana (surrender to the Divine)—are considered particularly profound. Practicing these three together can infuse our post-yoga practice with determination, curiosity, and a healthy dose of surrender.
The Will to Practice
The traditional yogic imperative of tapas directs us to approach our practice with muscular intention and unwavering commitment, no matter what obstacle or temptation might surface to derail us. Some ancient teachings even advise to “practice as if your hair is on fire!” This kind of abiding perseverance could certainly make one break a sweat!
Tapas is, in fact, associated with heat and refers not only to the natural warmth of physical movement, but to the effortful focus required to fully engage in asana practice. This means pushing ourselves to practice even when we don’t feel like it or challenging ourselves to break out of our usual routine and try something that we know we can’t do yet. This approach can sometimes lead to friction. Often in daily life, we go out of our way to avoid tension or conflict, but on the mat, we can practice stepping right into that difficulty.
Yoga teaches us that body heat is the primary ingredient needed to release the tightness that prevents us from performing beneficial asanas, such as deep backbends, bound twists, or even a fully manifested forward bend. This is the heat B. K. S. Iyengar refers to in Light on Life as “the purifying fire of action.” The fiery devotion we cultivate by being consistent in our practice, no matter what, also helps us negotiate the messiness of life. Instead of avoiding challenges, we begin to face them head-on, fueled by the bright flame of our daily practice.
Tapas can also purify the mind because it cuts through doubt and gives us fierce determination. It helps us to live through the uncomfortable phase of quivering arms and sore abs we get from practicing plank pose because we understand that’s what it takes to develop the strong triceps and supportive belly needed forchaturanga. Tapas gives us the willpower to stick with these kinds of challenges, no matter how discouraged we get.
The Time to Reflect
The tricky part is recognizing the fine line between the steadiness of a candle flame and an out-of-control forest fire. When you become so focused on going one inch deeper in a hip opener that you endanger your knees, or continue cranking out chaturangas even though your rotator cuff is starting to burn, the intensity of tapas devolves into self-aggression.
Luckily, Patanjali didn’t abandon us at tapas. He reminds us that yoga is much more than just discipline and willpower. It is also svadhyaya, the yogic method of paying attention to what you are doing, how you are doing it, and why you are doing it. Usually translated as “self-study,” svadhyaya mandates precisely that: read yoga teachings and then reflect upon and integrate what you’ve learned.
Svadhyaya also means to study yourself, to take an honest look under the hood of your own mind and reflect on how what you observe meets up with what you have learned from your reading. This contemplative aspect of yoga transforms our asana practice into more than just physical exercise.
Svadhyaya helps us recognize when we are getting caught in goal-oriented activities and missing out on the journey. For example, when we kick up into handstand with so much desperation that we end up bouncing off the wall, without svadhyaya to temper the tapas, we never manage to catch the moment when we’ve actually arrived in the inversion.
Svadhyaya challenges us to be honest about ourselves. Doing that takes courage and commitment—which is what we get from tapas. These two niyamas bring us to a place of mindfulness and clarity, of power and healthy confidence.
The Ability to Let Go
Patanjali understood that a balanced cocktail of hot tapas and cool svadhyaya would take us to a point of balance between action and reflection. But if we stop there, we run the risk of becoming self-absorbed. So the third and final step is to let go and open, a process outlined in the fifth niyama called Ishvara prani-dhana—surrendering to the Divine.
Doing yoga is a lot like gardening. As a gardener, you cultivate the ground, plant seeds, water them, and diligently pull out all the weeds. You know you can’t actually make your flowers bloom, but you do all you can to create the optimal conditions for that to happen. Similarly, as a yoga practitioner, you know you can’t will a handstand to materialize or a hip to open. You can’t force your heart or mind to open, either. But you can engage in the process of yoga by committing to a consistent practice, paying attention to how your body and mind unfold along the way, and surrendering to the outcome. Ishvara pranidhana gives both the gardener and the yogi the patience and the ability to trustfully receive the fruits of their actions.
You may really want to do an arm balance, for example, the kind where your leg goes over your shoulder and then magically your hips levitate. If you obsess about meeting that goal—without doing all you can to prepare for it—you may end up frustrated, discouraged, and maybe even injured.
Ishvara pranidhana reminds us to get involved in creating the causes and conditions for that arm balance to happen: doing arm strengthening work and hip openers; using blocks; preparing your mind and evening out your breath. All that work will be very useful in our life off the mat, too. Your strong arms can carry more groceries; your open hips support your digestion; using blocks reminds us that it is good to accept a helping hand; and a stable mind and smooth breath are excellent skill sets for conflicts and challenges at work and at home.
Putting It All Together
We move toward Ishvara pranidhana once we’ve done all we can do. After we have worked hard with ardent attention and balancing focus with the cool composure of a mind that knows itself, we come to a place of clarity. We know there is really nothing left to do, and so we start to let go and open.
This is when insights and intuition arise naturally. When we relax into the flow of that innate intelligence, we are practicing this final niyama. Ishvara pranidhana means to let go of the fruits of our action and to trust that things will be as they should. This can only arise after wholeheartedly practicing tapas and svadhyaya.
Ishvara pranidhana balances the work of tapas and the focus of svadhyaya. It is the exhale to the inhale, the stretch to the strengthen, the shavasana to the tadasana. Connecting to the Divine sounds esoteric, but it can be very ordinary because it is something that is with us all the time. We just have to open to it.
1. Utkatasana (Chair Pose) with Anjali Mudra
Stand in tadasana with your feet together. Lean forward on a slight diagonal and bend your knees. This is utkatasana, sometimes affectionately known as “awkward pose.” But the Sanskrit word ut actually means “effort.” Yes, this pose requires exertion and you may literally experience heat rising, but rather than going for intense effort, perhaps you can find a sense of consistent, sustained practice. To remind yourself of the potential for calm abiding within exertion, fold your palms together in anjali mudra.
2. Parivritta Utkatasana (Revolved Chair Pose) with Anjali Mudra
From utkatasana, exhale and twist to the right, placing your left elbow on the outside of your right knee. Squeeze your legs together to stabilize your spine. Notice if this allows you to deepen the twist as you exhale.
From here, lift your right heel and begin to shift weight onto your left foot. Slowly lift up all the way to a standing version of parivritta utkatasana. Take your time. Press down with your standing foot to encourage your sternum to lift. Lift your gaze to eye level.
Pay close attention to what it takes to move from a bent twisted shape to a tall vertical twist. Observe where your mind goes and how it affects your physical balance. Then, with just as much curiosity, slowly rewind all the way back down. Did you make it all the way up and down without falling over? Does it matter?
Untwist back into utkatasana and notice how it feels to be back there again.
3. Anjaneyasana (High Lunge Pose)
On an inhale, step your right leg back in a high lunge. Press through your back foot as you lift your arms up toward the ceiling. Can you expand your awareness enough to commit to both of these actions equally?
4. Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II Pose)
Exhale as you open into virabhadrasana II. You’ve been here so many times before. What makes this time new and yet so familiar?
5. Baddha Parshvakonasana (Bound Side Angle Pose)
Take a look at the placement of your legs, hips, and spine in virabhadrasana II. Maintaining this alignment, lean to the left as both arms internally rotate and meet each other in a bind behind your back. Avoid sticking your behind out and/or leaning way forward to get into the bind.
To do that you have to go slowly and notice the very moment either one of those misalignments starts to occur. At that point, stay steady for a breath or two and see if you can figure out why, where, and when your alignment went off track. Then you can reorganize and keep going. This is svadhyaya in action right on the mat.
Press down into your feet as you inhale back up into virabhadrasana II. Can you let that downward energy create the lift up, so that your energy exertion is precise and efficient?
6. Lizard Pose
Exhale and cartwheel both hands to the inside of your left foot. Scootch your left foot about 10 inches to the left so you can nuzzle your left shoulder to the inside of your knee. Keep your back knee lifted or slowly lower it to the floor, pressing the top of your back foot down. Let your left thigh hug your left ribs, which requires work from the left inner thigh muscles. Place your forearms on the floor or on blocks.
Can you stay steady with this giant hip opener? Try not to zone out or do the opposite and aggressively bear down. Listen to your body and watch your mind. Whatever you notice is interesting.
Return your hands to the floor and swing your right leg around and up, completely letting go of that bound feeling. Ahh…a sense of openness and expansion after all that tight binding work. Can you stay just as engaged in this very familiar pose?
Externally rotate your top leg and open your top hip a bit, finding breath and space in your right psoas and hip flexor.
Keeping your right leg long and strong, swing it under your body and out to the left. Lift your left hand up and just let go. Your hips will naturally lower down into a wide straddle. Sit up tall on your sitting bones or on a cushion, if your pelvis is tucking under. Engage your legs by reaching out through the soles of your feet; your fingertips on the floor behind you are pressing down as your armpits lift up. Keeping your eyes open, fold forward and sit quietly, maintaining inner awareness.
9. Parivritta Janu Shirshasana (Revolved Head to Knee Pose)
Bend your right leg. Externally rotate your left arm and place it on the floor inside your left leg. As you exhale, spin your belly to the right and reach your right arm straight up. Is your chest opening to the ceiling or curling shut? If you work too hard here, you will actually impede your progress, so use svadhyaya (self-awareness) to find the balance between tapas (fierce engagement) and Ishvara pranidhana (relaxing your goal).
To rewind, inhale and sit back up. Open your right leg into upavishtha konasana.Twist to the right just enough to place both hands on the outside of your right thigh. Press down into your palms, lift your hips up, and swing your right leg all the way up into three-legged dog.
10. Hanumanasana (Split)
On an exhale, step your right foot between your hands, coming back down into a low lunge. Place your hands on the floor or on blocks and begin to slide your front foot forward, moving toward hanuman-asana. This pose challenges almost everyone. You are literally in a position that requires you to strongly engage both your muscles and your attention with every breath. Instead of working toward a goal and then letting go of the result, this time try to approach this pose from the beginning with an attitude of openness and curiosity. Let svadhyaya help you learn about your body’s capacity today, as well as your own tendencies when meeting a challenge.
The Finishing Line
From hanumanasana, tuck your back toes under and straighten your back leg by lifting the front of your thigh. Keep lifting it as you press your hands down to lift your hips up, swing your front leg straight back, and step into adho mukha shvanasana. Or, get there however you can and don’t worry about it!
Bend your knees slightly and circle your hips in each direction before stepping forward to the front of your mat. Stand in tadasana for a moment observing the effects of your practice so far. Do the whole sequence on the other side.