Teaching the Niyamas in Asana Class


By Aadil Palkhivala  |  

In classical yoga, Patanjali placed yama and niyama before asana on the eightfold path. But most modern students learn asana first, without reference to the other essential limbs on the tree of yoga. If you teach hatha yoga, it can be difficult to ground the teaching in classical philosophy. Here we offer ways to seamlessly incorporate the five niyamas into an asana class.

Saucha (Cleanliness)
The most common translation of saucha is “cleanliness.” But saucha, at its root, is concerned with keeping different energies distinct. Saucha ensures and protects the sanctity of the energy around us. We can teach saucha through focusing on the grossest physical concerns (such as asking students to come to class without strong body odors, and to wipe off sweat-drenched mats) as well as more subtle energetic issues.

There are several ways to incorporate the teachings of saucha. The first is to teach students put away their mats, props, and blankets in an orderly manner, with all the edges aligned, so that no one else will have to arrange them. This practice will help students cultivate an awareness of their surroundings.

Tell your students to be mindful of other students’ mats and to refrain from stepping on them as they cross the room to get props or go to the wall. Not only is this a hygienic practice, it also teaches the importance of keeping the energy of their own practice distinct from the energy of others. In asana practice, the mat represents the world-the way we treat our mat reflects the way we treat our world. As we teach our students to handle their mats with care, we are helping them learn the essence of respect for all things.

Tell your students that when they sit in straight lines or circles, the energies around them flow in an orderly fashion, and this keeps the energy of the room clean. If the mats are not arranged in an orderly way, one student’s energy interferes with the energy of another. When students are positioned neatly, a synergistic effect takes place-the effect of one student’s work and energy helps the rest of the class do the pose. Likewise, the energy of the collective group helps each individual do the pose.

Chanting om or leading similar chants at the beginning of class creates a separation between the outward focus of the normal day and the inward focus of the yoga practice. Chanting om again at the end of class seals the energy of the practice before moving back out into the world. Such a separation of energies is, once again, saucha.

Samtosha (Contentment)
During an asana class, tell those students who are working excessively hard that it is time to practice samtosha, being content with what they have attained. Encourage them to accept that they may not yet be ready for what they are attempting to do. Remind them that if they can’t get into the deepest version of a pose, it doesn’t mean that their poses are “bad.” Instead, they are simply as good as they can be today, and they will be better tomorrow. In Light on Yoga (B.K.S. Iyengar, Schocken), you won’t see a single pose in which Iyengar looks tense or upset. If you notice students’ faces contorting and overexerting in a pose, tell them to stop and reestablish a calm breath and the feeling of samtosha. Only then, in that spirit, should they resume the practice of the pose. This quality of contentment leads to mental peace.


Tapas (Heat, Perseverance)
When a student is not working hard enough, it’s time to encourage the practice of tapas. Wise effort can be discerned as the difference between someone who simply fantasizes and someone who is on the path toward their dreams. Effort is required to make anything bear fruit in the physical world, and yet we have to balance tapas with samtosha-effort with contentment. If we try to force things, we will end up doing harm.

If a student feels intimidated by a pose, as if they simply cannot do it, scale down the pose in such a way that it leaves the person thinking, “I wish I could have done more.” Since the person is used to being overwhelmed, underwhelm them! This will build in them the desire to do more. My brother once used this technique to get his daughter to eat her vegetables. When she resisted eating, he would put just one or two peas on her plate. She would quickly and easily eat these, and then demand more.

Svadhyaya (Study of One’s Self)
Sva means “self” and adhyaya means “education of.” Svadhyaya is, in essence, the study of one’s self. This is largely accomplished through careful self-observation. During class, we must constantly encourage our students to look within and feel what is going on inside their bodies. After working in a pose, ask them to pause, become still, and feel the changes. This builds self-awareness, the foundation of svadhyaya.

From the very first class, tell your students that, when they are practicing, they are all alone, even though they are in a class full of people. Emphasize that they are not in competition with their neighbors. The focus during yoga practice has to be completely internal. This approach not only nurtures self-knowledge, it also prevents physical injury because your students will be more aware of what they are doing, and they will stop before they hurt themselves.

As yoga teachers, it’s our responsibility to help students develop a practice of constant inner reflection so that they will become aware of the changes that yoga is making. This can be done by asking such questions as, “Why are you here? If you had all the money, all the time, all the energy you wanted, what would you do with your life?” In my teaching, I find that these sorts of questions stimulate the practice of svadhyaya.

Another way to encourage svadhyaya is to quote from respected scriptures in class. If you regularly quote from Patanjali‘s Yoga Sutra, you encourage your students to develop an interest in further exploring them on their own.

Ishvara pranidhana (Surrender to God)
Most students are very concerned with “getting there.” They want results. They want to achieve. Explain to them that it is not the results that matter, because the results lie in the hands of the Divine; it is our intention and effort that count.

Teach your students that they are part of a universal force. With this in mind, they don’t have to work only for themselves, because there is a bigger purpose. In a sense, we are actors playing out our own part-our own dharma on the massive stage of life. When yoga students truly understand this, they become less obsessed with themselves and the results they create. They will be able to do yoga with both intensity and calmness when they dedicate practice to a universal life force of which we are all a part.

God, as the name for the universal life force, is worshipped in different forms by every religion and faith. The name we use doesn’t matter-the dedication does.

This article is excerpted from a forthcoming book called Living the Yamas and Niyamas, by Aadil Palkhivala.