Niyamas – Internal Disciplines

Photo by Kari Shea on Unsplash

Today, we’ll focus on the five Niyamas. B.K.S. Iyengar describes them as the “rules of conduct” that apply to individual behavior while the Idiot’s Complete Guide to Yoga puts it more simply – “what to do, as opposed to what not to do.” Here are the five Niyamas and my thoughts on their application to leadership.

Saucha – purity. We begin the practice of purity through the Yamas, the things we should not do. Then we move to the things we should do. The practice of asana, of doing the poses, and pranayama, breathwork, are the start. They help us to cleanse our bodies. Then we are better positioned to work on saucha, developing purity of thought and emotion. From cleanliness to food choice, in yoga, purity is an encompassing practice.  As I think about saucha as a leadership practice, it seems to me this is about our intent, our purpose as a leader. Are we able to practice leadership for the betterment of our organizations and communities and for the people we lead and serve? Are we working toward the idea from Servant Leadership – “Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further harmed.”

Santosa – contentment. “Practicing contentment means finding happiness with what you have and with who you are….It means happiness in this moment, as you are.” (Idiot’s Guide) Iynegar puts it this way, “…contentment has to be cultivated. A mind that is not content can not concentrate.” This is an interesting idea in the context of leadership because leadership by definition is about movement and change, about imagining new ways of doing and being in the world. I think the leadership practice here is about not wishing for more. Oh, what we could do if only___. (Fill in the blank.) I think the practice of santosa challenges us to be content with what we have and also content with the challenges of bringing the right people and sufficient resources together to do our work. As I once said to staff at UT Austin, yes a 10% cut is difficult. But our 90% is still a great deal more than other divisions’ 100%.

Tapas – self-discipline.  A practice of tapas may be a commitment to using words that do not offend but are rather gentle and sincere. It may be a regular exercise practice or healthy eating. Tapas may be a practice of self-control in a variety of ways. When I think about tapas as a leadership practice, I think Iyengar’s description may say it best. “By tapas, the (leader) develops strength in body, mind, and character. He gains courage and wisdom, integrity, straightforwardness, and simplicity.” (Light on Yoga)

Svadhyaya – education of the self. Svadhyaya is study of the highest order. It is studying oneself to understand the actions of your body, your mind, and your spirit. It is also the study of sacred texts which are “for all to read. They are not meant for the members of one particular faith alone.” (Light on Yoga).  A leader practicing Svadhyaya will study widely – leadership texts, but also psychology, organizational development, articles and books specific to the current subject of one’s work. A leader will also be a student of one’s own organization – how does it work, what needs to work better, how do I as a leader support the best work of the people in the organization?

Isvara pranidhana – devotion. This niyama asks us to focus on the divine – whatever that means to you. For many people, this idea is based in a particular religion, but it doesn’t have to be.  Devotion in this context also challenges us to relinquish our ego and reach for our highest ideals. And as leaders, should that be our work? Shouldn’t we be devoted to the values of our organization, to leave our ego behind as we work toward a collective good? It seems to me this is something worth being devoted to.

Whether we think about actions to refrain from doing or disciplines to actively do, the yamas and niyamas provide a framework for reflection and practice – on the mat and off the mat. And I find they provide a useful framework for thinking about our work as leaders whether or not we have a fancy title. I hope you find them useful as well.

Take care,


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