Margo BosterGuest post by Margo Boster.

Practicing yoga and leadership are both ways of being – preferably with compassion and truthfulness. An essence of yoga are the ten ethical guidelines which are defined as the Yamas and Niyamas. Great guidelines for leaders. Today, let’s talk about the Niyamas (pronounced nee-yuh-muh): our internal self-restraints or how we care for ourselves.

Working within companies to help develop leaders and teams, I find that often my clients focus on the behavior of others more than their own behaviors or thoughts. I recall one coaching client, let’s call him Steve, was focused on the behavior of his team members. “If only they would change,” he often lamented. It took a number of coaching sessions for Steve to realize that rather than focus on what they were doing, he first had to become aware of what he was doing.
I consistently see that people often find it easier to focus on others (the yamas) rather than themselves (the niyamas.)

The man in the mirror

As a leader and a coach, I encourage people to find inspiration in many different places – from Yoga Sutras to Michael Jackson. In Jackson’s song, Man in the Mirror, he sings:
“I’m starting with the man in the mirror
I’m asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer
If you wanna make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself, and then make a change.”

man in the mirrorIf we are starting with the man or woman in the mirror, what are some principles we can follow to ensure that we are making changes for the good, rather than just for selfishness?

The Yoga Sutras have survived thousands of years and don’t change based on the economy, politics, or latest trends. The Nyamas help me to stay aware, and keep me focused on “being better.”

Internal self-restraints seem like a natural aspect of leadership, but are they for you? The niyamas describe how we treat ourselves, as Saucha (cleanliness, purity), Santosa (contentment), Tapas (fiery discipline), Swadhyaya (study of one’s self) and Ishwara Pranidhanani (surrender to god). Here is how I strive to be a better leader with the niyamas as guiding principles.

Cleanliness, Purity (Saucha)

Have you ever walked into someone’s office and seen papers and files stacked on their desk, on the floor, and under their desk? What does this tell you? This morning when I walked into my office (with its very disorganized, cluttered desk), I proclaimed, “I have to get this desk cleaned before the end of the year!” I know that my messy desk is not practicing Saucha, and yet day by day the mess accumulates. Besides the obvious of not having physical space to work, the clutter generates an atmosphere of distraction – distraction by yesterday’s “stuff.”

I strive to be a better leader with the niyamas as guiding principles. #yoga Click To Tweet

By practicing saucha, cleanliness, we remove distractions and open ourselves up to receiving what new we can receive. Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” I used to interpret this as saying one should have a cluttered mind, but I realize now that a cluttered mind is just that – cluttered. Not full, just cluttered.

Contentment (Santosha)

The second niyama, Santosha, means contentment. Immediately one may protest, “I must attain more before I can be content.” But contentment does not mean complacency. Contentment simply means accepting – and fully experiencing – where you are at that moment. Too often we get so busy we don’t even know where we are – we’re looking at where we were or where we want to be. How often do you just take a moment and notice and accept the moment?

By noticing without judging we may experience contentment. #yoga Click To Tweet

Before we can be content with where we are, we must first be aware of where we are. In working with executives to be more effective leaders, I often encourage the use of an exercise that I call “the tree exercise.”

treeTake a few moments and look around. Describe your space without making any judgments. Instead of saying that the room is cheery (judging) say the room color is yellow. I call it the tree exercise because when I first practiced this exercise, I was riding on the back of the Harley with my husband and noticed the trees as we rode down the winding roads of northern Virginia. I began to notice the trees without judging. The trees weren’t pretty or ugly, big or small. The tree had red leaves, or the tree was bent over to one side.

By noticing without judging we can begin to experience contentment. By experiencing contentment, we can strengthen our knowledge that there is the possibility without limitation. Does it sound like a stretch? Perhaps – but give it a try. We tend to be so busy judging others and ourselves that we don’t bother to just notice – much less to be content.

Fiery Discipline (Tapas)

The word Tapas comes from the Sanskrit verb tap which means to burn. Tapas has traditionally been interpreted to mean “fiery discipline.” I saw a sign that reads: “Discipline is remembering what you want.” Do you get distracted by the pleasure of the moment that you forget to practice tapas, fiery discipline? What are the areas that you can be more disciplined? I can think of many that I struggle with starting with getting up in the morning! Oh just one more time on the snooze button.

Study of One’s Self (Svadhyaya)

I often use assessments including 360 feedback, competency self-assessments, personality or behavioral assessments as part of my coaching engagements with my clients. Some clients love these while others reject them. I hear responses that range from, “I don’t like assessments; I don’t want to be labeled,” to “I love all of them, I’m a self-awareness junkie.”
The path to growth starts with awareness that is a result of one’s self and awareness. Without self-awareness, we cannot know which thoughts and actions support us and we should continue to embrace, and those that we should strive to change.

Surrender to God (Ishwara Pranidhanani)

This niyama is challenging because the word “God” is often highly charged. What God do you mean? What religion are you promoting!? It is believed that when Patanjali, the Indian sage, scholar, and yogi, wrote the Yoga Sutras centuries ago, the intent of this niyama means simply surrender to something higher than yourself.

by Alex BramwellIf the word “God” is closely associated with religion to you, to understand this niyama, it may be helpful to replace the word “God” with “force”. Remember the Star Wars movies, where both Obi-Wan Kenobi (“Use the Force, Luke”) and Darth Vader (“The Force is strong with this one”) reference the “force”.

As a leader, this doesn’t mean to stop doing all you can to achieve your goals. I interpret this niyama to mean that sometimes we have to accept that we really don’t have control. We can do our best with the right intention, but sometimes accepting the “force” is a greater sign of strength, not one of defeat.

Of all the niyamas, this one requires the greatest strength and one that took me years of questioning to embrace. Don’t limit your successes to what you alone can achieve. Embrace the surrender.

Surrender to something higher than yourself #yoga #leadership Click To Tweet

Yoga and leadership are simply ways of being. What requires discipline for us today will become second nature tomorrow. Awareness of what is around us will continue and become more heightened, and with continued awareness we become content to fully experience our surroundings. Awareness becomes practice.
I am pleased to report that I did practice Saucha, cleanliness, and cleaned not only my desk but also my office file cabinets! I enter my office – and my day – more inspired and effective through the practice of the niyamas.

Which of the Niyamas speaks to you most?

Which would you like to practice more, starting now?

By the way, here’s the blog post about the Yamas: how to treat others.


Margo Boster is the co-founder of ImpaQ Solutions. As a leadership strategist, Margo works with leaders, organizations and teams to be more effective and achieve goals. She is also an RYT Yoga teacher and divides her time between Scottsdale, Arizona and the Washington, DC area.

Marcella Bremer is an author and culture & change consultant. She co-founded this Leadership & Change Blog and

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