Sauca: purity, or cleanliness. You've heard that "cleanliness is next to Godliness," right? The idea behind sauca is about keeping yourself and the things in your life in good order so that they can function their best and help you live your life well. Knowing the connection between the body and the mind, if feed your body junk, or take drugs, for example, can you really expect to have optimal mental health? You wouldn't put sewage in your car and expect it to run well. And, as seems to be the case in all of these practices, there is a more subtle, internal aspect to this practice also. It's a good idea to examine what kind of things you're feeding your 'mental body' also. For example, if you spend all your free time watching violent movies - you are in essence, feeding your brain these images. You can imagine, it's hard to have a quiet mind after watching a horrifically violent movie. Does this mean we should just avoid all of the unpleasantries of life? Not at all. It just means we should be mindful of what we choose to ingest - literally, and figuratively.
Of course, the tendency to keep things clean and pure must be met with brahmacarya, or moderation. Going to extremes in behavior is ultimately self-defeating.
Santosha - contentment. We're all seeking contentment, aren't we? As elusive as it may seem at times, it helps to remember that positive states like contentment can be cultivated. There are many ways - and everyone will have their own. For me, yoga, music and laughter can do the trick. Another way to increase contentment is to cultivate gratitude. There are so many parts of our lives that we take for granted, if we only stop to realize them. We're so quick to recognize the things that go wrong in our lives - we seldom stop to acknowledge the little things that go right. For example, I was able to go to yoga class this morning because a myriad of things went right. Just to name a few - my car started; I had gas in my car; I didn't have a wreck on the way; the teacher had the same luck and showed up and was generous enough to share her knowledge with us; my body was healthy and pain-free enough to participate...the list could go on and on. We so rarely notice our non-headaches - the absence of problems, pain or suffering, we just become aware when they show up. Waking up to the presence of non-problems goes a long way toward cultivating contentment.
Tapas - heat, or "glow." I think of tapas as having to do with perserverence, self-discipline and enthusiasm. We all have days in which we don't want to go to work, exercise or do something we know we need to do, or is good for us. What makes us work through our resistance? Tapas. Sometimes it helps to remind ourselves of why it's good for us to do something. When I'm feeling like blowing off my yoga practice, I often tell myself - I never regret doing yoga, only not doing it. And, sometimes, we just think too much about things - getting into mental arguments with ourselves about what we should do. In these cases, we need to just let go the internal chatter and just focus on the present moment - and just do what is called for. Because in the doing it, in the showing up we've already made progress. Not to mention, to get the benefits of any practice, we need sustained effort, or heat. Tapas.
Of course, burnout is an all-too-common fact of life and we need to be mindful - and moderate - in our activity levels. And, as with all of these practices, tapas can be cultivated. Like all of the yamas and niyamas, it's something we have to practice. We may not start out with much self-discipline, but by making one little change every day we can make a lot of progress before too long.
Enthusiasm and motivation can be cultivated, too. Often going to a workshop, a museum, being in nature or just doing something outside of your routine, or getting a change of scenery can mentally wipe the slate clean and be energizing too.
Svadyaya - study. Here's another example of a practice that has both external and internal aspects. Learning and study are vital to personal development, to be sure. Whether we're learning a new hobby, learning yoga philosophy or a new language, learning is good for the brain and mental health. The other side of the coin, though, is self-study. We should regularly engage in honest self-reflection, which should include examining not only the things we could improve, but the things we've done well. As with all things, we will do well to remember the underpinning of ahimsa, or nonharming, and approach self-study with a compassionate attitude. Having taken an honest look at ourselves and our behavior, with the self-discipline of tapas, we can begin to make changes in the direction of becoming the person we want to be.
Isvara pranidhana - surrender. This practice is often described as devotion to God - or surrendering the fruits of our labors to God. Though this interpretation may not resonate with everyone, Isvara pranidhana still a workable, helpful concept. One way to think about it is surrendering the illusion of control. As much as we would like to be in control of our lives - and of course, having a certain amount of control of ourselves is desirable - at some point, we have to acknowledge and admit that we can't control everything. All we can do in life is to do our best, and then leave it. Forget about the outcome. If you've done your best, you can rest in the knowledge that you've made your contribution to the big picture - and remember that the ultimate outcome is not totally up to you.
Ultimately, the niyamas are about the importance of self-care in the service of the greater good. By taking care of yourself in these ways, you are more able to live your best life, which is definitely good for your mental health.
For further reading: there are several good translations of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. I probably like Satchidananda's best but Isherwood's How to Know God is more accessible and a good place to start, in my opinion.