The Five Niyamas: Yoga’s Internal Observances
The second limb of Patanjali's eight-limbed yoga system contains the five internal practices of Niyama (observance). These practices extend the ethical codes of conduct provided in his first limb, the yamas, to the practicing yogi’s internal environment of body, mind and spirit. The practice of Niyama helps us maintain a positive environment in which to grow, and gives us the self-discipline and inner-strength necessary to progress along the path of yoga.
Shaucha (purification) is a central aim of many yogic techniques, and is the first principle of Patanjali's five Niyamas. The yogis discovered that impurities in both our external environment and our internal body adversely affect our state of mind, and prevent the attainment of real wisdom and spiritual liberation. The practices of asana, pranayama and meditation cleanse and purify the body and mind, as well as strengthening their capacity to maintain a pure state of being. We must also consciously work at surrounding ourselves with a pure environment (including food, drink, friends, entertainment, home furnishings and transportation) to not add any external impurities back into our bodies or minds.
Samtosha (contentment) is not craving for what we do not have as well as not coveting the possessions of others. The yogis tell us that when we are perfectly content with all that life gives us, then we attain true joy and happiness. It is easy for the mind to become fooled into thinking that we can attain lasting happiness through the possession of objects and goods, but both our personal experience and the teachings of the sages prove that the happiness gained through materialism is only temporary. Practicing contentment frees us from the unnecessary suffering of always wanting things to be different, and instead fills us with gratitude and joy for all of life’s blessings.
Tapas (asceticism) is a yogic practice of intense self-discipline and attainment of will power. Basically, Tapas is doing something you do not want to do that will have a positive effect on your life. When our will conflicts with the desire of our mind an internal “fire” is created which illuminates and burns up our mental and physical impurities. This inner fire can also be used as a source of spiritual energy; the yogis say the sole practice of Tapas can lead to the release of kundalini and attainment of enlightenment. Tapas transforms and purifies us as well as enables the conscious awareness and control over our unconscious impulses and poor behavior. Tapas builds the will power and personal strength to help us become more dedicated to our practice of yoga .
Svadhyaya (self-study) is the ability to see our true divine nature through the contemplation of our life’s lessons and through the meditation on the truths revealed by seers and sages. Life presents an endless opportunity to learn about ourselves; our flaws and weaknesses give us the opportunity to grow and our mistakes allow us to learn. Examining our actions becomes a mirror to see our conscious and unconscious motives, thoughts, and desires more clearly. The yogic practice of Svadhyaya also involves the study of sacred and spiritual texts as a guide to our interior world where our true self resides. Self-study requires both seeing who we are in the moment and seeing beyond our current state to realize our connection with the divine.
Ishvara Pranidhana (devotion) is the dedication, devotion, and surrender of the fruits of one’s practice to a higher power. This Niyama fuses two common aspects of yoga within it: the devotion to something greater than the self and the selfless action of karma yoga. Patanjali tells us that to reach the goal of yoga we must dissolve our egocentric nature and let go of our constant identification with ourselves. To do this, our yoga practice and all of the benefits we may receive from our practice must be seen as an offering to something greater than ourselves. Through this simple act of dedication we become reminded of our connection to our higher power, and our yoga practice becomes sacred and filled with grace, inner peace, and abounding love.
The foundation limbs of Patanjali’s eight-fold path of yoga, yama and niyama, create a solid foundation and strong container for the yogini to move into the deeper stages of yoga with focus, inner-strength, and success. Practicing the Yamas and Niyamas is a journey and process. Take one step, one Yama or Niyama at a time and proceed with compassion and without worry of perfection. As Swami Sri Kripalvanandaji said, " When you pick one petal from the garland of yamas and niyamas, the entire garland will follow."