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 thrive and gives us the self-discipline, humility, and inner-strength necessary to progress along the path of yoga.
The Five Niyamas of Yoga
- Shaucha (purification and cleanliness) is a central aim of many yogic techniques and is the first principle of Patanjali’s five observances. 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 and self-discipline) 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 and self-reflection) 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 and self-surrender) is the dedication, devotion, and surrender of the fruits of one’s practice to a higher power. This personal observance 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.
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Tips for practicing the Niyamas
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. Simply by reading and contemplating the Niyamas, we begin to practice them. Yet, the daily practice of aligning our thoughts, behaviors, and actions with these personal guidelines can be difficult and challenging. Ideally, practicing the Niyamas should be approached slowly over many years and should be combined with a dedicated hatha yoga practice.
For the best success, practice applying the Niyamas to your life using a structured methodology like the seven steps below. Take one step at a time, and proceed with compassion and without the 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.”
- Start with one Niyama. Begin by reading, understanding, and contemplating each of the five Niyamas. As you contemplate how each principle would unfold in your current life, notice your thoughts and emotional reactions to making changes to support each one. You will likely find one or two that have a strong charge for you. Depending on the amount of inner strength and community support you have, you may decide to start with the most charged one or leave those for later. Make a clear and conscious choice to dedicate yourself to practicing this Niyama over a set period of time. A good place to start is committing to 40 days of focused practice.
- Start practicing on your mat. Begin to practice the awareness and skillful effort of your chosen observance on your yoga mat. Use your Niyama as the intention or Sankalpa of your practice and let it be the guiding force to how you engage with the breath and the body as you flow from pose to pose. Do not judge when you fail at your attempts, simply vow to try again. Be patient, kind, and compassionate but also dedicated, willful, and focused.
- Reflect and track your progress. Keep a journal or find another method of tracking your commitment and progress. It is quite possible that you will encounter epiphanies or discover powerful insights that will be helpful to document. Reflection and contemplation of your experiences with practicing the Niyamas will also be helpful to further integrate them into your yoga practice and life.
- Deepen your observation and exploration. As you continue to focus on a Niyama while you move through your yoga or meditation practice you will begin to notice patterns and habits to your thoughts and emotions. Spend some time in contemplation to pull on the threads of these patterns to see if you can discern where they originate from. These patterns will most likely be originating from a Samskara, a deeply rooted wheel of suffering. Niyamas are a powerful tool to shine the light of awareness to these dark and murky areas of the self and to help reprogram our Samskaras.
- Take your Niyama off of your mat. Once you are comfortable and competent in using your chosen observance in your yoga or meditation practice, you can begin to practice it in your day-to-day life. As you move out of the controlled and defined environment of your practice, you may feel like you are regressing in your progress. Note any aspects of your life (work, family, relationships, health, money, etc.) that appear to be the kryptonite to your Niyama. If this area is too challenging or overwhelming, give yourself permission to apply your Niyama after you have had success in the other aspects of your life.
- Commit to the next Niyama. Once you feel the challenge and charge of practicing your personal observance has diminished it may be time to commit to another one. As your inner awareness strengthens you may be able to take on more than one Niyama at a time, but it is still advised to not rush the practice of the Niyamas. Before you take on a new one, you may want to reflect on your past experience and decide on any changes or refinements to your approach.
- Keep peeling the onion. The Niyamas are considered a vow you make for the entirety of your yoga practice. Practicing them will get easier over time, but you will probably find that each observance has several different layers of practice and discovery. You may choose how deeply and completely you practice each one—only fully committed enunciates should vow to practice the Niyamas fully and completely. Continuing to peel back the layers of each Niyama will deepen your inner-transformation, strengthen your awareness, and purify your heart and mind.
- Explore other limbs and philosophy of yoga. These first two limbs of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra create a solid foundation to go deeper into the deeper practices and philosophies of yoga. The Yoga Sutra is just one of the many core texts that can inform and guide a yogi towards a state of oneness and liberation. The more understanding you have of these many elaborate facets the greater wisdom you can attain to experience the gem of yoga.
Goals of the Niyamas
In a practical sense, practicing the Niyamas creates a strong and pure physical container for the deeper practices of yoga. When we practice the Niyamas we are striving towards living a healthier, holier, and more peaceful life and at the same time, we strengthen our powers of awareness, will, determination, and discernment. The more we cultivate conscious and skillful action, the easier it will be to navigate strong emotions and negative thought patterns—and much less likely to act from unconscious programming.
Engaging in these practices is not an easy task, yet by doing so we fortify our character, improve our relationships with others, deepen our equanimity, and further our progress along the path of yoga.
Books to study and practice further
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and the Yamas and Niyamas are rich philosophical topics that can be explored and studied in great depth. If you are eager to study and dive deeper into these practices, consider reading one or more dedicated books on the subject. Below are our recommendations for you to check out to discover more:
- The Yamas & Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice by Deborah Adele
- Yoga’s Yamas and Niyamas: 10 Principles for Peace & Purpose by Courtney Seiberling
- The Eight Limbs of Yoga: A Handbook for Living Yoga Philosophy Paperback by Sarbacker and Kimple
- Living the Sutras: A Guide to Yoga Wisdom beyond the Mat by DiNardo and Pearce-Hayden
- True Yoga: Practicing With the Yoga Sutras for Happiness & Spiritual Fulfillment by Jennie Lee
- Inside the Yoga Sutras: A Comprehensive Sourcebook by Jaganath Carrera
- The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Sri Swami Satchidananda