What are the niyama and how do they relate to life today?

Silhouette of person sitting with an image of cake behind them
Look closely behind the body! Image free from Pixabay.

This month we turn to the second limb of yoga as outlined by Patanjali. (The first limb, yama, I covered in March.)

The second limb is niyama, and as you can probably tell from the word, is closely liked to the yama. However, whereas yama have a slightly more external or social aspect to them e.g. in terms of how we interact with others, the niyama are more personal and internally focused; they are general observances and behaviours that could be considered essential for a balanced, harmonious life.

The niyama are:

  • sauca – cleanliness, purity (internal mind and body and external environment)
  • santosa – contentment, non-craving, acceptance
  • tapas – perseverance, dedicated self-discipline, heat, austerity
  • svadhyaya – study of the self, studying leading to knowledge of the (bigger) Self
  • Isvara pranidhanani – surrender to a supreme/ultimate/ universal presence/consciousness
    (See SwamiJ.com for online text of the Yoga Sutras)

Why would we want to try to follow these practices today?

Are there any benefits to living by these behavious? Perhaps. To answer these question it’s important to understand why they were deemed important.

Patanjali lists the benefits of applying them as bringing treasures, enlightening the yogi, and purifying the mind and body: “When the body is cleansed, the mind purified and the senses controlled, joyful awareness needed to realise the inner self also comes.” (S2.41)

“Success or failure at higher levels of consciousness depend on yama and niyama.” (Iyengar, 2002, p. 147).

If we are seeking ways to be more focused, mindful and content with the present moment, then applying these behaviours may be beneficial. Some of them are generally just ‘good’ things to do anyway e.g. being clean.

How can we apply them to our daily lives?

Some of the niyama are easier to grasp than others. Cleanliness of body is immediately obviously (wash!), but also relates to having a healthy, pure diet, as well as trying to live in a clean, pure environment (which may be easier if you live in the countryside than in you live a very large smelly city!). Contentment doesn’t have to mean passive acceptance of a poor situation, rather being happy or grateful for what you do have in this present moment, and not constantly wanting something else, particularly possessions. Being content with what you do have, not what you don’t have. This one can get a bit tricky as I feel it’s perhaps been a useful way to ensure people remain in their caste within India, accepting their fate in life rather than seeking to change it.

Tapas translates as heat, and is the heat from serious practice and focused hard work. We can decide to ‘coast’ through a yoga class, or a run, or cleaning, or we can really apply ourselves, focus all our energy on what we’re doing. It is said the inner tapas fire can burn our impurities, build will power and strengthen the mind.

Self-study and self-surrender may make people feel a bit less comfortable. Becoming more aware of your self, your true nature, can be achieved through meditation, or writing a journal, being honest about our emotions, motivations and desires. And it can also link to then letting go of ourselves, our ego, and surrendering to a greater power. This is where non-religious people start to feel jittery as it really means surrender or devotion to ‘god’ (Ishvara) (any god, which ever one you want). If you are uncomfortable with the idea of a ‘greater being’ you could devote your practice or make a connection with the Earth, nature, or something else that you feel comfortable with instead.

Further reading

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