This series will build on our introduction to Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga and dive deep into each limb or step on the yogic path to liberation. This article will focus on the second limb – The 5 Niyamas. But first, let’s have a quick recap.
The Eight Limbs of Yoga
The Eight Limbs of Yoga is a system of ethics and practice that help us to quiet our mind and gain control over our thoughts. Gaining power over the mind is the only way to dissolve the ego and attain Moksha (liberation) by realizing the true nature of the Self, the ultimate goal of yoga.
The Eight Limbs of Yoga are:
The 5 Niyamas
While the 5 Yamas can be viewed as moral and ethical guidelines for how to act in relation to others and society, the 5 Niyamas outline how we should treat ourselves. The Yamas are a set of behaviors to refrain from, while the Niyamas are actions we should perform regularly. They help us to cultivate a clear mind.
These behaviors help us to foster positive emotions, purify the mind and body, increase knowledge, and pave the way for a deeper resonance with the next steps in the Eight Limbs of Yoga system.
The 5 Niyamas are:
- Saucha – Purity or cleanliness (mental and physical)
- Santosha – Contentment (satisfaction of our present experience)
- Tapas – Discipline (burning enthusiasm for our practice)
- Svadhyaya – Self-study (of the scriptures)
- Ishvara Pranidhara – Surrender (to the true Self or ultimate reality)
Let’s look at each of the 5 Niyamas in more detail and explore how we can observe them both on and off the mat.
Saucha – Purity or Cleanliness
The first of the 5 Niyamas is Saucha, which means ‘purity’ or ‘cleanliness.’ This can be translated as ‘self-purification.’ Saucha includes cleansing techniques for the body and the mind. The ancient yogic sages knew that Saucha is the foundation for health. When we create a strong and healthy foundation that is free from toxins and impurities, we can reach deeper states of meditation.
We live very toxic lives; we absorb impurities and chemicals from the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, the products we use on our bodies and to clean our homes. Our bodies are great at detoxification, but unfortunately in modern-day life, we ingest toxins faster than the body can get rid of them. This leads to toxic overload, which inevitably overwhelms the system, lowers the immune system, and makes us sick.
Think back to the last time you were sick – did you feel like you could properly focus your mind? Did you even feel like meditating at all? Most of us do not feel like it when we are overwhelmed by illness; we lack clarity, motivation, energy, and concentration. Cleansing the body of toxins to bring about better health is one of the most fundamental ways we can support our spiritual practice.
We can purify the mind by guarding against negative thoughts, and by practicing meditation. Sometimes we think, speak, and act purely out of habit. Bringing awareness to our thoughts and subsequent speech and actions, and choosing a less toxic option is one way to practice Saucha purification of the mind. This includes reframing negative self-talk into positive affirmations.
Saucha in Asana
There are detoxifying Asanas you can practice, for example, any pose that includes twisting is great for releasing toxins from the internal organs and wringing out stagnant energy. Also, beware of any negative self-talk that arises as you practice. If you notice you are thinking negative thoughts about yourself or your abilities, immediately replace that thought with a positive statement.
Santosha – Contentment
The second of the 5 Niyamas is Santosha. The word Santosha means ‘contentment,’ ‘joy,’ or ‘delight.’ Practicing Santosha means accepting our present moment situation, and even bringing in gratitude for all the wonderful people, objects, and experiences we have had the privilege of receiving into our lives. Contentment brings happiness, hence the varying translations for Santosha.
It is extremely common to base our happiness on the acquisition of things or achievements. ‘I’ll finally be happy when I’ve got that promotion/bought a bigger house/lost those last 10lbs/managed to do Scorpion pose.’ Have you ever had a thought along these lines? Thoughts like these are why we need to bring Santosha into our lives. Happiness is never dependent upon outside circumstances. It is always cultivated from the inside. In Buddhism, this point is reflected in the teaching that craving (Taṇhā) is the cause of suffering (Dukkha). Craving things will always lead to suffering and dissatisfaction.
To experience contentment and satisfaction, we must practice Santosha. Trust that what you have is perfect for where you are, and this is precisely where you should be at this time. Begin a gratitude practice if you don’t already have one. Every day, write down at least three different things you are grateful for. Gratitude is the fastest way to raise your vibrational frequency and bring a sense of contentment to your life. Of all the 5 Niyamas, Santosha has the most potential for bringing inner peace.
Santosha in Asana
Being content with where you are now in your Asana practice is imperative. Drop the craving for getting into more complicated poses and practice gratitude for all the things your amazing body can already do. I also feel grateful for the fact that I have yoga in my life, and I live in a place and time where I can practice whenever I want.
Tapas – Discipline
The third of the 5 Niyamas is Tapas. Translated, Tapas means ‘heat.’ We can see Tapas as developing a ‘burning enthusiasm for our practice.’ It is this enthusiasm that fuels self-discipline to keep up a regular practice no matter what. Sometimes we all lose motivation for a little while, which is perfectly natural. Without using Tapas, we can easily let that lack of motivation grow into a significant gap in our practice. And as I’m sure you know, once that happens, it can be tough to get the routine going again.
Continual practice of Asana and meditation build momentum and motivation. There is an energetic force behind that momentum that keeps you moving forward. That is Tapas. There is fire behind that passion and motivation to get on your mat day after day. That is Tapas.
Spiritual evolution is a choice, and when you choose to progress down this path, you need to cultivate the self-discipline to maintain a regular practice. It’s not always going to be easy, and you’re not always going to feel that motivation and momentum naturally. That is where developing Tapas comes in. Having the determination to sit down and meditate every morning, do some yoga poses, or chant mantras for a few minutes each day is what Tapas is all about.
Tapas is the fire that keeps you moving forward because you have made that commitment to yourself, and you choose to honor it whatever obstacles happen to appear in your life. Of all the 5 Niyamas, Tapas is the one that helps us progress toward realizing our spiritual potential.
Tapas in Asana
Tapas is having the self-discipline to get on your mat every day and do your yoga. Don’t mistake it for pushing yourself to achieve things too quickly or being harsh with yourself if you are genuinely feeling unwell and need to rest. Tapas equally relates to the discipline of tuning into your body’s needs and giving yourself exactly what you need. Whether that is a vigorous Vinyasa session or just 10 minutes of Viparita Karani (legs up the wall pose) because you are low on energy due to heavy menstruation. Use the fuel of Tapas to give yourself exactly what you need, when you need it, to honor yourself and your spiritual practice.
Svadhyaya – Self-Study
The fourth of the 5 Niyamas is Svadhaya. The translation is ‘to recollect,’ ‘remember,’ ‘contemplate.’ Recognizing yourself as a student of yoga and realizing that yoga reaches far beyond the physical Asanas. The scriptures that hold yoga’s history and philosophy are essential reading for any yogini who is serious about developing along the path to liberation. Cultivating Svadhaya means to keep an open mind to the information you are receiving, remain receptive, and reflect on it with discernment and self-awareness.
A great place to start is with ‘The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali,’ – the text from which these teachings originate. Use Tapas to create a regular study schedule so that you prioritize your learning. Even if all you can manage to fit in is a page or two at bedtime, if you do this with determination and consistency, you will make significant progress.
Alternatively, you may prefer to begin your day by reading a few passages. Reading in the morning brings the benefit of reflection and contemplation throughout the rest of the day. You may like to re-read the passages and journal about your own reflections and responses to the text in the evening. Svadhaya also relates to the study of the Self, so exploring your reactions to the texts is another way to deepen your Svadhaya practice.
Svadhaya in Asana
Studying the breath is the primary way you can see how you’re doing in a particular pose. If the breath becomes shallow, forced, or labored, you are likely pushing too far. It is time to back off until the breathing evens out, then you can come back in gently. Additionally, studying the reasons why you are pushing is particularly useful. Usually, it is ego-driven competitiveness with other students or yourself. However, there may be other reasons applicable to you. Study your habits on the mat and see where they reflect your life off the mat – these are very often similar.
Ishvara Pranidhara – Surrender
The fifth of the 5 Niyamas is Ishvara Pranidhara. Ishvara translates as ‘all-pervading consciousness,’ ‘true self,’ or ‘Brahman.’ Pranidhana means ‘to surrender.’ So, Ishvara Pranidhara means ‘devotion and surrender to the Divine.’ Some people choose to see the Divine as God, others as Universal consciousness, and still others as the true Self. Since we are composed of the same energy as the Universe, I see the latter two as the same.
The last of the 5 Niyamas can sometimes be the most difficult to understand and incorporate. It can feel as if we are meant to ‘surrender’ to the will of another and give up our own volitions and desires. But this is not the case at all. Ishvara Pranidhara is actually a beautiful act of devotion to a higher purpose. Surrendering to the sacredness that you see in everyday life, and treating all you do as a sacred act is practicing Ishvara Pranidhara. To live this precious human life is truly a gift beyond measure, and as humans are the Divine, and the Divine is us, simply honoring yourself is Ishvara Pranidhara.
Ishvara Pranidhara in Asana
Surrendering to the posture is honoring the sacredness of the pose. Often we are filled with tension, both physically as we try to gain perfect alignment and mentally as we strive for perfection. True, alignment is important, but once you have done your best, the next stage is to surrender into the pose. Soften the tensions you are holding, relax your tense muscles and mind, and drop into the posture.
Surrender may need to include finding comfort in discomfort – it is not necessarily going to feel comfortable. But surrendering your fight against the discomfort will, in fact, reduce it. Use your breath as a tool to smooth out any uncomfortable sensations, exhale into them, and feel them melting into the ground. Remember, everything is impermanent, including the discomfort. Surrender and breathe, and it will pass.
We hope you have enjoyed this guide to the 5 Niyamas and have gained some useful knowledge to take forward into your practice. Try to bring in at least one aspect of each Niyama and watch how your life and practice transforms. We are here to answer your questions, so place them in the comments box below or post them in our Sacred Circle forum.