Niyama—Five Yogic Guidelines
for Interacting with the Inner World
Niyama means “discipline” or “[moral] restraint” and is the second stage of Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga (the eightfold path). The niyama are five guidelines for interaction with the “inner” world. Their practice is considered essential for success on the yogic path.
The Five Niyama Are:
- Saucha (purity)
- Santosha (contentment)
- Tapas (asceticism)
- Svadhyaya (spiritual study)
- Ishvarapranidhana (devotion to the Lord).
Saucha is a reflection of the yogic belief that the body is the vehicle or temple of the soul. Thus, it is very important to have a healthy, clean body so the soul’s purpose can be fulfilled. The physical body can be purified through practicing asanas and pranayama, maintaining a healthy diet, bathing regularly, doing physical exercise, and by practicing various dhautis (cleanses for the internal organs and systems of the body). An aspirant on the yogic path should also cultivate purity of mind, relinquishing negative mental tendencies such as pride, anger, jealousy, dishonesty, judgment, etc.
To be firmly rooted in santosha, “unconditional joy,” is to feel genuine happiness no matter what arises in the sphere of our being. It is to be accepting and to trust that we always receive what we need, whether it is labeled as “good” or “bad.”
To practice contentment is to practice a constant awareness of the present moment, where the mind is free from desires and fears about the future as well as pain and regrets about the past. Cultivating santosha allows us to let go of the desires that trap us in ignorance and suffering. A feeling of completeness then arises and we learn to be happy in this moment, with whatever we have and however we are. Only a mind free of desiring, free from thoughts of past and future, can concentrate.
Thus, in practicing santosha we naturally improve in our practice of Hatha Yoga and meditation. A state of equanimity arises and labels such as “good” and “bad” that may be applied to experiences are seen as mere judgments of the mind.
The Sanskrit word tapas comes from the root tap, meaning “to burn,” “to blaze,” or “to consume in heat.” It represents the heat of determination, the inner fire of austerity that should be cultivated on the spiritual path. It also indicates that we should burn all desires and obstacles that stand in the way of Realization.
Tapas is often used to mean “self-control” or “cultivation of willpower.” However, in reality, tapas is more than just the cultivation of willpower. It is a commitment to develop and purify the will to the extent that it can take us deeper in our spiritual practice.
From a formal point of view, tapas is an act of making a commitment to perform a particular practice or observance for a specified amount of time. If we assume a tapas and succeed in the challenge, we gain momentum and confidence in this pure will. In this way, we can skillfully take on more and more difficult challenges and slowly build our willpower over time.
Tapas can be both an attitude and a practice. It involves perseverance in unconditionally serving spiritual purposes. Swami Sivananda used to say that military discipline is, in a way, a very good yogic discipline. When we swallow our pride, ego, desires, and fancies, transformation comes easier. Because of this, Swami Sivananda said that a trained soldier was better suited to yoga than those who had not undergone such self-effacing discipline.
Suggesting the same idea, Swami Vivekananda said that a “dacoit” (thief) might be able to realize God better than a coward or a timid person. A dacoit is daring and fearless. And, such fearlessness and daring is necessary in order to walk the spiritual path and live a spiritual life. Yoga is not meant for the timid and the fearful.
In the Yoga Sutras (2:43), Patanjali describes tapas as follows:
“Through tapas, on account of the dwindling of impurity, perfection of the body and the sense organs [is acquired]. Tapas destroys the impurities of the mind and grants the yogi supernatural powers.”
Yoga Vashista, the most renowned commentary on the Yoga Sutras, defines tapas as the endurance of extremes on the physical and subtle levels. It states that we should reach a state of detachment from heat and cold, repulsion and attraction, and fear and desire.
Tapas is the capacity to maintain a state of equilibrium (in fact, the Witness Consciousness) even when we are subjected to very challenging influences.
The idea of svadhyaya can essentially be understood in two ways. First, it refers to the recommendation that the aspirant on the path of yoga should study both the classical texts of yoga and the writings of yoga masters in order to fully comprehend the theory behind the practice.
Self-study also indicates the practice of studying or contemplating atman (the Self), which is done through constant awareness, remembrance, discipline, meditation, and, especially, Self-Enquiry. This will eventually lead to the revelation of the Self as the very background of existence, on which all manifestation unfolds.
The final niyama is about “uninterrupted devotion or surrender to God.” The practice of ishvarapranidhana purifies the remaining desires in the mind. It also orients the mind towards the Divine, until there is no desire for anything but God. The desire for union (yoga) is all that remains in a mind purified by constant devotion.
Ishvara also can be translated as “the highest.” Therefore, we may practice devotion to “the highest ideal”—Truth, Reality, Beauty, Unconditional Love, etc. This practice may begin with formal prayers and the consecration of our actions, and will eventually develop into a natural orientation of the mind, heart, and breath towards “the highest”—the Spiritual Heart—in every moment of the day.