The five niyamas, part of the second limb of the “Eight Limbs of Yoga” from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, refer to the inner observances that can help us live a more yogic life.
When I first started practicing yoga, I had no idea the practice had so much depth. All I knew was that I wanted to live a more peaceful life—and I thought yoga would lead me there. Years later, I can say for certain that yoga is a path toward inner peace, and exploring the philosophical foundations of the practice is an important step along that path.
If I’m honest, diving into this philosophical work wasn’t something I took to immediately. Yet a few years after being obsessed with the yoga poses, I felt the inclination to learn more about traditional yoga philosophy. I started with the Yoga Sūtras, which wasn’t an easy task. But when I got to the five niyamas, or self-disciplines, I instantly saw their practical application in my life both on and off my yoga mat
A good way to think about the five niyamas is to frame them as observances that you as a yoga practitioner take on in order to optimize your practice. Sometimes the niyamas are called the list of “do’s” (in opposition to the list of “don’ts” that comprise the yamas. However, rather than a list of things to be done and checked off, the idea is to make each of the niyamas as personal and relevant as possible to your daily life.
I see the yamas as the moral and ethical guidelines for how the yogi ideally acts in society and in relationship to others, and the niyamas as the same outline for how the yogi treats oneself. The niyamas are observances that can be done in silence and without much fanfare. Most, if not all, are best done as a solitary pursuit in the realms of the inner body and mind. In fact, if any of the niymasa are performative and done for worldly praise, then they miss the mark.
You might also think of it this way: While the yamas are evident in a yogi’s lifestyle choices, the niyamas are more subtle. Here’s what you need to know about each of the five niyamas, and how to put them into practice in your life right now.
Definition: Cleanliness, Purity
Practice: Traditionally the principle of śaucha is applied to body, mind, and speech. It’s important to keep in mind that the term “body” can be taken to include not only one’s own physical body but the environment that one occupies, both in terms of living space and world. Mind implies the type of thoughts that dominate the inner world; speech usually indicates responsibility for every word spoken, in terms of both intention and effect. This one principle has the power to radically change your life if applied with diligence. I encourage you to choose one aspect of śaucha that you find inspired to apply in your life. Perhaps you feel motivated to clean out an old closet or sweep the floor. Or, maybe it’s time to clean out your thoughts and replace destructive self-hate with positive affirmations. Finally, consider being mindful about your speech and drop all gossipy or snarky comments, whether written or spoken.
Definition: Contentment, Acceptance, Optimism
Practice: Some people resist practicing santosa because they think that being content and accepting of what is normalizes (and even pardons) grievous actions taken by others. Or, others feel like optimism is spiritual bypassing—a way to ignore reality in favor of positive thinking. Yet santosa couldn’t be further from this. So often we run from inconvenient truths and try to avoid situations that bring up discomfort. Acceptance in this context implies the willingness to see clearly—and truly and go into the places that scare you. If there is injustice in the world or if harmful actions have been taken, the teaching of santosa willingly acknowledges this fact and accepts it with a heart full of love. If there is something in your life that you need to acknowledge but you are avoiding it, santosa encourages you to be plainly honest with yourself. Without that first step of honesty, healing cannot take place. For example, if you never admit to yourself that you’re exhausted or burned out then you will not take the steps needed to rest and heal. Similarly, if a society cannot see its own injustice then it will never take the steps necessary to create true equality.
I am not someone who easily lives in a state of Santosa. Instead, I often find myself lapsing into hopelessness and targeting figures outside of myself as villains to be taken down. Another prime example: I’ve had a bad case of the sniffles all week but have refused to admit that I needed rest until this weekend. So, this week, can you find one thing that you’re running from in your life? It could be the simple acknowledgment of exhaustion, or coming to terms with actions you’ve taken that have harmed another. Perhaps it’s admitting that someone you trusted let you down. Without pardoning the harmful behavior or trying to immediately solve a problem, just start practicing santosa by being willing to see what is with open, non-judgmental eyes.
Definition: Discipline, Persistence
Practice: Perhaps the easiest of the niyamas to apply, tapas gives you the foundation of the ritual of practice. Daily discipline is required to progress along the path of yoga. The spiritual path is an operation of the mind—and, like any good surgeon, you have to practice. Commit to 5 minutes a day and get on your mat to do yoga asana or meditation every single day this week. Let this be the foundation of consistent practice.
Definition: Self-study, study of sacred scripture
Practice: Traditionally svādhyāya includes not only the actual reading of sacred texts, but the paradigm of study itself. When reading the key texts of any spiritual tradition, svādhyāya instructs the yogi to be open-minded and receptive to the teaching. Instead of taking a critical perspective that seeks to debunk the text, the yogi is encouraged to read the primary texts from the paradigm of personal usefulness. This paradigm epitomizes the student’s mind and acknowledges that the yogi is first and foremost a student. In a nod to the lineage-based traditions of yoga, Patañjali includes svādhyāya in the niyamas to ensure that all yogis remain students.
For your practice this week, choose a key text from your main spiritual lineage. It could be the Yoga Sutras, but it could also be the Dhammapada or the Bible. In the morning, before you start reading the news and answering emails, commit to reading a few lines or paragraphs of the text. You could start at the beginning or you could flip through and randomly choose a passage. Let the words of the ancients be your start to the day. Later, as you move about your day, reflect on these words and see if you can find relevance in their teaching. If you have time, journal about your experience at the end of the day.
Definition: Devotion, surrender to God
Practice: While there are many religions and definitions of God, the Divine principle is nearly universal in all human beings. Even self-proclaimed atheists usually believe in a force greater than themselves. Whether you call this force the Universe, Source-energy, Life Itself, Oneness, Love, Light, Buddha Nature, Emptiness, Spirit, Brahman, īśvara, Jesus, or God doesn’t actually matter. Devotion and surrender are two key aspects of faith.
This week, as an exercise in building your relationship to the Divine, choose a place in your life where you feel utterly stuck or stressed out. Then, rather than asking for God to solve your problems and grant your every wish, ask for your need to fix it, solve it, or control to be lifted off your heart. Turn it over and ask for stress and stuck-ness to be replaced with peace and understanding.
by Kino Macgregor