The Five Niyamas

Submitted by Bijam on Sun, 09/04/2017 - 16:44

Hari OM

This summary is derived from the class themes from last term, when we looked at and discussed how to practice Sri Patanjali's five Niyamas - guidelines for personal discipline, to help create a tranquil mind prepared for meditation.  The Niyamas are, of course, associated with the five Yamas, self-restraints or rules of conduct that help produce fertile ground for meditation practice by regulating our behaviour and emotions.  


1. Saucha

The word means purity.   Saucha is purification on all levels.  It involves personal cleanliness, maintaining a tidy and orderly home, eating healthy food and drinking pure water.  It is the cleanliness in mind and speech that comes from refraining from emotionally and physically charged obsessions.  It is finding the balance in life.  The heart and mind are purified of attachments. 

“When the body is cleansed, the mind purified and the senses controlled, joyful awareness needed to realise the inner self also comes”

YS 2, 41 (Trans BKS Iyengar)

Think of  ways in which you could simplify your life and practice them one by one; perhaps you could use a sankalpa, a resolve, just as in Yoga Nidra.  Sankalpa is far too important to be practised only during Yoga Nidra.  


2. Santosha

The word santosha means contentment.  Patanjali says of this one:
“From contentment, the highest happiness is attained”

Swami Satyananda says ”contentment is one of the fixed rules for an aspirant who is serious about the higher aspects of yoga.” 

Isn't it great that we can actually practice contentment?   But how?   Witnessing our response when things go awry is a good place to start.  Of course, life most definitely doesn't go to plan and sadness and hardship are part of life; but if we practice contentment - perhaps even calling it acceptance- it may mean that we don't make things worse for ourselves.  And when things are going well, pausing for a moment and noticing that we're enjoying something  is also "practising" contentment.  When we make plans and they go awry, we tend to feel discontented; our inner control freak begins to nag or the guilt button begins to flash - - "I'm going to be late, stress, TRAFFIC!!! -  “I should have left 10 minutes ago!”  Could we try instead accepting that lateness is inevitable; and remaining calm (at least then we're less likely to crash) because we can’t use a time machine to make us not be late. But of course, remembering next time to leave earlier.  And what about the WANT monster, which we feed so it grows all-consuming?  Can we witness this happening and decide we're going to stop feeding it, so it starves for lack of attention?  Easier said than done, but a valuable practice.


3. Tapas

Tapas is both the third niyama and the first in a list of three aspects of what Patanjali calls Kriya Yogathe path of action which consists of

  • Self-discipline/purification/control of the senses (tapas)
  • Study/self-observation (svadhyaya)
  • Evolving self-awareness (Ishwara pranidhana)

that enables the practitioner to clear the mind  and prepare for meditation practice.

The word tapas means heat; self-discipline refers to austerity, will power.

From austerity, on account of the removal of impurities, the perfection of the senses and the body manifests. 

Suggestions include controlling the quantity, quality and regularity of one’s food intake, quality of other sensory inputs such as books, TV, what one talks about etc.  Lots of food for thought there. 



Sometimes referred to as the mystery Niyama,  the word literally translates as “study of the Self (sva means one’s own self).  This is of course not unique to yoga philosophy - the words of Socrates around 400 years BCE are often quoted. At his trial, he chose death rather than exile as "the unexamined life is not worth living".  

How  do we practice svadhyaya?  By observing ourselves. This is where we can tenaciously and lovingly watch our choices, get curious, and ask ourselves two simple questions: “Where does this habit or pattern show up in my life?” and “How is that working for me?”  The practice of svadhyaya  helps us notice unconscious patterns and make subtle shifts—often with very little effort—to help align our outward actions and our inner desires. When we do this, we naturally experience more power and peace with all things, exactly as they are. Our desire to change the outside world may diminish once we have adjusted our inner perceptions.

We can also practice svadhyaya by reading texts such as the Yoga Sutras, the Bhagvad-Gita or one of the Hatha Yoga texts and reflecting on how to apply the knowledge in our lives.  (I'm reading the Gheranda Samhita on that basis at present).


5. Ishvara pranidhana. 

This is again often seen as a difficult concept, in our ego-driven control-freakish age. Pranidahana means to surrender, but to what and how?   Ishvara is usually translated as unmanifest reality, or the principle of higher consciousness or the supreme being;  in some translations Ishvara means God. It is said that when we dedicate our lives to the benefit of others, with an attitude of service, that is Ishvara Pranidhana. 

How do we practice?  There are two ways of looking at this sutra when taken into daily life; it’s often described as the ‘easiest’ path to peace and realisation, requiring no effort or pain on our part – we simply let go, devote everything to a higher power and completely devote our actions to whatever we consider that higher power to be.  In my mind it links to karma yoga, the practice described in the Bhagavad Gita  as carrying out our duties without selfish attachment to their "fruit" or outcome. 

A few suggestions:

  • The idea of ‘surrendering’ can be applied to the intention we set at the beginning of practice; Ishvara Pranidhana can be thought of as ‘offering up the results of one’s actions for the benefit of all beings’.   In this way, our asana practice becomes less about what it can do for us, but how we can help ourselves stay healthy enough to help the world around us
  • A particular asana – knowing when and how to let go; or surrender to the posture, perhaps staying in it a few breaths longer
  • Yoga nidra - ‘creative surrender’, a deliberate and conscious relaxation of the mind and body

To sum up, studying the Yamas and Niyamas  reminds us  that the purpose of yoga is not only to be strong, flexible and healthy, although asana and pranayama practice can certainly provide that.  Yoga is more about managing the mind to develop self-awareness to the point of liberation (from the mind's turmoil.) As Sage Patanjali puts it,

"Yoga is the ability to direct and focus mental activity.  When the mind is focused, the inner being establishes itself in all its reality.  Otherwise, we identify with the activities of the mind" (Trans. Bernard Bouanchaud)

 Swami Satchitananda writes, in his commentary on the Yoga Sutras, "when even one virtue becomes our nature, the mind becomes clean and tranquil.  Then there is no need to practice meditation; we will automatically be meditating always".   Quite a thought!