The Eight Limbs of Yoga: Niyama

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In our “Eight Limbs of Yoga” series we are delving into the eight paths of yoga, as described by the ancient sage Patanjali. We have already defined the first “limb” of yoga, namely the yama. This article is dedicated to the second limb of yoga – niyama.  Together, yama and niyama represent universal recommendations for any person who wants to be happy and understands that in order to be happy, you need to work on yourself. They are also essential tools for those, who have selected yoga as their path towards personal development.   

Niyama are duties or observances, recommended to practitioners who have decided to follow yoga’s road to enlightenment. Although different historic sources vary and list as many as ten niyamas, we are going to only look into the five rules, as listed by Patanjali. 

Shaucha – Purity

Shaucha commands for purity of the body and mind. The practicing of yoga poses (asana) also assists the process of purification, as it helps the body detox. Good physical hygiene promotes health.

In the same way, purity of the mind promotes joy and happiness.   The observance of this principle calls for cleansing from anger, rage, envy, greed, fear and jealousy. The absence of negative emotions stimulates us to control our bad thoughts. Such purification removes mental suffering and gives good will and inner joy. Pure thoughts and pure actions create positive karma. Great importance is also attached to the purity of speech.

Tapas –   Self-discipline, Ascetism

The concept of tapas reflects on self-discipline as a method for the accumulation of internal energy and its direction towards self-development. In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali says that self-discipline (tapas) burns any pollution and kindles sparks of divinity. Tapas is the inner force which compels us to move forward and push the limits of our abilities. It is tapas that brings us to the mat for yoga practice, despite the bad weather, our bad mood, a heavy workload or a hectic schedule. 

When a person has the quality of self-discipline, their mind calms down and becomes whole, seeing the goals and the ways to achieve them. The root of the word “tap” means to kindle, to burn, therefore Tapas represents a burning desire to achieve your goals. Tapas aspires to the unyielding pursuit of a goal through self-restraint, a struggle with one’s vices, and strict discipline. 

 Santosha – Satisfaction, Contentment 

This prescription resonates with one of the rules of yama – aparigraha (non-possessiveness, non-accumulation). We spend a huge amount of our energy to manifest and maintain material things. So being contempt with what you have is at the start of the journey towards satisfaction. However, the journey does not end there.  Santosha is not pleasure, nor enjoyment; it is a fundamental feeling of joy and happiness that comes from our true self. 

Complaints and dissatisfaction attract even more events that upset you. While constructive introspection and admitting one’s mistakes is a way of learning and moving forward, we sometimes feel anxiety for events which are out of our control and beyond our reach. We worry about past events and the distant future, we accumulate regrets, guilt and fears. Most often, we are even dissatisfied with ourselves.

Santosha calls for being happy and satisfied with what you have as well as with what you are. Accept yourself, your situation and those around you. In this way you appreciate your present and build the foundation for a happy future.

Svadhyaya – Self-reflection

Svadhyaya shows us the right path to happiness through careful consideration of the self. Reflecting on who you are and what the purpose and meaning of your life are, looking into your strengths, weaknesses and goals, trying to realize what inspires you and what slows you down. Svadhyaya also includes self-observation, when we make no judgments but are aware of every moment of life, being present in the moment. However, the study of self is considered to go hand in hand with the study of sacred texts. Through them, we comprehend the depths of knowledge, the universality of life experiences.  These are philosophical reflections, conversations, readings that contribute to understanding the meaning of life and the path to self-improvement.

Without introspection and the conscious habit of self-reflection, the implementation of yama and niyama in our everyday lives is impossible.

Ishvara Pranidhana – Devotion to the Divine

The concept of the divine gives us a sense of humility, necessary for the achievement of enlightenment.  Accepting that there is a higher power, or a higher consciousness which has created the world around us and which guides life, gives the devotee patience, tolerance and the power to endure the path in front of them. When we surrender ourselves to the grace of the divine will, then our true self is revealed to us in all its beauty and, as a guide, leads us to happiness. The practice of Ishvara pranidhana can be expressed in various forms: both through actions and thoughts. As the yogi learns to dedicate all their actions to the divine, their actions reflect the divine within them. 

The rules of yama and niyama are not something to think about once and forget. They must be observed throughout life, irrespective of how seriously you practice yoga, your religion, occupation or age. The principles of the first two stages of yoga are important not only on the mat, but also in everyday life. Following these rules, we make our lives full, harmonious and happy, filling the space around us with balance, awareness and joy. Yama and niyama are the foundation on which the yogis begin to build their spiritual life. These prescriptions and prohibitions bring the body and mind into harmony with the laws of Nature, lead to inner and outer well-being, happiness, and enhance the practice of yoga. 

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