Living yoga as a spiritual path is a journey. And it has a definite goal. Some people begin a journey just for the fun of it, like an adventure. Indeed, many yoga students begin with this in mind. You hear that yoga is good for your body. Then you discover that it also has some pleasant mental effects. Finally, you find out that yoga offers you a path to the ultimate goal of life—spiritual enlightenment. Your journey begins when you embrace that goal as your own.
Every journey needs a map, especially those that we want to complete. How could we reach our goal without a map? For yoga’s journey to enlightenment Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras is such a map. It shows us the way by providing clear and necessary pathways to achieving the goal. Within the 109 aphorisms of the Yoga Sūtras are spiritual practices called the yamas and niyamas. The yamas, practices of self-control, are discussed here.
This post focuses on the principle of niyama. The Sanskrit word niyama means “observance” or “discipline.” Niyamas are daily practices that prepare us for higher learning. These disciplines are meant to help us, and that is exactly what they do. By living a disciplined life, we experience deeper meditation. As our meditation practice deepens, the inner jewels promised by the masters are revealed.
The Five Niyamas
These five practices are powerful tools that help us progress on the spiritual path. It’s important to note that these practices don’t just apply to our actions. Thoughts and words are subtle actions. Mental actions are most important because thoughts manifest into words and actions. And all actions, good or bad, subtle or gross, have their results—karma.
- Purity (shaucha): The practice of living a pure life is essential. Our bodies are made pure by regular bathing and good health habits. Since our body is the vehicle that we travel in, we must keep it healthy. Exercise, like yoga postures and walking, keep our body toned and strong. Mental purity is also important. Positive thoughts and avoiding the habit of criticism contribute to mental purity. Meditation is our strongest ally to purify the mind.
- Contentment (santosha): The practice of contentment is stated nicely in the Shāndilya Upanishad. It says, “Contentment is to be happy with whatever comes, whenever it comes, according to the will of God or the force of destiny.” Another way to explain this is a favorite quote by my Guru’s Guru: “Accept your karma cheerfully.”
- Self-discipline (tapas): The word austerity might also be used to define this term. But it’s meant in the most positive sense. Yogis don’t practice extreme disciplines like self-mortification. We always seek the middle path. Self-discipline is action taken for our highest welfare. Disciplined seekers avoid bad company. They keep a regular schedule of spiritual practices. Discipline helps maintain a healthy body and mind—important tools on the spiritual path.
- Study (svādhyāya): This practice includes several activities. Studying scriptures and the writings of yoga masters is just a beginning. Internal mantra repetition is also a form of svādhyāya. If you enjoy singing devotional songs, then this practice will appeal to you. Traditional yogic chants help to focus and purify the mind.
- Devotion to God (Ishvara praṇidhāra): This term is often translated as “surrender to God.” As we grow in wisdom, we realize that we’re not the performer of actions. We’re just an actor in the Divine play. We experience peace with this understanding. And inner peace is a boon on the spiritual path.
The Effects Inherent in the Niyamas
Just as he describes the effects of perfection in yama, Patañjali also tells us what to expect as a result of niyama. The references at the end of each point below refer to the chapter and verse in the Yoga Sūtras.
- Purity: As a result of purity, attachment to the body dissipates, and you’ll find pleasure in solitude. “Moreover, one achieves purification of the heart, cheerfulness of the mind, the power of concentration, control of the passions and fitness for vision of the Ātman.” (2:40-41)
- Contentment: “As the result of contentment, one gains supreme happiness.” (2:42)
- Self-discipline: Through perfect discipline, “all mental and physical impurities are destroyed.” Also, special powers related to the senses are attained. These include clairvoyance and clairaudience. (2:43)
- Study: By perfection in the practice of study, you experience visions of saints, sages, and masters. Such visions help us overcome obstacles on the path. Ultimately, practicing yogis obtain the vision of their chosen form of the Divine. (2:44)
- Devotion to God: Patañjali promises, “As the result of devotion to God, one achieves samādhi.” Samādhi is the eighth limb of yoga in Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras. It’s a high meditative state. In this state, you experience absorption in the Self, the ultimate Reality. This is the state of perfect peace and bliss. (2:45)
Practicing the Niyamas
“Practice” implies making a habit of something. Habits are formed through repetition. It’s quite natural for us to form habits. In fact, most of our actions, even our thinking, are already made up of habits. The niyamas are a set of habits that help us on the spiritual path. With the right attitude, these practices become our dearest, most generous, friends.
Mastery of the niyamas is necessary on any spiritual path. But it can be overwhelming to incorporate new practices into your life. It’s best to focus on one—the one that appeals to you most, or the one that you think needs the most work. The yamas and niyamas are like a family. When you focus on one family member, you’ll discover that the others easily join in.
Chityānanda has been a disciple of Svāmī Gurupremānanda Sarasvatī since 1975. She teaches meditation and yoga as a spiritual path in Santa Cruz, California.