How to practice Niyamas

There is great value in looking beyond the physical practice of yoga. The guidance given in the philosophies can bring peace and contentment to your life.

Please don’t let the demands and responsibilities of modern life fool you into thinking you can’t make use of ancient yoga philosophies. Monks follow the guidelines and practices to a degree that most of us cannot imitate, but you can find ways to apply the philosophies to suit your life. This is traditionally called ‘householder level’ practice.

The Niyamas are the second of the Eight Limbs of Yoga in yoga philosophy. The limbs are meant to be mastered in this order: 

  1. Yama: guidelines for self-control and pure intentions
  2. Niyamas: guidelines to purify habits
  3. Asana: physical practice to purify the body
  4. Pranayama: purifying the energy body (often via breathing exercises
  5. Pratyahara: withdrawal from the senses to calm the senses and mind
  6. Dharana: concentration to control the mind
  7. Dhyana: meditation to understand the Self
  8. Samadhi: becoming liberated from the illusions of the outer world  

Work on including the Yamas and Niyamas in your daily life, and you will find over time that it becomes easier and more natural. This will greatly increase the level of happiness in your life.

What Does Niyamas Mean?

The word ‘Niyamas’ can mean ‘rules’ or ‘habits’. Sometimes people interpret niyamas to mean what you do to yourself, and yama to mean what you do to others. These are not the original meanings of the words.

The Niyamas are recommended habits for holistic healthy living. The point of a habit is that it occurs reliably, on a regular basis. To gain the benefits of the Niyamas, it’s important to incorporate them into our lives as part of our normal daily routine.

There are more than five Niyamas

Knowledge of yoga philosophy has been handed down over generations, and not all has been recorded in books. During my yoga education, I was taught there were twenty-seven Yama and twenty-seven Niyamas.

Most modern teachings refer to the five Niyamas described in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. However, Patanjali described five Yama and five Niyamas as examples – he did not mean the five were a complete list.

Many ancient Indian texts mention the Niyamas, and give examples ranging from just one to eleven. We don’t yet know of a surviving text that lists all twenty-seven, but I believe this number to be true.

The five Niyamas described by Patanjali and others were

  • Saucha (cleansing)
  • Santosha (contentment)
  • Tapas (self-discipline)
  • Swadhyaya (self-study)
  • Ishvara Pranidhana (connection with your god)

Niyamas that can be found in other texts include

  • Astikya (faith in real Self)
  • Dana (generosity and sharing)
  • Siddhanta sravana (listening to ancient scriptures)
  • Hri (humility, remorse and acceptance of one’s past)
  • Mati (reflection to reconcile conflicting ideas)
  • Japa (reciting mantras, prayers or knowledge)
  • Huta (practicing rituals)
  • Vrata (faithfully observing religious vows)
  • Akrodha (non-anger)
  • Agapa (non-gossip)

The Most Common Five Niyamas

Adopting the habits of the best-known five Niyamas will help you create a life of wellbeing and holistic health.

The spellings and pronunciations of these Niyamas vary across different regions, so you may see them written slightly differently in various texts.

Saucha: Cleansing

Saucha is pronounced ‘shouch’. It refers to habits of both mental and physical hygiene. The physical practice of Saucha includes hygiene habits that keep your body and your home clean. These habits provide a strong foundation for health.

Practicing mental cleanliness means avoiding or eliminating negative intentions, damaging thoughts and unhelpful emotions. This will naturally bring you greater peace and contentment. It’s thought that mental hygiene also opens the door to deeper meditative states.

How to practice Saucha

You probably already have habits of physical cleanliness. These might include regular showers, cleaning your teeth, washing your bed sheets and doing other household chores to keep your environment clean.

Another aspect of keeping physically clean is to avoid things that would be unclean. This could involve avoiding toxic products and protecting yourself against infections. Making wise food and drink choices also helps keep the body clean, as the bladder and bowel will be able to work more efficiently to get rid of bodily waste.

Mental hygiene is equally important, but we are not always taught these habits the way we are taught to clean our teeth. Some societies encourage regular prayer or meditation, both of which can help to clear the mind. Other people may be more comfortable using mindfulness practices, or simply taking time to sit quietly in nature and allow their mind to become calm. Positive affirmations can be used to clear the mind of negative assumptions. Chants and mantras are also enjoyable techniques for calming and cleansing the mind.

The habits of both mental and physical cleanliness should be practiced daily. If you only washed your body and changed your clothes once each week, you would probably look shabby, smell bad and be prone to infections and diseases. The same applies to mental hygiene. You should do something positive and calming for your mind every single day, even if it’s only for a few minutes.

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Santosha: contentment

Santosha means contentment, but it doesn’t mean blindly practicing gratitude without ever seeking change. Practicing Santosha means being happy and grateful for what you have while working for what you want.

Santosha also doesn’t mean that you must accept and stay in situations that are detrimental. Some situations are so unpleasant that the only way to practice Santosha is to leave that situation and create new circumstances.

How to practice Santosha

In practicing Santosha you can feel gratitude for what you have now, while still planning to change and grow!

Perhaps you would like to have a different or better job. You can be grateful for the job you have now, grateful for the wage that pays your bills and for other positive aspects of the job. But at the same time, you could be making new contacts or doing a training course that will eventually lead to a different job.

You can hold appreciation for the life you have now, while also appreciating the opportunities for growth and change in your life.

Intentionally practicing gratitude for what we have – both situations and opportunities – naturally leads to a happy and contented life.

Tapas: self-discipline

Tapas means self-discipline, and is practiced by restricting yourself to improve your discipline. Practicing restriction and self-discipline helps us to learn to not give up in the face of difficulties.

The point of Tapas is to help us restrict and control our bad habits, therefore improving our life and our health.

Monks practice restriction and self-discipline in extreme ways, but the average person can practice Tapas without giving up all their possessions or meditating for hours in an ice cave.

How to practice Tapas

To make progress in life we must sometimes do hard things, and that requires practicing Tapas. This is true in all aspects of life, from our jobs and relationships to our spiritual development.

Practicing Tapas means doing the things that are not always fun, or easy, or immediately rewarding. They might be big important things, or they might be small things that are easier to ignore.

Examples of using Tapas to improve our lives include

  • Trying to do a yoga pose or another task we would rather avoid because it’s difficult.
  • Restricting our negative thoughts so they don’t stop us trying difficult things.
  • Practicing a new skill repeatedly to become better at it, even though it seems difficult.
  • Accepting that progress in something will take a long time, and committing to it anyway.
  • Regularly completing a beneficial task even when it’s boring or inconvenient – studying, writing your novel, exercising or going to bed earlier.

A practical example of Tapas is changing your diet. You might think this means making a huge change to an “ideal” diet and using self-discipline to stick to it. However, making a huge change and expecting it to quickly bring about the weight or health change you want might not be about discipline. It might be about expecting the reward of success. So, it would be more effective to recognize that diet is a long-term commitment to changing habits. You can use Tapas, your self-discipline, to resist your desire for a quick result and accept small habit changes that you can commit to long-term.

The practice of Tapas is essentially about using self-control, resisting temptations, and staying committed to positive choices.

Swadhyaya: self-study

Swadhyaya means self-study. This means contemplating and meditating on the Self, the core of your being. Swadhyaya is about learning – or trying to learn – who you really are. Understanding our true inner self helps us feel a sense of direction and purpose, and brings us closer to enlightenment.

How to practice Swadhyaya

There are many resources available to guide us in learning about ourselves, identifying our core beliefs and finding a deeper sense of self. Anything from an online quiz to guidance from an experienced mentor might suit you. However, be wary of merely going through the motions – there needs to be a true intent to learn about yourself, not just tick the boxes in a quiz to get a fun ‘identity’ description at the end.

A simple way to practice Swadhyaya is to take time each day to assess yourself. Ask yourself questions like:

  • Who am I?
  • What do I feel right now?
  • Why do I feel this way?
  • What did I feel about something that happened today and why did I feel that way?
  • How did I act in response to something today, and why did I act that way?

Take care, when practicing self-study, that you avoid self-criticism and judgement. Negative thoughts about yourself are harmful. Respecting and honoring what you find during your self-study is a way to practice both Saucha (mental hygiene) and Ahimsa (the Yama of avoiding harm).

Ishvara Pranidhana: connection to God

Ishvara means highest divine. Each individual has their own idea of what is divine. For many, this will be a god. It may be Krishna, Allah, the father of Jesus or any god you see as the highest divine. It might not be a named god at all. Perhaps you believe nature is the highest divine in your life. Ishvara is whatever you believe and have faith in.

Pranidhana means connected. This is a constant awareness, knowing that the Ishvara entity is always present in your life. Instead of only calling on our divine entity when we have a problem, we should be aware and connected to them all the time. This constant connection helps us understand our purpose in life.

How to practice Ishvara Pranidhana

Yoga classes often end with a chant of “Om, Om, Om”. This actually means “Oh God, oh God, oh God”. (The word ‘God’ in this chant also refers to your divine entity, not a specific god.)

You can use Om or other prayers or sayings throughout your day. You can make a habit of doing things that allow you to connect with your Ishvara, which could mean anything from regular prayer at an alter in your home, to sitting in nature and focusing on your Ishvara in your own way.

The most important aspect of practicing Ishvara Pranidhana is to ensure you have a regular daily routine that includes expressing your connection. If you only remember the connection when you are in trouble, or once a week when it’s time to attend a ceremony, you have not truly practiced Ishvara Pranidhana. Make your connection genuine and constant, and your life will benefit.

Living the Niyamas

The Niyamas guide your choices in your day-to-day life, encouraging you to do those things that keep your body and mind clean and healthy. Habits of physical health are often the easiest to understand, although they might not be easy to practice consistently. Habits of mental health also feature strongly in the Niyamas, including gratitude, reflection, mindfulness and a focus on self-improvement. The ancient Niyamas seem to be reflected in modern mental health care advice.

Living the Niyamas means making good choices for your health and wellbeing, then persisting with those good habits and setting bad habits aside.

References

The Niyamas discussed in this blog can be found in ancient texts, most of them written in Sanskrit or other local dialects and therefore difficult to access. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is one of the most easily available. Other texts mentioning the Niyamas include:

Hatha Yoga Pradipika / Shandilya Upanishad / Varaha Upanishad / The Tirumandhiram (Book 3) / Shivayoga Dipika / Sharada Tilaka / Vasishtha Samhita / Yoga Kalpalatika / Yajnavalkya Smriti

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About the author

Ram Jain

Born into a Jain family where yoga has been the way of life for five generations, my formal yoga journey began at age of eight at a Vedic school in India. There I received a solid foundation in ancient scriptures, including Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, and Yoga Sutras (to name a few).

In 2009, I founded Arhanta Yoga Ashrams. I see yoga as a way to master the five senses, so I named our ashrams 'Arhanta Yoga,' the yoga to master the five senses!

In 2017, I also founded Arhanta Yoga Online Academy so that people who can not visit our ashrams can follow our courses remotely.

At Arhanta, we don't just teach yoga. We teach you how to reach your potential, deepen your knowledge, build your confidence, and take charge of your life.

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