Niyama in Yoga Sutras is the second step in Ashtanga Yoga, the eight fold limbs of Yoga. ‘Niyama’ deals mostly with our internal self-discipline rather than external ethical behavior. Yoga tradition has given much importance to development of a balanced personality before taking up higher practices of yoga. While Yamas are aimed at a balanced interface with society, Niyamas are aimed at creating inner strength and discipline in order to take up subsequent higher yogic practices. Niyamas are inner restraints and observances or obligations. Most scriptures have listed about ten observances, but In the Yoga Sutras (Chapter II, sutra 32), Maharshi Patanjali has listed only five of them, which are more or less all inclusive. These are called the Niyamas in Yoga.
The five Niyamas are as follows – Saucha (purity or cleanliness), Santosa (contentment or happiness), Tapas (austerity or discipline), Svadhyaya (self study) and Ishwara Pranidhana (surrender to God).
1. Saucha – Saucha means cleanliness – external as well as internal, both in the body and the mind. Yoga tradition has given great importance to physical and mental health. Without a strong healthy body, it is difficult to take up higher practices of yoga. The body constantly produces waste matter in the form of human waste, urine, sweat, mucus, etc. Cleaning the body of these impurities on a regular basis is essential to avoid infections. Yoga goes one step further and mentions certain techniques to keep the body super clean. These techniques are called Sadkarmas (or the six purificatory methods – Neti, Dhauti, Basti, Nauli, Kapalabhati and Trataka) and they help in the internal purification of the organs. Through these methods, one also cleans the internal pranic paths or the nadis. Diseases can be caused when organs do not get the required supply of prana. Apart from this, Saucha also means internal purity of the mind. The mind should be engaged in positive thoughts, which leads to peace and harmony. In the science of Ayurveda it is said that negative thought patterns affect the body in a long run and lead to diseases in the future. Thus, cleanliness of both body and thoughts is essential for good health.
2. Santosa – Santosa can be translated as contentment. Santosa means being happy with what one has. This does not mean complacency. Self effort is required for both worldly and spiritual pursuits. But santosa means acceptance; accepting life in its totality. Santosa is achieved when we do not overly depend on external situations for our happiness. External events are not necessarily controlled by us. Hence, depending on them can cause sorrow. Spirituality is about inner freedom. Our inner joy should not be dependent on external factors. This inner contentment and independence is Santosa.
3. Tapas – Tapas means austerity. In Sanskrit the word “Tapah” means heat. Just as gold is traditionally purified by heating it in fire, the mind is purified by doing austerities. Tapas can be interpreted in many ways. Facing life with equanimity can also be termed as tapas. Life is full of opposites. Living with righteousness and maintaining a stable, balanced mind in the midst of all opposites is a kind of austerity. Tapas can also mean certain specific practices done to discipline the body, speech and mind, like fasting, a vow of silence, the practice of yoga, isolated meditation retreats, etc. However, the scriptures are against inflicting pain to the body in the name of Tapas. The Bhagvat Gita’s 18th chapter, such austerities are termed as “tamasic” or the lower type of Tapas. But real Tapas removes the dullness and negativity of body and mind. It is a process of purification.
4. Svadhyaya – Svadhyaya means Self-study. In Sanskrit “Sva” means the Self and “Adhyaya” means study. Svadhyaya can be interpreted as study of one’s own Self or Self inquiry into one’s own inner reality. Traditionally, svadhyaya can also mean the study of scriptures that discuss the process and methods of reaching the spiritual goal. Spiritual wisdom is contained in the Upanishads, the Puranas, the Bhagvat Gita, the Brahma Sutras, Ithihasa texts, etc.. Svadhyaya is about inner exploration. The seeker has to go through the process of Sravana (hearing the scriptures), Manana (self –reflection or contemplating on the truth revealed in the scriptures) and Nidhidhyasana (abiding in the indescribable, silent inner reality after understanding the truth).
5. Iswara Pranidhana – Iswara Pranidhana means surrender to God. It means dedicating one’s thoughts and actions to God. It does not mean sitting idle, thinking that God will take care of everything. In the Bhagvat Gita’s chapter on Karma Yoga, it is said that one has to perform actions according to one’s dharma. Before performing the act, one should dedicate the action to God. Also, after performing the action with discrimination and dedication, one should surrender the fruits of the action to God. Surrender comes only after you put in self-effort. When we are born, we are provided with certain physical and intellectual abilities. One has to use these abilities to perform action. But many things are beyond our skills. Also, the results of an action are not fully under own control. It is here that surrender is required. Surrenders starts where self-effort ends. Only when one has gone through the ups and down of life will one develop the maturity and humility to surrender to God’s will or a higher power. Humility is a great quality that invokes grace. Humility is not weakness. In fact, it is a quality of the mind dawning through experience and understanding.
Thus we see that the five Niyamas are focused on creating an inner disciple of body and mind. These disciplines will strengthen the body and mind before we take up higher practices of yoga. Both Yamas and Niyamas are complementary to each other. Both are required to develop a balanced human being.
Yama and Niyama form the prerequisites for taking up subsequent practices of yoga, like Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi. Even though Yama and Niyama are the first two steps, they have to be practiced till one reaches the perfection in Yoga.