What Are The Niyamas?

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Niyama (rule, guideline, observance)

Niyamas Definition

Translated as “internal disciplines,” or “inner observances,” the Niyamas are the second of the Eight Limbs of Yoga found in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.

It is sometimes said that the Niyamas are the “dos,” while the first of the eight limbs, the Yamas, are the “don’ts.”

The Five Niyamas Are:

ShauchaPurity, Cleanliness
TapasSelf Discipline
SvadhyayaSelf Study
A mandala with the 8 limbs of yoga represented as petals: samadhi, yamas, niyamas, asana, pranayama, pratyahare, dharana, and dhyana

Niyamas Deep Dive

In the Yoga Sutras, the eightfold path known as ashtanga provides a guide to living a pure and meaningful life.

Whereas the Yamas are mostly concerned with how we relate to others, the Niyamas are decidedly personal.

And rather than being rules or commandments, they are suggested obligations towards oneself that point the way to a life lived with wisdom.

Other texts, such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and Varaha and Shandilya Upanishads also mention as many as 11 Niyamas. But for now, let’s focus on the Yoga Sutra’s well-known five.

The First Niyama: Shaucha

“A person’s tongue can give you a taste of his heart.” – Ibn Qayyim Al-Jawziyya

Translated as “purity,” or “cleanliness,” Shaucha tasks us with clearing the impurities from our body, mind, and actions.

Purity of body includes good hygiene, eating well, and exercise.

Traditionally, yoga advocates ayurveda. This includes a diet specific to your dosha, practices such as using a neti pot, ayurvedic massages, and more. Practicing asanas and meditation are also (obviously) on the list.

Shaucha also asks us to notice the quality of what comes into our mind. During a yoga practice you are sometimes advised to “notice your thoughts.” Consider how what you see and hear in your daily life can affect your thoughts, and then your words, actions, and habits.

How can you curate what comes into your sense perception to invite purity into your life?

The Yoga Sutras say that focusing on cultivating purity has the paradoxical effect of making us less interested in and attached to our own bodies, and more focused on the divine.

The result is “clarity, mental happiness, psychic focus, mastery of the senses, self-awareness” (Ch. 2 V. 41).

A woman using an Ayurvedic Neti Pot, a cleansing ritual and part of the niyamas in yoga
A woman using an Ayurvedic Neti Pot

The Second Niyama: Santosha

“If the only prayer you say in your entire life is ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.” – Meister Eckhart

Meaning “contentment,” Santosha urges us to be grateful for what we have, and accept things as they are, unconditionally.

Rather than wish for a situation to be otherwise and expect the world to meet your needs, see it as it really is. The result, claims the Yoga Sutras, is “supreme happiness” (Ch. 2 V. 42).

Similarly, in Islam, Muslims are urged to say alhamdulilah (praise be to Allah/God) in response to both blessings and hardship. The situation is ultimately seen as a gift.

Meanwhile, impermanence, a tenet of Buddhism, teaches us that everything changes, and it’s futile to make your contentment conditional on uncontrollable variables.

So, make it contingent upon nothing.

The Third Niyama: Tapas

“Life without tapas is like a heart without love.” – BKS Iyengar.

Rooted in the Sanskrit verb tap, meaning to suffer pain or to be hot, Tapas refers to the heat of self-discipline and focused energy required to burn off impurities.

Just as forest fires burn away dead wood and stimulate new growth by letting in sunlight, so does Tapas burn away our desires and destructive habits, making space for something pure. It’s the heat created by the friction of going against your old habits.

It applies to the discipline and focus you bring to the mat in your yoga practice. But it also applies, arguably more so, to the discipline you bring to your daily life. In the Bhagavad Gita, Ch. 17, V. 14-17, Krishna says there are three levels of Tapas: body, speech, and mind.

So, maybe it’s fasting instead of eating. Maybe it’s listening instead of talking. Maybe it’s meditating instead of scrolling. Practice makes perfect.

a pine cone burning

The Fourth Niyama: Svadhyaya

“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” – Anais Nin.

Combining sva, meaning one’s own, or self, and adhyaya, meaning reading, or lesson, Svadhyaya is understood to mean the study of the self, or self-study.

Becoming familiar with sacred texts can certainly bring you closer to your true self. But self-inquiry also means reconsidering what we think we know. It means putting a magnifier on our unexamined beliefs.

As Shunryu Suzuki explains, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.” Can you take a fresh look at your life, and yourself?

During yoga class, especially during meditations and savasana, you may have been asked to “watch your thoughts go by.”

Similarly, open yourself up to possibilities by becoming the witness to your own life, watching your ego instead of identifying with it.

The Fifth Niyama: Isvarapranidhana

“Be crumbled, so wild flowers will come up where you are. You have been stony for too many years. Try something different. Surrender.” – Jalal al-Din Rumi

Isvara, or Ishvara, is variously defined as Lord, owner, supreme consciousness, or personal God. Pranidhan means devotion, or surrender. Therefore, Isvarapranidhana means to surrender to your higher purpose, or higher power.

Isvarapranidhana asks us to to act without expectations. To let go of our need to control every situation, and trust in a divine purpose. As Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita, Ch. 18, V. 66, “Abandon all supports and look to me for protection.”

The concept of surrender is a common thread among religious traditions, particularly in Islam, which in Arabic ( إسْلام ) literally means submission.

hands in surrender on a yoga mat

Niyamas mentioned outside the Yoga Sutras include:

  • Japa – Recitation of prayers and mantras.
  • Dana – Generosity and charity.
  • Hri – Repentance and humility.
  • Mati – Nurturing the spiritual intellect, and more.

Niyamas In Your Life

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” – Lao Tzu

The promises we make to ourselves are often the hardest to keep, which makes the Niyamas – obligations towards oneself – a challenge for most.

But don’t despair. Besides, that would be missing the point. As Adyashanti said, the main requirement for spiritual growth is a yearning to know who you really are. It happens from the inside out. And that’s where the Niyamas come in.

Once you sincerely trust in the process of your yoga journey, there are no missteps.

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To go deep and expand your yogic knowledge, access our free Yoga Terms Encyclopedia, where we host a profound wealth of ancient and timeless yogic wisdom in an accessible modern format.

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Hailing from the Yukon, Canada, David (B.A, M.A.) is a yoga teacher (200-hour therapeutic YTT) and long-time student and practitioner of various spiritual disciplines including vedanta and Islam.

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