Yoga Sutras for modern life. Second limb: Niyamas

Back in June we explored the five key Yamas, defined as principles or self-ethical virtues that need to be practiced on the path of yoga, as they are brought to us by the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. This immensely important yoga text was written over 2,000 years ago, so in this mini-series dedicated to the eight limbs of traditional yoga I am trying to outline some ways in which we can adapt these ancient teachings to our modern life.

The Second Limb of Yoga: Niyamas

Yamas and Niyamas are closely connected. The Yamas represent moral discipline towards others, while the Niyamas are related to self-care. There are five Niyamas, or personal observances, which are directed inward and encourage yoga practitioners to take good care of their bodies and minds.

Sauca: Cleanliness

Sauca implies purification of the body, speech, mind and surroundings. Cleanliness of the body can be intended as maintaining a good hygiene routine and adopt a healthy diet. Purity of speech reminds us to refrain from using a harsh language, or indulge in gossip and judgements. Cleanliness of the mind could be achieved by cultivating positive and kind thoughts, for example surrounding yourself with people who inspire you or even choosing forms of entertainment (books, TV programs etc.) that nourish your mind. In relation to your surroundings, practice of sauca can be seen as maintaining a tidy, uncluttered household which could help to bring more peacefulness and order to your life.

Santosha: Contentment

Santosha is the ability to be satisfied, at peace and grateful for what you already have, refraining from greed and desire. Apart from cultivating a detachment from objects and properties, santosha in our everyday life is about practicing patience, accepting reality for what it is and letting go of anger and frustration.

Tapas: Austerity, self-discipline

Tapas translates to ‘heat’, but to be intended as the ‘burning enthusiasm’ that keep us on track, so we don’t waste our time and energy on superfluous or trivial matters. Inspiration and motivation ignite tapas in you, which in turn expresses itself in increased level of self-discipline and commitment to your yoga practice.

Svadhyaya: Self-study

This Niyama is the practice of looking at ourselves, at our strengths and weaknesses, and working deeply on processing them. Svadhyaya is about letting go of unnecessary traits and constantly changing into a better person. We can try to do that by using every thought, moment and interaction as a lesson so that we can look at ourselves and readjust or change anything that is not serving our wellbeing.

Isvara-pranidhana: Devotion to a higher power

Isvara-pranidhana is often translated as ‘devotion to God’, but this can be misleading for many. Yoga is a practice that in no way advises which spiritual ideal or form you should follow (pranidhana). Thus, the higher power (isvara) should be looked at as your personal choice of and connection to the divine, whether it is formless — as cosmic consciousness, an ultimate reality or higher intelligence — or has a form — such as Buddha, Jesus, Krishna or something else that resonates with you. Surrendering to a higher source means to practise humility, and be present and mindful of the reality. In daily life, isvara pranidhana can be applied by humbly showing respect to those with greater knowledge than yours, letting go of the ego, recognising the divinity in all beings, and taking time to sit in stillness to unclutter and quieten the mind and to witness the silence within.

In conclusion

Yamas and Niyamas are not commandments from above to follow because of fear of punishment. On the contrary, they are practical ways to live life so we can achieve a higher level of inner peace, bliss and love in our day-to-day life. The practice of the Yamas and Niyamas can definitely inspire us to remember that yoga is a way of life — not just something we do for 90 minutes two or three times a week on a rectangular yoga mat. In fact, the teachings in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are interwoven in every fabric of our life, every moment becomes sadhana (spiritual practice). They add the necessary juice to our practice, and maybe that is what we can really call self-realisation or enlightenment.