Among other things, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are famous for the yamas and niyamas, which are the very basis of the entire path of yoga. Here we’ll briefly explain the 5 niyamas.
Watch my video on this topic here.
“The niyamas are cleanliness, satisfaction, grit, study of sacred texts, and devotion to God.” – Yoga Sutras, 2.32
Yama refers to restraint. It means to not do something one might otherwise do. The niyamas refer to things that must be done, which otherwise one might not do.
Cleanliness is at the top of the list of the niyamas. This is because cleanliness activates sattva. If the mind is dominated by sattva, the yogi will experience peace, focus, and high levels of mental clarity—all necessary ingredients for spiritual advancement.
External cleanliness is achieved by taking practical steps to cultivate hygiene of your living and work space, clothes, and body. Internal cleanliness is achieved by first of all cultivating a friendly mood—a positive and helpful demeanor—to one and all. To pursue further internal cleanliness, the yogi attentively avoids feelings of envy, pride, vanity, anger, jealously, and hatred.
The proper practice of yoga naturally brings forth this internal cleanliness. As we focus on doing our best and expressing our essence and dharma in loving spiritual connection, no seed is planted to fructify into anxiety, jealousy, or vanity.
Satisfaction will also naturally arise from this practice. If one is focused not on external goals and material accomplishments but rather on one’s own reaction to what life brings about, satisfaction is close at hand. It’s easy to be satisfied by simply doing your best, according to your nature. But it’s impossible to be satisfied when you’re stuck in the Fantasy Paradigm of expecting external reality to be a certain way in order to be happy.
Note that the last three items of niyama are the same as those that define yoga in action, from Sutra 2.1, and you can refer to that sutra and the explanation of these key terms found there.
The only difference is that in Sutra 2.1 the word tapa was translated more loosely as “noble life.” It means constantly prioritizing your higher self and aiming for spiritual progress over immediate sensory pleasure. The common but clumsy translation of this Sanskrit word is “austerity.” For this sutra, I have opted to translate it as “grit.” Grit is defined as courage, resolve, and strength of character. It’s the power to stick to your path despite hardships. It means keeping your eye on the prize. Life isn’t easy, and trying to become enlightened while dealing with it is harder still. The mind is impetuous and strong. Shaping your mind by the power of practice and sheer will requires enormous grit, as it’s a tough, lifelong endeavor.
The yamas and niyamas are the cornerstones of yoga. They make for a life of high morals, careful behavior, detachment, satisfaction, cleanliness, and grit made transcendental by the two innermost components of yoga: study of the scriptures (jnana) and devotion to God (bhakti).
My book, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras REVOLUTION: How Timeless Yoga Wisdom Can Revolutionize Our Lives Today is now available here.