The Niyamas and Yamas (part 2 of 2)

The Yamas (restraints) and the Niyamas (observances) are part of Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga – widely considered as the path and goal of authentic yoga.  They are not, however, intended to be taken as rigorous sets of “do’s and don’ts” but rather as guidelines on how to treat ourselves and the world around us.

The Niyamaspatanjali, the niyamas

As the Yamas affect how we treat ourselves and how we relate to others, the Niyamas encourage us to look deeper within.  Again, imagine yourself standing, but this time with your feet firmly planted into the ground and your arms reaching up to the sky.  The Niyamas have a very grounding effect on our mental and emotional wellbeing while at the same time giving us a profound sense of freedom through relinquishing preconceptions of how things should be and trusting that things are as they are meant to be.


Contentment.  This Niyama can be misconstrued as inaction, lack of drive and inspiration because, taking what the word means, there is nothing more that we should want or need.
To practice Santosha is not about complacency but to have the grace to acknowledge and acceptourselves just as we are.  If we are comfortable in our own skin, as it were, then this acceptance becomes the foundation for our mind and spirit to grow.  Contentment liberates us from the illusion that we “have to be” this or that.  Planning for the future, making life decisions, directing our choices in a manner that would be beneficial and contribute to our life style – these are all part of living.  Santosha does not mean that we should forego these things and be stuck where we are.  But rather, find contentment in what you have then build on that.  Santosha helps us appreciate the blessing we already have.  Without Santosha, we will be too preoccupied with regret for the past and anxiety for the future, detached from the present and out of balance.


Sauca is cleanliness and purity.  In the Sutras (as translated by BKS Iyengar), this means purity of the body, in and out.  We do asanas, kriyas, pranayama, pratyahara and meditation to purify the body and mind in order for the spirit to be purified as well.  I would like to also define this as “unclutteredness”.  For example, our thoughts may be pure and clean, but are there too many things in there?  Is the mind too busy?  Our speech may not carry with it ill-will, but are we speaking with clarity and focus?  Our physical environment may be clean, but are things in order?  I believe unclutteredness completes the thought and intent of Sauca.As a photographer, I use “negative space” – a blank area or areas in the composition – as a tool to bring the eyes toward the subject, creating a sense of focus and clarity for the viewer.  Being free of clutter – in our minds, emotions and environment – can give us the same sense of spaciousness and peace because of the stillness of that “blank space”, as literal and figurative breathing space.


Tapas is to the spirit as Agni (our digestive fire) is to the body.  It is the fire within us that drives our desire to learn, grow, commit to a practice and better ourselves with enlightenment as our objective.  As mentioned earlier, desire in itself isn’t “bad”, only its’ excess.  Without Tapas, we are uninspired and lose direction, which can lead to a scattered mind and a spirit that will always feel there is something lacking.  Tapas gives us direction, focuses our energies and helps us find and fulfil our purpose.


As Tapas directs our spirit, Svadhyaya directs our mind.  This Niyama asks us to look inward and study ourselves; to assess where we are now and where we want to be in our Yoga journey and our personal lives.  During times of emotional upheavals, either “good” or “bad”, Svadhyaya helps us ground these emotions and find stillness through the study, contemplation and practice of the sutras and teachings of Yoga.  Svadhyaya acts like a mirror held up to our face when we find ourselves starting to judge or overreact.  It also enables us to live in a state of gratitude and joy because they are not contingent on any outside force; this inward contemplation brings about a sense of peace and oneness with everything outside the body.


“All is as it is meant to be”.  This has become my personal mantra and it is squarely anchored on my practice of Isvarapranidhana.  This Niyama asks us to surrender – to a deity, a belief, the universal energies or any spiritual idea.  It is to trust that whatever is happening to us is happening for a reason and this reason has no label of “good” or “bad”, “punishment” or “reward”, but simply something the Atman or individual spirit has to go through to receive the lessons or blessings from that experience.

It is easy to mistake the concept of surrender as giving up or dispiritedness – why do anything if nothing is under our control?  In this instance, Isvarapranidhana is itself anchored in the concepts and practices of Santosha and Tapas. We can find contentment (in the present) yet still be motivated (to transform and evolve).  In this way, we are active participants in our own lives and enlightenment while maintaining inner peace, an equilibrated mind and the freedom to surrender to a force greater than ourselves or to “what is”.

The Yama Aparigraha also helps in understanding Isvarapranidhana because the former teaches us not to get overly attached and the later, to let go.

In truth, I believe the reason why Isvarapranidhana is the last because all the other nine Yamas & Niyamas prepare us for this surrender.

As Ahimsa is the first because it opens our eyes the root of suffering – separation –Isvarapranidhana unburdens us and lifts uscloser to Samadhi through surrender.

Read Part 1- The Yamas.


Article written by Aileen David.

Owner & teacher, Yoga Sadhaka. Aileen’s yoga journey started as a way to manage a stressful career.  After some time, the reason changed to a longing to find her purpose.  Now she teaches in the Hatha Yoga tradition, specifically the Vinyasa Flow style.  She specialises in general, mixed level vinyasa classes, specialty classes for prenatal and plus-sized students and a unique Kids and Parents yoga class.

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photo source Susan Von Stroensee