Musings on the 8 Limbs: Niyamas


So I have a confession. I don’t like it when people tell me what to do. It’s a shadow aspect I uncovered a couple of years ago that I realize drives much of my decision-making. On the positive side, I have a great deal of faith in my own judgement and knowledge. On the negative side, it can keep me closed off to ideas/actions/pursuits that may be of benefit.

For example, a teacher of mine has been strongly advocating the benefits of consuming apple cider vinegar daily as part of a dietary practice. My initial reactions were: (1) That idea doesn’t sound good to me. (2) Just because something is trendy doesn’t mean it’s good for everyone. (3) They’re not addressing potential harmful effects. (4) My PH level is fine. (5) If I lose any weight, I’ll disappear. (6) I don’t see enough Ayurvedic science to support that practice.

You get the hint, right?

A few months later after researching stress response mechanisms in the human body, I suddenly had a brilliant idea. I should try that whole apple cider vinegar thing.

Lo and behold, it completely changed the physical ways my body handles stress. My eating habits have improved, my skin cleared up, and people have remarked that I look radiant. Who knew?

So when I began to think about introducing the Niyamas, which are practices or paths to attain a healthy spiritual practice, my inner rebel immediately went, “Well I don’t have to practice some ancient disciplines to be spiritual. I’m doing fine on my own.” But the reality is, these five observances have been critical building blocks throughout my entire study and practice of yoga. Whether we realize it or not, the Niyamas make up the fabric of yoga.

The five Niyamas, the second limb, as outlined in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras are:

  • Saucha: Purity or cleanliness
  • Santosha: Contentment
  • Tapas: Discipline, drive
  • Svadhyaya: Study, including of the self
  • Ishvara Pranidhana: Surrender

It probably won’t surprise you that when I was in my yoga teacher training, I discovered through an exercise that my weakest Niyama was Tapas. And my inner rebel is somewhat proud and wants to believe that I’m just a vibrant, free-spirited and completely undisciplined being. But underneath that exterior, I am in fact very disciplined when it comes to the essence of the Niyamas.

At the very core of my inner rebel’s desire to be undisciplined and make my own decisions is a deep-seated desire to be free, which to me, is the ultimate energy of spiritual realization. Because of this, I am very disciplined about maintaining a healthy, fit, and clean body (Saucha), because an unhealthy body impacts my freedom. I am very disciplined about creating my own reality and doing what makes me happy (Santosha), because to be unhappy wouldn’t be free. I am very disciplined and rigorous about gaining new knowledge and delving deep into new areas of self-study and existential inquiry (Svadhyaya), because to me, wisdom and an open mind lead to freedom. And I also believe in divine energy -- and that we are all a part of it. To feel that energy and attain realization and freedom (to me) means surrender (Ishvara Pranidhana).

When you dive into your self-study to look at your core desire, it may not be freedom. It could be love or beauty or perfect health or partnership or joy or comfort or power… or any number of things. However, I bet when you look at your habits and disciplines in the context of the Niyamas, you will see that these practices will lead you to your core desires and truth. I believe yoga can take you there.

Mandi Garrison