Eight limbs of yoga – 2. Niyama – Observance

This is the second instalment in a series about the “eight limbs of yoga” (ashtanga), which together constitute a guide or path toward Samadhi, the limbs that is, not the posts ;). It’s a personal view on an ancient subject, so draws on many sources.

Thanks to my yoga teachers Jo and Ruth for facilitating my practise, and the yogis, image and content creators credited at the end.

Shiva the first and foremost yogi

The main aim of yoga is to realise how one’s true self (Purusha) is part of, not apart from, everything else, our connection to the cosmos (Chitta consciousness). What we practise on the mats is just one aspect of what is meant to apply to pretty much everything else found off them.

The niyamas are the yogic “Do’s”, the moral practises for reaching Samadhi (unity). If the yamas make space by specifying five behaviours to refrain from, the niyamas begin to fill it with five to pursue. The last one, Isvara Pranidhana, introduces yoga’s spirituality which some yogis may not be familiar with.

1. Saucha – Cleanliness, purity

Saucha can be taken as involving a lot of cleansing of the nasal passages and gut, which is maybe not so interesting, or cultivating positive thoughts and actions. The latter apply to our communications, relationships, personal hygiene, diet, attire, and of course the housework.

thanks, but I’ll take a tissue

But how is it possible to cultivate clean, hygienic communications?
Cleaning something by removing the dirt from it, restores it to itself and by analogy, leaving out some of the things we are inclined, or programmed to say, can clarify not only meaning but also facilitate relationships.

I know a few people who struggle to say something that doesn’t steer the conversation round to themselves, saucha might have them clean off the layers of insecurity and to better listen to, and engage with the other person.

2. Santosha – Contentment

Before starting this Niyama I asked myself when I last felt content. Unsurprisingly I couldn’t pin down a time or a date. I can recall recent times of peace and restfulness, but thinking about whether they qualify as contentment just raised more questions. Contentment might then be a “slippery” idea. Is it a feeling or an assessment? Can it be fleeting or should it endure? Does it grow and deepen over time?

‘Monkey mind’ is a Buddhist term for the curious, planning, problem solving aspect of consciousness; that which creates the internal narrative of thoughts and recollections. The monkey mind is restless, disordered and contrary to contentment. Beyond this immediate conscious experience, a longer time frame brings aspirations, desires, recollections… which also detract and distract from a peaceful mind. Santosha is then hard to pin down, let alone practise or achieve, but these quotes seem to be on to something.

I’ve learned to seek my happiness by limiting my desires, rather than in attempting to satisfy them.

John Stuart Mill

The second Niyama invites us to relinquish trying to control other people and outcomes, and to instead settle into a place of centred awareness.

There is a saying that “yoga is the progressive quieting of the fluctuations of the mind.” When you settle into periods of quieting the mind, you will experience a state of contentment that reflects your ability to remain at peace regardless of what is going on in your external environment. When you’re in this state of being, you won’t be compelled to expend precious time and energy changing everyone and everything around you. Rather, you will be filled with contentment and gratitude for the beauty and gifts that are abundant in your life.

Tris Thorp
Sittin’ on the dock of a bay and appreciating the glass is half full

3. Tapas – spiritual observances, discipline

Adopting the yamas and niyamas probably calls for significant lifestyle changes: curbing unhelpful habits and responses, embedding new ones, diet, attitude, attachment… taken together it can seem like a tall order, and that’s besides the day job. 

Given the years it must take to progress one or all of yoga’s eight limbs, perhaps sustainability is an important consideration, setting oneself up for slow gradual success rather than failure. Having practised yoga for seven years and martial arts for seven years before that, I’ve seen quite a few people come and go; being part of a group helps with not missing class, but we have other commitments too and we move on. Change is challenging for many reasons.

On the plus side there’s the power of habit, of not having to deliberate or decide, because Tuesday evenings 8-9 just is yoga, and six sun salutations just happen before the coffee’s poured. For that reason I prefer thinking of tapas as discipline rather than observance. Diet is a good example: making a small but positive change quickly feeds a positive feedback loop.

“If you always do what you’ve always done, you always get what you’ve always gotten.”

Jessie Potter

Another piece of positive feedback comes from managing “just one more”. The satisfaction of overcoming weakness to achieve that which wasn’t once possible is potent, but arguably more available when holding a 50Kg weight bar over your neck, than looking out the window and wondering whether to brave the rain and go to class.


4. Svadhaya – Study

“Yoga is the journey of the self, through the self, to the Self”

Bhagavad Gita

The overarching theme that’s emerging from these first two limbs of yoga is the focus upon development off the mats, development aimed at ethical and moral improvement. Svadhyaya is then an introspective study which calls for an awareness of how we’re doing and what we need to work on. The relevance of achieving a challenging posture is perhaps not as important as what we learn in the process, and, having attained it, where to next take it. So what is there to study in yoga? I’m certainly learning as I write this series about the eight limbs, but yoga also calls for a study of hearts and bodies.

It’s hard to keep much in mind as the muscles work to deprive the brain of oxygen. Of course one doesn’t want to fall over during practice, but when that’s no longer a risk, concentrating on synchronising the breath with movement feels like the next step. Studying breathing, how to synchronise it with the body and it’s role in connecting with the flow seems fundamental to yoga practise, but more about that in the fourth limb: pranayama.

What’s meant by spirit is hard to pin down, but can perhaps be usefully thought of as the special sauce that compels you to do the things that make you you. That’s a bit sketchy, so perhaps it’s worth adding that we construct rationalisations and fictions to make sense of being in the world because it’s just too complicated to comprehend. Making progress with yoga might then involve dismantling such constructs by also studying yourself.

Hopefully Isvara Pranidhana’s a bit easier.

5. Isvara Pranidhana – Devotion

The last Niyama is open to a few English translations and interpretations, but is often taken as “surrender to the divine”. That’s not an obvious thing to do. Though Patanjali’s yoga sutras are non sectarian and don’t specify a God or gods religious faith and spirituality don’t now play much of a role in western culture. But perhaps Isvara Pranidhana shouldn’t be seen as requiring belief, so much as as being devoted or open to humility and love.

I have a daily to-do list as a way of organising in these disrupted times, but I’ve come to accept the tasks I think I’ll do today will more often than not will be carried over to tomorrow. Life can all too easily become an unending to-do list, but occasionally that list is forgotten when the sky is clear blue, the sea’s mirror flat, or a bird looking for food on the pavement grips your attention. Allowing such things to interrupt busyness and humble us shows we’re open, if just for a moment.

…Bhakti engages the depths of human experience and connects to the heart. By celebrating moments of passion and vulnerability, Bhakti directs the common and everyday moments of living towards the infinite divine.

Embodied Philosophy

Transcending our everyday experience becomes more the focus of yoga from the fourth limb, pranayama (breath), onwards. but defining the yogi’s spiritual preparedness perhaps begins here.

Learning about the 10 precepts of the yamas and niyamas has led me to realise how the physical practice of yoga, the asanas, thread together these “dos” and “don’ts”.  Even if the mental, moral and spiritual aspects aren’t enough to achieve samadhi (unity) this time around, they’re nevertheless comprehensive, accessible and practical enough to make a real difference.

References and credits –

Patanjali’s seminal sutras
Yoga’s yamas and Nivammas – Courtney Seiberling
Esther Ekhart yoga vid
Chopra, The yamas and niyamas
Calming the monkey mind – – Psychology Today
Inside Yama and Nyama – Swami Karunananda
Tris Thorp’s article on the 5 Niyamas
Yoga Yamas and Niyamas: 10 Principles for Peace & Purpose


2 thoughts on “Eight limbs of yoga – 2. Niyama – Observance

  1. Thank you for this. Very interesting and helpful ideas to ponder in an effort to gently steer my path to a becoming more yogi. Namaste 🙏

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