The Second Limb Of Ashtanga Yoga: Niyama

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The last few months, the focus has been on the first limb of Ashtanga yoga – yama (restraints).  As discussed a few months back, there are 8 limbs of Ashtanga yoga:

  1. Yama (restraint)
  2. Niyama (observances)
  3. Asana (posture)
  4. Pranayama (breath control)
  5. Pratyahara (controlling the senses)
  6. Dharana (concentration)
  7. Dhyana (meditation)
  8. Samadhi (absolute consciousness)

We will now focus on the second limb, niyama.

Niyama refers to individual discipline or observance and is the Sanskrit term meaning rule or law.  They refer to the cultivation of following good habits.  Like the five yamas, the niyamas are not exercises or actions to be simply studied; they represent far more than an attitude, but an inner state of the mind. The niyamas are more intimate and personal than the yamas and they refer to the attitude we adopt toward ourselves.

The five niyamas (codes of conduct) of Patanjali’s Eight Fold Path are:

  1. Saucha (purity or cleanliness)
  2. Santosha (contentment)
  3. Tapas (austerity)
  4. Swadhyaya (self-study)
  5. Pranidhana (devotion to God).

Let us examine these niyamas in more detail. This month we’ll focus on the first niyama, saucha.

Saucha is total cleanliness and purity of both mind and body. The body is considered to be the temple or dwelling-place of the Atman (Self) which is used to worship the divine and so external and internal cleanliness is of chief importance.  External cleanliness (bahya) is seen to have a psychological effect on a person and includes general hygiene, a clean environment and adhering to a healthy diet.  Similarly we need to follow a mental diet where internal cleanliness (abhyantara) helps to cleanse and strengthen the mind.  This includes cultivating connections among those who are spiritually minded by regulating our reading, conversation and generally our intake of mental “food.”  Saint Francois de Sales observes that constant awareness of cleanliness of the mind is important so that “once thrown off its balance, the heart is no longer its own master.”  Christian mystics have stressed the importance of being in a state of purification where one’s mind is rid of distractions of thoughts and desires; cultivating sensitivity to what is pure and wholesome.  Purification is not seen as emptying out but leads to greater intentness in one’s life where self-purification comes from not only self-effort but by through centring oneself to a personal identification and unity with the divine.  For the yogi, purification is connected with an inner transformation where one can more clearly see God.

 Through simplicity and continual refinement (Saucha), the body, thoughts, and emotions become clear reflections of the Self within. Saucha reveals our joyful nature, and the yearning for knowing the Self blossoms.
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 Yoga Sutras 2.40-2.41