Patanjali’s Teachings: The Niyamas, or, The Rules for Living

In the book, “The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali,” there are the eight limbs of yoga. One limb is the niyamas, which concerns itself with the rules of living. 

This post is part of a series on Patanjali, in which I explore the eight limbs of yoga, as they relate to meditation and living life. 

See all posts on Patanjali and the eight limbs of yoga.

The photo above illustrates the eight limbs of yoga that Patanjali taught in his ancient text.

In summary, they are:

  • yamas – the laws of life and social awareness
  • niyamas – moral behavior
  • asanas – what we think of in the western world as “yoga” – postures and positions
  • pranayamas – breathing exercises
  • pratyaharas – letting go of the senses to turn inward
  • dharanas – focused attention
  • dhyanas – meditations
  • samadhi – expanded awareness and the settled mind

The idea is to get to samadhi: the settled mind.

The Rules for Living

According to Patanjali, there are five rules for living:

  1. Purity
  2. Contentment
  3. Self-discipline
  4. Self-study
  5. Surrender

You’ll see they’re all related to moral behavior. Let’s take a look at each of these in more detail.

Purity

This first niyama reminds you to strive for cleanliness, both physically and mentally. Of course, this is up to the individual as its expression can mean different things to different people.

Physical Cleanliness

This particular niyama invites you to take a look at the physical aspects of your life. 

Do you maintain a clean body? A clean home?

Do you have an excess of “things” – even things that you are overly attached to?

Do you try to rid the body of “dirty” substances (such as junk food)?

Do you find entertainment that isn’t jarring, violent, or negative?

Maintaining cleanliness – in a way that you can be satisified with – helps to also clear and clean out your mental state, as well. 

Mental Cleanliness

Practicing the eight limbs of yoga can help declutter the mind, and help purify it. This is through breathing, meditation, physical exercise, and more.

The idea here is to strive to do your best to get there. It is impossible to be perfectly clean in every aspect of our lives. It’s part of the human condition.

This particular niyama helps you to think about attachments: to the self, to things, to clutter.

For me personally, I am constantly striving toward less clutter, less attachment, and more cleanliness. When I was younger and living with my parents, you could “eat off of my mom’s floor.” At my house, I’d say do so at your own risk. 

And well…this is where I am in my life.  

Contentment

This niyama teaches that if you can learn to accept life as it is, then you will find contentment.

This is so much easier said than done, however. 

Western culture, especially, embraces the opposite of this. The constant materialism and consumerism is what drives the economy. Endless commercials and savvy marketing encourage you to buy that shiny new car, that latest gadget, the new house with the latest styles of design.

 The happiness that comes from buying things is temporary. It’s not long before you want something else. In essence, you’re resistant to the fact that you don’t have this thing now.

 The same is true for goals and achievement. Get that college degree. Pursue the master’s degree. Land the dream job. 

 Once you do these things, then happiness will ensue, right?

 In a word? No.

 Happiness Comes From Within

This niyama shows us that happiness comes from within. It comes from your mindset and for your gratitude for what is present in your life right now.

 The fact that you’re reading this right now suggests that your life isn’t all that bad now, is it?

You’re educated enough to read this. You have the freedom to find information. It even suggests that you have a broad world view, given that Patanjali and the sutras are ancient, ultimately translated from another culture and from Sanskrit. You have some stability in your life if you have access to the internet. Perhaps you’re even on a spiritual or even esoteric path. 

 Acceptance

Essentially, what we’re talking about here is acceptance. Acceptance for what is. 

That doesn’t mean you can’t change it. But resistance to what is, is part of what causes suffering. 

You change by making yourself smile. It’s proven that your mood will follow suit. You change through meditation, and constantly letting thoughts go. It’s about enjoying the journey, and not getting too preoccupied with the destination. 

I experience this resistance when I worry about the things I always tend to worry about: money, what people think, traveling safely, to name some examples. I cannot tell you the peace I feel when I take a step back, smile, and immediately start counting my blessings.

It works every time. As time goes on, I experience much less worry and more peace as I deepen my spiritual practice. 

Self-discipline

This third niyama is a fun one. It shows you how discipline, enthusiasm and a desire to learn are all wonderful virtues.

This can look like different approaches. It can be that you develop the discipline to follow through on a practice, such as learning a new language, or keeping a promise you made. It can look like making a commitment to your spiritual practice. Perhaps it is developing a new habit, or getting rid of an old one. 

Effectively, this niyama encourages you to look at your mind, body, and spirit and to cultivate the discipline necessary to optimize them. This cultivation translates to an inner power that also helps to purify the mind and find contentment. It’s overcoming that which you do mindlessly.

If you are regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that I have no problem in the “enthusiasm” or having a “desire to learn” departments. I cannot help but read, learn, observe, study, investigate, and gain more knowledge every single day of my life.

I also recognize that a desire to learn can turn into an addiction, in which case, I would need to break that habit.

Self-study

This fourth niyama asks you to look at your life, internally, externally, or both. The key is to observe, so as to learn.

You can look at your overall physical life and analyze your habits, thoughts, and actions. This is an opportunity to observe, for example, whether you’re constantly running late to appointments. You can observe what you do when you’re stressed, or annoyed at something.

Then there’s your internal life. You can observe how you feel, act, your motivations, what angers you, what makes you feel content, that sort of thing. This is also encouragement to look at what happens to your mind when someone angers you.

You become really present, because you’re looking at what you’re doing moment to moment.

Become an Observer

By becoming an observer, you can detach from your attachment to what you think should be, to what actually is. This can be difficult because sometimes the voice kicks in. You know, the one that judges and criticizes. 

But if you adopt an attitude of just noticing what is, almost like you are watching a silent movie, you unlock the door to higher compassion for yourself and for others.

One really great way to practice self study is through self-inquiry meditation. Developing a practice of asking “who am I?” both on and off the meditation cushion can help you uncover your truest self.

I practice self-inquiry meditation quite frequently. It has furthered my spiritual practice in innumerable ways. 

Surrender

This last niyama suggests a true communion with yourself and with your higher power.

For atheists, that might look like a surrender to one’s highest self, or to the universe.

For someone who’s Christian or Jewish, this might look like surrender to God.

Whatever your beliefs, this niyama is more about recognizing that there is something divine in all of us, and connecting with that is to connect with Love. 

This final niyama is the one of realization. In fact, it is said that if one can master this, all the other niyamas are moot. It is from the dedication to LOVE, in whatever form that may be, automatically makes the other niyamas, indeed the eight limbs of yoga fall into place.

Your ego evaporates. What’s left is grace. You’re compelled to live a life of devotion and service.

I personally have not learned this surrender. But as a spiritual being in pursuit of my highest self, this niyama is appealing to me. 

Sources

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Translated/introduced by Alistair Shearer. 1982. New York.

The Yamas and Niyamas

Path to Happiness: 9 Interpretations of the Yamas + Niyamas

The Five Niyamas of Yoga

intuitive and spiritual

Hi, I'm Cynthia. Get a week's worth of 5-minute morning guided meditations to start your day! They are mini-meditations based on what I teach my students.

Sign up below. You'll get your first meditation immediately.

Great! Thanks for your email. You will now be redirected to a thank you page with your first guided meditation.

%d bloggers like this: