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Niyamas: Yoga’s Thou-Shalts

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Five Niyamas are the Second of Patanjali’s Eight Limbs

Generally, the word Niyama is translated into English as “observance”, or “virtue” or “godliness”. The Niyamas describe ways in which yogis should treat themselves.

The dearth of notes regarding the translation of this word lends to the argument that it is difficult or impossible to translate completely. The Sanskrit prefix “ni” implies a negation or opposition of the more easily definable root word “yama“, which would suggest a meaning of “unrestraint” or “no-control”.

Perhaps this is to show that these precepts should be applied without moderation on the part of the student – that one can never practice too much cleanliness or diligence.


Translations of Shauca are “purity” and “cleanliness”. This Niyama relates to the English cliché “cleanliness is next to godliness” and the idea of treating the human body as a temple. For the yogi, the body truly is the temple used to worship the divine. It follows that this temple should be treated with respect and kindness, kept clean, fed only healthy and fresh food, surrounded by a clean and uncluttered home.


The word Santosha translates to the English word “contentment”.

Please note that this does not translate as “happiness” as there is a very important distinction. A content yogi would experience happiness with the same wonder and interest as he or she would experience fear or anger. Emotions are fleeting things. If we allow them to flow through our hearts and minds naturally, they move like birds across an open sky. The practice of Santosha is the cultivation of a level of peace within the self that can witness the flutter of emotions from a step apart.

One key part of understanding Santosha is living in the present – neither longing for the past nor worrying about the future. It brings an awareness of the student’s responsibility for being where they are right now, acceptance of this, and understanding of how to move forward.

As each of the Yamas and Niyamas teaches us, there are practical, material applications. Just as the student does not pine for another emotion or moment, there is no desire for more than what is available.


The Sanskrit word “tapas” translates literally as “to generate heat”. Often, the English word used to summarize this concept is “austerity” or “discipline”, which does not explain the heart of this Niyama. What it really refers to is the student’s commitment, diligence and hard work.

“Heat-producing” work on the spiritual self brings to mind the Jungian interpretations of the metaphors of Alchemy. Practical work that produces results: consistent effort and awareness on the part of the student. Often, this work requires a level of self-denial or selflessness.

Practicing the Asanas or Pranayama regularly for a set period of time could be considered Tapas. Committing oneself to the principles of mindful speech would be an act of Tapas.


Swadhyaya has been subject to various interpretations: from the study of sacred texts to introspective self-study or self-analysis.

Because the Eastern traditions tend to mingle spiritual philosophies, it is not surprising that the Yoga Sutras suggest a comprehensive study of all sacred texts available. This Niyama also refers to the Socratic concept of “Know thyself” – for it is only through an understanding of our own selves that we can see how they influence our interactions with the world around us.


The English translations of this Niyama range: “Dedication to God”, “Living with an awareness of the Divine”, “Devotion to the Divine”, and “Surrender to God”. The central idea surrounding it is to offer one’s life to God, dedication of the fruits of all efforts to the Divine.

Consider for a moment the definitions of the individual components of this term:

  • Ishwara” – a concept of the Divine as an entity, Cosmic Consciousness, God
  • “prani” – breathing, living – a term encompassing all breathing creatures
  • “dhana” – wealth; gain; (symbolically) spiritual plenitude

Breath is the life-force that connects us with all living beings. Our study and work will bring us spiritual wealth of purity, kindness – the combined fruits of all of the work of Yama and Niyama. If we dedicate each breath to God, and we devote all of our spiritual wealth to what we perceive as the Divine, we are living in surrender.

Perhaps the most poignant example of this is the word Namasté, which we say to our instructor, our fellow students, and to ourselves at the end of each yoga practice.

There are many definitions of this word. Primarily it refers to the experience of the Divine within each individual: “I honor the place in you in which the entire Universe dwells… the place of Love, of Truth, of Light and of Peace. When you are in that place in you, and I am in that place in me, we are One.”