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The Eight Limbs of Yoga - The Niyamas

Let’s continue this week with our discussion of the guiding practices of the science of Yoga, more commonly referred to as the Eight Limbs of Yoga.

As discussed last week, the Eight Limbs provide the aspiring Yogi with a set of personal ethical, physical and mental disciplines that are practised consistently on the individual’s journey of self-discovery and self-realisation. These practices, when established as daily habit, become a clear set of guiding principles that enable the Yogi to lead a disciplined and purposeful life.

We acknowledge here once again that the Eight Limbs are not an absolute, dogmatic set of rules to follow without question; there is a responsibility upon the Yogi to examine and understand how these guiding principles can be applied to their own lives and to their individual experience - a Yogi is always aware that the individual journey is as unique as the practitioner themselves.

The Niyamas:

The second of the Eight Limbs is known as ‘Niyama’ or ‘The Niyamas’; a Sanskrit word that can be translated as ‘the attitude(s) towards ourselves’.

As with the Yamas, that are five Niyamas that the Yogi examines and adopts as part of their aspirational path; ‘Saucha’ meaning ‘purity of the mind, speech and body’, ‘Santosha’ meaning ‘contentment’, ‘Tapas’ meaning ‘self-discipline’, ‘Svadhyaya’ meaning ‘study of oneself’ and ‘Isvara Pranidhana’ meaning ‘contemplation of the True Self’.

The Niyamas provide a structure for cultivating a relationship with ourselves.

‘Saucha’ refers to the practice of purity, cleanliness and clearness or clarity in one’s words, thoughts and physical body. ‘Saucha’ is considered essential for a healthy body and a healthy mind and applies equally to the outer and inner form of who we are. This purity is achieved through physical exercises, a clean and nourishing diet and the examination of one’s thoughts through self-reflection and understanding in order to identify and remove feelings of anger, prejudice, fear and shame.

The principle of ‘Santosha’ refers to contentment and satisfaction; contentment with ourselves and our situation in life; a satisfaction with the experience of our lives and a detachment from our constantly evolving wants and desires.

On a more profound level, ‘Santosha’ corresponds to the recognition of the world as ‘just this’; a recognition where we are not striving or grasping for an experience beyond what we are and how things are within the present moment.

The third Niyama is ‘Tapas’, the principle of austerity or self-discipline. Austerity within yogic practice has a subtly different meaning to common western understanding. Whilst it refers to leading a simple, almost spartan way of life, it is a life that is embraced willingly with the purpose of self-purification. Here we can see a link with the Niyama of ‘Saucha’; a simple, austere way of life allows the Yogi much mental and physical space with which to purify themselves through the practice of the Eight Limbs.

This austerity, such as the practice of fasting, is used as a way of furthering the Yogi’s self-understanding, providing the opportunity for conceptual and experiential examination of the question: ‘who am I without this?

‘Svadhyaya’ is the fourth of the Niyamas and represents the principle of self-study. ‘Svadhyaya’ is the specific practice of introspection on one's self in order to reflect and learn about who we are. When we consciously take a step outside of our everyday lives, through the practice of physical yoga, perhaps, or during a period of fasting, who do we see ourselves as? How does the experience of ourselves change within a different framework of being?

‘Svadhyaya’ is also commonly acknowledged as the study of sacred texts concerning the science of yoga. This study is not for the purpose of following a path of dogmatic rules or expectations, or even to agree with what has been written in the deep or near past, but to examine oneself in relation to them.

The fifth Niyama is ‘Isvara Pranidhana’, the contemplation upon, or surrender to, our true self.

This final Niyama can be seen as the culmination of the preceding Niyamas - when the Yogi has contemplated and acknowledged their fundamental attitudes towards themselves, they cultivate and practise the ability to drop their false identifications with their ego and surrender to the true self.

The inference of surrender contained within the practice of ‘Isvara Pranidhana’ is not one of ‘giving up’, but one of ‘offering up’ - the Yogi applies their discipline towards the surrender of their ego-driven life through the realisation that they contain, and are a fundamental part of, the divine whole.

This ‘divine whole’ is not to be seen as anything external to our selves, but as the pure truth of who we are.

As with the applied practice and study of the Yamas, the Yogi understands the clear interrelationship between each of the individual Niyamas; there is a recognition of how the consistent application and practice of these principles transforms the relationship and understanding of the inner and outer world, both on a personal and collective level.

The Yamas and Niyamas together are seen as the foundational practices in order for the Yogi to embark on their journey of self-realisation and liberation from their illusion of who they are. We all have the desire to know ourselves from a deeper standpoint, perhaps from a more enlightened perspective, and the Yamas and Niyamas provide us with a solid starting place from which to commence that journey.

Next week, we shall continue our discussion with an examination of the third of the Eight Limbs - ‘Asana’.

Matt ~ The Bearded Naked Yogi

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