The second limb of yoga — the niyamas — is closely connected to the first. The first limb (the yamas, or “restraints”) are five principles that describe how yogis should behave. The niyamas are sometimes referred to as fixed observances. Like the yamas, they are about behavior, but the behaviors are more internal. One way to describe the purpose of the niyamas is they help yogis get beyond the small self.
The Second Limb of Yoga: Creating Conditions for Union With the Higher Self
In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali describes the second limb of yoga in verse 2, specifically in sutra 2.32.
The fixed observances are cleanliness, contentment, austerity, study, and persevering devotion to God.
The Sanskrit words for the five niyamas are:
- Saucha (purity)
- Santosha (contentment)
- Tapas (austerity)
- Svadhyaya (study)
- Ishvara pranidhana (devotion to a higher power)
The niyamas help yogis move toward their goal of union with a higher power. Before that can happen, we need to become pure and learn to live with gratitude and contentment. We also need to take responsibility for our spiritual growth.
We need to cultivate energy that drives us to learn more about our true nature. This knowledge leads us beyond our small self (the ego) so we connect with the higher power that is our source.
The Niyamas in More Detail
Many pages can be written on each one of the niyamas, but let’s look at them briefly in a bit more detail.
The first niyama, saucha, is the practice of cleanliness. It refers to self-care as well as keeping our environment clean. Someone practicing saucha would do basic things like bathe, of course. They would also try to be pure in thoughts and deeds. Keeping our homes clean and free of clutter is another way to practice saucha.
The second niyama is contentment, or santosha. We practice santosha when we’re grateful. We also practice it when we avoid complaining or competing with others for possessions, praise, or attention. In short, santosha gives us the means to be comfortable in our own skin.
Tapas, the third niyama, refers to a kind of fiery desire for spiritual growth. It’s the effort we make to move further along the yogic path. We use that fire for the fourth niyama, svadhyaya. Traditionally svadhyaya was studying ancient scriptures, but in modern times we often think of it as self-study.
And finally, the more we learn about ourselves, the more we recognize the need to surrender to something greater. The fifth niyama, ishvara pranidhana, is devotion—or surrender—to a higher power.
The Second Limb of Yoga in Action
So, to put it all together, when we keep ourselves pure in mind, body, and spirit and save the energy we’d use complaining or wanting more for ourselves, we’re free to use our energy in pursuit of truth. As we go deeper into that truth through our yoga practice, we learn that our true nature is peace. We learn that we’re part of a whole greater than ourselves, and we see that becoming one with that higher power that will liberate us from suffering.