Yamas and Niyamas (Part 2)

Swami Om Saraswati (aged 13 years)


In part one of this article (in the January issue) the five yamas were discussed. Now come the five niyamas. The five niyamas, or five fixed rules of self-discipline, are: shaucha (cleanliness), santosha (contentment), tapas (austerity), swadhyaya (study of the self) and Ishwara pranidhana (complete self-surrender to God). The niyamas, all in all, are the fixed rules of self-discipline for spiritual aspirants on their journey of spiritual development.


Shaucha, cleanliness, is the first niyama. Not only external cleanliness, like having a shower, brushing your teeth, etc., but purity of actions, purity of mind from evil and distracting, unnecessary thoughts and from bad, haunting memories. Cleanliness of the environment and of oneself is necessary for hygienic reasons, but the state of the environment also affects your mind. If it is clean and tidy, you will become more centred and will be able to concentrate properly, but if it is an unhygienic, messy or untidy environment, your mind may become disorganized. That is why it is better to tidy up your room in the morning. Such things seem trivial, but they help to keep the mind free of clutter and make it sharp and clear.

In other words, practising shaucha on the physical plane also affects the mind on the pranic and mental levels. Sage Patanjali says in the Yoga Sutras that by practising shaucha on the physical plane, one gains indifference towards the body and non-attachment towards others in the course of time. He says that when your mind is pure through shaucha, you become cheerful and fit to practise concentration (dharana) and sense control (pratyahara), as the mirror of the mind is clean and, therefore, you are able to see your real self reflected in it.


Santosha, contentment or satisfaction, is the second niyama. Santosha is being content with one's actions and with what one has, what one is, where one is, and with what one has done or what one is doing. It also means to be content about where one is, whether it be concerning time or space. You should not daydream about the future nor should your mind linger in the past. Be content with where you are, or you will never be happy or feel true satisfaction. Also, santosha is being content with what one is. If you do not like being what you are, you won't find any happiness in life either. You have to be contented with what you do, if you have done your best.

Santosha is essential for spiritual life. If you do not practise it, you won't really get very far on your journey. By putting santosha into practice, you can get rid of cravings and attain great happiness to progress on the spiritual ladder, path, journey, or whatever you want to call it. It is also necessary to practise santosha in order to observe asteya. A beggar is a king if he is contented with what he has, while a king is like a beggar if he still desires more riches to add to his treasure troves and vaults by imposing more taxes on the poor.

If you are dissatisfied, it causes psychic infirmity and many other complexes. In the Yoga Vashishtha, Sage Vashishtha, who was one of Rama's teachers, says that vichara (reflection), shanti (peacefulness), satsang (being in the company of truth, in any form), and santosha (contentment) are the four sentinels at the gate of moksha (salvation, or being completely freed from the cycle of birth and rebirth). He says that if you have mastered santosha, the other three will let you pass automatically.


The third niyama is tapasya (or tapas), austerity or moderation – depending upon one's capacity. The main purpose of attaining tapasya is to be able to meditate properly. It creates a controlled mind which will not accept any interference from the body, like “I'm thirsty!” or “I want food!” or “that hurts!” etc. It also hardens the body, so that these desires aren't too frequent. It strengthens the organs and makes them healthy in order not to experience painful distractions during meditation. Thus it leads to pratyahara or abstraction of the senses. In the Bhagavad Gita it is mentioned that there are three types of austerities: (i) austerity of the physical body, (ii) austerity of communication and speech (mouna), and (iii) austerity of the mind. Tapasya includes control over one's thoughts in order to avoid unnecessary talking.

As a sculptor chips away all the unnecessary bits of rock to make a beautiful sculpture, so the hardships through which the body goes strengthen the mind and chip away all the unnecessary bits, leaving only the true essence of your real self. By practising tapasya, the body becomes immune to extensive heat, cold and even poisons and other hardships.

According to Swami Satyananda Saraswati in Four Chapters on Freedom, there are five types of tapas: (i) exposure to the sun to harden the skin, (ii) exposure to fire to make one's body slim and brown, (iii) doing pranayama to heat the body, (iv) accumulating the fire of concentration at one point, and (v) the fire of fasting. These are the five fires which remove the toxins to make the body fit for meditation.

Tapasya is not only about making the body fit for meditation. Doing things one does not want to do out of laziness or tamas is another form of tapasya. The same applies to moderating entertainment which only pleases oneself and does no good to others. This form of tapasya helps to control the ego, making one more disciplined.


Swadhyaya is the fourth niyama, which I have defined as study of the self in the introduction. It is usually defined as ‘study of ancient spiritual scriptures', but one can read the scriptures and not understand or apply a single thing from them in our daily lives. Swa means ‘self' here; therefore, swadhyaya is actually the study of the self, or self-analysis. One must be the drashta, the witness, the observer. The higher type of knowledge is actual experience, while the lower form is learning directly from books and the even lower form is learning from books but not understanding a thing that one is reading. It is recorded in the Essene Gospel of Peace that Jesus said, “Seek not the law in your scriptures, for the law is life, whereas the scripture is dead.”

Through swadhyaya we can improve ourselves and guide ourselves on the right path to some extent without the help of the guru. If you can see your life and observe it like a book, as in the yogic practice of antar mouna, you can observe swadhyaya, as Swami Niranjanananda has pointed out in Yoga Darshan. One can observe and modify one's reactions, one can moderate one's negativity and improve one's way of perceiving things through observing the self.

From another point of view, chanting the name of God in the form of the Gayatri mantra, the Om mantra, a prayer, etc., or even your own initiation mantra, helps to focus the mind, which helps in swadhyaya. When one chants a mantra from the heart, one does not necessarily need to understand what one is chanting in order to experience spiritual upliftment.

Ishwara pranidhana

Ishwara pranidhana, or complete self-surrender to God, is the last and one of the hardest niyamas. One gets to a stage on the spiritual journey when the guru steps back and when one cannot proceed without help and one becomes desperate. Such is the human mind that one can develop complete faith in God only when a desperate situation arises, where none but God (by God I mean Ishwara, Allah, Yahweh, or any other) can help, whether you believe in God or not. People understand God in many different ways. Some do not even believe in the concept of God. Yet everyone who seeks spiritual guidance and evolution reaches this stage if they are sincere in their quest. As God is different to many people, we reach this stage through different means and situations. It is the time when one completely lets go of all ego and surrenders to destiny. Sage Patanjali says in the Yoga Sutras that one can even attain the highest form of samadhi, the final stage before kaivalya, if one can truly and fully surrender to God. Your self-surrender should be free and unconditional.

There is a story about a dedicated monk deep in meditation in his cave. Suddenly there was a freak flood and the town nearby was filled with gushing water. Some good-natured people paddled laboriously on their little raft to try and save the monk. But when they reached his cave, the monk said, “Do not worry. I am a pious man who has been serving God all his life. God will not desert me now. Never fear, He will come and save me with His own hands.”

A few minutes later a yacht with five men arrived. They attempted to rescue the monk, but received the same reply. Finally, a rescue helicopter arrived and hovered outside the cave, but the monk sent them away.

The water rose, flooded the monk's abode and he drowned. When he reached heaven he said to God, “I've been worshipping you all my life and yet you didn't come and save me when I needed you the most!” And God replied “Well, I don't know what you expected. First I sent you a raft, then a yacht, then a first class helicopter, and you only said silly things like ‘God will save me with His own hands.' The raft, yacht and helicopter were my hands.”

It all seems to be a mental process; however, the physical outcome is that when one surrenders to and realizes Ishwara, one never remains the same because one cannot realize God if one has even the smallest hint of a human ego.

Sage Patanjali supported advaita vedanta, which does not support the principle of God as our loving father living in another world, in heaven. So here Ishwara is not God, but the unchanging, ever-uniform reality, while nashwara is the changing, decaying, creative aspect in the cycle of (our) evolution. God exists, and you can experience that only if you have complete faith in him or her (whichever you prefer), if you reach Ishwara pranidhana.


This concludes this article about the different yamas and niyamas from the eight-fold path of raja yoga. Keep practising the yamas and niyamas, even while you are practising another branch of the eight-fold path. The beauty of the Yoga Sutras is that everyone can read them and come up with a different theory from the same source. This article is but one way of perceiving them.

You may have noticed that the yamas and niyamas are all in a way interrelated, so they don't allow you to skip any of them if you are sincere in your desire to master them. Also, the yamas and niyamas are not meant only for yogis and sannyasins, but for everyone to practise. You can, for example, take one of the yamas or niyamas that you like and practise it until you think you've perfected it; and then go on to another one, and so on . . . until you've perfected them all! (Then go on to the 18 ‘ities' of Swami Sivananda.)


Swami Satyananda Saraswati, Four Chapters on Freedom, Yoga Publications Trust, Bihar, India, 2000.

Swami Sivananda, Raja Yoga, Divine Life Society, Rishikesh, 1999.

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati, Festival of Yogic Life, Swam Editions, France, 1997.

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati, Yoga Darshan, Yoga Publications Trust, Bihar, India, 2002.

Swami Satchidananda, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Integral Yoga Publications, Yoga Ville, Virginia, USA, 1990.

Edmond Bordeaux Szekely, Essene Gospel of Peace, Academy of Creative Living, San Diego, 1970.

L. K. Taimni, The Science of Yoga, Theosophical Publishing House, Adyar, Madras, 1988.