Last month we reviewed the yama or universal observances. This month we examine the niyama or personal observances. As the first two limbs, the yama and niyama establish the foundation of Patanjali's eight-limbed practice of Yoga.
As yama is universal social practices, niyama evolves from individual practices that strength one's character. The Sanskrit word yama translates as; to bridle, to restrain, to check or hold-in. The prefix 'ni' as inniyama, is an intensifier signaling an internal restraint and discipline.
The five niyama are purity (shauca), contentment (santosha), discipline (tapah), self-study (svadhyaya) and the perfect aligning of attention with the True Self (ishvara-pranidhana). Purity extends beyond the external cleanliness of the physical body to include the nourishment that goes into body, the sensory impressions taken in via personal relationships/media and the subtle quality of thoughts and beliefs. Contentment as an internal practice means embracing an Absolute Joy that is independent of external circumstances or conditions. It is relaxing into the world as it is and the letting go of external attachments that allows one to abide in the here and the now. Tapah, literally "to heat," is an intense commitment to the internal process. Each time a distracting impulse, intense emotion or outdated habit surfaces but is not obeyed the heat of this friction moves us closer to discriminating awareness. Self-study is independent study of philosophical texts and, more importantly, how one applies them to one's own life in order to "walk the talk." Lastly, isvara-pranidhana. Isvara is pure awareness, the omniscient Self, the Seer or the God within. Pranidhana is orienting every thought, word and deed toward knowing pure awareness. Chip Hartranft in his commentary on the Yoga Sutras sums it up beautifully, "Isvara-pranidhana provides the point of focus to which the yogi continually returns in the course of practice (abhyasa) and the inspiration to cultivate non-reaction (vairagya)."
The inner life of every human being is visited by unwholesome and negative thoughts of all kinds. Patanjali doesn't find fault or judge but rather regards this as the natural state of affairs. He does, however, state that we have the power to neutralize unwholesome thoughts by cultivating and realizing their opposites. Otherwise, our unwholesome thoughts are bound to manifest and contribute to the cycle of suffering, pain and delusion. The ten yama and niyama serve as a baseline "karmic management" program that encourage us to take actions that allow us to gain mastery over our lives while minimizing karmic burden.