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Breaking Down the 8 Limbed Path — The Niyamas

The Niyamas, the second of Patanjali's 8 Limbs of Yoga, explore the relationship we have with ourselves and self-ethics.

If the Yamas are all about external ethics and how we interact with the world around us, the Niyamas are its counter — self-ethics and how we interact with ourselves. It's been adopted as self-care, but the Niyamas go much further beyond just the bubble baths and spa days.

The Niyamas are internal and external. Individual and spiritual.

“They are the ethical disciplines which show us what must be done and what must be discarded. They are the golden keys to unlock the spiritual gates.” — BKS Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

Just as Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras broke down the Yamas into pillars of discipline, he breaks down the Niyamas into their own pillars.

  1. Sauca — Cleanliness or Purity. (External — think taking a bath. Internal — think cleansing our thoughts and words).

  2. Santosa — Contentment

  3. Tapas — Devoutness

  4. Svadhyaya — Self Study

  5. Isvara Pranidhana — Surrender

The pillars of the Niyamas aren't quite as straightforward as the Yamas. They aren't as straightforward as being kind, honest, genuine. But that's part of the wheel — it takes from the most external to the most internal. As we move inward things become more contemplative, more abstract simply by nature.

Some of the pillars of the Niyamas are even necessary to understand the others. For example, we have to understand ourselves (svadhyaya - self-study) to know what we need, what serves us, what doesn't, how we receive life and what takes it from us. The Niyamas within themselves are a bit of a wheel — working together to create the whole.

But we have to take the time to understand ourselves so that we can take care of ourselves, because we aren't any good to anyone else if we aren't taking care of ourselves. We can only give and give so much before we either lose steam or lose ourselves. And, again, we have the wheel, the balance. The individual is not separate from the whole. Yoga is individual liberation AND collective liberation. Individual betterment AND collective betterment.

“Niyama evolves from individual practices necessary to build up the sadhaka's (student's) own character.” — BKS Iyengar

Practicing the Niyamas

The practice of yoga goes far beyond the physical postures that we all see on Instagram every day.

Fun Fact — those physical postures, or asana, only make up about 2% of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras.

To truly be a student of yoga we must take our practice beyond the mat. We must engage. Yoga is the practice of self-care. Yoga is setting boundaries. Yoga is being mindful of what we surround ourselves with.

And that starts with the Niyamas. Learning to treat ourselves with love and respect is the second step on the 8 Limbed Path. What's inside informs how we treat the world around us. And, how we treat the world around us sheds light on what's inside. It's the wheel. It's the cycle. It's the whole.

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