January Abstinence Yogi Style: The Niyamas

In the eight limb system of yoga outlined in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali the the first limb, the yamas, are about our relationship with the outside. The second step, the niyamas, are more about the relationship we have with ourselves. You can view them as a form of a self-training to prepare mind, body and senses on the yogic path. They also offer great material for all of us to reflect upon as a type of lifestyle observances even if we are not necessarily aiming for enlightenment so lets have a closer look!


Saucha refers to purity and purification (some also use the word hygiene) of both body and mind. The idea is that clean and uncluttered state, both physical and mental, is required to create the calm needed in attaining wisdom and spiritual liberation. Saucha does not however mean purity as in literal sterility. Orderliness and cleanliness are helpful but we should focus more on the bigger picture: the people we spend time with, how we entertain ourselves and of course the food and drink we consume. Saucha is one of the aspects behind the reason so many yogis are vegans.

Sutra 2.40: “By purification, the body’s protective impulses are awakened, as well as a disinclination for detrimental contact with others.”


Santosha means contentment and for explanation of it I first turned to a dictionary. There contentment is explained as follows: ”A state of happiness and satisfaction”, ”freedom from worry or restlessness” and ” peaceful satisfaction.” Sounds wonderful, right?

The trouble is that our minds and Ego work the opposite way: it is very human to crave for something else, be it the ”perfect” yoga pose, career, relationships, success, stuff, more stuff… Yet contentment comes from accepting and being grateful of what we already have instead of running after something that we think – but do not know – will make us, well, more content.



Tapas has many translations, ranging from ascetism to self-discipline, effort, internal fire and ”purification through discipline.” It is the process of putting ourselves through something we do not necessarily want to do but we know is good for you. The idea is that through the effort – an inner fire pushing us – we also burn away impurities and strengthen ourselves. Tapas helps us to cultivate healthy habits and break away from unhealthy ones.

For example, a daily work out or a yoga practise can be hard to maintain but we make ourselves to go through with it. After the exercise we feel better ourselves and may even be encouraged to have a healthier meal than usual to nourish ourselves.


Svadhyaya refers to self-study with the ultimate aim of getting in contact with divine nature. If this seems a bit over ambitious for now, no need to worry. Svadhyahya can be scaled down to more approachable levels by inquiring about ourselves: What are the things that push our buttons, good or bad? What are the patterns of behaviour we have and do they serve us well? How can we chance habits we wish not to keep?

This type of self-observation, done with empathy and compassion, can then be combined with the study of spiritual texts of one’s choice (Yoga Sutras, Bible, pick your religion…) that are in the service of Svadhyaya. This helps to keep and give perspective and understand the universally shared feelings and questions that exist in the world, rather than making Svadhyaya all about the self, ”me.” With time this leads us towards a more stable and peaceful existence, both internally and externally.

Sutra 2.44 “Through study comes communion with one’s chosen deity.”

Ishvara Prandihana

The big one, dedication of one’s practise to a higher power (whatever you choose to call yours.) In simple terms this means letting go of the ego and dedicating one’s practise, or the fruits of one’s labour, to something greater than us. The act of dedication in itself is a remainder of our connection to something higher and a sign of trusting that force to guide us towards the universal truth.

And that’s the end of the short introduction to yamas and niyamas. There is obviously a lot more to read on the topic. For my own studies and as background for these articles I have used the following books and sites:





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