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The ancient spiritual teachings of yoga hold a lot of wisdom—useful even in today’s modern world. If you’re new to yoga philosophy, the five Niyamas are a great place to start. They are personal rules of behavior that provide a guide to help you live a more balanced life.
The word "yoga" means to unite the three layers of our existence: body, mind, and spirit. The 8th century philosopher and theologian Adi Shankara describes this as the physical, subtle, and causal aspects of our being. There are four primary paths of yoga: one is the Royal Path to union. Within the Royal Path, there are eight branches of yoga: Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi. Each of these paths serve as different entry points into an expanded sense of Self through various experiences, choices, and interpretations that ultimately lead us back to our true essential nature.
It's important to first understand that the eight limbs are not to be seen as sequential stages, but rather an exploration into various branches of the Royal Path of yoga. The second branch of yoga is known as Niyama. There are five Niyamas—personal rules of conduct or behavior—and each one represents the qualities naturally expressed in human personality. The Niyamas invite us to consider how we live our lives when no one else is paying attention.
The first Niyama is about nourishing ourselves through the five senses of taste, touch, sight, sound, and smell. Everything we take in from the environment flows through these channels and is then perceived as our experience. Here, we are encouraged to reduce or eliminate anything we may distinguish as being toxic, and increase things that provide more nourishment for our body, mind, and soul. Consider the foods you're eating, your habits, the environment you spend most of your time in, and the relationships you have with others. Weed out the habits that don’t support a life of purity.
The second Niyama invites us to relinquish patterns of trying to control other people and outcomes, and to settle, instead, into a place of centered awareness.
There is a saying that “yoga is the progressive quieting of the fluctuations of the mind.” When you settle into periods of quieting the mind, you will experience a state of contentment that reflects your ability to remain at peace regardless of what is going on in your external environment. When you’re in this state of being, you won’t be compelled to expend precious time and energy changing everyone and everything around you. Rather, you will be filled with contentment and gratitude for the beauty and gifts that are abundant in your life.
Discipline is the third Niyama, and it’s often incorrectly perceived as having to refrain from life's pleasures. As human beings, we are meant to experience all aspects of our humanity, including from the physical, material, mental, emotional, spiritual, and ethereal. This Niyama is about creating a strong and balanced foundation from which the other Niyamas may flourish. Eating healthy, organic foods; committing to daily movement or exercise; getting to sleep by 10 p.m. and waking at sunrise; and committing to silence and self-reflective practices are some of the disciplined daily practices that establish a solid foundation for personal care.
Spiritual exploration, the fourth Niyama, is best approached from a place of knowledge and experience. Attending spiritual workshops and reading spiritual literature will give you some level of intellectual knowledge. It’s just as important to develop spiritual awareness through self-study, which will provide you with an experiential understanding of the knowledge you've acquired intellectually. When knowledge and experience come together, wisdom is born. Meditation, journaling, and daily recapitulation are common practices of those who are engaged in self-inquiry.
The fifth and final Niyama is surrender to God, the Divine, or the Universe. It’s essentially the practice of faith. Faith is defined as confidence, trust, or belief that is not based on proof. Embracing uncertainty is one of the most challenging practices and yet, the paradox of surrendering to uncertainty is precisely what sets us free from limitless constrictions of the mind. Practice accepting the outcome of events and situations—even when they don't unfold in the way you had hoped.
Like everything, the practice of cultivating higher levels of personal conduct begins with self-awareness. Niyamas will emerge naturally when you live a balanced life on spiritual, mental, emotion, and physical levels.
Strengthen your individual personal conduct today by keeping a daily journal of each of the Niyamas and document how you performed within them. This practice will help you to become aware of your thoughts, words, and actions, and enable you to make any necessary course corrections. This is not a competition between you and society. The Niyamas are about your individual personal behavior and they serve as a guide for recognizing and improving how you're living—and loving—when no one is looking.