Niyama consists of cleanliness, contentment, austerity, study, and self-surrender to God.
Cleanliness means not only physical cleanliness but also mental and moral cleanliness. When our minds are jealous, suspicious, rancorous or just plain mean, our minds are “dirty.” We can take all the baths in the world but we still are failing in cleanliness if our minds are polluted. Cheerfulness is an essential component of mental cleanliness.
Contentment is tied to mental cleanliness because a dissatisfied mind is a turbulent, unhappy mind. We should be content with our present condition, and move forward. Contentment doesn’t mean laziness: it doesn’t mean that we should be satisfied with our current state of spiritual progress. We should have divine discontent but at the same time be satisfied with the externals that we are presented with.
The word “austerity” generally makes people shudder. They shouldn’t though, because we all practice austerities all the time, we simply don’t use the word. No great endeavor can succeed without austerity: a student must study hard in order to get good grades, a parent must sometimes give up sleep in order to care for a sick child. Our jobs demand hard work and long hours.
Spiritual austerity is much sweeter than all these put together, for the goal to be attained is the highest. Austerity in Vedanta means disciplining the body and mind in order to put them at our disposal for the realization of God. It also means keeping an even keel in the tempests of life.
Life generally presents us with what Vedanta calls “the pairs of opposites”: praise and blame, health and sickness, prosperity and penury, joy and misery. We cannot get one without eventually getting the other; they are two sides of the same coin. Keeping our mental poise in the midst of all of these is true austerity: neither being elated by praise nor depressed by criticism, neither being haughty in prosperity nor dejected in poverty. Evenness of mind under all conditions is genuine austerity, for the ego is given no opportunity to come into play.
Study—which comprises not only the study of sacred literature but also the repetition of a mantra or name of God—is vital for spiritual aspirants. Firm regularity in practice is also included in the discipline of study.
While routine might seem counterproductive to spiritual development, it is, in fact, crucial. The force of a regular habit of spiritual study insures that—like it or not, tired or not, interested or not—we will doggedly pursue our highest ideals. The nature of the mind is fickle: sometimes it’s in a good mood, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s energetic, sometimes it’s lazy. We can’t allow our spiritual life to become subject to the mind’s whims. A regular habit of study creates a favorable mental atmosphere: at the appointed time the mind will naturally become quiet since it has been trained by repeated habit to react that way.