What is Saucha?
What is Saucha?
This post is the sixth in a series of articles exploring the yamas and niyamas, the moral principles and qualities that form part of the philosophy of a “yogic” lifestyle. Stay tuned to our blog to learn about each of the 10 concepts and how to integrate them into your yoga practice and daily life.
Yamas are ethical practices that help us create a pure, resilient, healthy lifestyle. The yamas include Ahimsa, Satya, Asteya, Brahmacharya, and Aparigraha. If you’re just starting this series now, you can find more information on each of the yamas in their respective posts.
This week, we’re moving on to the niyamas. Niyamas are “virtues”; the difference between the yamas and niyamas is that yamas are avoidances, while niyamas are qualities to strive for – you can think of them as the “don’t’s” (yamas) and the “do’s” (niyamas) of being an everyday yogi.
Another way of looking at these concepts is that yamas are about relating to others; niyamas are about relating to ourselves. By practicing the yamas, we create the conditions to then practice the niyamas, and these practices help us progress through the eight steps or “limbs” of Patanjali’s yoga path.
The first niyama is Saucha, which translates as “cleanliness” or “purity” of body and mind. “Purity” is a loaded term, so bear with me as we dig into this concept. While it’s true that some classical interpretations of Saucha are about coming to terms with the idea that the body is unclean, and will always be unclean, there are modern interpretations that take a very different view of the relationship between the mind and the body. There is also another interpretation of “purity” – the religious concept of virginal purity. To be clear, Saucha as a concept has nothing to do with this view of virgins as “pure” and non-virgins as “impure.”
So where does that leave us?
How effective are you when your desk is a mess? How easy to do you find it to relax when your home is a disaster? The simplest explanation of the value of Saucha is that it’s like the feeling of wanting to clean up before you relax. Sorting out and organizing a space will often make you feel like there is suddenly room to breathe in that space, and this sense of pure, open space is the essential value of Saucha.
Purity in your space
The simplest way to integrate Saucha into your daily life is externally. One place to start is to clean and organize the spaces in which you spend time. Clean and organized surroundings will help your thoughts be clearer. A second area of external focus is the body: mindfully showering or washing daily, keeping your teeth clean, and wearing clean clothes are all important for Saucha. Cleaning and self-care is a sign of self-respect and a very important aspect of having a healthy relationship with your body.
The third way to practice external Saucha is through your food and drink: You are what you eat, so taking in fresh and clean food whenever possible is a good expression of Saucha. A lack of excess is important for practicing Saucha; this applies equally to the avoidance of over-eating and in trying not to hoard unnecessary things.
When it comes to your body, being careful of what you eat and drink is half of what is necessary to practice Saucha; the other half is using asana (yoga postures) and pranayama (breath) to raise your body temperature, increase blood flow, and flush impurities through sweat and the lymphatic and digestive systems. These are processes that are usually triggered through an active yoga practice, but you can also incorporate more twisting into your practice to increase its detoxifying power. Breath exercises like Kapalabhati (see below for an explanation) are also seen as detoxifying.
Purity in your mind
You can define mental “impurities” as anything that doesn’t serve your health and happiness. Cleansing of the mind means changing our mental habits to support this path through self-examination of intentions, actions, and feelings.
Hatred, prejudice, fear, and greed are examples of thought patterns that can be harmful to your sense of equanimity and peace. Of course, there is still a place for “negative” emotions like anger, fear, and sorrow – these emotions are a part of life, and Saucha is not about never feeling those things. Indeed, fully experiencing our full range of emotions is a part of a healthy mental state. But when we dwell in the negative emotions and start to project them outwards, they become unhealthy – for example, is there ever a time when dwelling on hatred or prejudice would lead you towards health or happiness?
Another way to keep your mind “clean” is to consider what you watch and listen to; despite the fact that violence is very much a part of our entertainment culture, it is worth being mindful of the type of violence you allow to become part of your consciousness. It can help to consider what kind of entertainment leaves you feeling disturbed or upset and letting go of that type of media.
Taking Saucha too far
Unfortunately, it is all too easy to take Saucha too far. Make sure, as you practice “purity” of thought, you are practicing from a place of compassion rather than judgment. It is essential to accept all the parts of yourself, which means that even as you work to let go of harmful thoughts, do not judge yourself for having them.
When it comes to practicing external Saucha, do not judge yourself for eating something unhealthy like ice cream or pizza. This practice is not about thinking about what is “pure” and using this metric as a tool of self-punishment. Instead, Saucha is about listening to what your body needs – enough movement, enough food, enough rest – not using Saucha as an excuse to starve yourself and push through punishing physical practices in the name of “purification.”
Finally, make sure you consider your intentions when you make decisions about yourself and other people. It is not our jobs as yogis to judge things as “pure” or “impure.” Keep away from judging the choices of others – “THAT isn’t a healthy choice” is a judgmental, negative thought that doesn’t bring health or happiness to anyone. Remember, “purity of mind” is not about judging yourself or your choices, but instead treating yourself and those around you with tender loving care – which is how we all want to be treated.
All these rules…
When it comes to practicing Saucha, it all comes down to one question to ask yourself: Does this set or keep me on the path to health and happiness? If not, can I change it? When you want to practice Saucha, it is easier to replace a negative thought with a positive one than to simply “let go” of a negative thought. For example, if you find yourself judging someone, instead of telling yourself that you shouldn’t think that thought, give yourself an alternative by trying to mentally articulate something about that person that you like.
Saucha in your yoga practice
Your yoga practice is a perfect place to practice Saucha. Start by respecting the yoga room – keep any clutter outside and do your best to avoid stepping on other people’s mats when you’re crossing the space. Also, notice what makes you feel good in your practice – maybe it’s simply removing makeup and jewellery, or maybe you feel good practicing after a shower and a change into clean yoga clothes. After your practice, make sure you carefully clean your mat – after all, this is your sacred personal yoga space.
During your practice, notice when negative or judgmental thoughts come up and work to replace them with positive thoughts or gratitude. Generally, one of the benefits of a meditation practice is a strengthened ability to choose the direction of your thoughts, so practicing meditation regularly is helpful for Saucha.
Specific Saucha practices include “detox” sequences that include lots of twists, forward- and back-bends to stimulate the digestive and lymphatic systems. You can also incorporate kapalabhati pranayama, or skull-shining breath. Kapalabhati is a series of quick, forced exhalations initiated at the diaphragm; you can find detailed instructions here. Be mindful if you practice this breath in the hot room – it is a heating breath and may make you feel faint.
Sometimes you have to dig through lots of negative stuff before you can reap the positive benefits of a yoga practice. If you’re struggling with your thoughts or you’re feeling hopeless, please reach out to someone you love for help. You can also find cheap, sliding-scale psychotherapy referrals in Ontario at this site.