“When the body is cleansed, the mind purified and the senses controlled, joyful awareness, needed to realize the inner self, also comes.” –Yoga Sutras
And now we begin our study of the niyamas, the second limb of the eight-limbed path of raja yoga. Before we launch into them, I wanted to take a moment to distinguish between the first and second limbs, the yamas and the niyamas.
The yamas are universal in their application, to be practiced at any age and any stage of life. If you haven’t yet learned about them, here they are: ahimsa, nonviolence; satya, truthfulness; asteya, nonstealing; brahmacharya, moderation of energy; and aparigraha, nonhoarding. When we practice the yamas diligently, we create the momentum for big changes in our lives. We live with integrity. People trust us. We trust ourselves. We create balance inside and out, we become clear channels for life force to flow through us.
The niyamas are much more personal in their application. By their practice we are able to stay on the path, to sustain the changes brought about by the yamas. Here are the niyamas: saucha, cleanliness; santosha, contentment; tapas, burning zeal; svadhyaya, self-study; and ishvarapranidhana, surrender to source.
Today we are going to focus on saucha, which means “cleanliness,” or “purity.” As with all things, there is an inner as well as an outer aspect. The path of yoga moves us from identification with the world of form and the accompanying fears, attachments and neuroses that arise from this identification, to the realization of the formless self that resides within us. When we are able to look within for our peace and joy, we experience our freedom, we experience our essence, we find a bliss that cannot be given to us or taken from us in the world.
This journey is taken in stages; very often we arrive to the practice of yoga afraid that we won’t do the postures correctly, afraid that we’ll look bad, afraid that it won’t work, just plain afraid. Confronted with all this fear, there is only one thing to do: start where we are with what we have and do the best we can. We begin with the body, promising to not hurt it, agreeing to meet it where it is, to give it as much space as it needs to heal and transform. Over time and with regular practice, the body becomes more strong and flexible, we master more difficult poses, we find ease in our bodies as they become pure and open. Now that we have worked with the external self, we have the resiliency, the will, the determination to deal with the inner self–the mind, the emotions, the intellect.
We see this theme mirrored over and over again throughout the whole yogic path. Start outside, and move inside. Start with the world of form, what is most easily grasped and evaluated through our senses, and little by little, move within. And so it is with saucha.
To begin the practice of saucha, we take a good, honest look at our surroundings. What kind of conditions are we living in? Do we keep our homes, our work spaces, our vehicles, neat and tidy, or is it time to set about cleaning, organizing, sorting, maybe throwing out what is no longer useful or beneficial to us? To practice saucha on a physical level requires an ongoing willingness to monitor the things we keep in our space and to let them go when it is time. Remember the final yama, brahmacharya–nonhoarding? Letting go is trusting in the universe that will always provide us with exactly what we need. The act of releasing things that no longer serve us makes the space to welcome new experiences in our lives. And once we make that space, we have less to clean up or clean around! It takes a lot of honesty and will to sift through layers of stuff that have been hanging around collecting dust. It requires positive self-regard, self-caring, to maintain a living space that upholds our best interests for health and well-being. It also takes time and physical effort to clean up the dinner dishes, take out the garbage, sweep or vacuum the floors, clear out the ick from the fridge. No wonder a lot of us (me included) can drag our feet when it comes to this kind of work. But it is so completely worth it. Each time we put some love into our physical surroundings, we are giving ourselves that love as well. We are proclaiming our worthiness to live unfettered, to live an inspired, sparklingly creative, healthy existence.
And doesn’t it just feel awesome to take a shower or a hot bath? Washing off the dirt of the day leaves our bodies energetically uplifted, refreshed. Putting on nice clean clothes that feel good to wear can be so soothing. We take a moment to cleanse our outer physical selves, to give ourselves some loving time and attention–and now we are prepared to do some inner cleansing.
Which brings us to our diets. Part of saucha is taking a good look at what we put into our bodies, and choosing food that will digest well and give us the energy we need to live with enthusiasm for our work and the people with whom we share this planet. As we become earnest in our yoga practice, we develop a deep, often startling intimacy with our own bodies, and we begin to see them for what they are–physical temples that house our precious divine selves, the limitless awareness of our interconnectedness with all of life. Experiencing our bodies in this way, we will naturally choose foods that support our health and well-being–so that we may continue this wonderful work of awakening for the benefit of others for as long as we can.
Ok, so now that we have our homes sparkling, our bodies are clean, and we’re eating to fuel our higher purpose, what next? Let’s keep moving inwards. Let’s go a little deeper. Let’s look at the mind.
In a world that values productivity and efficiency and encourages incredible feats of multitasking to achieve those ends, it’s no wonder that we’re often rushing about feeling like we have no time, no room, no enjoyment in our lives. Coming to a yoga class can give us some welcome respite from the frantic pace with which most of us have become all too familiar. We get to take an hour, maybe an hour and a half, just for ourselves. We step onto the mat, sit still, become aware of our breathing, and little by little the tension begins to melt away. We’ve come home.
I’ve often had the experience of wanting to burst into tears the first few minutes on my mat in a yoga class, especially in the presence of a teacher who radiates knowing and compassion. It’s as if I’ve been barely holding myself together to keep going, and now, in that loving presence, I can finally let down my guard and just be me. The process of disentangling myself from all the strings that pull me in all the directions I’m pulled can be so overwhelming. And it can take seemingly impossible amounts of willpower to return to a place of even-temperedness, a place of peace. But a great yoga practice does just that. We breathe, we move, we find stillness, we notice all the changes, and we tap into what is changeless. The body transforms, the mind transforms, and the awareness in us remembers what is formless.
As we find stillness in the body, the mind’s activity can be thrown into acute focus. What is all of this garbage confronting me when I’m just trying to take a moment to relax? Why do I have to think about my own inadequacies, or unpleasant past experiences, or future fears?
And this is precisely where the practice of saucha comes in. Our yoga practice gives us the gift of awareness of our whole selves, and from this place of clarity, the choice to change what isn’t working. Asanas, postures of yoga, cleanse and strengthen our bodies. Our internal organs are massaged, stimulating their function. Pranayama, breathwork, oxygenates the lungs, purifies the blood, cleanses the nerves. This happens naturally, without any thought on our part. We give the body the conditions in which to become pure, and it just happens.
Much more difficult is the mind and all of its chatter. You get yourself into a pose, and..Okay, now I’m becoming aware of a past thought. Breathe in. I don’t think I’m looking good in this pose. Breathe out. Crap! I forgot to call_____ and now _____ is going to be upset with me. Breathe in. If I take care of this bill first, then I can pay of this bill second, and maybe some day, far in the future, I’ll be able to go on a vacation. Then I can be happy. Breathe out.
It may take a some time, but if we keep answering our thoughts with our breathing, the thoughts will eventually recede from our awareness. Or maybe we anchor our awareness in the sensations of the body as we hold a pose that is particularly potent. We train ourselves to focus, and the mind becomes pure. The act of concentration gives us the spaciousness to notice higher levels of thought, of awareness. Instead of being imprisoned by the same old, worn-out, painful, self-limiting thoughts, we now have the freedom to be inspired, to create, to tap into our amazing potential as realized beings.
Whew. So there you go. Isn’t it exciting to know that you can begin now, wherever, whoever, however you are, and create the conditions to awaken to your own amazingness? So what are you waiting for? Grab a broom, or take a shower, take a yoga class, or simply sit still and observe your breath. There are so many ways to tune into the purity of your own beautiful essence. Go ahead then, get clean!
Stay tuned for the next niyama, santosha–contentment. Until then, please feel free to leave a comment below, come to a yoga class, and keep breathing!
Where can you begin right now to bring the essence of saucha in your daily life: home, body, diet, mind? Do you find it easy or difficult to keep your physical surroundings neat and organized? What feels like more of a challenge to you–cleaning up your home, or cleaning up your mind?