Introduction to Saucha
Centuries before yoga came to the West as a new workout craze, dedicated yogis were studying and living the tenets behind the asanas. Key among those tenants are the yamas and niyamas, ethical guidelines for living as laid out in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Rather than secondary to asana, though, these guidelines are the first two limbs of Patanjali’s eight-limbed path of yoga. Coming to the mat with a commitment to these guidelines enhances the physical practice of yoga, and are just as important as asana, if not more so.
The five yamas are moral imperatives or restraints – behaviors and thoughts to be avoided. They are complemented by the niyamas, five self-disciplines or positive observances. The yamas predominantly govern our interactions with others, while the niyamas guide us in taking care of ourselves. The yamas tend to get discussed more often, but both are equally important.
The first of the five niyamas is saucha, which translates to cleanliness or purity. It is both physical and emotional, internal and external, and applies to the self and to our surroundings; all these dichotomous facets of saucha come together to help yogis work toward a state of true purity.
External physical cleanliness may be the most obvious, and it does include things like hand washing and teeth brushing. It also includes Ayurvedic cleansing techniques that are becoming more mainstream, namely oil pulling, tongue scraping, and nasal rinsing. Beyond that, Hatha Yoga Pradipika covers many other purifying practices that only the most dedicated yogis engage in, such as cleansing of the colon and digestive tract. Of course, modern-day yogis can strive toward saucha without participating in these extreme practices.
The physical component of saucha is also internal, and specifically affects the diet. Choosing to eat healthy foods that are free of pesticides and preservatives allows for internal cleanliness in the body. Using drugs and alcohol, on the other hand, fills the body with unnatural substances and inhibits purity.
While maintaining physical purity is an important sign of self-respect, the mental and emotional components of saucha are perhaps more important. Practicing saucha means working to remove negative thoughts and emotions, both about ourselves and about others. Judging our appearance or ability, reacting with anger to a co-worker or partner, and feeling pride or greed all go against the essence of saucha. We have the power to control our thoughts, and avoiding negative and harmful thoughts becomes more natural with practice.
Saucha also extends beyond our body to our surroundings, at home and elsewhere. Most obviously, it means keeping our home and workspace clean and free of clutter, even getting rid of possessions that don’t serve us. It also means avoiding chemicals when possible, whether it’s in cleaning products, soaps, or candles.
But saucha is about even more than these varied applications, and should ultimately govern every aspect of life. How can you purify the information you take in on a daily basis, through TV, music, or the Internet? How can you purify your relationships to focus on people who lift you up? How can you purify your work to ensure that what you’re doing matters? When engaging with other people, especially as a yoga teacher, do you approach the relationship with pure intentions?
While saucha may initially conjure up ideas of literal cleaning, all of the yamas and niyamas are applicable on many levels. When interpreted broadly, saucha is about removing distractions and getting rid of anything that is harmful. Pursuing saucha goes beyond bathing; rather, it strips life down to the things that serve us.
By Jen Ambrose