Saucha or Purity

PurityThis week at “The Living Yoga Blog” we continue our exploration of the ethical principles of Yoga with saucha or purity.  As with our previous principles, we’ll look at saucha in both the direct and subtle forms in which it can be understood, as well as concrete ways we can apply it on the mat and in our lives.

 Purity vs. Cleanliness: Understanding Saucha from “Outside-In”

 To begin, as we move from the yam as to niyamas, our focus shifts from the external/behavior to internal/our attitude.  This is especially worth noting when it comes to our first niyama, saucha, which can easily be glossed over or misunderstood if we take it too literally.  Saucha is often translated as “cleanliness,” but purity actually comes closer to the full intent if the idea – as long as we stay mindful of how purity can also be misunderstood, as we’ll discuss shortly.  The most literal understanding of saucha begins with awareness of how our physical state – both external and internal – impacts our outlook.  Simply put, the Yogis realized when we neglect our bodies – either externally through lack of basic self-care, or internally through poor choices of food – we tend to distort or damage our relationship with the world and also ourselves.

We all know certain foods can make us more sluggish or cloud our thinking, shifting how we feel and act.  And we also know when we feel poorly about ourselves, we ultimately tend to feel less positive about our place in the world or our capacity to impact those around us in a constructive way.  By contrast, we also know, when we do our best to take care of ourselves both inside and out, we tend to see both ourselves and others in a more positive light.  In this sense, ultimately saucha can be seen as similar to the western expressions: “Cleanliness is next to godliness,” or “Treat your body like a temple,” – that is, when we take care of our physical well-being we are better able to enjoy, to see, and to serve.

Of course all of these expressions can easily be misunderstood – clearly if we become obsessed with “hygiene” or use it as grounds for excessive focus on appearance, the idea of purity tends to close and distance us rather than opening and connecting.  But if we stay in touch with the original idea, they can be truly valuable reminders, not only for maintaining our own health and happiness but also for connecting with and better serving those around us.

  From Material to Mental

 As with our other principles, the next thing it can be helpful to understand about saucha is it applies not only to the material but also the cognitive – in other words, just as we want to be mindful of caring for our bodies, we also want to be aware of what we put in our minds.  For example, we all know what it’s like to see an image on television or in a magazine or catalog – perhaps an item of clothing we might like or a gourmet dish or a beautiful vacation getaway – and find ourselves thinking: “I’d really love that….”  In that innocent act, we inadvertently plant a desire we didn’t have before, a desire which in turn can disrupt our peace if we allow it to build unchecked.  What starts as the simple thought: “That would be nice,” easily grows into: “How can I get that?” and ultimately: “Why don’t I have that?”  or “I can’t be happy without that….”

Of course, the message here is not: “Don’t look at magazines,” – media is a part of modern life, and, even more importantly, imagining or envisioning things is part of our natural creativity and the joy of life.  Rather, in this form of saucha, the Yogis encourage us to stay mindful of the thoughts we are constantly “feeding” ourselves, and do our best to choose ones that are healthy and constructive.  To take the above examples, this might be as simple as noticing our attraction and instead of just “running” with the desire taking the time to reflect on it: “Is this something I really need?  Do I want to put energy into creating it in my life or would I actually rather focus more on appreciating what I do have?”  By staying conscious of our mental diet as well as our physical one, we can help our minds stay focused and clear and stay in touch with our “greater” goals – even while still enjoying the natural pleasures around us.

 Purity Without “Impurity” – The Importance of Non-Judgment in Saucha 

 While on the topic of mindset, it is worth noting one important aspect of our choice of the word “purity” to translate saucha is the fact here in the West we often attach a moral judgment to the term – a judgment that the Yogis would not make.  Remember, the yam as and niyamas are not about “good & bad,” or “right & wrong,” but rather about what helps us achieve peace while also supporting those around us in the same.  In this sense, we use the word purity not in the moral form, but like in chemistry where it is used to distinguish between a pure substance and one that contains a mixture and thus will not provide the same results.  Obviously, impure hydrogen is not “bad,” but we don’t want to use it when it’s not what our experiment calls for.  Similarly, if we were to judge a food or thought as “bad” simply because it does not serve us, let alone judge another person for choosing them, that would disturb our peace and ultimately go against the entire idea behind saucha.  Understood this way, we can see saucha is not about labeling things as bad – whether in appearance, nourishment, or thought – but rather making the healthiest and best choices we can.

 Between Body & Mind: Understanding Saucha in Lifestyle 

 Before we move to the philosophical foundation of saucha, one last aspect it can be beneficial to keep in mind is how the idea of purity can apply to lifestyle as a whole.  Again, some parts of this are more material – for example watching our accumulation of possessions and how even the best and “healthiest” things can have less positive effect in excess – while other parts are more ideological.  For example, we all know what it’s like to try to fit too many things into our day or to overextend ourselves with too many projects or even ideas.  By staying aware of this natural tendency to “clutter” our environments, our schedules, or our minds with even the most constructive things, we can dramatically improve both our productivity and our happiness….

 From Purity to Peace: The Psychological Foundations of Saucha 

 Of course, once again, beneath the material and psychological forms of purity, the heart of saucha ultimately takes us back to the principle outlined in our very first article, which is our inherent nature is peace and joy and the only thing we need to do to experience it is let go of the habits that veil or obstruct it.  Understood this way, again clearly saucha is not about “judging” or “shunning” certain foods or activities but rather being aware how some things can take us away from our natural state of wholeness and happiness.  Once we realize this, rather than being restrictive, the concept of saucha becomes in fact liberating, and also naturally connects with our other principles such as non-coveting and contentment.  By making the best choices we can in terms of what we put in our bodies, our minds, and our lives, we can preserve our natural health and joy, and also support those around us in doing the same…

 Saucha On the Mat & In Our Lives 

 To conclude once again with a brief look at some of the practical applications of saucha, again we can start with asana.  One of the most common misunderstandings of saucha in yoga today is the idea yoga is meant to “clean out” our bodies.  While of course many of our practices do help support the natural detoxification of our bodies, an excessive emphasis on this actually detracts from our understanding of both asana and saucha alike.  Simply put, metabolic waste is a natural part of life – as are health-challenges – and while asana can assist us in dealing with the former and reducing the latter, “toxins” will always be there, and illness is always a possibility.  If we focus on our practice solely with this objective in mind, we set ourselves up for future frustration and suffering while also depriving ourselves of the numerous other benefits our asana practice can bring us – foremost of all the capacity for presence.

In this sense, true saucha on the mat is less about “cleansing” our bodies and more about letting go of the clutter in our minds in terms of attachments, assumptions, and judgments.  By entering our practice with fewer and fewer expectations, we are more able to be in the moment and to enjoy the presence that moment provides.  Of course, that much said, it is worth noting our asana practice can also help us be more aware of the benefits of doing our best to make healthy choices in diet and lifestyle.  We all know a regular practice can help us be more aware of how “less-than-ideal” food choices impact us, both physically and mentally – an awareness which can help us make better choices in the future.

Again this process can then naturally be extended to the psychological: as we become more attuned to the joy we can experience when our bodies are more easeful, we see how some of the thoughts and feelings we can carry into our practice can also compromise our experience – an awareness we can carry into life beyond the mat, doing our best to stay aware of what we choose to carry into our work, our relationships, or even into our night’s rest.  In this sense, just as the ideal of saucha naturally expands from material to energetic to psychological, so our awareness can move from body to mind, from mat to daily life, from practical concerns to our deepest goals and ideals.  Ultimately, understood in this way, saucha helps us stay aware of the thoughts and practices that tend to distract us or “congest” our lives and instead choose those that allow us to maintain our natural state of ease and joy and love….

Obviously, far more could be said about saucha, but we hope this gives some food for thought for how it might apply to issues on your own personal path.  In our next article we’ll take a look at the second niyama, and that is santosha or “contentment.”  Until then, once again wishing you the best in your own personal relationship to “Living Yoga….”


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