Where the yamas are designed as a framework for how we approach the external world, the niyamas are more about how we view and relate to ourselves. In fact, the yamas are known as the restraints, while the niyamas are thought of as the observances. The first niyama, saucha, which is often translated as cleanliness or purity, is an interesting one to start with because its interpretations can rage from the sublime to the… well, if not exactly ridiculous, pretty darn severe, and hard to swallow.
The simplest interpretation of saucha is that it encourages us to be “clean” inside and out. Internal cleanliness could imply that we should only put pure foods and drink into our bodies, and perhaps cleanse the body of toxins every so often. Outward cleanliness might mean that we should keep our physical surroundings simple and clean.
But if you actually look at the classical thinking around saucha, it’s neither this simple nor this sweet. The famous translator of the Yoga Sutras, Sri Swami Satchidananda, says that what saucha is all about is coming to terms with the fundamental uncleanness of the human body and moving on from there. It’s not so much about trying to cleanse it or see beauty in its imperfection, but it’s really just about accepting the fact that the body is fundamentally dirty and there’s not that much we can do about it.
Not surprisingly, Judith Hanson Lasater, PhD, PT, takes issue with the interpretation for a couple of reasons. “In yoga, like in Christianity, there’s a very strong distaste for the physical body. There can be with yoga, as with other belief systems, a fundamental distrust of the body.” Trying to ‘come to terms’ with the physical body has been a central issue for humans for a long time, inside and outside of philosophy and religions. Even today, most of us, especially women, spend a lot of time trying to do this, to varying degrees of success.
And like our interest in it today, how one relates to his or her body is a central interest with classical yoga. Lasater says that there’s often this dichotomy between rejecting the body (i.e., thinking it unclean) and trying to conquer it (some yogis, she points out, intentionally harm the body to “prove” that they are not bound to the body… But, she asks, don’t these acts ironically just tie you to the body even more?). So the third path is to accept the fact that we’re “embodied by our bodies,” and enjoy the uniquely human experiences that we are born into. After all, some pretty sublime experiences come from our physical presence – biting into the perfect, juicy apricot; sex; feeling the sand and waves around your feet. Lasater argues that these acts get us closer, not further, from god, the universe, or whatever it is that you want to get closer to.
But there’s another side of saucha, a more cerebral side. Lasater points out that psychological or spiritual purity is not about trying to be a certain way or willing ourselves to think only good thoughts. “It’s about what comes out of you, not what goes into you – it’s about intention, rather than action.” Most of us want to have a positive effect on the world around us, for instance. But if you don’t have access to vegan foods or humanely raised meat, or you’re not exactly sure which companies your purchases are supporting, it’s not the end of the world – and it’s not the end of your ability to practice saucha, she says. “We have to be very, very wary with practice. We don’t have to try to be different – the biggest mistake we make in spiritual practice is believing that we have to be different from how we are. Purity is the consistent and loving intention to accept our inherent goodness.”
So punishing ourselves for being “unpure” is pointless. It’s all about getting in touch with the intentions behind our actions – what we give back to the world. Maybe we can use saucha to think about our intentions a little more deeply, with regard to our relationships (what do you want out of your relationship with that person who’s not treating you well?), our jobs, even our bodies. “Purity really means to live with clarity and single-pointedness,” says Lasater. “We are to remember to choose with clarity our intention. That’s what saucha is really all about.”
Do you find relevance in this niyama to your daily life? Does thinking about your intentions help shape your practice of yoga and how you go through life? Please comment below.
Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga last year. She is the Associate Editor at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com and a Contributor at Forbes.com. Alice will be exploring yoga’s different styles, history, and philosophy, and sharing what she learns here on the YogaGlo blog. You can follow Alice on Twitter @AliceWalton and Facebook at Facebook.com/alicegwalton.