To Cleanse or Not to Cleanse? It’s a Matter of Saucha

The first Niyama means “to purify,” but that doesn’t mean we should deprive ourselves of needed nutrition.

Emily Hightower is a past Wanderlust Festival presenter. For the 2016 lineup, click here.

This article is part of a series on applying yogic philosophy to food. Check out the previous articles on Brahmacharya, Ahimsa, Satya, Asteya, and Aparigraha

“No thanks, I’m on a cleanse.”

You’ve probably heard, or said, this at least once in your life. Saucha is part of yoga’s core—it is the first Niyama, meaning “to purify.”

After doing a thousand cleanses in the name of yoga, I’ve realized that “cleanse” is just a code word for “diet” in many yoga circles. Saucha is about purifying our systems to reconnect to our essential, divine nature, whereas diets focus on rapid weight loss regardless of overall health. A diet can leave you depleted and in dangerous cycles of emotional eating, weight gain, and food control issues. A sincere Saucha practice frees you by clearing stuck energy and tapping you into the current of source-energy pulsing through your being. Sure, a little weight loss could be a side effect, but the focus of Saucha is on energy-purification, not body-perfection.

We have a problem in the West practicing Saucha: We are filled with toxicity (mental, emotional, physical) and in need of these practices, yet we are plagued by a general notion that health is equal to appearing thin. We do crash cleanses without much tradition or support and end up in the same yo-yo weight cycles that happen with dieting. Starving is not necessarily cleansing.

For any yogi interested in Saucha, there is a reason the Yamas come before the Niyamas.

When a cleanse goes well, it can reset the entire system, giving us clarity, lightness, and freedom from addictive cycles. I endorse conscious cleansing to overcome sugar addictions, metabolic syndrome, inflammation, and illness. However, when a cleanse is depleting or overly restricting it can trigger food behavior issues and health problems. Here are some takeaways from 14 years as a yoga teacher and cleanse coach who has lived the highs and lows myself:

  • Use real food to cleanse. I used to promote packaged cleanses. They drove me to nutrition school to understand how to support people more clearly. I learned that packaged systems often contain shakes with fructose and corn solids. They are directed primarily toward rapid weight-loss rather than increasing vital energy and connection. Shakes can be great to flood the body with highly absorbable nutrients. Look for those that don’t contain unnecessary sugars and fillers.
  • If you are guided to do juicing or a liquid-only cleanse, do so with extreme care and support. Raw, cold-pressed juices are incredibly nutrient-dense, living, real foods. However, if you have emotional or disordered eating in your history, juice fasting can trigger food deprivation issues in the psyche. The rebound after a depriving fast can be brutal. I’ve been there! I recommend these liquid-based cleanses only when someone is recovering from addictions, IBS, cancer, Crohn’s Disease, or severe metal toxicity.
  • Rest. If you are cleansing, you are working hard on the inside and need to let go of your usual activity. You’re either active or cleansing, but not both. During rest the liver shifts from metabolizing energy for your muscles to processing toxins, cleaning blood and recruiting vitamins. If you start a cleanse then sweat through a hot power yoga class, you’re not helping! You can ruin your metabolism that way and end up gaining weight, getting constipated, and reabsorbing toxins that weren’t released properly.
  • Cleanses should be designed around your personal needs, not a general goal like weight loss. A vegan with IBS might need warm soups, special sea minerals, and probiotics to heal, whereas an omnivore healing from chemotherapy might consider juicing and collagen support. A pre-diabetic struggling with obesity and food addiction might only benefit from cleansing if supported with a long-term nutrition plan, exercise, and coaching.
  • Mental health issues around body image and food control will not be cured by attaining the “right bod” through a rapid cleanse. It’s easy to think that if you just look the part, you’ll feel and act the part. Unfortunately this approach only triggers deeper cycles of body-betrayal and food control issues. It’s better to gently work in cleansing foods without restricting any portions while supporting practices that endorse self-respect, love, and a long-term view of healing.
  • Explore cleansing when you have studied yourself and set clear intentions for why you are adding in these powerful practices. Layer your practice with time in nature, meditation, and pranayama breathing to enhance your expansion and connection as you purify your system.

For any yogi interested in Saucha, there is a reason the Yamas come before the Niyamas. If we have our values integrated for Peace, Truth, Balance, Generosity, and Detachment before we apply personal practices like Saucha, we can expand in the direction we want to go. Otherwise we are just expanding more of the same patterns we started with.

Eating clean foods loaded with colorful nutrients, dry skin brushing, having a neti pot practice, choosing natural skin care, and drinking hot lemon water are good Saucha practices without any formal cleansing or deprivation involved. Saucha is about purifying life to focus on what matters most, in whatever level will enhance our connection without setting us back.

In our Off the Mat Into the Kitchen Course we go step by step through each Yama Value and each Niyama Practice to heal food behavior. Stay tuned for next month’s second practice of Contentment or enroll to dive in on a personal level with the practice at

emily-hightowerEmily Hightower founded Ondalu to empower people to make holistic decisions for their health. Her integrative programs have helped thousands of people including Wounded Warriors, Teens, and Women in Crisis using yoga, nutrition, and nature. Emily guides in person, on retreat, or by Skype and is based in Carbondale, Colorado, with her husband, son, chickens, and huge dog.