This is part six of a 10-part series exploring each of the Yamas and Niyamas to discover how we can incorporate them both on and off the mat for a deeper, richer life of yoga.
Saucha is the first of the Niyamas to greet us at the second stage of Patanjali’s eight-limbed path of yoga. While the Yamas bring us closer to truth by teaching us through our relationships with others, the Niyamas remind us that, ultimately, the path to samadhi is one we take alone. We must now begin to work on an individual level, and with saucha, that work starts with self-love.
The direct translation of the Sanskrit word, saucha, is purity, or cleanliness. Encompassed within it are the many weird and wonderful practices the yogic path offers as purification. Some are familiar—both asana and pranayama work to clean the body internally, removing toxins and impurities—while others are less widely taught, and a little more complex. The Sat-karma-kriya system, or six actions of purification, for example, includes more than 30 exercises—many of which seem to involve passing something, often saltwater, in and out of various orifices…
Some of these kriyas we embrace, or at least will try once, such as: using a neti pot with salt water to clean our nasal passages; practicing trataka to clean the eyes; or kapalabhati—the skull-shining, and detoxing, breath. Others require a little more stamina and enthusiasm like varisara dhauti, in which we drink warm, salty water to evacuate our intestines, or vamana dhauti, where we drink yet more warm salty water to induce vomiting, and to cleanse the stomach.
We fool ourselves that we are ‘holier than thou,’ but saucha tells us that we are mistaken. Everything, everyone—it is all equally holy.
These physical purifications are designed to help rid the body of disease, and to preserve its functions for as long as possible so that we may have more time to reach samadhi in this incarnation. The result in our appearance is sometimes referred to as a ‘yoga glow,’ and when we are pleased with our body, self-love is an easier task.
Herein lies the paradox of saucha. In our desire to achieve purification of the body, we have to become deeply intimate with the parts of it that we do not love—the things we would usually turn away from—sweat, bile, mucus, and fecal matter. What we discover in our path of physical purification, is that, without these so-called impurities, our bodies would not be able to cleanse themselves or function. Our chances at awakening would be zero. In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh: “No mud… No lotus.”
It is here, in sacred connection between the mud and the lotus, between the profane and the pure, that the lesson of our Niyama lies. Saucha reminds us that the pristine lotus can only grow with the help of the murky muck on the bottom of the lake. Indeed, it is the dirty water through which the lotus makes its journey that washes it clean, allowing it to emerge at the surface without a blemish.
In this way, the observance of saucha does far more than purify our bodies. For one, it provides a wake-up call along our spiritual journey. So many of us have our progress halted because we cannot accept that the profane is also pure. And as we purge our own physical bodies there is the temptation to judge what others choose to do with theirs. We fool ourselves that we are ‘holier than thou,’ but saucha tells us that we are mistaken. Everything, everyone—it is all equally holy.
The peacock’s tail feathers become brighter through digesting poisons. The lotus becomes more luminous the deeper the mud from which it springs.
The real gift of saucha is the purification of our minds. It is our grand teacher of self-love, for it asks us to place our judgments aside, and take a deeper look at everything we have labeled as ‘impure’ about ourselves. That deep sadness that follows us around? The impatient streak? Those ‘dirty’ little habits we have when we are alone? These seem to have no place on a sacred yogic path, but how wrong we are. The peacock’s tail feathers become brighter through digesting poisons. The lotus becomes more luminous the deeper the mud from which it springs. And so we too become closer to the radiant natural love that we are, when we stop pushing parts of ourselves away.
As Tara Brach, a yogi and meditation teacher, says in Radical Acceptance: “Rather than trying to rid ourselves of an inherently impure self, we [can] turn around and embrace this life in all its realness—broken, messy, mysterious, and vibrantly alive.” And, in another paradox, through our attempts to purify ourselves, we come to realize that there is nothing to purify at all. Purity is our very nature. Mud and all.
4 Ways to Put Saucha Into Practice
1. Taking Care of the Body
When we begin to let go of what we ‘think’ our body needs in order to become pure, then we can begin to hear what our body truly needs instead. Perhaps our body is telling us to sleep, to run, to purge, or to fuel up. Perhaps it is even asking us to ingest several cups of salty water… We have these wonderful tools in our kriyas, but by listening to our needs, rather than seeking purity, our self-care becomes self-love.
2. Love Your ‘Mud’
Make a list of all the things you dislike about yourself—your “poisons,” as Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron calls them—for it is here that our medicine lies. “Whatever you do, don’t make them try to go away,” she says in her book Start Where You Are. Rather, examine them, for they hold the clues to our blocks to love and awakening. At first we may not love our poisons, but over time we will begin to welcome back these discarded pieces of ourselves.
3. Practicing Presence
When we are present we bring purity to the moment. We stop bringing our past stories with us to cloud our view. And we relax the desire to anticipate what may come next. We simply bear witness to each moment just as it is, and just as we are.
4. On the Mat
Whenever we step onto our mats we are practicing purification of our bodies. But we can also be purifying our minds by seeing how challenges in our yoga practice can become fuel for growth. Can we welcome adjustments as a means to move deeper into our practice? Can we observe our tendency to become self-aggrandizing about our successes on the mat? And, conversely, can we stop chastising ourselves for not living up to our ‘idea’ of a yogi?
Mayurasana, peacock pose, is perfect for practicing both self-love and purification. The balancing posture builds fire, ridding the body of toxins in the digestive tract, while detoxing the liver. In our mayurasana we are reminded—as we struggle to hold our balance—that it is the poison that makes the peacock’s tail feathers so beautiful.
Finally, at the end of our asana practice, we can sit down to meditate on loving our mud, and loving ourselves. And what better mudra to hold during this time than, of course, the heart-opening lotus mudra.
Join us next week as we explore the second of our five Niyamas, santosha: contentment.
Helen Avery is a Section Editor at Wanderlust Media, working on the Vitality, and Wisdom channels on wanderlust.com. She is a journalist, writer, yoga teacher, minister-in-training, and full-time dog walker of Millie.