When cleanliness is developed, it reveals what needs to be constantly maintained, and what is eternally clean. What decays is the external. What does not is deep within us.
~ Yoga Sutra II.40 ; Translation by T.K.V. Desikachar
Sauca (pronounced sow-cha) is the first of five niyamas, disciplines that the yogi adopts in their relationship with their own self. It means purity, or cleanliness. As a philosophical system, yoga is the practice of unifying one’s body, mind, and spirit. So, let us look at sauca through this lens, and explore some of the methods to purify one’s body, mind, and spirit.
When considering the cleanliness and purity of the body, it is always emphasized that the system of yoga views the body as a vehicle meant to nurture and aid the development of our spiritual beings. The body is affectionately maintained as the keeper of the spirit, a means to an end, but not an end itself.
Asana (postures) and pranayama (breath work) are powerful means to cleanse our physical bodies. “The practice of asanas tones the entire body and removes the toxins and impurities caused by over-indulgence. Pranayama cleanses and aerates the lungs, oxygenates the blood and purifies the nerves” (BKS Iyengar, “Light on Yoga”).
Many yogis also view sauca as an opportunity to consider the importance of the food we eat, and how we eat it, and the effect it has on our bodies. Food is meant, above all else, to nourish and sustain the body – so that our spiritual development may continue. Over-appreciation and over-avoidance of food can both cause problems that may negatively affect this development. Many yogis choose to follow specific eating practices, such as eating only vegetarian or vegan food, and/or following an ayurvedic diet in accordance with their constitution and condition.
Sauca also incorporates the practice of kriyas, a variety of cleansing techniques ranging from methods meant to address the hygiene of the physical body to methods meant to bring balance to the energetic body. Some kriyas are quite familiar to most of us, including daily bathing, brushing and flossing the teeth, cleaning the tongue, and flushing the sinuses with warm salted water (neti pot).
When our physical bodies are clean, we feel more relaxed and more readily able to focus on the path of Yoga. Distractions, disease, and discomfort are less likely to present themselves. It is also helpful if the environments where one lives and practices yoga are clean and fresh.
Purifying the mind is another of the intentions behind sauca. During the course of the day, most of us experience a constant, random inner dialogue. When our senses are pulled in one direction or another, the mind follows, as does our attention and energy. Devotion, self-study, and concentration are cited as the methods to bring this random mental activity under control. One of the less familiar kriyas is the practice of trataka drishti, which involves gazing softly at a candle flame until the eyes water. This practice washes the eyes and also helps to build concentration. When we focus our gaze on the flame, the senses are brought into focus, the mind is brought into focus, and that inner dialogue is temporarily quieted. As the practitioner develops the ability to be peacefully focused on the candle flame, this will be reflected in their ability to focus on the greater goals of their yogic path. As the practitioner develops increasing discipline and control over their own mental activity, unconscious habits will be more easily identified and broken (if desired). This process helps us to more accurately perceive the source of our actions and intentions.
I suspect that an accurate perception of our own actions and intentions relates to possessing purity of spirit. We all know how it feels to act with a peaceful spirit, full of calm and sincerity. Purity is important when it comes to our physical bodies, and to the environment where we live and where we practice yoga. It is important when it comes to the food we eat, the words we choose when speaking, and the mental discipline we are able to cultivate. At its very core however, sauca emphasizes the purity we find in our hearts. It seems to me that the moments of greatest spiritual purity are moments in which I am able to act without any trace of internal conflict. The inner dialogue is naturally quieted, because one’s whole self is working in unison, with confidence and conviction. A pure act is entered into without any hesitation, and becomes a source of both energy and respite. These moments may feel few and far between, however the yogic texts suggest that we can cultivate such experiences by also trying to cultivate devotion toward and sincere appreciation for others, the habitual practice of gratitude, and the offering of loving affection.
Special acknowledgement to BKS Iyengar’s writings on sauca in “Light on Yoga,” namaste
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