Saucha - The First of the Niyamas

“Auditions are being held for you to be yourself. Apply within.”

If you’re not familiar with it, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra lays out an eight-limbed path that forms the structural framework for the yoga practice. The yamas and niyamas comprise the first and second of those limbs and are the ethical precepts that apply to how one relates to oneself and to society. By the most essential definition, the yamas are restraints while the niyamas are observances. 

The first of the niyamas is saucha, which is often translated as cleanliness or purity. 

To which you might say, “Cleanliness? Okay, I get that. I like soap. But purity? Come on. There’s no such thing.”

Well, you could be right. Afterall, the word purity comes from the Latin root purus which means unadulterated. So if you’ve moved past the infant state (physically, at least), it could be impossible to be pure. At least by that definition. We don’t need to be so literal though.

What is basically comes down to is this - if you’re mindful of what you put into your body, what you feed your mind, and where you choose to dwell and with whom, things are bound to operate more smoothly. 

Keep in mind though that being mindful is not the same as being dogmatically obsessed. Deborah Adele, author of The Yamas & Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice, agrees. She regards the yamas and niyamas not so much as rigid directives but rather as reflective tools or guides that allow you to deepen your self-awareness. 

Both on the mat and off.

So let’s take a look at saucha under this softer light. 

The Yoga Sutras say:

      Yoga Sutra II.40 Through simplicity and continual refinement (Saucha), the body, thoughts, and         emotions become clear reflections of the Self within.

      Yoga Sutra II.41Saucha reveals our joyful nature, and the yearning for knowing the Self                     blossoms.

Now notice. Did you focus on the “continual refinement” part rather than the “joyful nature” part? You may want to take pause. Remember, less rigid directive and more reflective tool.

The intention of saucha is to help you recall and access that simple, pure energy that was a natural side effect of being a child; a time when you could ponder the clouds for hours or delight in the sound of rocks being dropped down a sewer grate. The longing for simplicity continues throughout your lifetime. But as you get older, it gets hindered by, well, life.

It’s a complicated world we live in with approximately 973 different things competing for your attention at any given moment. Give or take. So while cultivating simplicity of mind and emotions is not simply a matter of “add water and stir,” achieving it can be as refreshing as a splash of cold water on a hot day. 

The understanding of saucha begins with awareness of how both your external and internal physical states affect your perspective. If you neglect your body by eating poorly or dodging hygiene, you’re going to have a skewed view of yourself, your relationships and the world at large. And no one will want to sit with you.

But saucha is also about finding that same simplicity in your emotional world. 

So you can be clean and eating all your veggies, but do you take things too seriously? For example, while continually falling out of tree pose during an asana practice, do you want to incur the wrath of a spiteful deity upon yourself as punishment? What if you could enter your practice with fewer expectations - like perfect balance - and be more in the moment to enjoy the sheer presence that moment provides?  

That’d be great, you might say. But how do I do that? 

Well, pay attention to the progression of your thoughts. What starts as a simple thought such as, “it would be nice to be able to balance in tree today,” can morph into, “what do I need to DO to balance in tree today,” and then before you know it you’re thinking, “what’s so wrong with me that I can’t balance in tree today!?”  or possibly,  “I will never be happy until I can do tree flawlessly and I will settle for nothing less!!!!” 

Whoa. And if you’re doing this on the mat, there’s a pretty good chance you’re engaging in this kind of thinking off the mat too. This isn’t an indictment. Just something to start noticing.

At its core saucha simply reminds you that your inherent nature is peace and joy. 

Not frustration, anger and fear. (Have you ever seen a baby flip off another baby?) Once you understand this and start becoming aware of the habits that veil or obstruct this true nature, then you get to decide how often you want to stray from this state of wholeness and happiness. 

So if your dwelling is a bit cluttered, maybe you get rid of a couple of dust-covered tchotchkes. If you’re feeling unsettled from watching the news, perhaps see how it feels to take a break from the bobble-headed 24-hour newscasters spinning fear. And if you prefer to start your mornings alternately scarfing donuts while huffing cigarettes but absolutely refuse to give this up because you feel it is truly working for you on all levels, then more power to you. Truly. But should you decide to lay off even one of them for a few mornings, you might notice some changes. 

Just sayin’.

Once you get to where you don’t regard saucha as something restrictive, but rather as the observance that it really is, then there’s a sense of liberation. 

By being aware and then doing what you can to make the best choices in terms of what you put into your body, your mind and your overall life, you’ll be able to preserve that inherent joy and simplicity that was so accessible when you were a child. What’s more, you’ll be supporting those around you to do the same.

And that’s some really good stuff.

Like many before her, Steph Ruopp is a human. In her title of human, she serves as a freelance writer/blogger, yoga instructor, educator and dog walker. She’s been around long enough to start a phrase with the words, “Thirty years ago I,” and finish the phrase with something that happened in her adult life. So she’s seen some things. And done some things. And yeah, she has regrets.