The yamas and niyamas give us guidance about living our daily lives. But they can also provide a framework for our asana practice and teaching. A few weeks ago, I wrote a post on ahimsa (non-harming) as it applies to teaching. It focused specifically on the massive area of mindful speech. This week, I’d like to discuss the first niyama, saucha (cleanliness), and how we can practice yoga and our everyday lives from the intention of cleanliness and clarity.
In 1988, I attended my first five-day silent vipassana meditation retreat. It was, of course, life altering in many ways. But one of the most immediate changes I felt happened when I first walked in the door of my house upon returning. Almost immediately, I felt a need to clear clutter in my home. My mind was less cluttered than it had probably ever been up until that point. The clutter in my environment felt oppressive. (To clarify, the clutter probably wasn’t all that bad, but my mindset had shifted enough that even the small piles of papers were too much.)
I’m no Martha Stewart, and I do have three cats, meaning, dust bunnies are part of life. These days, I can tolerate a bit of clutter. The ability to live with imperfection is a helpful skill when you lead a busy life. But I do try to keep my yoga and meditation spaces free and clear, along with my work space and my kitchen. Saucha in my physical space minimizes distraction and keeps me focused on the task at hand.
Saucha is important if you teach in a yoga studio. A cluttered space with lots of pictures, knick-knacks and even messy prop shelves, can be distracting to students. A less-than-clean floor can make students feel uneasy. In the studio where I’ve taught the past seven years, we had a policy of cleaning after each class. That way, the next teacher who used the space could feel confident that the studio was ready and welcoming when they showed up for class.
Saucha and Your Body
Saucha doesn’t just apply to our physical environment. It also applies to how you take care of your physical body. Practicing yoga is, in itself, a way to keep our bodies clear and clean. When we coordinate mindful movement with deep breathing, our bodies and minds align, which helps slow down the “monkey mind.” Practicing asana can help us clear mental clutter.
Saucha in the physical body also includes being aware of what you take into the body. We can’t control all of what we ingest through our physical environment, but we can control what we eat and drink. Simple foods, prepared with gratitude, and consumed in moderation, can help keep our bodies in good working order. As Michael Pollan says, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”
My teacher, Pujari, used to advocate allowing yourself a “goop day” every now and then. That means, if you want to eat a corn dog or a bag of chips, go for it. It’s not what you do every once in a while that determines the health of your body; it’s what you do most days. It’s easy to get obsessive about diet, and that can create stress. So, if you feel moved to eat or drink something that’s not so healthy every now and again, go ahead. But do so mindfully, so that you feel the effects. That way, you can choose wisely.
Saucha and the Mind
We can also practice saucha specifically to clear the mind. There are several ways to do this. As mentioned above, mindful yoga practice with deep breathing is a good start. A daily mindfulness practice can help us see more clearly the mental habits that cloud our perceptions. When we begin to observe how our minds are working, and what patterns trip us up, we can make choices about which thoughts and patterns are onward leading and which are not. Then we can cultivate the healthy patterns and begin to dismantle the unhealthy ones.
I also practice saucha in the media I choose to consume. For example, while I’m a film buff, I avoid watching films that are violent. I just don’t want those images to dominate my mental landscape. News media is more challenging for me though. I want to be informed, but especially in these chaotic times, I sometimes need to take a break. When I find that the news is dominating my thoughts, I back away, if only for a day.
The fifth precept in Buddhist practice is to avoid mind-altering substances because they cloud the mind and therefore, our perceptions. As with food, we can practice this mindfully. What effects do we feel when we consume alcohol or other substances? The answer may be that we enjoy it, and that’s fine. Or maybe the aftereffects don’t seem worth it. The point is that we make the choice from awareness, not simply out of habit.
Like all the yamas and niyamas, saucha is a lifelong practice. As time passes, our understanding will grow and we’ll need to tweak the way we practice. Enjoy the journey.