Niyamas – the practices following the Yamas in the Ashtanga yoga system are often considered the internal practices. In many ways, the yamas and niyamas interwine and augment each other, both encouraging work within and beyond the body mind of the practitioner.
The first Niyama is Saucha, which usually translates to Cleanliness.
Unlike what generally springs to mind when we think of clean – spring clean, showers, laundry, dishes, etc – saucha in yoga practice refers to a cleansing approach targeted to various levels of the human experience. Yogis back in the day created a whole series of bodily cleansing practicing collectively known as shatkarma kriyas (6 cleansing practices). Some of which are reasonable additions to a modern day yogi’s home practice, some are not. Adopting any of these kriyas should be done under the guidance of a seasoned teacher who themselves practices said kriya.
On a more everyday level, saucha does include personal hygiene. Most of us have the showering and housecleaning thing down. But the act of cleaning itself is performed by all humans. Maybe we don’t specifically do the laundry, or the dishes, or the floors, but everyone cleans. Even if it’s just picking up after ourselves and bathing. Practicing saucha on one level, would mean bringing more awareness into these acts – how do you clean your yoga mat? Your body? How do you approach spills or cleaning lettuce? How often would you be described as unconscious, ambivalent, or entirely somewhere else when performing these actions? There’s a Buddhist expression that to be fully present, you should do something with two hands. Not that you need to physically adopt that, but to be aware of where both your hands are, and what they’re doing, is one way to bring more awareness into cleaning. Another is to cultivate a thankful mindset while cleaning your yoga mat, or a loving one when cleaning the dishes of someone who just cooked you dinner, or chant a mantra while folding the laundry.
On another level, the idea of dirt and cleaning carries with it the idea of impermanence. The analogy that I enjoy most is that of gardening and weeding. No matter how thorough a gardener you may be, both in terms of your weeding skills and in what you choose to water and give sun, and what you do not, weeds will grow. They will grow in creative and unexpected ways. They will literally shift the ground beneath you, and challenge the way you react to them time and time again.
A large part of us does not like impermanence, it prefers to believe things are or can be stable, secure, and unchanging. To the extent we identify with that we have frustration, anxiety, sadness, anger, and confusion when change occurs –or in this analogy, when another weed sprouts up.
Shifting our perspective to seeing things as they actually are (vidya), is a very high level function of saucha. To the extent we choose to identify with the understanding of impermanence, we have clarity, focus, and lightness in the face of change.
A pitfall, particular to the yogi, of identifying with the preference for stability is the idea that it is possible to achieve a final, lasting meditative state. This has happened, to a handful of individuals in the history of humanity. For most of us, we garden. Regular yoga (in all its forms) practice is required.
But don’t make it a chore, get the snazziest gardening gloves around, get cushy knee pads, make it a gardening party once in awhile and invite friends over. Embrace the entirety of the garden, even the weeds, even as you discard them.
Rejoice that you’ve found gardening after all this time! Something you enjoy doing, brings you peace of mind, and cultivates a clearer perspective!
My favorite impermanence exercise, when I feel like I’m getting a bit too attached to identifying with the permanent side, is to go outside and try to point to something that never changes. You quickly realize you can’t, but instead of letting that get you down, start to play with it. Imagine all the ways it will change, switch perspectives. And there is a beauty and lightness that arrives. And it’s good to practice that, so that when change comes to you that initially doesn’t look so beautiful or light, you can trust that, in time, it will.
For further investigation review Yoga Sutras I.30-I.39 – which list obstacles to yoga, and practices to overcome them. Traditional commentators believe that these obstacles are the main weeds saucha should address.
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