Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Off the Mat -- Saucha

The first of the niyamas we’ll discuss is saucha – some people translate it as purity, others as cleanliness. Either way, it conveys a kind of personal discipline that encourages us to strip away non-essentials.

When it comes to our physical bodies, it means a great deal more than simply attending to basic cleanliness. Considering purity can lead us to being mindful about what we put into our bodies, about how actions make us feel. One of the things that I value most about yoga is the feeling of essentialness, of purity, that sometimes comes at the end of a physically demanding practice.

A cautionary note, though, about purity – something the leader of the meditation part of the retreat I attended recently pointed out: it’s really easy to get attached to the idea that yoga (and meditation, for that matter) is all about sweetness and light and butterflies and flowers. At times in my life, I’ve thought that pursuing purity would require me to avoid parts of life – people who didn’t fit my then-current notion of ideal, ideas that didn’t fit my preferred patterns, situations whose very existence seemed to contradict the ideas I thought to be right. In retrospect, I think I mistook attachment to the idea of purity for attention to the practice of purity. I’ll explain.

Attention to purity can teach us ways to engage with our own lives more directly, more clearly, helping us to simplify and slow down enough to discover the essence of our own thoughts and actions. From one vantage point, that simplification process is much of what happens on the yoga mat. Take Tadasana – Mountain pose: soles of feet pressing into the earth, side of big toes touching, heels slightly parted, kneecaps lifted slightly, hamstrings and quads both firm, pelvis balanced forward-and-back, abdominals engaged, spine lengthened, shoulders down, arms extended up, neck long. This is the slowed-down essence of what we do dozens of times a day – standing up – but it’s the most attentive, pure, essential and mindful version of standing up that I do in a day. All the rest are variations on that theme. Other poses deliver similar experiences of essentialness, of purity. Even in the years before I discovered yoga, I benefited from practicing purity.

I first read Walden, by Henry David Thoreau when I was in high school, then again several times in college. A handful of my favorite lines:

Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.


I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life….


Simplify, simplify. Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion.

Thoreau got the idea of purity, of boiling life down enough to experience its essence. That was an approach that I valued long before I discovered yoga, and it bears on all kinds of aspects of life. I liked yoga when I found it, in part, precisely because it provided me with a way of experiencing clearly the pure physical essence of being embodied.

But, as I mentioned before, it’s pretty easy to slip from valuing what attention to purity allows us to see and experience into an attachment to notions of purity – “I appreciate purity, so I am pure,” “others who do not appreciate purity as I do are not pure,” “purity is better than impurity” … You get the picture. Purity can easily become a way to build up oneself by drawing lines: “I only shop at organic food stores,” or “I practice yoga more than anyone else I know.” At the extremes, it’s pretty easy (at least from the outside) to recognize self-righteousness and to distinguish between it and valuing purity itself. But sometimes the way we perform exactly the same action can swing the act from one of attachment and self-righteousness to one of experiencing life more clearly through purity.

The meditation leader followed his cautionary note about what we expect from yoga and meditation by pointing out that life is filled with all kinds of discomfort, unhappiness, suffering, and difficulty. If we expect nothing but sweetness and light from yoga and meditation, we’re in for a tremendous let-down, or we’re going to have to repress and ignore lots and lots of real experience. Purity doesn’t mean “pleasantness.” Pain can be pure. Unhappiness can be pure. So can discomfort. Experiencing them at their essentials can lead us to change not only the way that we think about those experiences, but the very ways that we experience them.

In the end, purity and cleanliness boil down to the same thing -- getting to the bare essentials of life.

Consider putting saucha into practice:

1. For breakfast, one day, set out your breakfast dishes, and put onto your plate or into your bowl, twelve blueberries – only twelve blueberries. Eat them one at a time with all the attention and effort you bring to your Warrior 2 pose. See what you experience.

2. At the end of a day, take a half hour to list what you did with your time that day. Consider what you might prune away.

3. If you practice yoga at home, take a clear-eyed look at the area where you practice. Does it need to be cleaned? Is it cluttered? If you don’t practice yoga at home, look at the place where you go to be quiet. My experience is that if I take the time to clean and straighten up before practicing, both at JM’s fitness center and at home, my practice goes better, my mind is less distracted, I am more centered.

4. Consider whether there are ways you might use attention to purity to change the way your mind works. Much of meditation is a practice of becoming aware of what is going on in our minds.