Welcome to the niyamas! We are now diving into the second limb of Patanjali's eight limbs of yoga. We can think of the yamas and niyamas like this: yamas are a list of things to not do - do no harm, don't lie, don't steal, don't waste your energy and don't be greedy; the niyamas are a list of things we should do - be clean, be content, be disciplined, study your self, practice surrender and service. When we observe these do's and don'ts, it is a surer way to live a more easeful and peaceful life, and we really do eliminate the 'drama' of everyday living. If you ever watched a soap opera, which is sometimes how life can feel, I guarantee you will see several, if not all of these vows broken. Unless you like the thrill of living a life full of drama and tension, it's best to heed the advice laid out by wise ol' Patanjali.
Saucha is our first niyama to explore together. Directly translated it means cleanliness - to keep ones self clean, both in body and mind, and also ones space clean. This cleanliness isn't about pleasing others, although I am sure we can all admit that we prefer if those around us do keep good personal hygiene and pick up after themselves (so in a way it does keep others happy) but more importantly, the yogi understands that how they care for their body and mind can directly affect their outlook and experience of the world around them. Let's look at this a bit more.
Keeping the body clean.
The yogis have all sorts of cleansing techniques and practices that attempt to purify the body. These little practices are called shatkarmas and range from the ok, I could do that to the very very bizarre. No crevice is left untouched here from nasal washing, colon cleanses to swallowing a thin piece of cloth to clean the stomach and esophagus. Some of these techniques sound extreme, but some have been shown to be very useful. There are benefits to keeping the body clean for sure, like the humble brushing of ones teeth, the more regularly we brush the teeth, the less likely we are to have tooth decay. And we are all more than aware by now the importance of washing your hands all the way through the happy birthday song. Keeping up on our personal hygiene keeps us healthy, safe and keeps those around us happy too.
Exercise and yoga asana also help to purify the body by assisting the bodies natural detoxification process. Whether it's a deep twist helping to massage the intestines or the way in which inversions, and moving in general, help the flow of our lymphatic system, the physical movements we make can get things moving. The breath in itself is a cleansing technique that purifies the body. With every exhale we take, we are ridding the body of metabolic waste in the form of CO2. If we are not breathing well then this function isn't being performed optimally and this in turn can cause damage and slow the delivery of oxygen. As we know, the breath is always a matter of importance and concern as we practice, and the poses in them self lend to a deeper breathing experience.
The other way we can look at ways to keep the body 'clean', is to make sure the foods we are putting in it are also 'clean'. We all know how eating rubbish food and drinking too much alcohol can make us feel bad, sluggish, cause brain fog, fatigue and lead to a general dull and unpleasant feeling eventually, ( no matter how great it felt at the time of consumption). If you have ever done any kind of clean eating for some time, whether it was something like the whole food 30 or a juice fast, I'm sure you noticed how different we feel when we are not under the influence of bad food and drink. We feel clearer, lighter and have more energy, and what's also very useful is that we then have to spend less time and money on things that help us 'undo' the damage that's been done.
Keeping the mind clean.
It's not just the physical body that we can overload with junk. We can also binge on junk food for the mind. Perhaps we over do it on mind numbing Netflix series, perhaps we are drawn in by the fear inducing media, or the drama of our own imagination and mind stories. Everything that we consume mentally will eventually have an affect on how we feel or what we do so it's important we pay attention to what is going on in there. Pay attention to what you watch, read and listen to. What kind of emotional energy is it imprinting on your psyche? Of course, watching murder mystery won't make you a murderer, but does all this violence on TV make us less sensitive to it in real life? Does falling down a rabbit hole of conspiracy theory leave you feeling hopeful or terrified and stressed? And on the flip side, how do you feel after watching a comedy or a feel good film?
Purifying what we absorb through external media is one thing, but what we say and think to ourselves is also very important to be aware of. Saucha is very much about being mindful of the thoughts we allow in. We must learn how to catch the negative thoughts we have, and we generally have many of them a day, and then make sure we change the record.
According to the National Science Foundation, an average person has about 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts per day. Of those, 80% are negative and 95% are repetitive thoughts.
Does that mean we continuously repeat our negative thoughts then? Like a broken record that keeps going round and round to the same abrasive tune? CBT, or cognitive behavioural therapy is a brilliant resource in helping us to reframe our negative thoughts into something more constructive and useful. The science shows that we all have these negative biases, our brains are simply built to be more sensitive and hold onto more negative experiences than pleasurable ones, as a way to survive and learn. That doesn't mean we can't once and a while do a spring clean and see what outdated thoughts and beliefs we are still holding on to that we can let go of.
Keeping our space clean.
Some people thrive in mess and clutter, I personally don't understand this strange phenomenon and I think the majority would agree - a clean environment makes a more peaceful mind. Clutter and disorganisation can make some people feel anxious and nervous, while a clean space makes us feel more relaxed and more at ease. I find working from home rather challenging for this very reason, I can never seem to relax and focus if the house isn't tidy, and I am always finding something that can be wiped, organised and swept. Are you the same? In fen shui it is believed that clutter is low, stagnant energy that drains you. I feel that! There is a very famous author Marie Kondo who wrote a book on the art of decluttering and her motto and method is : "does it spark joy?" She asks the reader to tidy up their space and as you are debating what to keep and what to release, ask if this item still brings you joy? If it does, it's safe, if it doesn't it's in the bin. I also love the way she invites you to thank the item for all the joy it has brought to your life before you let it go. Sweet isn't it?
We can clean and tidy our space until we can eat off the floors, but if the energy in the room is stifling, that's a rather different matter to address. I am sure you know what I am talking about. When you just feel a heavy, uneasy energy in the room. Sure, you can call the priest or the local holy man, witchdoctor, or reiki master who can bring all of their holy books, crystals and sage and other tools of energy clearing, but sometimes, we just need to shift whatever, or whoever may be causing it. I am not insisting literally picking someone up and shifting them out of the room, but there are ways we can help them shift their energy. If we know them, we can talk to them, hold space for them. Sometimes, all they need is to be seen and heard, and then their energy will shift. If you don't know them, see if you can shift your energy towards them. Often times, we can react to someones energy in a negative way, even subconsciously with our body language, eye gaze or tone of voice which then only fuels the negative vibes. If that doesn't work, get out the sage and crystals and create a protective space for yourself, or move to another space.
With all of this talk of cleanliness and purity, we must be mindful of how literal we take it, and it has been taken very literal and extreme in some instances. I found it rather upsetting that woman who are menstruating were not allowed in certain temples as they are seen 'unclean and un-pure'. The word in itself 'pure' can conjure up association with strict dogma and religion, but let's not take that away from the simple message here. To be clean in body, mind and the space around us should create more opportunity for peace and easefulness and reduce unpleasant feelings, tension and anxiety. I think that's worth tidying up for.