The first niyama Patanjali gives, which could be viewed as foundational the other niyamas, is saucha which means purity or cleanliness. Where the first limb of Patanjali’s eight limb system, yama, directs the sadhaka in universal moral principles to interact harmoniously with the external world, niyama relates to the ethics of how we relate to ourselves. In Core of the Yoga Sutras Guruji translates sutra II.32 as:
“Practice with a searching mind is meant to purify the body and the mind, bringing satisfaction and contentment. After acquiring purity, one must proceed towards dedicated and devoted practice and study (tapas and svadhyaya). This guides practitioners to the higher and nobler aspects of life so that they resign to God.”
So, even within the niyamas there is a sequential logic that leads from the periphery to the core. If the basis of contentment (santosha) burning zeal, focus, and self discipline (tapas), self study (savadhyaya), and absorbtion/ surrender to the divine (Isvara pranidhana) rely on purity, what is it we need to purify in order to practice the niyamas and upper limbs? In a culture highly focussed on the material, and what can be commodified for capital gain, it’s easy to interpret saucha as direction for physical cleanliness. BKS Iyengar and Geeta both write about the importance of a clean space for asana practice, free of insects and mess, bathing, and about a healthy, moderate intake of nutritious foods. But the greater import is given to cleansing and purifying the subtler koshas, or layers of our being. Geeta writes:
“This… exchange between the body and mind corrects the process of breathing and opens the channel for prana to move freely within. The prana floats and swims in the body, reaching nooks and corners of the body along with the mainstream or main path where it finds extension, expansion, breadth and width. This leads the inner body to bathe in prana. The body is vitalized the pranika energy. It is an internal bath.”
And in Light on Yoga, Guruji shares,
“While good habits like bathing purify the body externally, asana and pranayama
cleanse it internally. The practice of asanas tones the entire body and removes toxins and impurities caused by overindulgence. Pranayama cleanses and aerates the lungs, oxygenates the blood and purifies the nerves. But more important than the physical cleansing of the body is the cleansing of the mind and it’s disturbing emotions like hatred, passion, anger, lust, greed, delusion, and pride. Still more important is the cleansing of the intellect (buddhi) of impure thoughts. The impurities of the mind are washed in the waters of Bhakti (adoration).The impurities of the intellect or reason are burned off in the fire of svadhyaya. This internal cleansing brings radiance and joy.”
This internal cleansing of the mind and intellect is of great interest to me, because within these subtler layers is where the disturbing emotions listed above are at play, haunting us by affecting our relationships and how we interact with and create in the external world. We move through a world out of balance, which inevitably tints our awareness and experiences with detrimental unconsciouss inherited beliefs.
As a white person, for instance, even if I personally don’t deliberately act racist, I still am part of -and benefit from- the tragic greater systemic racism and settler colonialism that the US is built on. This affects me and others in countless ways that I am only beginning to comprehend, causing intergenerational trauma, struggle, vast inequity, and internal fragmentation. Similarly, simply being raised female in a patriarchal culture has ensured my mind is full of beliefs such as my worth being connected to male-gaze defined sex appeal, self criticism based on a plethora bodily flaws invented by product marketing, doubt about my ability and authority, shame around sexuality and self expression, and fears about sexual, domestic, and other gender-based forms of violence. Just as a fish can’t separate itself from the water in which it lives, we cannot neatly separate ourselves from the systems of imbalance we live in.
Albert Einstein illustrated one reason purification of the mind and intellect is essential when he said, “a problem can never be solved by the same level of consciousness that created it.” Although it’s not my fault I’ve inherited internalized sexism and racism, I am accountable to understand, disarm, and change these patterns, and work to avoid passing them on to my children, which is exactly what could happen if such patterns aren’t confronted. I am accountable to purify my own mind, since ultimately no one else but me has access to that work. Working to change external systems, and working to purify our minds are both key to meaningful change. For even as we are all working to survive in society, we all are actively co-creating what comes next. While the inherited systems of oppression and inequity are the problem, our individual (and collective) awakening and accountability are important pieces for healing and transformation. This awakening is also an aspect of resilience. Guruji wrote in Light on Life:
“If we have cleanliness and serenity inside, we can harmonize with the immediate environment. We’re in balance and clean, so changes, disturbances, and events in our daily life do not throw us off balance. We can adapt to them. We’re sensitive to them, we’re flexible, we survive without trauma.”
A focus on ourselves as individuals can, however, be problematic. When I first began studying Patanjali’s eight limbs about 15 years ago, I misunderstood saucha to be about physical cleanliness, such as tidying up and drinking green juice. I thought, I bathe, I eat kale, saucha, check. Particularly when we are focussed on ourselves as individuals, we have a tendency to get caught up in trying to feel and be seen as “good” rather than actually questioning, going to the root cause of avidya (ignorance) and evolving. Tema Okun lists individualism as one of the main characteristics prevalent in white supremacy culture. She describes how individualism compromises peer accountability, fosters competition, leads to isolation, and creates a sense that people must solve problems within an organization on their own. Ultimately, pathological individualism is the manifestation of the illusion of separation.
In Guruji’s comentary of sutra 11.33, he writes about a two part method for addressing the principles that run contrary to practicing yama and niyama. One way to address obstacles is called pratipaksabhavana, which means think and do the opposite of the negative behavior. But also important is paksabhava, “…instead of trying the cultivate the opposite condition, one should go deep into the cause.” Recognizing that saucha isn’t about identity, ego, and “being good,” but rather about a deeper potential of purification that addresses the root causes of ignorance makes way for the subtler, sublime goals of yoga to become possible.
I’ll close by sharing one last beautiful section Guruji wrote in Light on Life:
“It is by facing up to adversity and suffering, and accepting it as a necessary means, that our anxieties are resolved and disappear. If we are loyal to the path we are on, our lives will get better, and the light of distant perfection will come to illuminate our journeys.”