Sutra 2.40: saucat sva nga jugupsa parair asamsargah
By purification, the body’s protective impulses are awakened, as well as a disinclination for detrimental contact with others. Translation and interpretation by Rev. Jaganath Carrera
The five yamas, ahimsa, satya, asteya, brahmacharya, aparigraha, are in many ways simply nuances of the first one, ahimsa. The five niyamas are similarly nuances of svadhyaya, or self-study (which we’ll get to in detail in a few weeks), and the list starts off with saucha (pronounced shaow-cha).
Saucha is usually translated as cleanliness or purity of body (including the mind). Talking about how to incorporate saucha into one’s life challenges me – I find it too easy to sound patronizing, like there’s some giant finger in the sky wagging at all of us for not being pure enough.
Happily, it’s not that simple a story. This isn’t some arbitrary purity that lays out man-made rights and wrongs. Instead, like Carrera’s translation above suggests, it is a process of choosing the practices, and building the habits, that allow you to recognize nourishing from draining, satisfying from destructive. You might think this shouldn’t require a special practice to learn –and it wouldn’t if you never encountered any toxins in your environment, but how many of us can say that?
The simplest things, and some of our most common daily pleasures (sugar, alcohol, cigarettes jump to mind) are technically “toxic” to our systems by shifting the internal environment of our body such that it has to work overtime just to maintain homeostasis –leaving little energy left for much else, much less distinguishing further toxins from their healing counterparts. Once we’ve grown accustomed to the regular consumption of these mild toxins, we no longer notice their effects as detrimental, and can no longer readily sense the stress inside our systems. It just feels normal. And what’s unclean about normal?
Now, that’s a fairly heavy-handed example, and I don’t mean to scare you into giving up stuff you don’t need to let go of. The idea is not to rob ourselves of the pleasures that ultimately connect us with other people, but rather to avoid becoming trapped by them, numbed by their effects. I started there because I’m pretty sure sugar, alcohol, and nicotine have the same universally toxic effects on people (even if sometimes those toxic effects are employed to benefit one’s overall health). But I could have just as easily started with bread or almost any other food, because these days it seems like every food is a poison to somebody! Gluten, lactose, you name it, people avoid it. I’ll spare you my rant on that score, save to say that keeping one’s body “pure” is just as individual as your asana practice. If gluten causes you discomfort and trouble, it’s a toxin to you. If it doesn’t, it’s not. Once you can identify discomfort (no simple task), you can begin to trace backward from discomfort to source and remove it to begin to “purify” the body, so that it has an easier time recognizing future discomfort and stress.
Of course, you take in more than just food from your environment — smells, sounds, sights, and textures are all equally powerful in their effect on your nervous system and by extension, the well-being of your internal environment. There’s a reason I breathe easier in Vermont than in New York City. There’s a reason I painted my office walls orange instead of leaving them white. There’s a reason I don’t step outside without headphones firmly lodged in my ears, some music or radio show blissfully distracting me from the city’s din.
It’s the same reason someone else could simply reverse the above statements and end up at the same conclusion –what specifically causes you discomfort or ease can be completely individual. Yes, we know from experience and science that there are many conditions that have largely predictable physiological effects, but those are still just averages (we are all outliers with regard to something). I think we can be brave in our search for the foods, behaviors, and environments that enable each of us to create that purified internal environment that clears the fog of physiological stress.
Courageously listen to your body as you test your way to clean insides. Follow and ignore guides as it makes sense to you in the moment. Revisit old ideas (your sensitivity will change!). Come up with new ones. Never be afraid to “misstep” in your journey, as it is just another step, like any other.
Hari om, om tat sat!
Experience your true self and bring it into every moment of your living!
The Yoga Sutras are a classical text on yoga–a guidebook of sorts.
Each week, 216 teacher Esther Palmer dives into one of the sutras and we let it take us where it takes us.