Have you wondered there are some things we do daily which support the cultivation of yoga practices – like those that relax the mind into peaceful silence – while others do not?
In the practice of Rāja Yoga, Yama and Niyama, are considered as the philosophies of right behavior and lifestyle, the dos and don’ts – a part that I have come to rely on. These are the spiritual ethics – ‘right’ habits which can be cultivated, are an absolute prerequisite for a serious seeker. They will always remain a very important part of abhyāsa, disciplined practice because they transform a restless, addictive mind into a relaxed and joyful state. It may be good idea to pause here to write down those habits that steal your peace and others that envelop you with joy and contentment. Hope it gives you a starting point to assess and transform your yoga practice.
The first limb, Yama, comprising of the five restraints – ahimsā, satya, astéya, brahmacharya and aparigraha – has been detailed, and suggestions for daily practices have been put forth in previous posts. Each of these practices is the means and not the end in itself. These fixed disciplines are indispensable for progressing in yoga, especially for Dhyāna, meditation and to achieve Samādhi, oneness on the path of Rāja Yoga.
Now, we begin the study of the second limb, Niyama, नियम, referred to as Observances or Personal Discipline. Niyama is the act of perceiving and respecting the requirements of the laws of nature while recognizing our human imperfections and self-centeredness. Gurus emphasize that Niyama are behaviors that convey positive self-action and promote self-discipline. These practices help us cleanse and cultivate our physical, mental and emotional palates (Bell). They also help cultivate gratitude and sacredness towards daily activities and make us rely on the tools of Rāja Yoga to bring us closer to spiritual bliss. Shaucha, the first Niyama deals with purity or cleanliness, which is both external and internal.
There are two sūtras pertaining to śaucha which appear in the second chapter, Sādhana Pāda, of the Yoga Sūtras (2.40 and 2:41).
I thought it best to present commentaries of yogis who have shared their wisdom after years of practice. Their words have made these principles come alive, making it both a pleasure and bane to practice.
The first sūtra:
Śauchāth Svānga-jugupsā Parair Asam-sargaha // Y.S. 2:40
By Purification arises disgust/protection of one’s own body which results in cessation for contact with other bodies (literal).
Śaucha is the first Niyama, an essential personal discipline. It means cleanliness, purity, simplicity, clarity, continual refinement among others. By cultivating bodily and physical cleanliness, one develops in time a kind of indifference towards one’s own body first and, at the same time, a kind of non-attachment towards others.
A few translations of the first sūtra (2:40) on śaucha.
- Aversion to one’s own body and avoidance of contact with others comes from bodily purification (Stoler-Miller)
- As a result of purity, there arises indifference toward the body and disgust for physical contact with others (Svāmi Prabhavānanda)
In the sections that follow, the first paragraph under the heading of the author briefly introduces the writer, followed by their commentary on the topic at hand. Their books and others are listed below for further study.
B.K.S. Iyengār was the founder of the style of yoga known as “Iyengār Yoga”. He was considered one of the foremost in yoga and is one of the most revered yoga teachers in the world. He discovered the essential meaning embedded in the Yoga Sūtras through regular, dedicated practice of yoga, helping us all to experience the wisdom of the sūtras.
While Yamas are universal social practices, Niyama evolve from individual practices necessary to build up sādhaka’s own character, emphasizing the importance of self-discipline. Mastery of yoga would be unrealizable without the observance of the ethical principles of Yama and Niyama.
Cleanliness or purification is of two types, external and internal. Both are necessary. Taking a bath (body) is external purification. Purity and cleanliness protect the body and make it a fit home for the Seer, Puruša. Consequently, it no longer leans towards sensual pleasures and tends to refrain from contact with other bodies. Hence, a sādhaka, seeker, recognizes that the body is perishable but does regard it with disgust or distaste and keeps it clean and out of respect for the dweller, Puruša, within, respecting the body as a temple.
Performing āsana and prānāyāma are internal purification. As a temple or church is kept clean each day, the inner body, the temple of the soul, should be bathed with copious supply of blood through āsanas and prānāyāma. These practices cleanse the body physically, physiologically and intellectually.
Owing to desires, anger, greed, infatuation, arrogance and jealousy, the mind is engulfed in pain. Misled by these emotions the seeker, loses his balance of mind and behaves unethically. Re-examination of his thoughts reduces the tendency to go wrong. In order to follow these ethical principles one has first to decide whether one’s own pattern of behavior is aligned with them or not.
The body, having its own intelligence, develops it’s potential to change its behavioral patterns. It helps the seeker to detach himself from sensual desires, and guides him towards the holder of the body, the soul. Thus, Śaucha, makes the body a fit instrument for the pursuit of spiritual knowledge.
Marshall Govindan is the author of the best seller “Bābaji and the 18 Siddha Kriya Yoga Tradition” published in 1991. He is a Self-realized kriya yogi, travelling extensively to teach and initiate devotees into kriya yoga tradition.
By purification arises spontaneous detachment for one’s own body and no contact with other (bodies). In this context, jugupsā may also imply something more positive or balanced; that is detachment or wariness towards one’s own body and its contact with others. Knowing the difficulty of the path of Self-realization and being aware of the tendencies of the mind to indulge thoughts of lust, for example, the yogin seeks to minimize the risk of failure by avoiding contact with to others bodies.
The physical body is constantly processing waste materials, particularly through the skin. Most persons attempt to mask this using clothing, deodorants, perfumes, and cosmetics. Probably more than 90% of our waking hours is devoted to taking care of physical body directly or indirectly. Eventually the yogin’s disgust may mature into a new perspective. The yogin may see his body in a better way.
Govindan refers to a verse from a text called Tirumūlar (#725): “Time was when I despised the body; But then I saw the God within – And the Body, I realize, is the Lord’s temple; And so I began preserving it, With care infinite”.
If the tone of this sūtra appears too strict or demanding, it is because the risk of failure is very high on the path of yoga. Have you noticed how easy it is to skip daily practices of āsana or prānāyāma on such pretexts as visitors, vacation, late night tv binging or simply laziness? Of course, dire circumstances are exceptions. It is a given that humans devote most of their waking hours taking care of their body – mostly feeding, entertaining and sleeping.
Explaining this sūtra as disgust towards the body – one’s own or others’ doesn’t imply that one must stop taking care of it. In fact, cleansing the body of “impurities of the body and mind” in a disciplined and mature way is essential to progress in meditation. Note that Śaucha as a principle of purity is both external & internal – purity of body, speech & mind. The purification of the body makes one aware of its imperfections and the absurdity of our attachment to it. This cultivation of aversion to the body also gives the yogi a distaste for physical contact with others and increases an inward focus. (Stoler-Miller).
If you are wondering where Brahmacharya, continence, fits within this personal discipline, Svāmi Prabhavānanda puts it into perspective. “The physical body is the grossest and the most outward manifestation of our consciousness. With purification it is natural to lose the sense of identification with the body and growing indifferent to it, regarding it as a mere external garment which is neither new or clean. Furthermore he ceases to desire the bodies of others as he identifies with the consciousness, Ātman within them. If we really knew and loved the Ātman within others, the sexual act would seem utterly meaningless.”Furthermore, complete purity leads to Brahmacharya according to Paramahamsa Yogananda.
Remain aware of Inner Conversation:
The following questions (and more) that were set during my initial Rāja Yoga training continue to be my staff in the practice of śaucha.
- To observe self-destructive behaviors: Do I litter or clutter at home or at work, and not respect other people’s space? Do I know how to move from restless ‘I-centered’ thoughts to clear, selfless thoughts and actions?
- To monitor physical health: Am I mindful when I practice yoga-āsana or any form of exercise? Am I aware of my breath and effects of movement?
- To monitor physical nutrition: How diligently do I monitor the types of foods I feed my body? Am I critical of what others eat and their body weight?
- To watch my inner conversation: Am I able to be non-judgmental of peoples’ cooking or cleanliness of their kitchens, homes, etc.?
Keep in mind that this particular sūtra alludes to physical cleanliness and by extension clean surroundings and mental purity. Clean surroundings relates to keeping our immediate environment clutter free, without being obsessed of course. Physical cleanliness is achieved through āsana, prāṇāyāma, āhāra (nutrition) and rest. Recognize that the practice of āsana helps to remove impurities of gross and subtle body, meaning the physical body is toned and strengthened, while the energy body is cleansed and revitalized clearing the blockages for free flow of prāna. While you might think that purification practices may be ordinary, with disciplined refinement we become more sensitive to the subtleties, and begin to go deeper, setting the stage for inner purification to progress on the spiritual path.
The external concept of Śaucha suggests a clean body through clean surroundings (owned and public), daily ablutions along with fresh and clean food to purify the body. Of course one can argue that outward cleanliness is completely subjective, but common sense always prevails.
Many foreign students travel to India to find a true guru and experience āshram living, only to return with disapproval and criticism. It is not easy to go from westerns cities or suburban living to āshrams in India that promote yogic lifestyle to cultivate simplicity, reverence and gratitude. Here is where we can put the study of these ethics into practice. Instead, we make our judgements of āšram living or when we see pictures of yogis wandering the Himalayas mountains with matted hair and filthy garments, living under the protection of nature (not our concept weekend wilderness camping at a local state park). Keep in mind says Svāmi Venkatéśānanda that “these so called filthy yogis emanate a celestial fragrance that isn’t capable of an imitation yogi.” Then, we must understand śaucha by applying common sense to progress on the path of yoga without judgmental and limiting thoughts.
Anger, hate, prejudice, greed, pride, fear, envy, and other negative thoughts are internal pollutants to body and mind. Remaining aware of our inner conversation is critical to both inner and outer purification. Hence, internal Śaucha includes purity of speech, emotions and the thoughts, which will be dealt with in the next sūtra.
To be established in this ethic of śaucha means to look at the gross body as a temple that houses the Divine, and care for its health and use it for spiritual service. This type of attitude of śaucha awakens detachment towards gross material world and kindles a deep yearning for the Lord. (Christensen).
Such transformation of course, is a gradual process of altering addictive behaviors, fine-tuning daily routines, cleansing and building our environment to align with śaucha. Essentially, it is a lifelong commitment to a yogic lifestyle. Only with mastery of Śaucha, true progress within the internal limbs of Rāja Yoga becomes possible.