The Yamas and Niyamas are Yoga’s ethical precepts as outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. The Yamas are practices that govern our outward behavior and the Niyamas are internal observances. Saucha is the first niyama. Saucha is usually translated as “purity” or “cleanliness”. It refers not only to purity and cleanliness of our physical body, but of our minds as well.
The Bhagavad Gita is part of a larger text called the Mahabharata. The “Gita”, as it is so often called, is the most read sacred text in the world! It conveys an ongoing conversation between the hero Arjuna and the Divine Krishna.
The Bhagavad Gita has this to say about practicing saucha in book 17 verses 14-16. “Worship of the deities, the twice born, teachers, and the learned, purity, straightforwardness, chastity, and non-violence, these are called penance of the body. Those words that do not perturb others, that are true, pleasant, and beneficial, and also the practice of recitation of scriptures, that is called the penance of speech. Mental cheerfulness, kindness, silence, self-control, purity of intent, this is called penance of the mind.”
Purity of the body
According to the Gita, honoring our teachers is the first step towards physical purification. Honoring our teachers is an act of humility and devotion. When we honor our teachers, we approach our practice with what Zen Buddhism calls “Beginner’s Mind”. Beginner’s mind is actually a very wise place to be! We don’t have to be afraid that we don’t know everything because we lead with the awareness that we have much to learn. This humility is the gateway to true wisdom.
Cleanliness is the next aspect of physical purification. This refers not only to the physical body, but the space we inhabit and practice in as well. Let’s face it… clutter is distracting! Being comfortable in our bodies and our space helps us to focus on our practice. We cleanse our bodies inside and out through bathing, eating as healthfully as possible, and our asana and pranayama practice. We also tend to the space where we do our practice, keeping it neat and tidy. This honors our practice and the intention to which our practice is devoted.
Straightforwardness means keeping things simple, or at the very least, not unnecessarily complicated. So often we get so caught up in the details of a situation we forget our original intent. When we are straightforward, we say what needs to be said, do what needs to be done, and leave it at that. No need to over-think, over-explain, or inadvertently create chaos in an attempt to address problems that don’t actually exist.
Chastity in this context means moderation. When it comes to bodily purity, extremes of any kind do more harm than good. If we are extreme with our asana practice, we may injure ourselves. Dietary extremes can cause poor health. Even extremes within our overall spiritual practice can lead us to be less loving and more dogmatic. Moderation means we approach our practice with a sense of flexibility and good humor. We take our practice seriously… not our ego.
The Gita tells us that physical purity and ahimsa, non-harming, go hand-in-hand. This creates an awareness around how we are using our energy. If we are using our energy to harm others, we are indeed harming ourselves in the process. As yogis, we are vigilant to our thoughts, words, and actions and use them to uplift and inspire those around us.
Purity of speech
Whether spoken or written, words have power. The Gita informs us that our words should not “perturb” others. This may seem to leave us with quite a dilemma. After all, challenging conversations are an important part of being human. How are we to have difficult conversations if we are to avoid bothering people?
We can speak firmly and with conviction without perturbing others. Speaking with love does not mean that we only say things that make other people feel good. Sometimes speaking with love means other people will feel uncomfortable. Speaking with love means taking full responsibility for what we say. Nothing more. Nothing less. How other people respond, or react, to us is up to them.
This verse encourages us to slow down in our communication. It is critical that we examine our speech and avoid intentionally and unintentionally weaponizing our words. With so many ways to use technology to communicate more quickly, it is all too easy to say the wrong thing, send an inappropriate text, or write something in an email we might later regret. Purity of speech calls us to think twice about what we say, text, or Tweet before actually doing it.
Purity of speech is not just about the things we say out loud. It involves our mental speech patterns as well. What we think forms our words. If our thinking is scattered, fearful, or even violent, our verbal and written speech will reflect that. Therefore, the Gita suggests mentally reciting scriptures, a mantra, or anything that elevates our minds. When our internal dialogue is clean and pure, that tendency will more likely extend in our communication with others.
Purity of mind
Yoga is the state where the fluctuations, or agitations, of the mind become still. When this happens, we are better able to see the Truth on the other side of our thoughts and the mental world we’ve created. This opens us to experience more joy, peace, and freedom. The Gita encourages us to work with our thoughts by remaining cheerful and kind. This does not mean we close our eyes to the very real pain and suffering in the world, nor does it mean we are happy all of the time. When we are kind and cultivate a cheerful attitude, we become an uplifting presence, capable of wise discernment and making good decisions without judgement and expectations.
Silence is a practice in and of itself. It can be uncomfortable to sit in silence. It may even feel lonely. We may find ourselves longing for something to distract us. Sitting in silence affords us the opportunity to get to know ourselves better. We may be confronted with thoughts that disturb us. However, we also develop the ability to be with those thoughts. Self-control allows us to be uncomfortable without becoming triggered or reactive. Silence as a practice coupled with self-control build strength and fortitude.
Purity of intent is a culmination of the previous four ways we purify our minds. This involves self-knowledge. As we purify our bodies, speech, and minds, we come to know ourselves very well. When we know ourselves, we have greater choice in how we live. Rather than unconsciously lose ourselves in the darkness, we are able to consciously choose to lean towards the light. Practicing saucha is not about becoming perfect. It is realizing we are innately perfect and removing all that which distorts the Truth of who we are.