Saucha: the Concept of Purity in Yoga
Saucha, or Purity, is one of the cornerstones of the classical understanding of Yoga, an important internal rule that immensely helps us in our development. However, it can take some effort and a little bit of investigation to understand what this concept really implies, beyond superficial interpretations. Join me into a journey of exploration of this fascinating idea, and let’s try to discover what is the real meaning of purity in our lives and in our daily practice.
What is Saucha ?
From a traditional point of view, Saucha is the first of the Niyamas, or the “personal observances” which are the second step in Patañjali‘s classical definition of the eight limbs of Yoga. The Niyamas are mainly concerned with the relationship between the Yoga practitioner and his or her own organism and energies. They can be considered as intimate rules of conduct towards ourselves, an internal system of rules that can help us evolve and develop. Saucha, in particular, is usually translated as “Purity” or “Cleanliness”; as with many other concepts of traditional Yoga philosophy, however, the English translation does not manage to convey the whole range of deep implications that the original Sanskrit has.
Purity of the body is just the first step
On a first, immediate level, we could associate Saucha with the cleanliness or purity of the body. As is widely known, the science of Yoga contains a whole system of Kriya-s (purification techniques), from the simple practices of mouth cleaning to the more “acrobatic” techniques for the purification of the internal organs. In Tantra Yoga, the body is seen as a precious gift, a high manifestation of the multiform energy of Shakti, and thus it deserves to be treated well and used with consciousness. But as an holistic science, Tantra Yoga does not limit itself to the study of the body: the mind, the emotions, and the spirit are all equally important to the practitioner. For this reason, Saucha also refers to the purity of mind and of intention, and ultimately to the spiritual purity.
For most of us, physical cleanliness is relatively easy to define, and we generally have an intuitive feeling of how “pure” we are on the physical level. When we move to a mental or emotional level, it is much more difficult to define purity and cleanliness without falling into strict moralism; in extreme cases, these two concepts might even be used to justify very questionable behaviors. There are many grim examples in which people who were “different”, by ethnicity, social status, sexual orientation or other factors, have been despised and mistreated on the grounds of being physically or morally impure. On the other hand, the obsession with cleanliness or purity when directed towards oneself can give rise to unhealthy perfectionism, rigid self-control, or fears to be contaminated by the external world. While Yoga has obviously nothing to do with this kind of attitude, I believe it is important to analyze the concept of Saucha more deeply, in order to avoid falling into the trap of judgement and criticism towards ourselves or others.
The purity of dish-washing
Perhaps the best way to shed some light on what purity really means, is to start from a very mundane example. Let’s imagine ourselves doing the dishes: we are obviously “cleaning” and in some cases even purifying these important tools that allow us to eat every day. But if we take a closer look, what is it we are really doing when we remove the rests of food from our soon-to-be immaculate plates and glasses ? The function of soap, water and our movements, is simply to separate different substances according to a purpose that we have in mind, more or less consciously. There is nothing inherently “bad” in the food residues that stick to our plates, even if they are old and rotten. In fact, those same residues are very useful when they are placed somewhere else, such as in a compost bin. But those bits of food and stains of fat come in the way of our intention of using our clean dishes the next day; eventually, if we do nothing about it, they might rot and hamper the functioning of our precious physical tool, the body. It becomes clear, then, that cleaning actually means separating things from one another, and putting them in different places in order to accomplish an objective of ours (eating good food and being healthy, for example). From this perspective, cleaning and tidying up are, in essence, the same activity.
I believe that this definition of purity works well even when we move from the physical plane to the energetic, emotional and mental ones. For example, “purity of intention” means that the person in question is doing whatever she does, for one reason only – without any hidden agenda. Similarly, “pure love” is that kind of love which is not mixed with greed, jealousy, or any other negative feeling – just as a pure metal is defined by the absence of any other elements in its composition. When we practice meditation, one of the most powerful tools for the purification and cleansing of the mind, we learn to separate the amorphous stream of consciousness that everybody experiences into individual thoughts. At later stages, we may learn to isolate one particular thought by disposing of all the others, just the way we clean a crystal glass by removing anything attached or contained in it. Again, the practice of purification consists in separating different emotions, or thoughts, according to a purpose – for example, being able to focus or mind at will.
Saucha can be defined in terms of energy
For all these reasons, I like to define Purity as the process of keeping different energies separated in order to attain evolution. From this standpoint, nothing is “dirty” or “clean” by itself – we decide what energies we need in each situation. Thus, the practice of Saucha demands that we know very well what is our objective in this particular moment of life. Only with this understanding, can we proceed to clean our physical, emotional or mental space in an effective way – since things, feelings and thoughts are pure or impure only relatively to our intention. In the context of Tantra Yoga, the higher objective that a human being can pursue is spiritual evolution – of himself and of all sentient beings, according to each one’s own possibilities. Thus, as we approach Saucha from the standpoint of Yoga, we must first make sure that we are aligned with the purpose of promoting connection, harmony and peace within ourselves and among all those who we interact with. Once the intention is clear, then purity consists in the daily practice of consciously selecting those objects, feelings, thoughts and energies that can help us in our path, while gracefully disposing of the others.