How to cultivate cleanliness the yogi way
The yogic concept of saucha refers to maintaining purity of the heart, body and mind. There are lots of traditional and more contemporary approaches to practising saucha, some of which you might already be doing in your yoga practice or in your day-to-day life.
In the ancient text The Yoga Sutras, the great sage Patanjali set out eight limbs of yoga. The second limb known as niyama describes five personal or spiritual observances that act as a guide for living soulfully.
Saucha, the first of the niyamas, refers to purity and cleanliness. Outer purity can take a very literal interpretation; for example, you can practise it by maintaining a physical level of hygiene, choosing to eat nourishing, wholesome foods or keeping a clean, clutter-free living environment. On a deeper level, you can also adopt saucha through various yoga practices that purify the body and the mind and connect your heart with your true purpose.
Regardless of the form saucha might take, according to Patanjali the purpose of this practice feeds into the union of the heart, body and mind: yoga’s overarching goal. In the words of Patanjali, “When the body is cleansed, the mind purified and the senses controlled, joyful awareness needed to realise the inner self also comes.”
Purity of practice
It’s pretty safe to say that keeping our bodies clean on the outside is relatively simple and something we should already have ingrained in our routine. However, maintaining cleanliness and purity of the inner body isn’t as easy.
Another sage, Swami Swatmarama, detailed a number of cleansing practices in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika in the 15th century. These six practices, known as the shatkarmas, cleanse, purify and remove toxins in the body and encourage the free flow of prana (life force). Some of the shatkarmas, detailed below, might seem somewhat out there, but keep an open mind. When practised under the guidance of your yoga teacher or an Ayurvedic practitioner, the effects of the various shatkarmas on the body and mind are something you will feel immediately. They are truly saucha in action!
Neti practices cleanse the nasal passage and are ideal for those with sinus issues. Jala neti uses a neti pot, which looks similar to a teapot, filled with warm saline water. The spout of the pot is placed into one nostril; water is poured through and then exits out of the other nostril. Jala neti is a good way to ease yourself into this shatkarma. When you’re up for the challenge, there’s also sutra neti, a nasal flossing technique, which uses a waxed cotton string inserted into the nose and pulled through the mouth. Both practices remove excess mucus, relieve congestion and aid with the functioning of the ear, nose and throat.
Dhauti focuses on cleansing the digestive tract and is one of the more intensive shatkarmas. Vaman dhauti, for instance, involves drinking a number of glasses of warm salt water on an empty stomach and then expelling the liquid, by making yourself vomit, as a way to clean the digestive tract. Although this might sound extreme, when you think about it, the actual act of vomiting isn’t a bad thing. Vomiting is a protective reflex that aims to eliminate substances that don’t agree with you before they are absorbed into the body. Vaman, along with other dhauti practices, removes excess bile, acid and gases and purifies the digestive and respiratory tracts, which otherwise are really never able to get a good clean. When practised under guided supervision, dhauti is not an uncomfortable experience and has an energising effect on the body.
Nauli is a form of abdominal massage or “churning”, which regulates the digestive system, massages the organs and strengthens the abdominal muscles — and you’ll certainly feel it in action! Nauli creates a suction effect and is practiced by standing upright, bending the knees and contracting the abdominals on your exhalation, as if you are pulling the naval inward and upward to the spine. This will hollow out the entire abdominal area. With practice, once you are in this position, you can try moving your abdominals in a circular motion to feel the massaging effect of nauli. This abdominal action plays a key role in supporting digestion and elimination and assists with the practice of other shatkarmas including dhauti and basti.
Basti is the yogic equivalent of an enema. This shatkarma cleans the lower abdomen, in particular the intestines and colon, by removing toxins and cooling the body. The two main forms are jala basti and vata basti, both of which use water and air respectively to cleanse the intestines and colon. Through these processes, basti detoxifies the body and assists with digestion and constipation.
Kapalabhati translates to frontal lobe purification and is a type of breathing exercise that awakens and stimulates the brain and clears the sinuses. Kapalbhati involves a series of rapid, forceful exhalations and passive inhalations. To practice, imagine you have a piece of string attached to the back of your naval that is being tugged every second. Take a breath in and, as you activate the abdomen, forcefully exhale as if you are blowing your nose. A natural inhalation follows and this is repeated continually for roughly one minute.
Trataka, also known as “blinkless gazing”, is beneficial for headache sufferers and those staring at a computer all day. Trataka improves concentration and memory and it’s not hard to see why. The practice involves sitting in a darkened room with a burning candle. The eyes are kept opened and fixed on the candle flame for as long as possible, without blinking, until the eyes start to water. This serves to clean and cool the eyes and improve their function. Most recommend to practise “blinkless glazing” for five to 10 minutes, so your eyes will really be watering at this point. After this period, slowly close the eyes, clear the thoughts and visualise the impression of the candle in your mind.
The shaktkarmas are almost guaranteed ways to feel the immediate benefits of saucha in the body and mind, but they are understandably not for everyone. Thankfully, as there are so many layers to saucha, there are plenty of other ways to practise purity on the yoga mat and at home.
Asana practice as a whole offers an ideal and easy way to actively practise saucha in your daily life. Three posture varieties are particularly helpful.
Twists are detoxifying and invigorating and massage and tone the entire body. The twisting action gives the organs and glands a gentle massage and allows for replenished, freshly oxygenated blood to re-enter and circulate throughout the body.
For a gentle twist and great internal cleanse, try a seated spinal twist. Sit cross-legged. Bring the right hand behind the hip and place the left hand on the right knee. Twist and look over the shoulder.
For a deeper twist, try marichyasana, another seated twist. Sit with both legs extended in front of you. Bend the right knee and extend the right arm forward. Rotate the right arm, bend the elbow and wrap it around the outside of your right leg. Bring the left hand around your back and clasp both hands together. Twist and look over the left shoulder.
Inverted postures turn the body upside down and reverse the normal flow of blood and lymph, stimulating the organs and glandular system. Inversions are great cleansers and increase blood flow to the head, allowing the brain to be flushed with rich, nourishing blood. After you practise inversions and return to an upright position, your normal circulatory patterns are replenished, revitalised and restored with new vitality.
For a gentle inversion, try viparita karani, which has your legs against a wall. Lie on your back with your legs straight up against a wall and arms bent at your side with the elbows in line with the shoulders. For a challenge and more dynamic effect, try a shoulder stand or headstand.
3. Mindful practices
For a well-rounded saucha-focused routine, don’t forget to do pranayama (breathing exercises) before your asana practice and meditation or relaxation after. Pranayama plays a vital role in cleansing the lungs and oxygenating the blood, while meditation clears the mind.
Saucha at your fingertips
Meditation gives us a space where we can withdraw our senses from the external world, look within and actively practise saucha in our hearts and minds. As we meditate, we focus on the breath and concentrate deeply. As we do this, it’s natural for the mind to jump from thought to thought, but each moment that we are present is a moment of purity. Meditation allows the perfect space to actively practise clearing and calming the mind. Focus on the breath and send loving-kindness to yourself and others with the aim of connecting with your true nature and your pure heart.
To assist concentration and keep the flow of pure energy in the body, use the lotus mudra. Bring the base of the palms together, touching the thumbs and little fingers of each hand to one another and spread the rest of the fingers out. The lotus itself is a symbol of purity and rebirth and this mudra opens and connects with the heart and our inner nature.
You are what you eat
Consuming foods full of preservatives, additives, pesticides and other nasties takes a toll on the body. Your body also has to work overtime to detoxify and digest these foods before it’s even able to absorb the nutritional benefits. But, when you choose wholesome, nourishing foods, your body will feel healthier and cleaner, inside and out. Making a conscious, healthy choice when it comes to food helps foster awareness of what you eat and its effects on the body.
A sattvic diet is based on Ayurvedic principles and has saucha at its centre. It involves eating foods that keep the body and mind balanced. Sattvic foods have a pure and light quality, are full of prana and are natural, organically grown and as unrefined as possible. A sattvic diet involves lots of fresh fruit, vegetables, herbs, nuts and legumes and also emphasises “eating seasonally” the Ayurvedic way; for example, avoiding hot foods in summer and cold and dry foods in winter. This helps keep the body in natural rhythm with its surroundings.
A sattvic diet is based on Ayurvedic principles and has saucha at its centre. It involves eating foods that keep the body and mind balanced.
A sattvic diet certainly isn’t the only option. There are so many dietary choices you can make, which, in one form or another, take a saucha-orientated approach and are appropriate if you’re vegetarian or vegan, paleo, a raw foodie, doing a juice cleanse or fasting intermittently.
Practising Saucha doesn’t mean you have to start adopting one of these diets, however. Everyone’s dietary habits and needs are different. On top of this, implementing a completely saucha-focused diet is, for most of us, simply not possible all the time. Depending on what level you choose to adopt saucha, there are lots of ways you can have a more pure diet. Here are a few takeaways:
- Eats lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, which are delicious, nutritious and natural.
- Go organic when you can. Avoiding pesticides and other chemicals in our produce is important, for both your health and that of the planet. But it should also be recognised that, despite our best intentions, going completely organic isn’t possible for many due to cost or accessibility. Keep in mind that some of the worst offenders — foods that have been proven to absorb and retain synthetic chemicals — include apples, strawberries, spinach, celery and blueberries, so try to choose organically grown when you can.
- Ethical choices. If you’re a meat eater, opt for organic or RSPCA-approved meats.
- Herbs and spices. Jazz up any meal with lots of herbs and spices. Turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, cayenne pepper, rosemary and parsley, to name a few, have a range of effects including improved digestion, detoxification, anti–inflammatory properties and more, which can help keep the bodily systems purified.
- Herbal tea, which is caffeine free and delicious! Peppermint tea is great for digestion and chamomile for calm and relaxation.
- Mindful eating. Put down your phone and turn off the television. Be present and enjoy every nourishing mouthful.
Clean home, clean mind
A cluttered home can reflect a cluttered mind. Doing a thorough spring clean and decluttering your living space not only brings saucha into the home but also has a range of other beneficial effects.
It’s amazing how many things you can accumulate over a short period of time, whether those be clothes, shoes, books or any items you’ve held onto in the event you might need them one day. More and more, you can start to become defined by these attachments and the urge to accumulate more becomes stronger. When reorganising, clearing and decluttering, you can integrate the fourth yama of yogic philosophy, aparigraha or non-possessiveness, by deciding to part with items that you no longer need or rethinking your attachment to these physical objects.
Too much clutter can be a stressor and it can be hard to know where to start but, when we declutter, clean and clear, we make space for new energy. It’s almost therapeutic. Ask yourself, how does this object make me feel? What purpose does it really serve? What would my life be like without it? Clearing out the baggage and the chaos in your physical space and letting go of your attachments allows for more freedom, clarity and peace, not only in your living environment but in your mind, too.
Writer, designer and minimalist Graham Hill offers three handy tips to help you declutter and create more freedom, time and happiness at home:
- Edit ruthlessly. Cull those shoes you bought a year ago and still haven’t worn. When it comes to purchasing new items, ask yourself, will the object in question really make me happy? What purpose will it serve?
- Think small. How can you downsize? How can you more effectively organise your surroundings, save space and create a more peaceful, open home environment with less?
- Make it multifunctional. Be practical! Rethink your space and ways you can make it multifunctional while saving room.
Saucha at home
Do away with chemical nasties and embrace a natural approach that will keep your home pure and energy flowing with these simple solutions:
- Keep your home free of toxins by using natural cleaning solutions where you can. A natural mix of bicarb soda and white vinegar works wonders on most surfaces.
- Use essential oils or sprigs of fresh or dried lavender for a natural air freshener.
- Add a few drops of tea tree oil to a tablespoon of vinegar for a natural yoga mat cleaner.
- Whistle while you work and meditate while you clean! Turn cleaning into a mindful practice and use it as a chance to concentrate and declutter the mind.
Having said all this, it’s important to come back to Patanjali’s writings on saucha. While we might strive to maintain purity in our bodies, minds, hearts and surroundings, no one is perfect. The aim of saucha isn’t to turn us into neat freaks or germophobes. Instead, it’s about cultivating awareness of the purity within. Keeping your physical body clean, your heart pure and mind clear are practices of respect for the consciousness within — saucha is about honouring yourself from the inside out. If you slip up every now and then along this path, you shouldn’t beat yourself up. Imperfection is human nature.
According to Patanjali, the real focus of all this cleansing and purity should serve as a reminder that our bodies, mind and lives can never be perfectly pure. It’s a humbling experience, a discipline which serves to make us aware of our impermanence, our imperfection and ultimately accept who we are, as we are, with a pure, content, loving heart. Once we realise this, this is where real happiness and wholeness comes.
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