The First Niyama: Saucha
In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali delineated the eight limbs of yoga. These precepts are intended as guidelines to living a life with meaning and purpose. They may be seen as a kind of map for seekers of greater happiness and spiritual fulfillment.
The first limb consists of the yamas: ethical practices or actions that we do. The niyamas are the second limb: experiences or states wherein the actions we have performed then create situations in our lives that we can observe and contemplate. In other words, they are personal observances.
The yamas and niyamas are just the first two limbs on the eight-limbed path of yoga. Imagine these eight limbs as a ladder. Just as one can’t step safely onto the second rung of a ladder without stepping on the first, one must first practice the actions of the yamas to properly observe the niyamas. So by practicing the yamas: ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (continence) and aparigraha (non-attachment), we’ve created the conditions for the first niyama, saucha, to come to fruition.
Saucha translates as purity. This is often reduced to cleanliness or a lack of excess. It’s important to keep the outside of the body clean by washing frequently; to keep the inside of the body pure by eating and drinking moderately and choosing food and drink that is clean, healthy and fortifying; and to maintain order in our living and working spaces.
But in its truest sense as a niyama, or observance, saucha refers to a pure situation engendered by our actions, a situation wherein unwanted things don’t appear and the conditions for goodness and happiness do. This situation of purity created by our actions we can then notice and experience.
This idea of purity might be off-putting because it sounds pretty judgmental. When interpreted rigidly, it can be tempting to place everything into one of two categories: pure or impure. I should eat this food, but not that. I can hang out with him, but not her. I’m allowed to think these kinds of thoughts, but not those. But are things ever so black and white?
A less rigid interpretation invites us to look at the consequence of working towards purity: if we avoid impurity in thought, word and deed, then we create the least amount of suffering for ourselves and for others.
When we interpret saucha in this way it’s a reminder to examine the intention behind what we think, say or do. We can ask ourselves: will this create more or less suffering for me and those who are affected by my actions, words or deeds?
This interpretation of saucha encourages us to act out of compassion rather than judgment to generate positive and affirming conditions. We then create a pure situation in which we can practice yoga well.
Christine Malossi, RYT is based in New York City, where she offers a mindful, alignment-focused Vinyasa practice that cultivates balance, awareness and equanimity. In addition to teaching private clients and group classes at studios throughout Manhattan, she also teaches at the Spencer Cox Center for Health at Mount Sinai Hospital’s Institute for Advanced Medicine where she designs a practice specifically tailored to patients diagnosed with HIV and other chronic illnesses. Christine is honored to be teaching yoga and to have the opportunity to pass on to others the joy and freedom that she has found in her own practice. Find her at www.christinemalossi.com.