The Five Niyamas (Part 1 – Shaucha)

3 February 2013

This article begins a five part series based on this post: The Eight Limbs of Yoga (Part 2 – Niyama)

The Five Niyamas (Part 1 – Shaucha)

Shaucha (purity)

The first of the five Niyamas is Shaucha – a Sanskrit term meaning purity. The word Shaucha is derived from the Sanskrit root word ‘shuch’ which means to cleanse or purify.

Shaucha is an important observance for students and practitioners of Patanjali’s “classical” Yoga (Raja Yoga). Along with the other four Niyamas (observances or practices) it establishes the student or yogi’s self-training, dealing with their personal, inner world. Patanjali says of Shaucha: ”Through cleanliness and purity of body and mind (shaucha), one develops an attitude of distancing, or disinterest towards one’s own body, and becomes disinclined towards contacting the bodies of others.” (Yoga sutra 2.40 – sauchat sva-anga jugupsa paraih asamsargah). He goes on to say: ”Also through cleanliness and purity of body and mind (shaucha) comes a purification of the subtle mental essence (sattva), a pleasantness, goodness and gladness of feeling, a one-pointedness with intentness, the conquest or mastery over the senses, and a fitness, qualification, or capability for self-realization.” (Yoga sutra 2.41 – sattva shuddhi saumanasya ekagra indriya-jaya atma darshana yogyatvani cha)

In addition to the benefits cleanliness and purity of body and mind described in the Yoga Sutra (2.40), there are other benefits:

  • Purification of the subtle mental essence (sattva)
  • Goodness, pleasantness, gladness, high-mindedness, cheerfulness
  • One pointedness
  • Mastery over the senses
  • Fitness, qualification, and the capacity or capability for Self-realization

The student or Yogi would do well to realize that there is a big difference between something that is clean and something that is pure. Of course, cleanliness is a big part of Shaucha, but to think in terms of only of cleansing the body as part of Shaucha is to be considered ignorant; according to the Darshanopanishad; since the Self is pure, the knowledge “I am the Self” is said to be the true Shaucha, which is represented by purity itself.

There are many other sources that differentiate between an internal and external Shaucha. According to the Shandilyopanishad, cleansing the body with earth (soap) and water is external Shaucha, whereas purification of the mind is said to be internal Shaucha, which can only be achieved by training the mind. TheVashishtaSamhita also states something similar; that mental purity is to be attained through spiritual knowledge which results in right action.

Purifying the mind involves increasing discipline and control over our incessant mental activity and perhaps the most important goal of Sauca. During the normal course of a day, most of us experience a constant, random inner dialogue, a disturbance or chattering of the mind. Whenever we find our senses being pulled in one direction or another, we have opportunity to observe how the mind follows, as well as our attention and energy. Devotion, self-study, concentration and meditation are all recommended as methods to bring this constant “chattering” under control.

On the physical level, Asana (postures) and Pranayama (breath work) are effective means to cleanse our physical bodies. In “Light on Yoga” BKS Iyengar says: “The practice of asanas tones the entire body and removes the toxins and impurities caused by over-indulgence. Pranayama cleanses and aerates the lungs, oxygenates the blood and purifies the nerves.”

Since ancient times Shaucha has also been viewed as an opportunity to consider the importance of diet and nutrition, our eating habits, and the effect food has on our bodies. According to Yoga philosophy, food is meant primarily, to nourish and sustain the body, promoting continuous spiritual development.

In conclusion: Shaucha (purity) is not only important when it comes to our physical bodies, but to our environment, especially where we live and practice yoga. It is also of significant importance when it comes to the foods we eat, the words we choose when speaking, and the cultivation of mental discipline. At its very foundation however, Sauca emphasizes the removal of obstructions to the inherent purity of our hearts. When this is attained, the inner mental dialogue is naturally quieted; because one’s whole being is unified, along with confidence and conviction. When unhesitatingly entering into a pure act, simultaneously the student has access to the source of both energy and respite. Ordinarily, these moments may come and go with uncertain regularity; however, yogic texts propose that we can promote such experiences by cultivating devotion toward and sincere appreciation for others, including a regular practice of gratitude, and the unrestricted offering of loving affection.

The Five Niyamas (Part 1 – Shaucha)

The next article will continue this series with: The Five Niyamas (Part 2 – Samtosha)

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