Today we move from the five yamas (restrictions or restraints) to the five niyamas (observances). (I’m hoping that when I’ve finished with the niyamas, I will have formed Voltron.)
The first niyama is saucha: “purity” or “simplicity”. Saucha involves keeping the body clean, because that’s important for keeping both body and mind healthy. One shouldn’t be prideful about her appearance, but paying attention to cleanliness and hygiene is part of life. We should also practice mindfulness about what we put into our bodies (for example, choosing an apple over a Big Mac), since the food we put into our bodies affects our internal cleanliness. Saucha is also about purity of mind. We need to make mindful and discriminating choices about everything we take in: not only food, but also books, TV, movies, and the company we keep, because these things have an affect on the purity of our minds. For example, I decided a long time ago that I can’t watch horror movies. Although horror movies are exciting in the short term, the bloody violent images get emblazoned on my brain and I have nightmares for days – but horror movies are cool and lots of people like them, so I kept watching them and kept having nightmares. Finally I decided it wasn’t worth it and said goodbye to Freddy and Jason. I’ll still freak myself out over things I saw a long time ago, because I can’t erase those pictures from my mind, but I’m much happier not adding new horrible things to the gallery.
Satchidananda and Devi have pretty different translations of the sutras on saucha (2.40-2.41):
Satchidananda: By purification arises disgust for one’s own body and for contact with other bodies. Moreover, one gains purity of sattva, cheerfulness of mind, one-pointedness, mastery over the senses, and fitness for Self-realization. (142, 145)
Devi: Through simplicity and continual refinement (Saucha), the body, thoughts, and emotions become clear reflections of the Self within. Saucha reveals our joyful nature, and the yearning for knowing the Self blossoms. (206)
Satchidananda’s version sounds a little crazy. He states that our bodies are dirty: always excreting waste, even through our pores, and never truly being clean no matter how often we wash. He says that when we realize this, we lose our attachment to the body and our desire to join our dirty bodies with other people’s dirty bodies (see, I knew Voltron had a place in this post somewhere) and we are able to focus more closely on spiritual practice. Satchidananda then goes on to say that once you understand the body, the heart and mind become purified as well, making us ready for meditation and Self-realization. For this one, I’m glad that I’m also reading Devi, since her commentary really provides a nice counterpoint to Satchidananda’s and helps me make sense of what he says.
For Devi, saucha is about simplicity as well as purity. When we eliminate needless complication from our lives, we can distill down to the pure essence of who we are, who and what we love, and what we want to do. Devi also talks about purity of heart. She notes that nurses kindly take care of sick people, no matter what bodily discharges are involved, because they have the purity of heart to serve others with patience. This is such an interesting counterpoint to what Satchidananda says about bodies being dirty. People like Mother Teresa, Florence Nightingale, and the nurses at your local hospital know exactly how disgusting the body can be, but they’re able to rise above it with compassion. Satchidananda’s description makes me think of an OCD monk, so I find Devi’s real-world example very moving. Of course that’s what purity is really about! I think too of a mother with a young child: whether it’s a baby with a dirty diaper or an older child with a stomach bug, the mother cleans up the mess. It’s simple because it’s really about love.