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Monday, June 24, 2002

Sauca - Cleanliness, Purity

My acquaintance, the California yoga teacher Karl Erb, describes the 5 Niyamas as "principles of self-awareness." They are self-directed lifestyle practices, as we might say today. Traditionally, sauca is said to be the first niyama. As FJB noted previously, it comes from the Sanskrit root meaning "to be radiant, to shine."

Considered strictly, it's meaning is clear. For example, Sivananda yogis take this as an injunction to bathe every morning, and wear loose, simple, clean clothes every day. (The "simple" is probably meant to reference aparigraha, avoidance of greed by coveting expensive designer clothing.) BKS Iyengar himself advises yoga practitioners to take a hot, scented bath before and after yoga practice. (Any system of philosophy that mandates aromatherapy bubble baths is definitely speaking to me!) Teachers in the Iyengar tradition are urged to dress neatly and wear their hair in a clean, natural, and attractive style when appearing before students in accordance with this principle.

Of course, sauca means more than just Glamour-do good grooming! Iyengar also extends this to the avoidance of drugs and alcohol, a wholesome diet, plenty of rest, and the practice of brahmacarya, pranayama, and yoga asanas. Further, some writers argue that this niyama, combined with ahimsa, is the mandate for vegetarian eating. So you can see this niyama sets up a series of external practices, the outward relationship of the yogis and yoginis toward their body. These practices are generally respectful ones; it appears as if the tradition is not one of body hatred.

Contrast this with our present social norms. While doctors constantly urge us to be more careful in what we eat, our society does not. Multi-national food conglomerates certainly spend tens of billions to convince us to eat more and more junk food. Movies and television constantly show that eating junk food is fun; it's still common to hear people deride healthy eating practices, saying "you only live once anyway," or making derisive comments about "rabbit food." Yet at the same time, of course, the same sources fetishsize an unhealthy thinness.

People are urged in two completely contradictory directions, both of which are harmful to the body and self-esteem. Further, contemporary culture makes it clear to us that the body has worth only if it appears "fashionable," is the correct shape, size, color, etc. A too-large body or one markedly different from what the culture salesmen peddle is not only demeaned, but actually ignored. This leads to eating disorders and the distressing trend towards pro-anorexic websites, many of which strangely claim that anorexia is "purifying." However, as we can clearly see, this kind of self-destruction is the very opposite of sauca.

Another common example is the odd fact that while the average American woman is now a size 14 to 16, these sizes are now becoming very difficult to find in the department store. In a supreme moment of irony, designers -- people who live to sell clothes -- often will not make clothes larger than a 10! In the eyes of the fashion industry, "normal" bodies are so terrible they cannot even exist!

While we often think our culture celebrates the body -- that the triumph of the Renaissance was to recognize the beauty and dignity of the human body -- we can see how actually at present our body is marketed back to us as an opportunity for self-harm and self-hatred. Thus the basic, almost no-fun-seeming principle of sauca offers us an opportunity to reclaim our bodies. Then we can forge an authentic relationship with them, to rescue them from commodification, and learn to value them as they are.

However, there is also an internal aspect to sauca -- the tradition makes clear that we should strive towards a purity of the mind as well, avoiding what our grandmothers priggishly called "bad influences." This doesn't mean you have to snooze out to a boring nature show instead of watching the Simpsons. Rather, it's an invitation to question what we seeing, talking about, listening to, buying. And it also doesn't mean we have to beat ourselves up, criticize others, and feel guilt for shortcomings!

The tradition says that we are to show compassion to ourselves and others, not blame and judgment. "When the body is cleansed, the mind is purified, and the senses controlled, the joyful awareness needed to realized the inner self also comes," says Iyengar in his Light on the Yoga Sutras. Obviously a judging, harsh, and critical person feels little joy! The joyful awareness here is said to be the one-pointed (ekagra) mind, the state of mindfulness. In this state, the mind is filled with sattva, the light aspect of prakriti (Nature).

The external practices and internal ones are not equal. "Internal purity is more important than external purity. Internal purity makes the mind one-pointed; it bestows serenity, cheerfulness, joy, strength, harmony, poise and happiness; it instills love, patience and magnanimity," the Sivananda yogis teach. "Therefore develop internal purity through diligent and vigilant effort." Overall, sauca isn't some set of prim habits or the writing of screeds to the newspapers about the decline of civilization as evidenced in the lack of proper table settings at family dinners. It's an active outlook that embraces all life compassionately, mindfully, and in the present moment.

British yoga teacher Godfrey Devereux perhaps has the best summary of the idea: "Sauca not a moral precept, but a pragmatic one. Undiluted purity means commitment, without compromise. Total commitment, total action, total being. Purity of thought, word and deed means to be completely authentic in one's expression of what one actually is without regard to idealised preferences. To undertake any action without holding anything back. When putting the foot on the floor, putting it completely on the floor. When talking to someone to not be doing anything else. Pure gold contains no other elements. A pure action leaves no trace. Pure love brooks no conditions, no ifs no buts no maybes."

In Buddhism there is also the concept of purity, of the Pure Land. This the place where our innate blissful nature is realized, and it is traditionally described in Buddhist writings as a country where everything is perfect, where even the trees have leaves made of precious jewels. Yet what is interesting is how in the Heart of the Prajnaparamita, it says "No immaculate, no defilement." What does this mean in the context of sauca, of purity?

This insight of emptiness is meant to show us that the mindful now all beings are embraced and liberated with compassion. That sauca is indeed only a pragmatic precept, a walking-stick idea we take up to help us over the rocky parts of our path, not an end in itself. And while it's just a tool, it's powerful if used correctly. "Pure love brooks no conditions" -- not even those of pure or impure. Is our challenge then to treat ourselves and others with this compassionate love born from sauca? Can you find and extend this love to yourself or someone you know today?

.: posted by fortune 2:17 PM

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