There is a big difference between something that is clean and something that is pure. If you were to hold out both hands and have a flower placed in each hand, one being plastic and totally clean, the other being real but with some dirt still on it, could you tell the difference? You could tell just by feeling. Automatically you know which is artificial and which is natural. You know instinctively because it is your essential nature.
This is the difference between pure and clean. This is the heart of shaucha. Don’t be artificial, be natural.
Cleanliness is part of shaucha. But to think only of cleansing the body as part of shaucha is to be considered ignorant, according to the Darshanopanishad. It states since the self is pure, the knowledge “I am the self” is said to be the true shaucha, purity itself.
Many other sources will consider an internal and external shaucha. According to the Shandilyopanishad, cleansing the body with earth and water is external shaucha whereas purification of the mind is said to be internal shaucha, which is attainable only by training the mind. TheVashishtaSamhita states something similar,that mental purity is to be achieved through right action and spiritual knowledge.
Patanjali introduces shaucha as the first niyama in the second chapter of the Yoga Sutra (II.32). Vyasa, the primary commentator of the Yoga Sutra, also emphasizes here the difference between external and internal cleanliness-“for cleansing the body a purifcatory wash is needed and pure food should be consumed.” This introduces two key principles in the practice and living of yoga. One is the ground basis for what are known as the Shat Karma Kriyas, or simply kriyas, meaning the six cleansing acts recommended by Hatha Yoga. Two is the fifth Buddhist principle, not consuming any intoxicants.
We take time everyday to wash our outer body. Who today would go to work without having showered or brushed their teeth? The inner (physical) body is rarely cleaned, especially with the onslaught of pollutants. Excess mucus is produced, circulation deteriorates, lymph movement reduces, acidity rises, bowels slow down, constipation arises – all primarily due to poor lifestyle habits. And who wants to look at what is happening on the inside? In daily life we are so obsessed with the physical body yet when we see what comes out of it we are completely repulsed. Hatha emphasized that if energy is to flow the body itself, primarily the internal structure, needs to be kept very clean. In so doing energy (prana) is freer to flow appropriately and the activities of mind and heart tend to flow more harmoniously, an important element in aiding one’s refinement and growth.
To take impure food is one of the main perpetrators of the above described condition. Today we consume much in terms of artificial ingredients, drugs and a variety of pollutants. Alcohol, and today drugs, are then considered intoxicants, impure, not so much for polluting the body as the effect they have on the state of mind, typically causing a disturbance, a dilution of any possible concentration, and, according to Charaka the great Ayurvedic author, “people lose sight of what is best for them.” The Buddha emphasized this non-taking of intoxicants as the fifth principle and here we find its yogic equivalent. It is not to be prude but to value purity, inner concentration, which can easily be overshadowed by delusion. One with any slight addiction to a drug or alcohol can quite easily justify the taking of it and say they are not affected. The reality is different and ultimately as obvious as the difference between the plastic and the organic flower.
This sense nicely bridges external shaucha to internal shaucha. Yoga requires control on the mental level. How else can one see their actions, words, know their effects on others and have the nervous power to override these pattern and therefore purify the heart, redirect the mental pattern, purify within? So anything seen as causing a loss of this inner state of awareness, initiated through some level of mental control, is seen as counter productive.
Shaucha stands on the shoulders of the five yamas. The inner and outer body purified what really matters isto behave and conduct ourselves with integrity. To strive to not hurt, be honest, to earn rightfully, to respect the senses and sexual energy, to abandon greed and focus on need, is a powerful practice of inner purification. A tall standard for us all to look up to but a set of values for us to live by. Therefore we are asked in working on ourselves to look to purification. Be pure, have integrity.
What does this mean in terms of everyday life? One, do I keep my outer body, garments, food and living space clean? Two, do I periodically clean the inner linings of the body? Three, do I watch my conditioned patterns that end up causing others and myself some pain? Four, how natural do I behave? Do I often wear a mask for different people and different situations, essentially being artificial? Am I comfortable with myself, can I just be myself, be natural?
To be honest and kind, to care – this is purity in action. Watch what comes from your heart. Every bad word, every corrupt thought you indulge in, every unrighteous action, they all spring from the heart. Our practice is to purify this. We need to be aware, gain mindfulness. Then we need to shift the pattern. Kindness, caring, charity, selflessness, honesty, all come from the heart too. The purer the heart the more natural thesequalities flow. It does not come from imagining it, though positive as that may be. It comes from directly being aware and taking action to catch each impure stray thought and action. It is not easy and a lifelong process. But what is our alternative?
Patanjali refers to this when he continues to discuss the outcome of shaucha:
Purification of the mind, pleasantness of feeling, one-pointedness, subjugation of the senses and ability for self-realization are acquired. PYS II.41
Swami Hariharananda, a realized master from the last century and one of the highest minds on sankhya and yoga philosophy, explains it like this:
“The evils of arrogance, pride, attachment (meaning selfishness), etc. being wholly removed, a sense of cleanliness of the mind arises and a spirit of aloofness from one’s own body as well as from others’ grows. This state, uncontaminated by the body-sense, is called internal purification. It brings about purification of the mind, and lessening of impurities in the form of worldly obsession. This leads to the development of mental bliss or a feeling of gladness and the body acquires a Sattvika form of easiness. Without such a feeling of gladness, one-pointedness of mind is not possible, without which it is not possible to realize the soul beyond the senses.”
From my perspective, real inner joy is a result of purification. It exists naturally as the mind and heart are not burdened with thoughts and pressures built from greed, anger, selfishness, etc. There is a natural ability to be kind, honest and caring. With this joy, meaning a reduced mental burden, the mind can concentrate. This means the pranic current can pass beyond the pull of the senses and gather at the base of the spine, eventually moving within where the experience of total mental concentration or one-pointedness is felt. This is the beginning of internal yoga and the path to self-realization.
In a sense the whole of yoga is included within this one word “shaucha”. It provides a formula and incorporates all the key elements of yoga. It also very much highlights that one’s over-emphasis on cleaning the body or attachment to it through over-indulged asana practice, can be futile, even counter productive.
Be natural, be yourself, be comfortable in all situations. To develop this take care of your body, food and living arrangement. Be aware of and deal with your own irregular thoughts. Don’t condemn yourself and become more unnatural through guilt, instead focus on not letting traits of pride, dishonesty and arrogance dominate. Ask yourself can I be caring, kind and honest in this situation. To care is the essence of us, the essence of yoga practice. It means we have to do that little bit extra, always. Gradually see your heart and subsequently your actions change. Purify. You become more natural, pure, as you are you in the moment. Now the base for yoga is laid.
Joy and caring, true to yourself – this is the purity. This is shaucha. Work on it in your life.
For more: Ahimsa: I Will Not Hurt You.
Paul is a senior teacher of Pranayama, Asana and the meditative art and science of Yoga. He has been a dedicated student for over a decade of both Sri O.P.Tiwari, one of the few remaining classical yogis and masters of Pranayama, and the late Sri K. Pattabhi Jois in ashtanga vinyasa. Both of these great teachers have personallycertified Paul in these practices, a unique position as the only one to receive this double honor. One of his main gifts is to be able to relate the teachings in a very down-to-earth way for the modern seeker. He does not take life or yoga too seriously and as a result the discussions and philosophical sessions are lively and humorous, helping to explain the meaning behind the practices and philosophy. For more please see his full bio. Paul is the founder and director of Samahita Retreat, a premier retreat center in Asia, and Centered Yoga, a leading yoga training school since 1999.
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