September 9, 2010

Is That You, Or Me?

“The body is your temple.  Keep it pure and clean for the soul to reside in.” – B.K.S. Iyengar

Smell is an amazing sense. Like Proust’s madeleines, a bouquet of lilacs brings back childhood memories of Easter Eggs hunts and widowed great aunts fussing over jello molds and strange casseroles. Pumpkin pies baking at Thanksgiving. Your mom’s favorite perfume that she wore on special occasions.

Unfortunately, not all smells are pleasant, nor the memories they invoke. I’m sure most of you have stepped in dog droppings, only discovering it after you’ve entered your car—the car that’s 120 degrees because it’s been sitting in the sun. I’ll give you another personal example: General Tso’s Chicken reminds me of a yoga classmate next to me whose frequent belches made it clear he’d had Chinese food literally seconds before class.

Ah yes, I thought, Panda Express.

The General Tso’s incident (what a great title for a trashy spy novel) is one of the reasons I like to tell people to imagine the yoga classroom as a teeny, tiny little elevator with about thirty people in it, and the elevator is going to take approximately an hour and a half to reach the top floor. Even if my studio had nothing but open windows, allowing gentle breezes to blow through it all the time, it still wouldn’t matter because body odor and hygiene upstage everything. The nose knows.

Never have I had such a response to a studio newsletter like the one where I asked everyone to be conscious about cleanliness. Frantic emails poured in: I’m the one you were talking about, right?  People cornered me before and after class, whispering like they were in a confessional: I was doing a liver cleanse and I thought no one would notice. New mats and outfits were purchased. Paranoia perfumed the U Studio landscape, along with freshly laundered Yogi Toes and breath mints, until I realized I needed to make something clear:

The bouquet of yoga room offenses is rich and broad, but not one of us is exempt from contributing to the potpourri.

That’s right. No one. Our bodies are wonderful, complicated, and sometimes obstinate. Who hasn’t had bad breath at one time or another? Whose arm pits haven’t smelled less than fresh? And sometimes we contribute to the bad odors out of forgetfulness. I call them the “should haves.” As in  “I should have washed that mat after last practice,” or “I should have washed me after last practice or greasy meal,” or  “I should have avoided the garlic at lunch” (or perhaps those beans).

Lest you think this blog entry is merely going to devolve into the equivalent of 6 year olds telling fart jokes on the playground, I’m actually addressing one of the yogic “moral” codes. Niyamas are considered the “shall be’s” of the yoga observances, and in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, saucha (sometimes spelled shaucha) is one of them. Saucha is purity, cleanliness and the inner disciplines and responsibilities required to achieve them. A great deal of the focus is on internal purification, diet and pranayama (breath work), and of thought, ridding ourselves of resentments, prejudices and anger. But even the seemingly superficial discussion of hygiene discussion fits into this category. Our environment is a reflection of our mind. If we are careless and disordered mentally, that will reflect in our environment being dirty, untidy and uncared for. If our environment is out of order and soiled we have not created a surrounding that supports the clean, clear focus that our yoga encourages us to find.

If we stumble in to our yoga class, stomach full, clothes from the bottom of the hamper, mat smelling of a thousand stinky feet, and a towel still damp from last practice that we found marinating in the trunk of our car, saucha is not only impossible for us, it is made very difficult for those around us. When we create clean, thoughtful space for our self we then extend that to the others in the room, and may even inspire by example. 

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