Tag Archives: living the sutras

Saucha: Rediscovering Purity

This is the first of (probably) five posts about the niyamas, or moral restraints of yoga. You can get more information on the niyamas and their place in the eight limbs of yoga here

nuances-8_lLove, if it is love, never goes away.
It is embedded in us,
like seams of gold in the Earth,
waiting for light,
waiting to be struck.

-Alice Walker, Even So

The first of the niyamas, Saucha, is translated as purity. This may not excite you. I understand. “Purity” smacks of things too wholesome to maintain, like chastity, white Communion dresses, or a starch-free diet.

Thankfully, we’re given a bit of leeway as far as interpretation- and I’m willing to take it.

Sure, I bet Patanjali was suggesting we should strive for purity in lots of things. I do feel better when I eat less processed food, exercise regularly, maintain my meditation practice, refrain from gossip, spend less time on YouTube or Facebook. These are important parts of Saucha, and I don’t want to take away from them- but you can probably read enough about them elsewhere.

For my own practice, I’ve been inspired by the way Deborah Adele interprets Saucha in her book The Yamas and NiyamasShe suggests that Saucha “has a relational quality that asks us not only to seek purity in ourselves, but to seek purity with each moment by allowing it to be as it is.” In other words, we are asked NOT to “change, criticize, alter, control, manipulate, pretend, be disappointed, or check out.”

What does this look like in your daily life? It might be harder than that starch-free diet. It means  accepting heavy traffic (and other drivers) on the way to work without needing it to change. It means talking to your friends without wishing they’d act or speak differently- even when they themselves are acting with a lack of purity! It means, most difficult of all, that we accept ourselves and our lives just as they are- without needing to be skinnier, friendlier, happier, more patient, or anything other than just ourselves, as we are, in the present moment.

It means that we flush away the storyline, lose the interpretation, unwrap the layers of conditioning and fear and just practice being ourselves.  At our hearts, at our deepest layer, the foundational core of us, we are already pure. As Alice Walker’s beautiful poem says, “love is embedded in us, like seams of gold…waiting to be struck.” When I add on my stuff- my stories, my need to appear a certain way, my need for things to work out in my favor, I’m just muddying things up.

Eckhart Tolle, in his recording Deepening the Dimension of Stillnesscaptures this nicely. “You don’t need to remember who you are to be yourself,” he says, speaking of the tendency we have to label ourselves with the roles we play- mother, teacher, depressed person, vegetarian. “You can be yourself without any story… you are more fully yourself when you are not remembering the story.”

I’ve been actively practicing this for a few days. As with so many of these practices, it started with an awareness. I found myself caught up in a story of my own- I actually sensed myself putting on a role, like a jacket. It wasn’t quite so simple as, “OK, now I’m going to feel sorry for myself and act depressed,” but, crazy as it sounds- it was not that far off. I was able to see it happening and notice what (unflattering, so I won’t list them) behaviors went with it. And although I was not able to completely shrug off the story at that moment, I know that my awareness helped me to leave it behind more quickly than I have in the past. ‘Who am I underneath this?’ I asked myself (yes, I actually did talk to myself). ‘I don’t need to do this at all.’ And picturing Alice Walker’s gold vein, unstruck within me, I recalled my pure value.

At the same time, however, Saucha demands that I not chastise myself for these moments of role-playing, story-writing, forgetting our true value. Yeah, I am unconditional, pure love- but I am also a fully functional creative human being. There will be moments of grief, of anger, or frustration, or nausea or a broken leg and all of the potential suffering that goes with these. If I practice purity, I allow these things to happen, not needing to change them (!) and know they will pass.

Perhaps my favorite part of Deborah Adele’s interpretation of this topic is a quote from Matthew Sanford, who speaks from the experience of an accident that left him paralyzed from waist down: “I am not afraid of my sadness. My sadness is an incredible gift that allows me to be with people who are suffering without trying to fix them.” What a gift indeed, to accept without needing to change. To love without needing to interfere. To learn to be uncomfortable together, and then to find comfort in this way.

A last bit of a poem to illustrate:

David Whyte: Enough

“Enough: These few words are enough.

If not these words, this breath.

If not this breath, this sitting here.

This opening to the life

we have refused

again & again

Until now.


Until now.”

Photo credit: paul bica / Foter.com / CC BY

Brahamacharya (Gesundheit!)

Brahmacharya, the fourth of the Yamas, is also the one that sounds most like a sneeze. ‘Bless You!’, you might think. Appropriate, I guess, since this term is sometimes translated as “Walking with God.” Bless you indeed!

This is a tricky Yama. It is often (mis?)interpreted as celibacy (see this article “Life Without Sex?” on yogajournal.com). Others (myself included) interpret it as mindful use of energy. I like the word “moderation,” although that may over-simplify it somewhat. Another phrase you might hear is “continence,” although this brings to mind adult diapers, so I tend to avoid it.*

Okay, back on track. Brahmacharya! Using energy mindfully means not wasting your resources. BKS Iyengar says, “When one is established in brahmacharya, one develops a fund of vitality and energy, a courageous mind and a powerful intellect so that one can fight any type of injustice… Brahmacharya is the battery that sparks the torch of wisdom.”

What a great metaphor! By using our mental and physical resources intelligently, not draining the battery but recharging it as needed, we will be better able to shine our light in the world. Whether your goal is to make it through your next Power Yoga class without modifying a posture, or to act in service to those who need it, brahmacharya makes us a better-run machine.

Where do you squander your resources? Do  you…

  • Overeat?
  • Overindulge in alcohol/other substances?
  • Oversleep?
  • Undersleep, because you were doing something else instead?
  • Over-exert, physically?
  • Spend time worrying about the future, or
  • Spend time living in the past?

All of these can quickly become evident on your mat. If you’ve ever eaten a big pancake breakfast and then gone to a vigorous hot yoga class (as I did, one regrettable morning) an hour later, you know that the body isn’t going to live up to your demands! A commitment to the physical practice of yoga will eventually demand brahmacharya of you- there isn’t energy enough in your body to both squander your resources AND cultivate an effective practice.

And, as always, the physical practice (asana) is just one place for this to show up in your life. The same thing is going on, obviously, in all other areas- once we open our eyes to see.

Brahmacharya! I raise my battery-operated torch to you.

See you next week, when we conclude the yamas with a discussion on Aparigraha, non-hoarding. Get ready to clean out the closet!

*Although this is a really ridiculously silly thing for me to have said, it raises a pertinent point. Through use of mula bandha, the root lock engagement of the pelvic floor, which is used to prevent energy leakage in our practice, we females can strengthen the pelvic floor, which sags as we age, and thus, perhaps, avoid the need for adult diapers. I’d hoped to use this post as a discussion for mula bandha, but it’s gotten a bit too long and the bandhas really deserve a big discussion of their own. Stay tuned, I’ll get it out there.

Satya Will Set Ya Free!

Have you ever told a white lie for what seemed like a good reason- and then got caught up in layer after layer of complication?

Or found yourself talking with some friends about an acquaintance in a way that you knew was unkind- and then felt bad, after, when you saw that person?

Have you ever indulged in a habit that you knew was a bad idea for you- and then felt awful afterward?

Yeah, me too.

“That which is false troubles the heart, but truth brings joyous tranquility” -Rumi 

Right on, Rumi. It doesn’t feel good when we’re false in thought, word or deed. As always, yoga has a solution. This week in class I’m exploring the second of Patanjali’s Yamas, which is satya, or truth.

A nice way to get started is through your practice on the mat. Begin to listen to your internal narrative, and question what it says. You’ll know it’s time to tune in when your emotions start to act up. If you’re feeling stressed, irritable, or unhappy, during a challenging posture, there’s a good chance you’re experiencing one of these common thoughts:

  1. “This pose sucks. Why would I even want to balance on one foot while holding my big toe?” 
  2. “This teacher doesn’t know what she’s doing. It’s her fault. She didn’t give us the right information to get us into the posture.” 
  3. “Everyone else can do it. There must be something wrong with me.” 

Other variations can include, Blaming Society, Blaming Parents, Blaming Your Job, Blaming the Guy Who Cut You Off in the Pickup Truck and Made You Late So You Had To Put Your Mat Too Close to the Wall, etc.

If you find yourself thinking any of these things, congratulations! You’ve identified a place to work. Now it’s time to decide- is your thought true? What is the reality behind this thought? What could you accurately say instead? Perhaps, “I am finding this pose challenging today” might be enough for today.

Gradually, it becomes easier to trace thoughts back to their truthful origins, and you can take the practice off the mat. In your day-to-day life, when you are feeling a strong, unpleasant emotion, stop and listen to the internal talk. What are you saying to yourself? What truth are you filtering? How do you feel when you get down to the truth?

Once you’ve learned to identify truth, you may even wish you could put the genie back in the bottle. It’s a life-changer. Now, as you talk to friends, and experience daily interactions, you’ll notice that you often say all kinds of things that you know aren’t really true. That don’t represent the true you.

Before you know it, you’ll begin to change how you speak to others, and after that, how you act, as well.

You’ll have to, you see, because by then you’ll have found that it feels so much better when you 1) think the truth and 2) speak the truth and 3) live your truth.

Or that’s where we’re headed, anyway. As always, go easy and be gentle with yourself as you practice. There’s a reason that ahimsa (non-violence) is the first of the yamas. We want to always temper our truth with the sweet touch of kindness.

How do you practice satya? What have your challenges been? Please leave a comment below- I’d love to hear from you!