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.
-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 Niyamas. She 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 Stillness, captures 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