Clean hands, Pure Heart: The Yoga Practice of Saucha

Reflections on philosophy during a pandemic.

This year my family gathered for Passover dinner. Though, thanks to pandemic-necessitated social distancing, this dinner was, indeed, different from all other Passover dinners: We “congregated” through computer screens from across the United States and Canada. 

During the Seder, there is a moment when everyone says a blessing and washes their hands. This ritual felt particularly poignant given COVID-19, during which handwashing is one of the key protocols keeping people safe and healthy.

We eat with our hands during the meal, because it is believed that whatever our hands hold will be absorbed by us. This pertains to literal dirt and, more symbolically, to anything we are holding onto.

As a yogi, this reminded me of the concept of saucha. Saucha is the first of the niyamas (observances) in Patanjali’s eight-limbed path of yoga, as outlined in the Yoga Sutra. The word is often transliterated as “cleanliness,” but like the ritual washing of the hands during the Seder, this practice goes far beyond simple hygiene.

Cleaning our hands is an opportunity to rid ourselves of anything we do not wish to carry forward. On Passover, this refers to the Jewish people leaving behind enslavement in Egypt. For yogis, it is leaving the trappings of the limited, small self and moving toward the limitless, big Self. 

When we live from our small self, we are led by our restless mind and feel separate. When we live from our big Self, our true nature, we operate from our heart and are able to feel our connection to everyone and everything.

Understanding Saucha Within the Context of the Eight Limbs 

The yamas (restraints) and niyamas, the first two limbs of Patanjali’s eight-limbed path, are sometimes collectively referred to as the “Ten Commandments of Yoga.” Each one is composed of five tenets for how yogis should live their lives.

The yamas include non-violence, truthfulness, not stealing, abstinence, and non-greed. The niyamas are the observances and include cleanliness (this is saucha), contentment, purification through heat, self-study, and surrender.

Each of Patanjali’s limbs progress from external practices to those that are more internal. The yamas are often said to be about our relationship to the world, the niyamas about our relationship with ourselves.

Patanjali makes it clear in sutra II:31 that the yamas are “not limited by class, place, time, or circumstance” (Sri Swami Satchidananda).1 Anyone can follow them, whether they are a yoga practitioner or not. And as the first niyama, it could be thought of as the first spiritual practice listed in the limbs.

Looking at saucha through this lens, we see that its definition as “cleanliness” actually refers to both the external action of cleaning oneself and the internal practice of cleansing.

Clean Hands, Pure Heart 

Many Eastern cultures have daily bathing rituals in which people pray while washing. The intention is to purify the mind and heart alongside the body. For example, in India some devout Hindus bathe every morning in the holy Ganges River while reciting prayers and making offerings.

This is very different than the five-minute shower many of us rush through. Or even the tedious 20-second handwashings we now (hopefully!) do religiously throughout the day in the time of COVID-19.

If we made cleanliness a ritual, we could transform a simple cleaning into a deeper cleansing. In doing so, not only purifying our bodies, but also our minds and our hearts. 

As B.K.S. Iyengar explains in Light on the Yoga Sutras, “When the body is cleansed, the mind purified, and senses controlled, joyful awareness needed to realize the inner self, also comes.” 2

Saucha in the Time of COVID-19

Where we perhaps took cleaning our bodies and homes for granted, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought new intention to these behaviors. Cleanliness not only keeps us healthy, but those around us healthy as well. Remembering that our actions have an effect on the greater world imbues them with a deeper purpose and reminds us of our connection to one another.

As Nischala Joy Devi, the author of Secret Power of Yoga3 explains, saucha is also a practice of “emotional purity,” not just physical purity. Being confined at home because of quarantine restrictions means that we are also confined with our thoughts and feelings. We can use this time to not only clean the external surfaces of our lives, but the internal as well. 

The clearer our mind becomes, the more accurately we can understand ourselves and the world around us. Much like looking through a well-cleaned window—we can see both our reflection and the outside more vividly.

How to Bring Saucha Into the Everyday 

There does not need to be a pandemic for us to practice saucha. We can transform cleaning into cleansing every day:

Make cleaning a meditation: Be fully present in your actions. From a mindful swish of your mop to a devoted 20-second count while soaping up. Notice the layers of your experience. How the soap suds foam like the ocean as it hits the shore. Or how the feeling of your two hands coming together changes with the varying texture of your skin. What new things do you notice in these everyday tasks?

Organize your space: We are spending a lot of additional time in our homes right now. This gives us an opportunity to assess our surroundings. Does your space feel cluttered? Do you just dump your yoga props in a pile where you practice? Or are you running such a tight ship that there is no room to let loose? Treat your house with the same reverence with which you treat your body. Often creating spacious surroundings can help us maintain a spacious mind.

Clearing your energy: Having clear energy means living with intention. It is about acting from purpose as opposed to reactivity. This is a scary and uncertain time and many people find themselves on edge. If you are unaware that you are feeling fearful or frustrated, it may come out in other ways, like snapping at someone in the grocery store for standing too close. Take a deep breath before you act to question where that action is coming from. And if you do happen to accidently react, knowing what your underlying feelings were may help you be more understanding with yourself. 

Observe your thoughts with a clean lens: The mind can be a pretty messy place! It is easy to mistake thoughts for reality. Being able to watch our thoughts without judgment helps us to understand them. This is what meditation teacher Sylvia Boorstein calls “spacious observation.” It is about recognizing truth versus story. For example, the COVID-19 crisis is forcing us to be quite isolated from one another, which can lead to feelings of loneliness. While it is true that we must keep our distance, we are never truly alone. We just may need to remind ourselves of our connection, and maintain it, in different ways—like scheduling regular Zoom calls with friends and family or smiling and waving at our neighbors when out on walks.

Purify the heart: There is no more purifying practice than the act of gratitude. Being thankful and recognizing our blessings is like a deep-clean for the heart. Some people like to keep a gratitude journal. Others simply reflect on all they have to be grateful for. This practice is especially helpful during trying times when it is easy to fixate on the negative. Set aside a few minutes a day to list five gifts in your life. If you are unable to think of any, thank your breath for sustaining you, your body for holding you, and your heart for guiding you.

Saucha Cleans the Path to Our True Nature

The COVID-19 crisis is a challenging time. We are social creatures and practices like sheltering in place and social distancing are asking us to go against our most basic need for human interaction. We can use the practice of saucha to not only stay physically healthy, and hopefully end the pandemic sooner, but also to clear the mess of our minds, helping us remember our inner truth. We are all connected. 

Footnotes

1. B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sutras

2. Sri Swami Satchidananda, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

3. Nischala Joy Devi, The Secret Power of Yoga

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About the teacher

Sarah Ezrin is a motivator, writer, yoga teacher, and teacher trainer. Her joie de vivre is infectious.... Read more

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