In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali lays out the ashtanga path of yoga, detailing the 8 limbs of any yoga practice as yama (controlling the organs of action), niyama (controlling the organs of perception), asana (poses), pranayama (breath work), pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (enlightenment).

Lately, I’ve been thinking about saucha (cleanliness), the first of the 5 niyama, the five observances that control the organs of perception: the eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin.  They are the aforementioned saucha (cleanliness), santosha (contentment with what is), tapas (drive, discipline), svadhyaya (self-study) and isvara-pranidhana (self-surrender).

And why have I been thinking about saucha? The last Judge John Hodgman podcast I listened to (Episode 119: Odor in the Court) concerned a case between Christopher and Andrea who live in Holland. I mention this because the European locale makes this whole case a little more palatable to our American ears.  Apparently, Christopher sometimes goes several weeks without showering and rewears his clothes constantly.  Andrea brought the case in an attempt to get Christopher to bathe more frequently and take better care of his clothes. Christopher claimed that he really doesn’t smell, so if he’s not offending anyone, and if he’s happy dressing for himself and not others, his behavior is just fine.

I have to admit that this case really bugged me, especially Christopher’s intractability concerning his position. I lived in Russia for a while in my mid-twenties so I understand that cleanliness rituals can be a little different in other countries, but still, are you kidding me Christopher? Rewearing socks and underwear over several days!!! Really?…

So I got to thinking, what was it that really bugged me about Christopher’s habits. Why is saucha so important? Saucha is primary in the list of the niyama, the first step towards self-exploration. In being this first step, it is also the foundation of the niyama.  Why make cleanliness the foundation? The answer lies in our connection to the past. As Patanjali tells us in the first sutra, “Atha yoga anushasam” translated as, “Now, the teaching of yoga.” The first word in the entire Yoga Sutras is Atha, now. While this sutra has several implications, perhaps the most fundamental is the understanding that yoga is concerned with the now, not the past, not the future but now, this moment, the present. Dirtiness is the building up of the past, both literally and energetically. When the body is dirty, it is still holding on to the remnants of the past.  When the house is dirty, dusty, or cluttered, it is layered under the days that have past.  Some days when I look at my desk, I can clearly see the work of the last week before me, like an archaeological exhibition.

In practicing saucha, we are removing those layers of the past, from our bodies, our homes, our cars.  Think about how you feel after a shower, or how the house feels after a spring cleaning: lighter, brighter, more alive.  Or is your car cluttered? Has someone written a message on your rear window? Is your car carrying around the remnants of past trips? When your car is clean and uncluttered, don’t you feel like getting where you’re going is easier, more pleasant? For me, nothing is worse than running errands in a cluttered car…

Even when I think back to my days of living in Russia, when showering every other day was an accepted practice for many of the people I lived with and knew (it’s hard to feel like you’re getting clean when you’re showering with water that is not even suitable to drink without boiling first), I remember that there was not a single home I lived in or visited that didn’t practice the ritual of removing one’s shoes upon entering. And nearly every Russian I knew changed their clothes upon returning home from work. These are basic saucha practices that work to leave the past behind and bring us into the now.

How are you still holding on to the past? What saucha practice can you incorporate into your daily living?

Letitia Walker
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