One of my favorite quotes—a couple of my favorite quotes actually—comes from Annie Dillard. She wrote:
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living.”
Let me read this quote again, but this time I’m going to replace the word schedule with practice. Think about the personal practices that keep you grounded in your center and connected to your highest aspirations.
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A [practice] defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a [practitioner] can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A [practice] is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living.”
Last week I asked the question: Who are you becoming? Who are you becoming through your habituated patterns of thought and feeling? Who are you becoming through your behavior—through the actions you take every day? Remember: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” As we move through the cycles of time, our thoughts and feelings and actions accumulate. They build into something. They create the shape of who we are always becoming.
One of the many reasons I’ve dedicated my life to the study and practice of yoga, is because it’s given me a concrete way to examine my thoughts and feelings and behavior. Everything is always changing and the practice of yoga gives me a way to direct the course of change in my life with intention. Borrowing from Annie Dillards language, I can say that the practice of yoga has given me a net for catching days.
We’re currently studying the limb of yoga practice called niyama, which gives us a foundation for our daily habits. The five niyamas are active practices we observe on a daily basis in order to live in right relationship with ourselves. The first niyama is śauca, which means purity or cleanliness.
How often does your physical body feel light and agile and clean? Like there’s nothing gunking up the inner workings of your digestive track and all your other organs…like everything is functioning as it should! And what about your mental body? How often does your thinking feel light and agile and crystal clear? Like there’s nothing gunking up your ability to concentrate and make good decisions…
I can almost guarantee that you are NOT responding to these questions with a resounding: “Yes, I feel light and clear 100% of the time!!” But don’t worry, because our yogic ancestors clearly didn’t answer with a resounding yes either. Which is an assumption I make because the practice of yoga is filled with ways to purify the body and mind—including breathing practices, gazing practices, and special ways to wash the body both internally and externally.
Yoga is filled with purification techniques because an important goal of yoga is clarity—is clear seeing, clear understanding. When our systems are gunked up, and we feel heavy and gross, it’s hard to think straight—it’s hard to see things clearly. I don’t know about you, but when I’m headachy, in need of a shower, and surrounded by piles of mess, I have a hard time connecting with my wise inner voice and making good decisions for myself. And when we don’t make clear decisions, the gunk accumulates. New messes pile on top of uncleaned old messes, or a rich holiday meal piles on top of the last undigested rich holiday meal, and it becomes harder and harder to clean things up. Which leaves us stuffed, weighed down, encumbered by junk.
I’m making sense right? You know what I’m talking about… You know your own habits. You know the aspects of your life that drain your creativity and cloud your clarity. I don’t say this to judge you or to encourage you to judge yourself. I say it because I’m human too. And cleaning stuff up is an ongoing part of being human. So it should come as no surprise that the first niyama is purity—is cleanliness.
What might come as a surprise however, is the first sutra dedicated to this niyama, which reads:
“By purification arises disgust for one’s own body and for contact with other bodies.”
In other words, as we become aware that there’s no way to “clean” ourselves out of the reality that our bodies are made up of things like pus and bile and urine, we’ll become so disgusted that we’ll no longer be attached to our bodies or interested in having sex with other bodies.
This is a tough sutra—one that’s often ignored when people talk about the niyamas. And while I have no interest in cultivating disgust for the body—just the opposite in fact!—I want to deal with the sutra because it’s related to a pervasive view of the body that’s caused a lot of damage for a lot of people. We could just say that it’s important to remember that the Yoga Sutras are rooted in an ascetic tradition of ancient yogis who practiced celibacy and leave it at that. But there’s clearly something deeper here. There’s a tradition of orthodox commentators that view the body as a vehicle for karmic punishment. And while master yogi Pandit Rajmani makes clear that “this view is contrary to the very spirit of yoga,” it’s still a pervasive view the world over. We’ve all been conditioned—from one religious tradition or another—that the body (especially the female body) is bad or dangerous and must be controlled.
Which means, as soon as we start talking about bodies and purity and cleanliness, we have to be really careful. We have to be diligent. We have to watch out for the conditioning that triggers the feeling that our bodies are evil in some way.
So let’s move forward—the niyama of cleanliness is an important part of our practice—but let’s do so with intention. Pandit Rajmani, in his commentary on this sutra, offers us a great metaphor. He writes:
“We do not clean our house for the purpose of discovering how dirty it is so we can use this discovery to cultivate disgust for it, and, in turn, use that disgust to motivate us to abandon the house. Similarly, in yoga we do not embrace the principles of cleanliness and purity as a means of cultivating disgust for our body, and then use that disgust to sever our connection with ourselves and with others.
In other words, we don’t undertake purification practices and build clean habits out of disgust for our body or as a punishment for our body. We do it out of care for our body. This point is so important that we need to say it over and over again as a way of reconditioning our minds. We don’t undertake purification practices and build clean habits out of disgust for our body or as a punishment for our body. We do it out of care for our body.
Pandit Rajmani, continues by saying:
“Yet only when we begin to clean our house do we notice how pervasive and subtle the dirt is and how deeply ingrained it has become. When we remove the outer layer of dirt, we begin noticing the deeper, subtler layers and can no longer be comfortable living there until we have cleaned the house thoroughly. Similarly, when we begin to follow a regimen for detoxifying the body, we become aware of deeper and subtler levels of toxins and impurities. We become sensitive to the discomfort they cause, and in proportion to that sensitivity we are motivated to stay away from sources of contamination, both internal and external.”
Yoga is a practice of awareness—it heightens our sensitivity. So we notice when certain things—like too much sugar or alcohol for instance—makes us feel horrible. We notice when a violent movie disturbs our sleep. We notice when a conversation full of gossip leaves us feeling icky. Remember, yoga is filled with purification techniques because an important goal of yoga is clarity. When our systems are gunked up, and we’re out of balance, it’s hard to think straight—it’s hard to see things clearly. It’s hard to stay connected to our highest aspirations.
We don’t undertake purification practices and build clean habits out of disgust—or aversion—for our body. We practice cleanliness of body and mind in order that we might have a more pure experience of the world.
Yoga teacher Donna Farhi describes the niyama of śauca, of purity, this way:
“Shaucha, or living purely, involves maintaining a cleanliness in body, mind, and environment so that we can experience ourselves at a higher resolution. … Practicing shaucha, meaning “that and nothing else,” involves making choices about what you want and don’t want in your life. Far from self-deprivation or dry piety, the practice of shaucha allows you to experience life more vividly. A clean palate enjoys the sweetness of an apple and the taste of pure water; a clear mind can appreciate the beauty of poetry and the wisdom imparted in a story; a polished table reveals the deep grain of the wood. This practice both generates beauty and allows us to appreciate it in all its many forms.”
We don’t undertake purification practices and build clean habits out of some form of attachment to or aversion from our body. We do it to experience life more clearly. The body is a gift that allows us to experience Being.
Yoga is the process of uncovering all the crap that keeps our True Self—that keeps our divine nature—hidden. Yoga gives us a process to clean up our act. The practice of yoga asks us to surface and deal with our negative conditioning. To clean up the bad habits that leach our energy. To stop eating food that makes us sick. To deal with our attachments and our addictions. To notice the ways we fill our brains with things that fill our hearts with jealously, greed, and anger. The practice of yoga leads us on an ever deepening journey toward clarity—toward seeing the world as it is. Toward seeing the truth of our Being.
As we make choices that support cleanliness in body, mind, and environment, we move toward clarity. And, yoga sutra 2.41 tells us that: “purity of mind, cheerfulness, mastery of the senses, one-pointedness, and ability for Self-realization follow.”
What are the habits that hinder your ability to think clearly, choose happiness, maintain focus, and remember your True Self?
I will admit that even though bad habits can delude me into thinking that eating an entire chocolate bar and staying up too late binge watching tv will make me happy (you can fill in your own vice of choice here), I know from experience that my energy and creativity only soar when I make choices that help keep my body and mind clear.
We judge the usefulness of any given practice by asking ourselves: Who am I becoming through this practice? We undertake purification practices when we need them and we work to build ongoing clean habits in order to care for our bodymind. We do it for our clarity and our creativity. As Annie Dillard rightly says: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.”
We work to establish clean habits in body and mind—śauca—in order to better direct the course of change in our lives with intention.