Do you cringe when opening a closet door for fear of what might come flying out? Or keep shoving aside those dusty boxes in the attic or basement that you have no patience to sort through but can’t bear to let go of? What does the inside of your car look like? What does the inside of your mind look like? In practicing shaucha (cleanliness, purity), the first of the five niyamas (observances) described in the Yoga Sutra, we want to be mindful of what we take in and hold onto. Shaucha involves cleansing and purifying on two levels—physical and mental—so that we can have clean, orderly surroundings; a healthy, energetic body; a clear, tranquil mind; and a pure heart. In this first post, we will focus on the physical, or external, aspect of shaucha.
From Cobwebs and Clutter to Order and Cleanliness
Sometimes, even if we have been practicing spiritually for a long time, we can forget the importance of basic cleansing on the physical level (like the cartoon of the monk meditating in front of a screen hiding all the clutter in the room behind him). I recall a vivid experience I had a few years back when my life had become completely chaotic, with things piling up in all directions. I was buried in work. Many co-workers had left to go to India and I took on their duties, one after another. Then all three children of a friend became ill so I went over to help when I could. And I made the occasional five-hour drive to give my sister caretaking help with our father. Months of wintry weather went by before people returned and the children got better. In the meantime, deadlines called and duties had to be discharged, so I went into tunnel vision mode.
One day as I finished a big project, I took a good look around me: an overhead light had burned out weeks before; cobwebs hung from corners like feathery lace; piles of various objects cluttered every imaginable space. There was nowhere to do shavasana without bumping into something. How could I live like this? I couldn’t relax—I could barely breathe fully. And sleep? Forget it. I would toss and turn most of the night. I was always ready to give a willing hand to everyone else. Now it was time to take care of myself.
I began to clear, organize, toss. In one basket of important papers I had neglected to sort through because I never had time, I found an uncashed check dated six years ago! Oh my! What else was buried in the clutter? The clearer my space became, the more easily I was able to breathe deeply and fully. And as I felt how refreshing and balancing it is to have a clean, orderly environment, I gained a new appreciation for the principle of shaucha on the basic physical level as a spiritual practice.
Cleansing and Energizing Our Body
But keeping our outer surroundings—home, office, car—clear of dust, dirt, and clutter is only one aspect of external shaucha. The other is to keep our body clean and healthy. Many of us, caught in the busyness of day-to-day life, end up cutting corners—eating fast food, forgetting to exercise, breathing rapidly and shallowly in a mad dash to get everything done—and becoming comatose at the end of the day, surfing the Web or bingeing on ice cream. Until one day, we take a good look at ourselves and are stunned to see that we are overweight, our blood pressure has skyrocketed, and we huff and puff going up the stairs. Our body carries too many toxins and we need to cleanse. Practicing shaucha can bring us back to balance.
Tips to Practice Shaucha in Daily Life
Beyond basic personal hygiene and regular house cleaning, here are some other ways we can incorporate the principle of shaucha in our life on the external level, to create a sense of freshness and order in our surroundings and to energize and detoxify our body. Start small, with one change, and see how you feel. As you are ready, add another.
Cleaning and Organizing Your Surroundings
- Make your bed in the morning.
- Wash all your dirty dishes and leave the sink and kitchen area sparkling clean before you go to bed each night.
- Tidy your living space and work area each morning and evening.
- Organize your closets, attic, basement, garage, and storage spaces. Start with one shelf or drawer or box—the five-minute rule—and then see if you are inspired to do more.
- Clean your car inside and out.
- Give away or toss anything that no longer serves you.
Cleaning and Energizing Your Body
- Use a neti pot to clean your nasal passages.
- Eat healthy foods and beverages.
- Stay hydrated—drink plenty of water.
- Try fasting for 12 hours daily by not eating between dinner and breakfast.
- Give away or toss anything that no longer serves you.
- Exercise aerobically at least every other day; take the stairs when you can.
- Practice yoga or tai chi.
- Do self-massage with pure, unrefined, organic oil to release toxins and nourish your body.
- Practice pranayama daily, as part of your yoga practice, or by taking a couple of breaks during the day to do five minutes of deep diaphragmatic breathing or to do nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing).
- Practice agni sara (essence of fire) daily. This master hatha yoga practice cleanses and energizes the whole body.
Fit for the Gods
We want our surroundings to be clean and orderly, fit to invite the gods, a space that generates a sense of beauty, peace, and upliftment, so we can feel rested and inspired when we enter. And we want to treat our body as our temple. The more we respect it, keep it clean inside and out, and nourish it with good food and exercise, the better it will serve us.
Cleanliness is next to godliness, as the saying goes, and this first, external part of shaucha serves as an excellent foundation for internal purification—the purification of our mind and heart—which will be the focus of the next post.