Sauca (niyama – Patanjali II.32 and II.40 & 41)

trans. bodily purification / cleanliness / purity / ecology / harmony

“With bodily purification, one’s body ceases to be compelling, likewise contact with others.

Purification also brings about clarity, happiness, concentration, mastery of the senses and capacity for self awareness.”  (Hartranft)

A melting pot of ideas and contradictions arose in relation to this Niyama.

So often in yoga we hear statements about asana or pranayama or the shatkarma ‘cleansing’ or purifying the body.  Releasing toxins and impurities.  I have certainly sweated funny smelling sweat and had pretty significant emotional releases in asana.  Sometimes however, it seems that we talk about such cleansing in the same way that some religions talk about the cleansing of sins, whether through the Catholic confessional or a dip in the Ganges.

I have met yoga practitioners who seem to have really taken this to heart.  Through careful regulation of diet, asana, and often many other aspects of life, they ‘live the pure life’.  However, while clearly requiring great self-discipline and dedication, many seem highly absorbed by, if not obsessed with, their body and extremely rigid in their adherence to their wellness regimes.  To me this does not seem like the outcome described by Patanjali in II.40 and 41.

This set me wondering whether ‘sauca’ might in fact reside somewhere between the opposing symbols of the ‘Big Mac’ and the ‘lettuce leaf’.

A variety of ‘impurities’

Firstly, if we include diet and exercise as part of the territory of ‘bodily purification’ then perhaps we have to acknowledge that other ‘inputs’ to our personal system could be equally relevant.  A more complete vision of purification might encompass diet, air, water, movement, conversation, entertainment, information, and even self-generated thoughts and emotions.  I’ve had more than 15 years of personal experience of this since my first painful experience of gout.  Often written off as a condition caused by excessive rich food and alcohol, after many years of personal experimentation, I have come to recognise that it is a whole lot more complicated than that.  If gout is an expression of impurity in the body, I now know that, in me at least, while it can certainly be influenced by alcohol and high purine foods, dehydration and psycho-emotional stress are also very important factors.  In fact, stress alone has been known to trigger a bout.  The body mind boundary is decidedly blurry!

So, if we consider purification it seems like we are continually faced with choices that affect our body-mind.  What I eat, who I talk to, where I live, what work I engage in, how I choose to play.  All these and more will influence my state of body-mind at any given time.  If purification is some kind of end goal it seems to me that we are on a hiding to nothing unless we engage in some pretty radical austerities and isolation.  Maybe this is what Patanjali had in mind?  Certainly there still exist yogis that withdraw completely from society and live in isolation and extreme simplicity.

However, it seems that householder yogis might struggle to achieve anything remotely like this level of purification no matter how much water filtering and organic superfood selection we engage in!

The risk of seeing purification as a goal

In any case, it seems that there often is something delusional and unskilful in this interpretation of purification as a goal to be achieved.  Neither an indifference to nor an obsession with the body seems in keeping with the practical suggestions made in other yamas and niyamas such as ahimsa (non-violence) or santosha (contentment).

I’m not advocating abandoning consideration of body-mind purification of course.  At the Big Mac end of the spectrum, it seems obvious that poor health and a lack of self-awareness is a high probability.  I just wonder the same risks might also exist at the opposite end of the body purification spectrum.  Taken to extremes, health obsessions sometimes seem only a step or two away from the practices of ‘mortification of the flesh’ or the assertion that all earthly pleasure is in some way morally wrong or sinful!  To me such practices and the inherent judgements that drive them, represent a sad disconnection from our embodiment.

Redefining saucha

Matthew Remski attempts to deal with this problem by proposing an alternative translation of Sauca using the word ‘ecology’ rather than ‘bodily purification’.  He goes on to rephrase the latter sutras too:

“Ecology allows you to honour your flesh, and the flesh of others. Ecology enables clarity, brightness, joy, insight, sensual harmony and inquiry.”

(Remski’s translation of II.40 and 41)

Personally, I think ‘harmony’ works pretty well too.  It allows me to consider the spectrum of body-mind influences indicated previously and choose what works best for me and the network of human and natural processes that support my existence.  Harmony carries less of a sense of absolutism than purification, at least to my ear.

It seems to point to a middle way between the Big Mac and the lettuce leaf.  Towards seeking what seems best without straying too far off into either over-indulgence or self-recriminating austerity.  Accepting that my choices will always be imperfect or at least incomplete.  I may eat the best food I can grow or buy in a place where I know the air quality is not so good.   ‘Harmony’ on a daily basis is a compromise activity but I do the best I can.  I may even succumb on occasion to the temptation of the mince pie or glass of wine, though I know wheat does my digestion no favours and wine increases the risk of gout.  But I do not immediately wallow in regret and self-criticism.  I keep things in perspective.  Or I try to – accepting that ‘perspective’ is itself riddled with the prejudices of social ‘norms’ and my personal ‘stories’.

From this interpretation of ‘bodily purification’ as harmony, I have begun to see that my ‘appetites’ for inputs of all kinds arise as a result of continually shifting and competing processes of physiology and psychology.  My hunger is physiological but my translation of that hunger into an appetite for a cheese sandwich may be much more psychological.  Identifying these processes brings a degree of equanimity.  It does not change the physiological urge to eat or the psychological appetite for a beer or a donut.  But it softens the urgency of the inner voices that tell me that “just one mince pie won’t hurt” or “don’t eat the apple pie my mum baked for my visit – she didn’t use organic apples”.  Such voices may never fall completely silent but they may become less dominant as decision makers in my life.

Householder sauca?

Perhaps this is a path that might be considered ‘sustainable purification’ rather than one of ‘purge and relapse’ or ‘absolutism’.  Even then, it may be worth embracing the possibility that occasional purges can shift my sense of the ‘norm’ – both psychologically (giving up refined sugar for a while may curb my need to eat something sweet after each meal) and physiologically (giving up coffee for a while may shift my caffeine dependency).  Similarly, occasional lapses may prevent my life choices and judgements becoming too rigid, offer greater flexibility and openness to change and new possibilities, and perhaps reduce internal conflicts related to my choices.

This approach seems to lead towards greater equanimity with regard body-mind purity.  This seems like a very different outcome to ‘indifference to the body’.  Such equanimity seems based on a body-mind awareness that encompasses clarity, happiness, concentration, mastery of the senses and the capacity for self-awareness.  All in all, a much more wholesome sounding destination than the cul-de-sacs of over-indulgence and austerity.  Maybe this is ‘householder sauca’?

This is part 9 of a 10-part invitation to inquiry centred on the yamas and niyamas from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.  The full series is available at