Most spiritual traditions have rules and practices around cleanliness, some of which date back for centuries. There is a distinct link between the experience of purity and cleanliness and one’s ability to feel a connection to the divine. The emotion of disgust triggers an immediate shift into feeling repulsion and avoidance. Disgust also creates clear boundaries of the self which is diametrically opposed to attaining an experience of oneness. Yogis have discovered that impurities in our internal body adversely affect our state of mind, and prevent the attainment of real wisdom and spiritual liberation. Through the yogic practices of Asana, Pranayama, Tapas, and Shatkarma, the body and the mind become cleansed and our spiritual development is accelerated.
What is Shaucha?
Saucha is translated as “cleanliness or purity” and it is a yogic technique to cleanse the mind, speech, and body. Purification is a central aim of all the yogic practices and Shaucha is the first principle of Niyama, the eight moral observances in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. In yoga philosophy, the body is acknowledged as the dwelling place of spirit, and thus if the body, mind, and heart are polluted it will prevent you from connecting to your inner spirit or higher power.
Shaucha was initially concerned with ritual purification. Vedic priests and Bhramins would purify their minds by chanting Om and meditating with other mantras. It was also expected for participants to have recently bathed before entering the temple or participating in ceremonies. The teachings in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra emerged in the second century BCE and described how inner purifications can create a state of sattva—an experience of peace, joy, and freedom. After the development of Hatha Yoga in the 10th century CE, this concept of ritual purification was turned into physical cleansing exercises.
How yogic purification works
The physical postures of yoga purify the body through movements that increase and improve the flow of blood, oxygen, and prana (life force energy) in the tissues, muscles, and organs. The yoga poses squeeze and massages the muscles and organs to move out old stagnant blood and bring in fresh blood full of nutrients and oxygen. In the more dynamic postures, heat is created and sweat is produced to facilitate the release toxins through the pores of the skin.
When the mind, body, and spirit have been purified through the various practices of yoga, the overall result is an increase in the flow of prana through the whole body, improving our capacity to work, think, digest, taste, feel, and experience life. And not only do these practices make us feel more alive, but they also foster our spiritual development, inner awareness, and equanimity.
How to practice Shaucha
- Decide on a goal or focus. What do you wish to purify and how?
- Make a vow or commitment. How often and how long will you practice and work on your goal?
- Create a reminder system. You can set a calendar alarm, post a visual reminder, or use a to-do app.
- Document your progress. You can journal your progress or find other mediums to make notes on how well your journey is progressing.
- Refine and repeat. After completing your goal take time to reflect and set another vow or commitment to practice.
6 Ways to practice Shaucha
Start with exterior purification
It will be easiest to begin practicing Shaucha on a physical and exterior level. Start by focusing on the most visible and obvious things, like keeping your body, yoga mat, and your home clean. Start small with the easiest areas of your life to maintain cleanliness. From there explore in the more challenging areas or places that you have not considered. Notice how the cleanliness of your environment affects your body, mind, and heart.
Purifying Pranayama breathing
The breathing techniques of pranayama purify the mind and body through the balance and cultivation of energy throughout the whole body. Different pranayamas have different actions on the body and thus different purifying effects. Kapalabhati (breath of fire) is warming and energizing, purifying the body through the creation of heat and the movement of energy. Nadi Sodhana (alternate nostril breath) is calming and cleansing, purifying the body through reducing stress and removing blockages in the Nadis (energy channels).
Hatha Yoga cleansing kriyas
The six cleansing practices of Shatkarma purify the body by physically removing excesses of mucus or phlegm. These are primarily esoteric practices that must be learned and performed with the supervision of a qualified teacher. The Shatkarmas are described as six groups of yogic cleansing techniques.
- Neti: nasal cleaning and irrigation.
- Dhauti: cleansing of the digestive tract.
- Nauli: abdominal massage.
- Basti: colon cleansing.
- Kapalbhati: purification and vitalization of the brain.
- Trataka: blink less gazing.
The goal of these practices is to purge out excesses in order to bring the three doshas (physical constitutions) into balance. If the doshas are already in balance, then it is recommended to not practice these intense cleansing practices. There are easier, gentler, and more accessible ways of balancing the doshas through the healing techniques of Ayurveda that can be utilized as an alternative of the Shatkarmas.
Mental and emotional purification
Mental purification can be one of the most challenging types of Shaucha. These practices are primarily meditation-based but can also involve the devotional techniques of bhakti-yoga. The negative emotions of selfishness, anger, greed, jealousy, self-criticism, fear, arrogance, and pride all pollute the heart and cover up the inner spirit with darkness. These emotions also agitate Sattva and make it difficult to experience inner peace and equanimity.
- Consciously examine the quality, quantities, location, and cause of each emotion.
- Cultivate positive emotions and let go of what does not serve your higher good.
- Find a meditation technique that is deeply calming and soothing to your mind and heart.
- Practice navigating away from mental agitation and move towards inner peace instead.
Purify your words
Your communication with others can often be an illuminating mirror to your inner world. Having purity in your communication can purify your relationships with others. Practicing mindful communication will focus your mind and remind you to cultivate positive emotions in your heart. There are many different ways to purify your words.
- Become mindful of the type and quality of language you incorporate into your vocabulary.
- Make conscious choices to have your communication reflect the positive emotions in your heart and the calmness in your mind.
- Speak kindly to yourself and others. Refrain from gossip and negative self-talk.
- Make eye contact when you speak with others.
- Listen and give others your full attention when they speak to you.
Burn up impurities
The intensive self-discipline of Tapas purifies the mind and spirit through the “burning up” of the desires in our mind. Basically, Tapas is engaging the will to a specific action you do not want to do; or not doing some action you want to do. This creates a conflict between our will and the desire of our mind producing an internal “fire” which illuminates and burns up our mental and physical impurities. You can harness the fiery power of Tapas in any type of cleansing practice to amplify the power of Shaucha.