Welcome to the Niyamas: the second limb of yoga as described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.
The Yamas offered us a set of five restraints, things to stop doing. Important to note, the Yamas have an outward focus; they are things we stop doing to other people. As we shift now to exploring the Niyamas, we begin the inward turn of the eight limbed path.
The Sanskrit word “yama” means to rein in or control. The prefix “ni” means beyond or after, so the five Niyamas are simply the set of instructions that come after the yamas. Sometimes Sanskrit is mystical and multilayered; sometimes its starkly technical. But anyone who’s ever studied Iyengar yoga will know that those two states of being aren’t nearly as far apart as they may sound.
The Niyamas are behaviors we adopt in relationship to ourselves, and the first is saucha, meaning cleanliness or purity. We’ve covered the role of hand washing as a practice of ahimsa — a way to stop harming others — but it bears repeating now as a practice of saucha: wash your hands. Wash your hands.
A practice of saucha invites cleanliness into all aspects of our lives. One especially important area to consider right now is the cleanliness of your diet. Eating well, getting the essential vitamins and minerals associated with immunity, hydrating and reducing inflammation are all part of yoga because they keep your body healthy. Your being healthy helps keep other people healthy.
Another practice of saucha in this moment is to clean your physical environment. Literally wiping down surfaces, but also tidying up. A disorderly physical environment leads to mental overwhelm and exhaustion. We’re all doing a lot right now, so it’s tempting to overlook the clutter, but in our experience having a clean space helps us keep calm, soothes our nervous system and creates a much needed feeling of ease.
We can push deeper into our understanding of saucha and consider purity of thought. As in, what sort of unclean or untrue thoughts are we having about covid-19? Our president naming this infection “the Chinese virus” creates dangerous mental associations that reflect centuries old racist, nationalistic rhetoric about foreignness and contamination. If or when the mind wanders into that territory (the mind wanders everywhere; don’t judge it) a practice of saucha asks us to clean up our thinking.
The virus doesn’t discriminate. Let’s at least learn that much from this experience ourselves.