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The Ancient Practice of Sauca (and Why It’s Still Relevant Today)

There is a subtle but important ritual I naturally follow before stepping over the threshold onto the cool cement floor of my aunt’s bungalow in Bengaluru, India: I remove my chappals and wipe the red earth from my feet.

In Indian culture, prior to entering homes and other kinds of sacred spaces, we take off our shoes and sometimes even rinse our feet. This ritual is spiritual and a sign of respect, but it is also practical. Especially before the influence of colonization on India, most people ate their meals from banana leaves or from steel plates placed on the floor. Mats were usually rolled onto the ground for cool sleeping. Keeping the floors spotless protected against contamination and illness. Though tables and beds are a modern-day norm for many in India, the observance of floor cleanliness continues.

I realized in adulthood that this was one of many forms of śauca (Sanskrit: शौच, pronounced like “shau-cha” or “sau-cha”). In yoga communities, śauca is often translated as hygiene or purification. We relate it to washing hands, bathing, or tidying a space. But this niyama, or personal practice, covers a broader definition of cleanliness that is external and internal, physical and spiritual. I’ve come to appreciate the concept of śauca for its subtle power: cleanliness allows the harmonious flow of energy, inside and out.

Clearing the way for energy flow

Prana, the energy of life, flows in and around all things in the system of our Universe. When our systems are clean, energy moves easily and productively. But if part of the system is clogged or dirty, it disrupts energetic flow and may even cause damage.

Imagine a laptop hard drive that’s overloaded or infected with a virus. Programs freeze, valuable information is lost, and the battery drains quickly. But once the hard drive is cleaned, using the computer is a swift, satisfying experience again.

The same can be said for our personal lives. If we discover toxic behavior or emotional turmoil—say, we find ourselves acting out a stubborn resentment or mired in grief after an unexpected loss—we may also see evidence of our internal struggle in our physical environment. And vice versa. We practice śauca to clear the pathway between our internal and external lives. We clean our minds as we wash our bodies, clarify our interactions as we tidy the bedroom, clear our emotional states as we choose healthy meals.

Honoring and protecting the body

Śauca suggests we use discretion about whom and what we invite into contact with us. Being mindful of our physical and emotional environments in this way keeps our personal systems clear and flowing.

Swami Satchidananda’s translation of śauca in the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali emphasizes this discretion, but can sometimes be misinterpreted. He explains that with cleanliness practice, we develop a reluctance toward contact with others in order to maintain a pure state of mind and body:

शौचात् स्वाङ्गज ुग ुप्सा पर ैरसंसर ्गः śaucātsvā ga-jugupsā parairasa sargaḥ “By purification arises dispassion for one’s own body and for contact with other bodies.”

—Satchidananda, Book II (Sadhana Pada), Sutra 40

At first glance, this sutra might come across as advocating avoidant behaviors. Anyone who practices this too literally might be thought to lack affection for others or to have some sort of body dysmorphia. But these days, we are hyper-aware of the need to maintain sanitary practices to protect health—for ourselves and for the greater good. By purifying and protecting ourselves, we inherently protect others.

Śauca suggests we consciously choose whom we invite into contact with us—not just physically, but emotionally. And, here, the word “dispassion” suggests being free from judging our body—either glamorizing it or being critical of it. We become aware of the body simply as a body, and we are humbled.

Practicing śauca for a clean mind and body

Śauca, like all yoga practice, is ongoing and usually incremental. Cleanliness is a practice that has to be repeated and maintained. But remember that any change, big or small, contributes to positive transformation. Here are a few ways you can apply śauca starting today:

Tidy your diet

In the modern U.S., we see all kinds of advertisements for teas, pills, juices, and fasting regimens that promise to cleanse or detox our bodies. But eating “cleaner” can be simple and free.

For example, consider your morning cup of coffee. After a night of sleep without food or drink, ingesting sugar and caffeine first thing in the morning can be harmful to your stomach. Breaking your fast with a drink of warm water may better support your digestive flow.

The busier we are, the less intentional we may be about what we invite into our bodies. Approaching your food and drink thoughtfully may help physiological systems flow, and you might notice more ease in your emotions.

Practice neti

Our nostrils skillfully capture foreign particles to prevent them from entering our bodies. Practicing neti is like cleaning your body’s natural air filter. Traditionally, the practice involves the flushing of the nasal passages with warm salt water so they can optimally do their job. Research shows that proper application of neti can reduce symptoms of allergies and recurrence of the common cold.

It is generally safe for anyone, but talk with your primary health care provider for recommended resources, safe techniques, and the best tools for nasal irrigation, such as a neti pot. When we breathe clearly, we often think more clearly.

Arrange your environment

If your physical space is cluttered or if objects around you are grimy, your mind may feel just as muddied. In fact, research shows that mess can create stress. As an artist and writer, I start my workday by wiping down my space with an eco-friendly cleaning solution, setting out materials I will need for the day, and tidying away anything else. A clean space helps me focus. Your own śauca practice might include de-cluttering a desk, closet, or room. If you’re environmentally minded, you may give your attention to removing trash from a beach or roadside—a practice that can be fulfilling and cleansing. Wherever your śauca practice, I invite you to repeat this mantra: “As I clean my surroundings, I welcome peace of mind, health, and flow.”

Spring cleaning across cultures

Collective cleaning at the turn of season is also built into spiritual and cultural traditions of all kinds. Feng shui, the ancient Chinese practice of harmonious arrangement of environment, is often recommended at the turn of a season—in nature or in one’s life. Thailand celebrates Songkran (from Sanskrit saṃkrānti), Festival of Water, where Buddha statues are mindfully washed and people of all ages splash in water. Nowruz, the Persian New Year at the spring equinox, is celebrated in part by the “shaking of the house,” or clearing dust from the home. And before the Chinese Lunar New Year, dwellings are thoroughly swept and cleaned to welcome fresh good luck.

About our contributor

Rina Deshpande, EdM, E-RYT 500, is a teacher, writer, and yoga and mindfulness researcher. Learn more about yoga’s rich philosophy with Rina’s course “The Culture & Practice of the Yama.” This on-demand course, a $300 value, is included with your Outside+ membership.

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