I’ve been thinking and writing lately about Yama and Niyama: two of the eight limbs of yoga described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. They’re sort of like a yogic blueprint for connecting with the self, the universe and everything – guidelines for how to live well. Loosely, the Yama are about how we interact with things external to us, and the Niyama are a bit more personal. There are five of each, and the first Niyama is Saucha.
Saucha means purity, or cleanliness. The idea is that bringing saucha into a yoga practice helps to minimise distractions and make it easier to concentrate – and therefore easier to get deep into yoga and connect with the self. On a physical level, saucha suggests that it’s important to practise in a space that is clean enough not to be distracting; it’s hard to get in the right headspace for deep practice if you’re looking at the grime on the skirting boards or worrying that the bookshelf might fall on your head. In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika it goes so far as to say:
The Yogi should practice Hatha Yoga in a small room, situated in a solitary place, being 4 cubits square, and free from stones, fire, water, disturbances of all kinds, and in a country where justice is properly administered, where good people live, and food can be obtained easily and plentifully…The room should have a small door, be free from holes, hollows, neither too high nor too low, well plastered with cow-dung and free from dirt, filth and insects.
While these guidelines might be a bit far out of reach for yoga practitioners today, it’s still true that the space that you do your practice in can either help or hinder your ability to focus. This goes for making art, as well as for yoga. If you have a place that you do most of your work in, think about the way you feel in that place. Do your surroundings make you feel creative? Inspired? Calm? Or none of those things? Or if you don’t have any designated space for making, can you make one? Or if that’s not possible, can you find a way to fill whatever space you happen to be in with the energy of your creative work? Something as simple as a lamp that you use to light the space you’re working in, or music playing, or a cup of the same tea each time, can help to bring you into your making mindset every time you set out to work. And if your place of work right now makes you feel stressed and distracted, think about why that might be; what it is about it that doesn’t complement the way you like to work. And change it. Altering the environment in which we practise yoga or make art is one of the simplest ways to help ourselves.
Cleanliness of body is important in yoga, too, and there are a number of shat kriyas, or cleansing practices that yogis and followers of Ayurvedic medicine have traditionally undertaken to purify the body. One shat kriya that is easy and safe to do (although it feels a bit weird the first few times you do it) and is great for waking up and feeling clearer and more prepared for the day, or for yoga practice, or for creating art, is neti. Using a neti pot – which is like a very small watering can – you bend over and pour warm salty water through one nostril, and close your throat so that the water runs out of the other nostril. And then repeat on the other side. If you’d like to give it a go, I recommend looking on YouTube for instructional videos first, or ask your yoga teacher to show you – most will know how to do it! It clears out any mucus blocking the nasal passage, and makes you feel bright and more alive. I recommend it if you’re feeling a bit sluggish and struggling to get going.
Another cleansing practice described in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika is trataka – ‘blinkless gazing’. This is a powerful practice for quieting the loud chatter of the mind, and bringing the focus to one point. It reduces the focus down to just one point, fading out the distractions of everything else – purifying the mind. And with this concentration comes a more inward-looking sense, and the parts of consciousness that get squashed by external distractions can open up. To practise trataka, you need a candle and a dark room. Light the candle and put it about arm’s length in front of you, and then sit comfortably – cross legged, or kneeling, or on a chair if you need. And gaze at the candle, without blinking. Keep your eyes on the candle and let the rest of the room drop away. Keep gazing. For as long as you can; until your eyes water and you can’t keep them open any longer. Observe thoughts that come into your mind, and gently, gently bring your attention back to the candle alone. And then when you can’t keep them open any longer, close your eyes, but keep the awareness on the impression that the light of the candle has left behind your eyelids. See if you can bring that impression back to the centre of your vision if it slides away. And keep the awareness on it until it has completely disappeared. Physically, trataka is said to be beneficial for eye health; but it’s also said to unlock and direct the energy of the mind inward, and awaken the unconscious parts of the mind. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika suggests that, if practised regularly, it can develop skills in telepathy and psychic healing; but it certainly aids concentration, and improves the ability to focus on tasks and see them through even when they become difficult, which makes it very useful for handling the ups and downs of art practice.
Swami Muktibodhananda. 1998 (4th reprint). Hatha Yoga Pradipika. India: Bihar School of Yoga
Sri Swami Satchidananda. 2012 (revised edition). Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Integral Yoga Publications