Purifying body and mind
by Shobhan Richard Faulds
The second in a series of articles on yoga's transformative process
Just as you must clean a cup before filling it with milk or tea, a seeker must purify body and mind before a depth practice of yoga is possible.
Yoga views the transformative process as an intensive housecleaning of the entire system, a process called shuddhi, or purification. Yogic purification is more than cleansing the body of impurities that stand in the way of vibrant health. It also aims to remove subtle impurities that harden the heart and render the mind unsteady, and even subtler impurities said to keep the inner light of the soul from shining forth. Purification is not always an easy or comfortable process, yet for many practitioners it is a powerful and life-changing aspect of their practice.
The purification process starts on a tangible level with the physical body. Eating too much, exercising too little, smoking, and abusing alcohol or drugs cause the body to produce more waste products than it can eliminate. As waste accumulates in the tissues and cells, the body becomes heavily laden with what yoga calls mala and what alternative health approaches refer to as toxins. Instead of feeling light and clear, an impure body feels heavy and stagnant.
Regular exercise and moderate eating allows the body to begin eliminating its backlog of waste products. Yoga practice enhances this natural process by increasing blood circulation throughout the entire body and stimulating organ function. Physical impurities that undermine health and sap vitality are flushed from the tissues to enter the bloodstream and be eliminated, primarily by the liver and kidneys. What yoga calls bhuta shuddhi or purification of the gross elements, contemporary practitioners often refer to as healing.
Meditation and other contemplative practices stimulate a parallel process on a psychological level. Subtle impurities called vikshepa cloud and agitate the mind. Anything that prevents awareness from flowing freely through the emotional and mental faculties is viewed by yoga as an impurity. Emotional impurities include buried trauma, repressed feelings associated with undigested experiences, and a variety of defense mechanisms that dull sensitivity and act as barriers to full feeling. Mental impurities include preconceptions, rigid and compartmentalized thinking, inaccurate belief systems, and other conditioning that filters perception and distorts reality.
By relaxing and focusing the mind, meditation causes mental and emotional impurities to rise from the unconscious and enter the stream of consciousness. The mental faculties that allow you to feel fully and see clearly serve the same purpose as the liver and kidneys do for the body. When unconscious material is held in the light of conscious awareness, it is released to pass through you, leaving your heart more open and your mind clearer. Yoga regards psychological purification as an unlearning process, a stripping away of layer after layer of conditioning to reveal our essential wholeness. The purified mind is steady, creative, and surprisingly simple. Its faculties are responsive to the moment and free from the scars of past disappointments, resentments, and other wounds. Today's yogis view sattva shuddhi, or purification of the subtle elements, as a process of psychological growth.
Yoga teaches that our core problem stems from the fact that we have forgotten who and what we really are. This avidya, or spiritual ignorance, is the most subtle impurity. Convinced that we are defined by our bodies, beliefs, personalities, preferences, possessions, careers, and nationalities, we live estranged from an authentic sense of self and cut off from a vital spiritual connection. Purification consists of vidyathe direct experience of spirit. What yoga calls chitta shuddhi or purification of the self-sense, contemporary practitioners refer to as spiritual awakening.
When the body is sluggish and the world is viewed through a thick filter of emotional baggage and mental clutter, it's impossible to see reality clearly and respond appropriately. This is why approaches to healing and growth that don't work to purify body and mind prove superficial. It's important to know, however, that the kind of purification brought on by intensive yoga practice can be a challenging proposition. When the pace of purification is rapid, it can lead to a healing crisis and a temporary reduction in function. Common experiences include headaches, nausea, colds, fevers, or areas of soreness that suddenly come and go. As the crisis passes, vitality rises to a new level.
The most potent forms of purification are emotional and mental. In the phenomena called catharsis, purification can cause powerful emotions to surface and break through unconscious barriers to feeling. Catharsis can dramatically cleanse an emotional system that has grown congested and dull. Although it leads to greater sensitivity and balance, feeling the mental content associated with catharsis often pushes you outside comfort zones and beyond perceived limits. Mental purification can similarly lead to insights that reconfigure a mind grown cluttered and compartmentalized. Although increased clarity and creativity is the result, clearing the mind requires bearing the pain of confronting material that has been pushed out of conscious awareness, experiencing inner conflict, reliving past memories, and acknowledging unseen shortcomings.
Anyone who goes through a fiery time of purification emerges on the other side knowing firsthand its value and benefits. While cleaning up your lifestyle is important, remember that purification is just one aspect of the transformative process. Taken to extremes, it can turn into a puritanical asceticism that dead-ends in dogmatic behavior, emotional deadness, and self-righteousness. Because the challenges presented by purification are very real, Kripalu Yoga recommends slow and steady lifestyle changes and deepening your practice at a modest pace. It's also why Kripalu Yoga emphasizes the inner focusing techniques of "riding the wave" and "witness consciousness," whose role in the transformative process will be explored in the final article in this series.
Shobhan Richard Faulds, M.A., J.D., is a professional-level Kripalu yoga teacher. Shobhan's book, Kripalu Yoga: A Guide to Practice On and Off the Mat, is scheduled to be released by Bantam in January 2006. Shobhan and his wife, Danna, edited Sayings of Swami Kripalu: Inspiring Quotes from a Contemporary Yoga Master, available at wholesale prices to KYTA members when you buy five or more; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.