Judith Hanson Lasater on Svadhyaya: Remembering the Self

One day a few years back, as I was starting to teach a beginning yoga class, a first-time student spoke up from the back of the room asking, “By the way, what is yoga?” A thousand thoughts flooded my mind; how could I answer truthfully and succinctly? Thankfully the answer came almost spontaneously from my heart: “Yoga is the study of the Self”.

This is actually the definition of svadhyaya, one of the niyamas, or “observances,” outlined in Patanjali’s 8 Limbs of Yoga. The word “svadhyaya” can be broken up into three smaller words. “Sva” means one’s Self, meaning the soul, the atman, or the Higher Self. “Dhy” is related to the word “dhyana” which means meditation. And “ya” is an activating suffix. Thus svadhyaya means “actively meditating on or studying the nature of the Self”. I like to define svadhyaya slightly differently as “remembering to be aware”. 

All of us have moments when we perceive ourselves and the world around us with clarity. But svadhyaya is more than just mental clarity. It is the deep acknowledgment of the oneness of Self with all that is. In other words, to practice svadhyaya is to begin to dissolve the illusion of separateness we feel from ourselves, those around us, and our world. To practice svadhyaya is to find God in the person standing in front of us at this very moment. 

I read an interesting story lately about a Zen monk who was giving his first talk to a small group of beginning American Zen students. The monk spoke very little English and the students spoke no Japanese. The monk gave his presentation simply by standing in front of each student; he would not talk, smile, move or in any way avoid deep contact with the student. Some students were moved to tears. This deep acknowledgment of the God-sense or Self within us all is at the heart of svadhyaya. 

Scientists continue to discover the powerful connections of energy that exist on all levels of the Universe. And these connections are not only between cells in the body, but between widely distanced events which only a few years ago would be considered separate. (These discoveries are part of the field of study called Chaos Theory) . I remember studying biology in college and was struck by our unit on ecology. Biologists were beginning to teach the “new” concept of the interrelatedness of all living things, i.e. ecology.  Interestingly, in all eras and in all cultures spiritual teachers have taught the “ecology of the spirit”, i.e., the connection of each of us with the whole. This connection exists; the practice of svadhyaya is whatever reminds us of that connection.

Svadhyaya could be reading this article, practicing postures, studying scriptures or singing from the heart. Practices which help one experience the interwoven fabric of reality are svadhyaya. 

The five niyamas ask of us that we take our practice into a deeper level of our consciousness. While the yamas outline actions and attitudes we ought to avoid, the niyamas describe actions and attitudes which we should cultivate to overcome the illusion of separation and suffering it causes.  The five specific niyamas, purity (saucha), contentment (samtosha), austerity (tapas), self-study (svadhayaya), and devotion to the Lord (isvara pranidanah are to be practiced within one’s self in order to live free from the attachments which cause suffering and separation from the Whole.

Patanjali’s teachings are not for the weak. He requires discipline and strength. He asks us to walk into the unknown. But he does not abandon us on this journey. Instead he offers the wise teachings of the niyamas to guide us back home to ourselves; it is this journey to nowhere that transforms us and all those with whom we come into contact. This is the final commitment and the very heart of the teachings of yoga. Bon voyage! 

This is an excerpt from Judith Hanson Lasater: Practicing the Presence of God: Living the Niyamas of Patanjali. Reprinted with permission.

Also check out Judith’s course on YogaUOnline: The Maturing Yogi: Evoking Peace and Contentment in Our Practice

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