One day this winter 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 another of the niyamas, svadhyaya. 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.
From Practicing the Presence of God: Living the Niyamas of Patanjali
By Judith Hanson Lasater