A few times each year, I offer a multi-week series on foundational philosophical tenets of yoga. It’s work that I love. It feels like sharing the truth of what yoga really is, and though I’ve taught it all before many times, it bears teaching— and learning— over and over and over again. Some of these teachings I return to for the reminders that are always needed and others because they help us push through another layer of the question, “who am I, really?” A question that each of us will (hopefully) never be done with until we take our last breath.
Last week we landed in week 4 of the Niyamas: Svadhyaya, self study, the center of the center of the “Who am I?” question. Svadhyaya is cultivating awareness of self and/also cultivating awareness of Self. Exploring the parts of us that change. Knowing the part that never changes. It’s about observing, studying, contemplating, learning, meditating our way to the truth of who we are.
Even practice at the most basic level teaches us about mindfulness and gives us tools to listen to the body’s needs and messages; watch the tendencies and reactivity of the mind; notice who and how we are in the world, and, over time, give us insights into the conscious and unconscious desires that incite our every action. The more we apply the practice, the more we see. The more we see, the more we can create change. Eventually, we spend more time in the realms of right thought, right speech and right action. There is so much value here- it is the keystone for living a purposeful and compassionate life. But there is nothing constant in these layers of self. This is just the beginning.
The longer we practice and the deeper we dive, the more access we have to the part of us that doesn’t change. This is the epicenter of the “Who am I, really?” question: the big self, the true self, the capital S self. The Self that is the essence of you, no matter your age, your family or friends, what job you do, what your hobbies are, your appearance, your likes and dislikes. And this is the Self we need to know. Somewhat ironically, when we get glimpses of the Self, we begin to recognize that the truest answer to the “who am I?” question is not found in the movements of the mind and body, in our actions or reactions. The answer is found in the stillness.
I’ve been going on about stillness, rest, sustenance, silence, and being over doing for ages now. Why? Because all of it points toward a higher consciousness, toward something spacious, expansive, deep within us and in all things. There is something beyond the noise and turmoil we see in the world and feel in ourselves. The essence of who we are is clarity, light, love. We are just too busy to feel it as we spin through day to day life. The answer to the “who am I” question that we most need to uncover, will only be revealed in the wide open space.
At the end of class, I roamed off on a tangent about David Attenborough’s The Year Earth Changed, a breathtaking snapshot of hope, of possibility. This hourlong documentary recounts those early months of the pandemic when the world quite literally shut down; when we all stopped driving and flying and constantly doing-doing-doing. And when we humans got still, our sweet Earth found herself- or perhaps began to reclaim her Self in that stillness. Seismic activity lowered to a whisper, the air and the sea became quieter and clearer, even the creatures- winged, furry, finned- expanded into sounds and spaces long since abandoned. In the stillness, She said YES.
I think that we are the same. In small slices and wide stretches of quiet, of stillness, we reclaim and remember our truest Self. We return to who we truly are. To live from that space is to be a bringer of light, a bearer of truth, a presence of grace in this dark and troubled world. At this time in history, it feels imperative to invest in a relationship with that unchanging love within. I feel more certain with each passing day that if more of us do not reclaim the Self, our forgetting— our separation– will be the ultimate collective undoing of our home and of each other.
I urge you to recommit to the practice of stillness, leaning into your own inquiry of who you are, really. Our investment in the truth and light that connects us all contains the fuel to carry us forward in peace.