We human beings are seekers. I’m not being flowery here. I’m speaking literally. The impulse to seek is written in the code of our DNA. It’s part of our survival mechanism. Something deep within us pushes us to search. And strive. And follow our curiosity. And tell stories of what we find. We’re meaning-making creatures. In order to understand ourselves, in order to understand our existence and our world, we have to make something. We have to create, tell, and remember stories.
Svadhyaya is a sansrkit word most often translated as self-study. But it’s not simply a generic form of self-study—technically it’s studying ourselves through the stories of our people. The teaching of Svadhyaya comes from a time before writing, and traditionally referred to the memorization and recitation of mantras, scriptures, and songs, which provided a way to build identity among families and communities. You knew who you were through the stories you’d been taught since birth.
Every single one of us is born into a set of stories. From the moment of our birth, when someone says: “it’s a girl!” over our newborn body, we’re being told stories about who we are. And as we grow up, our family, our society, our religious tradition, our school teachers, tell us more stories about who we are and where we come from. We’re told stories that teach us a particular set of values. We’re told stories that help us form a particular view of the world. The stories we hear shape our self-knowledge. They shape our God-knowledge.They shape our sense of purpose and responsibility.
Now, I want to be clear, I’m not making a value judgement about any of the stories we were told. I’m simply calling our attention to the reality that we’ve been shaped by stories. Untangling the useful stories from the harmful stories is some of the deep work of our lives. As yogi’s, this is the work of svadhyaya—deep self-study that helps us surface the stories that’ve conditioned us. And right now, as we move toward the time of year that our culture collectively calls “the holidays,” I’m inviting us into the practice of svadhyaya.
Because, do you know what holidays are? They’re a collective remembering of our stories.
I’m going to say that again: Holidays are a collective remembering of our stories. The traditions that we enact in celebration of any given holiday is a way of telling a story.
So what are the holidays you celebrate? And what are the stories that lie underneath them? Because life is an ever changing process, the stories you tell through your celebrations are almost assuredly some mixture of ancient and brand new.
Some holidays tell national stories (what were you taught about the pilgrims and Indians and the birth of America?). Some holidays tell religious stories (what do you know about the 3 wise men? Or menorah candles?). I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea. Holidays are a collective remembering of our stories. And one of the ways we remember stories is through the practice of ritual.
Ritual is the systematic coming together of a people around something. Around a birthday, a meal, a story, a holiday. Ritual is a practice—the practice of embodying the stories that shape and inform us.
Some of you were taught ritual through the religious traditions of your family: For example, if you grew up Christian, you witnessed bread and wine becoming body and blood, if you grew up Jewish you witnessed bitter herbs becoming the harshness of slavery, if you grew up Muslim you witnessed prayer becoming the act of plunging into cleansing water 5 times a day. But, if like me, you didn’t grow up religious, formal rituals like these may be something you didn’t witness or experience until adulthood, if ever.
But we’ve all experienced ritual of some kind. I mean the act of making a wish and blowing out candles after being sung to is an example of an annual ritual many of us have participated in. So is pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving. Or special pajamas on Christmas Eve. And on a more daily basis, there’s the ritual act of sitting down around a table, eating a meal, and sharing the experiences of the day with people you love.
One of the most important aspects of ritual is bringing consciousness into action. The act of ritual takes something ordinary—bread, wine, bitter herbs, a bowing body, even a pie—and transforms it into something sacred. Rituals aren’t something you just mechanically move through. Or at least they’re not supposed to be. But it happens right? I mean how often do we hear—or say—“I’ve just got to get through the holidays.” For many of us the ritual of remembering and enacting meaningful stories has been overshadowed by stress and busyness.
But this year is different. The holidays are arriving in the midst of a global pandemic. And in order to keep people safe, we’re being asked to stay away from one another. We can’t be a people coming together around something—we can’t enact our rituals. At least, not in the ways that we’re used to.
For many, there’s a great deal of loss around this reality. For other’s there’s a sense of relief at the sight of an empty calendar. And for some, for those whom the holidays are always lonely and painful, maybe there’s a feeling of solidarity.
Wherever you fall on this spectrum, the reality remains the same. Holiday celebrations will be different this year, which means, we have an opportunity. The practice of yoga asks us to interrupt our patterns so that we can increase our self-awareness. The practice of yoga asks us to turn off auto-pilot and live with a deeper sense of intention. A global pandemic is not the kind of interruption we would ever ask for. But it’s what’s real right now.
We don’t have a choice. We can’t simply go through the motions of what we’ve always done. Which means we have space to pause and reflect—to practice svadhyaya and ponder the stories we enact through our holiday celebrations. We have the opportunity to reevaluate these stories, to reevaluate our rituals. To bring fresh awareness and fresh ideas to how we tell the stories that matter to us.