YS II.44 svadhyayad istadevata-samprayogah

Through study of the highest Self, one establishes identity with that Self.

There are two inseparable selves within each of us. We are most familiar with the one yoga refers to as the lower self, which is comprised of the different parts of the human psyche—id, ego, superego—that make up one’s personality. These are complex concepts, but in a nutshell, they represent our instincts, reality, and morality. To present them in a simple example, let’s say you see a spider in your living room. The id screams, “Oh, my, God, a spider! Kill it!” Then the superego reminds you that ahimsa (non-harming) is the core practice of yoga philosophy and cautions, “Killing is wrong.” The ego weighs the advice and reactions of both the id and superego and makes the decision to find something with a long handle to pick the spider up with and gently place outside. There is nothing wrong with the id or the superego. They are just doing their jobs. A healthy ego takes counsel from both but is the one in charge, the one who makes decisions. When this relationship tips out of balance and the ego loses control, it is called neurosis.

The higher self is the part of us connected to the Highest Self, Cosmic Consciousness, God, or however else you may envision this greater power. The Self is not divided into parts and it does not change; therefore, it cannot become unbalanced and it never dies. Notice those are all negative ways of describing the Self, pointing to what it is not. This is because the Self cannot be explained or understood. And so we turn our attention to the part of us that is connected to the Self, our own higher self. Think of it like water. Imagine the Highest Self is the ocean. If you were to scoop up a big bucket of water from the ocean and pour it into a variety of different sized cups, it would be the same water in each cup and the same as the water in the ocean. One is boundless, the other contained. And the shape of the cup does not affect the content.

Unless we are fully enlightened, our minds and hearts are not developed enough to grasp the grand and mysterious concept of the Highest Self, or that it is the same Self in all living things. And so, we turn to our own highest self to examine the little bit of “water” we hold in our own vessel, or mind/body complex, in an attempt to understand who we really are, which is far more than the body or the mind. Why do we do this? The goal of yoga, and the objective of all yoga practices, is to attain enlightenment. Translated literally, yoga means yoke or union. What are we trying to unite? All yoga practices—ethical principles, personal observances, breath control, physical postures, turning the senses inward, concentration, and meditation—aim to bring balance to and between the body and mind so they may work together in union to then unite with the Highest Self. Which is to say, to be reunited with our source, which is the source of all things. This is enlightenment.

It is useful for us to examine the lower self, to analyze our own psychology. This helps us understand why we think, speak, and act the way we do. Without minimizing the import of this type of self-analysis, this is not what svadhyaya means. Svadhyaya means to examine our higher self, which cannot be accessed by thinking, only feeling.

In order to develop the sensitivity required to feel this subtle self, the Yoga Sutras advise us to repeat mantras, sacred sounds. Sounds are waves. Different sounds have different frequencies. When we chant a sacred mantra, it is like plugging ourselves into that particular energy source. We begin to vibrate on that frequency. With enough repetition, the meaning of the sound arises, even if you have no idea what it means. For example, the Sanskrit word prema means love. If you were to repeat this word enough times, and with devotion, your heart chakra (energy center) would open and you would feel love. The most sacred mantra of all is Om. It is the original sound of the universe, a subtle, energetic wave that traveled—and continues to travel—outward, away from its source. This energy then transformed into matter. It created stars and planets and wind and water and trees and animals and you. If you really want to know your Self, try chanting Om.

by Laura Golden