Ever since our seven-year-old son was able to sit up on his own in the bathtub, my Indian husband has chanted “Svaha!” every time he pours water over his head, much to our son’s squealing delight. Because it was a part of my husband’s own bath-time ritual growing up, “svaha” has become a tradition in our household and something we practise with our 18-month-old daughter as well.
Used in both Hinduism and Buddhism, svaha (or swaha) is translated roughly as “Hail” or “So be it” and is commonly chanted as the final exclamation of a mantra. In addition, and in this instance with bath water, svaha serves as an oblation or, as my mother-in-law says, a beseeching of the gods to accept one’s offerings, for which one hopes to receive divine blessings in return.
What’s lovely about svaha is that the word itself encompasses an act of prayer, sparking a collaborative dialogue with holiness. The humblest and most basic of everyday activities, like rinsing a sudsy head with water, become elevated avenues to connecting with, and surrendering to, the Divine and simultaneously receiving sacred transmission.
The same is true of yoga practice. We arrive on our mats. We sit in Virasana (Hero Pose), breathe, unfold into Adho Mukha Svanasana (Down Dog) and breathe more. Whatever shapes we take in the midst of our daily etudes, our practice pays homage. Our bodies transform into the conduits through which we offer ourselves up and accept celestial gifts. The beseeching and bestowing arise in tandem. In yoga class, when svaha is chanted, the bright devotion of the collective practice is rendered that much more powerfully.
I often introduce my students to svaha as an unbounded generosity of spirit, in which each act, large or small, is graciously imbued with consciousness and selflessness. There is no better place to experience this than on our yoga mats, where practice teaches us how to exist evenly in the world. Just as we can find Savasana in every pose and then in the centre of our hectic lives, we can come to personify svaha in all asana, too.
The mat initially serves as the playground. Yet its contours begin to stretch along with our bodies, out into the world. Steadily, every act, every gesture of the hand, overflows with this complete offering, as we honour and absorb the divinity indigenous to us all.
Maggie Lyon Varadhan is a Zen Buddhist and Iyengar Yoga practitioner.