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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 practice 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 dialog 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 center 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 honor and absorb the divinity indigenous to us all.
Every Breath You Take
Whether you’re on your mat or out in the world, your breath is your link to moments of grace.
Throughout your day, wherever you find yourself, take the opportunity to connect with the sacredness of everyday life.
Stand in Tadasana (Mountain Pose). Feel your feet planted solidly beneath you, your spine lifted, and your head floating evenly. Pay subtle attention to your breath. With each inhale, let your side ribs expand and your limbs root further into the earth. With each exhale, soften your belly.
Begin to let the rhythm of your inbreath and outbreath remind you of and amplify the sentiment of svaha. Accept the inhale as a divine blessing. With every exhale, offer yourself completely to the moment at hand.
In this way, you create the balance that’s inherent in svaha and open yourself to the grace that’s present even in the most banal pockets of everyday life. And you can then go on with your day—peaceful and at ease, wholly complete.
A Zen Buddhist and Iyengar Yoga practitioner for the past 20 years, Maggie Lyon Varadhan lives and practices in New York City.