Satsanga may not be one of the most common Sanskrit words you hear, but it will come up from time to time, especially if you hang out around institutes and ashrams. It comes from the root “sat,” which means “truth” (also see Satya, one of the Yamas), and “sanga,” which means “coming together.” So the term itself is often translated as “truth seekers coming together,” says Devarshi Steven Hartman, who lived and taught at Kripalu Ashram for many years, and now has his own school of yoga. “Satsanga typically happens in the evening, with family and friends, whether it’s chanting (kirtan), chanting prayers, or listening to someone give a talk. It’s all about gathering together with like-minded people.”
Devarshi says that what amazes him is how affecting and educating the experience of being in a group of others on the same path can be, whether it’s a formal satsanga or just a group of close friends sitting around engaged in conversation. “Kripalu himself said that the single best thing you can do for spiritual growth is to surround yourself with like-minded people… That makes me go, ‘wow, the single best?” That’s pretty big, given all the many, many ways there are to cultivate oneself within the umbrella of yoga – so the fact that it’s thought to be the most effective one speaks to its effectiveness.
And this makes sense for a couple of reasons. One is that we have a really hard time seeing ourselves honestly – both our attributes and our faults – so it often takes another person, or better yet, a group of people to do that. “Kripalu said that the key to our hearts in lies in the heart of another,” says Devarshi. “One element of this is that we really can’t see ourselves – our inward experience is very different from the outside. We don’t see our gifts or our foibles so clearly. It really requires others to see this. It takes another person – or going larger, a community of people – to call us out when we’re off base.”
The other part of the ‘satsanga effect’ is that the people we surround ourselves with have a strong influence on us, psychologically and emotionally. You can probably feel that when you spend time with energetic, loving people, they bring those same qualities out in you. The opposite is also true – it’s way too easy to pick up negativity from others. And when we spend time with people who are a little more knowledgeable than us in whatever arena – business, romantic life, spiritual growth – we start to internalize it.
“When we surround ourselves with someone who has mastered something – a posture, a pranayama, a meditation technique, a loving way to listen and communicate – it rubs off on us. We get entrained by those around us. You become a different person if you hang out in a bar versus satsanga with people studying and practicing to be their best selves. It’s sort of like ‘you are what you eat’ – you become like who you hang out with.”
And if you really want to take it even deeper, Devarshi says he often encourages his students to gather in small groups and – aloud – express gratitude or pray. “I’ve found it’s one of the most intimate things we can do,” he says. “So when I leave workshops, I’ll put people into groups of three or more…have them go out into the night and pray out loud. What’s amazing is that people’s voices actually change when they do this – they speak from a different place. When it comes down to it, we all want the same things in life. It takes courage and vulnerability to do this with other people… This is what satsanga is: it’s coming together in the presence of truth.”
If you’re lucky enough to be able to attend satsanga, see how it affects you (and please share your experience below). And if you can’t attend one, surround your self with your closest friends on a regular basis, and maybe take a few minutes and make a point of expressing your hopes, fears, and gratitudes – and see if it doesn’t change your mood and your energy quite palpably.
Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga last year. She is the Associate Editor at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com and a Contributor at Forbes.com. Alice will be exploring yoga’s different styles, history, and philosophy, and sharing what she learns here on the YogaGlo blog. You can follow Alice on Twitter @AliceWalton and Facebook at Facebook.com/alicegwalton.