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Svādhyāya - Self-Study

Focus of the Month - January 2023

written by Marlene Schmitt

Watch your thoughts, they become words.

Watch your words, they become actions.

Watch your actions, they become habits.

Watch your habits, they become character.

Watch your character, it becomes your destiny.”

Did you ever ask yourself, who you really are?

I don’t mean your name, your job, your family, your social role, status or age. I mean who YOU really are.

When we come together on our yoga mats, we leave our everyday responsibilities and roles behind. We step into a space, where we can meet ourselves beyond all the external labels to play, explore and listen within.

When I started my Yoga journey I was mostly focused on the outer shapes of the poses. I was judging myself for not being strong or flexible enough, and compared myself to others next to me. Over time my yoga practice developed more and more into a ritual, that allowed me to pause and check-in. Over the years I was able to let go of the external shapes and learned the language of my body and discovered patterns in my mind, and yet I feel like there is still so much unknown territory inside of me that wants to be discovered.

Instead of making the pose the goal of my practice, it is the reactions of my mind and the limitations of my body that come up along the journey that really interest me. Where can I find steadiness & ease? Which poses trigger my inner calmness? How do I talk to myself if a pose doesn’t work the way I want it to work? As I try to see myself with non-judgemental eyes and an open awareness I get to know myself beyond my ego.

Yoga is the constant evolution towards yourself.” - David Lurey

This self-discovery or self-study is an important aspect of the Yoga practice described in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali as Svādhyāya.

Svādhyāya comes from the Sanskrit roots sva, meaning "self" or "own," and adhyaya, meaning "lesson," "reading" or "lecture." It can also be interpreted as coming from the root dyhai, which means "meditate" or "contemplate." Both interpretations connote a close study of the self. But Svādhyāya goes much deeper than that.

What is Svādhyāya?

Svādhyāya reveals itself in traditional yogic teachings which can sometimes be difficult to understand. Let’s think of it this way: Just like the waves of the ocean are unique by themselves as they manifest on the ocean’s surface, yet they are never separate from the ocean. Each wave is one with the ocean.

Like the waves our individual awareness can never separate from universal consciousness. Individual minds have distinctive qualities, preferences, and shapes, but they are not entirely autonomous.

Each mind is a wave in the vastness of consciousness.

With the practice of Svādhyāya we bring the experience of the universal consciousness into awareness. We want to overcome the ego by observing our reactive mind and expanding our awareness beyond our limited self. And yes it is not easy, especially if we step off the mat and dive into the challenges of everyday life. The practice of Svādhyāya might take a lifetime and needs patience, discipline and compassion.

In the following passage we will unfold, where in Yoga scriptures the concept of Svādhyāya can be found and how we can integrate it into our own practice, on and off the mat.

As we know, Svādhyāya has been mentioned twice in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, first in Sutra 2.1 as part of Kriya Yoga and in Sutra 2.44 as one of the five Niyamas.

tapah-svadhyaya-Ishvara-pranidhanani kriya yogah. (Sutra 2.1)

„Austerity, Self-study, and surrender to God constitute the yoga of action.“ - David Life

Patanjali began his second chapter by listing Svādhyāya as one of three steps of Kriya Yoga (path of purifying actions). The other two steps he names are discipline (Tapah) and devotion (Ishvara Pranidhana), stating that the hard discipline of spiritual practice should go along with deep study and be motivated by devotion.

svādhyāyād-iṣṭa-devatā saṁprayogaḥ (Sutra 2.44)

"From study [of scripture], a connection with one’s deity of choice is established." (Edwin Bryant)

„Study thy self, discover the divine.“

Further in the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali lists Svādhyāya also as one of the five Niyamas (positive or righteous duty), along with purity, contentment, austerity, and self-surrender.

According to Patanjali, when studying one's self, it is ultimately possible to discover the greater Consciousness that is present in the whole universe and to understand how the individual self is an essential part of that Consciousness.

The practice of Svādhyāya as a Niyama can be performed in many ways.

Mantra Meditation is one way of carrying out Svādhyāya, where mantras, Sanskrit syllibles or phrases are repeated silently to anchor the mind and turn attention inward. It can alternately be sacred music, sermon, chant or texts that absorb the person to a state of trance, unifying oneness.

Self-study in yoga also means studying the body and understanding its needs and limitations. Svādhyāya is practiced as a self-reflection process, where one silently meditates, in Asana, on one's own behaviors, motivations and plans. Svādhyāya is, in a sense, for one's spirit and mind a process equivalent to watching one's body in a non-distorting mirror. This self-study, in Yoga, is not merely contemplation of one's own motives and behaviors, but also of one's circumstances and the environment one is in, assessing where one is in one's life, what is one's life direction, if and how desirable changes may lead to a more fulfilling Self.

Svādhyāya on the mat

- Observe your habits on the mat. What do you like? What do you dislike?

- Stay for 5-10 breaths in one pose and observe your reactions. How do you deal with discomfort? What thoughts come up?

- Try challenging Asanas, that you usually not practice. How do you speak to yourself if things get tricky & challenging?

- The way in which we practice yoga can be perceived on a micro level as a way in which we practice life.

- Do a body scan to become aware of your physical being

- Breath Awareness: Observe your breath mindfully. Where can you feel it? Let your breath be your mind’s anchor.

- Mantra Meditation: Start with the mantra „So Ham“, repeat it silently inside of you, allowing it to be your mind’s anchor.

- Daily Meditation allows for Svadhyaya to come to fulfillment.

Svādhyāya off the mat

- Self-awareness is something that should be practiced daily. You can start by simply paying attention. Ask yourself why you are doing what you are doing. Be fully present in your actions. Recognize your habits. Are they coming from your ego, driven by fear, anger, shame or doubt or are they coming from your True Self, from a sense of wholeness and connection?

- Become the witness of yourself. Notice how you react when plans get changed and acknowledge the way you hold yourself.

- Journal about your inner world. Writing out what is going on in our mind, can help us to reflect and see patterns.

Svadhyaya can provide you the tools to live a healthier and happier life.

After all, it is better to approach the journey with curiosity and joy than with dread and fear.

Sources & further reading:

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