Svadhyaya: Learning For Life
“Know thyself.” –the Oracle at Delphi
Hello everyone, I’m back! Between this post and the last one I took time to survive the holidays, set intentions for the new year, keep my children and marriage alive, teach seven yoga classes a week, maintain my meditation practice, and prepare myself for this moment of writing. If this is your first visit to my blog, and if any of the sanskrit terminology seems foreign, it might be helpful for you to read an overview of the eight-limbs of yoga. Please read this post.
If you’ve been here before, and you’re all, “Yeah, I know the eight limbs, whatevs…”–we’re continuing on our exploration of the second limb of the eight-limbed path. So let’s get to it!
The fourth of the five niyamas, svadhyaya translates as “self-study.” The practice of yoga assists us in cultivating awareness of the different aspects of oneself–physical, mental, spiritual–and unites those aspects in the present moment. Svadhyaya, self-study, gives the practitioner the means to grow and evolve in this practice, by continually deepening one’s understanding of how the individual self relates to all of life. One facet of self-study is introspection, the examination of one’s inner world, but there is also the facet of self-directed study, in which the practitioner actively seeks to learn more from trusted teachers and awakened masters, reading sacred texts, repeating the mantram, and engaging in other spiritual practices in order to draw closer to the god (divine power, flow of life) of his or her understanding. Here I will be exploring some of the ways that svadhyaya can manifest in one’s life.
In her book Yoga Mind, Body and Spirit, Donna Farhi writes:
Any activity that cultivates self-reflective consciousness can be considered swadhyaya. The soul tends to be lured by those activities that will best illuminate it. Because people are so different in their proclivities, one person may be drawn to write, while another will discover herself through painting or athletics. Another person may come to know himself through mastering an instrument, or through service at a hospice. Still another may learn hidden aspects of herself through the practice of meditation. The form that this self-study takes in inconsequential. Whatever the practice, as long as there is an intention to know yourself through it, and the commitment to see the process through, almost any activity can become an opportunity for learning about yourself. Swadhyaya means staying with our process through thick and thin because it’s usually when the going gets rough that we have the greatest opportunity to learn about ourselves. (pp 14-15)
It is the intention we bring to our daily activities that gives us the potential to learn about ourselves through them. Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” In this process of examining our lives and ourselves with the intention of growing into our full potential, we uncover our motivations, our hidden goals and agendas, and how our unconsciously fearful thinking may cloud our judgment. By continually refining our ability to understand how our inner world gives rise to our outer world, we make decisions in alignment with our deepest values, and experience congruence between these two worlds.
B. K. S. Iyengar, in his book Light on Yoga, described svadhyaya in this way:
Sva means self and adhyaya means study or education. Education is the drawing out of the best that is within a person. Svadhyaya, therefore, is the education of the self.
Svadhyaya is different from mere instruction like attending a lecture where the lecturer parades his own learning before the ignorance of his audience. When people meet for svadhyaya, the speaker and listener are of one mind and have mutual love and respect. There is no sermonising and one heart speaks to another. The ennobling thoughts that arise from svadhyaya are, so to speak, taken into one’s bloodstream so that they become a part of one’s life and being.
The person practising svadhyaya reads his own book of life, at the same time that he writes and revises it. There is a change in his outlook on life. He starts to realise that all creation is meant for bhakti (adoration) rather than for bhoga (enjoyment), that all creation is divine, that there is divinity within himself and that the energy which moves him is the same that moves the entire universe. (pp 38-39)
The learning gained in svadhyaya extends beyond the knowledge one can acquire from books or from a teacher in a classroom. Education of the self takes place on a level deeper than the intellect–it unites the body/mind/spirit and makes the practitioner a fit vehicle for divine grace, existing in harmony with the whole universe. When we practice yoga asana, we aren’t simply strengthening our muscles, developing flexibility in the body, and discovering the spaciousness of our breath–we are also strengthening the ability to focus our thoughts, developing flexibility in our minds, discovering the spaciousness of spirit, that we may awaken to our true nature, beyond the duality of the egocentric mind.
On and off the mat, we take this awareness with us wherever we go. We realize that our lives can be devoted to the well-being of others. When we have the honor of being of service, we see how this fulfills us on the deepest level, and we become earnest seekers, knowing that our life energy can transform the pain of the world, or at least help to ease it in those who are suffering. Before we can get to the point of offering selfless service and devoting our life energy to the awakening of others, we need to do the work of knowing ourselves, our true selves–who we are on the deepest level of being.
While self-study uncovers our strengths, authentic swadhyaya also ruthlessly uncovers our weakness, foibles, addictions, habit patterns, and negative tendencies. This isn’t always the most cheering news. The worst thing we can do at these times is give ourselves the double whammy of both uncovering a soft spot and beating ourselves up for what we perceive as a fatal flaw. At these times, it’s important actually to welcome and accept our limitations. When we welcome a limitation, we can get close enough to ourselves to see the roots of our anger, impatience, or self-loathing. We can have a little compassion for the forces and conditions that molded our behaviors and beliefs, and in so doing develop more skill in handling, containing, and redirecting previously self-destructive tendencies. The degree to which we can do this for ourselves is the degree to which we will be tolerant of other people’s weaknesses and flaws. Self-study is a big task. (p 15)
This is why we are encouraged to read inspirational passages written by the great teachers and masters who have walked this path of self-realization. The blazing torch they lit through their diligent efforts now illuminates the path before us as we take one step at a time–often painstakingly–toward our true nature. The terrain is rough, and at times the footing uncertain, but the wisdom of great teachers can throw us a rope and keep us steady on our path in those inevitable moments of challenge and toil.
The second means by which we can discover the state of yoga is svadhyaya. With the help of svadhyaya we get to know ourselves. Who are we? What are we? We should know who we are and how we relate to other people. That is not easy, for we do not have such a clear mirror for our minds as we do for our bodies. But we can see a reflection of our mind as we read and study certain texts, as we discuss them and reflect upon them. That is especially so with great works such as the Yoga Sutra, the Bible, the Mahabharata, and the Koran. By studying texts like these we can see ourselves. (p 13)
Rolf Gates, in Meditations from the Mat, offers these words:
As in every other aspect of the yogic way of life, there is a magic to this process of seeking out and reading those works that speak to our true nature. The words of our teachers slowly work their way into our consciousness. Often we find that statements or concepts that we couldn’t understand, or had no use for when we first read them, come alive days or months or even years later, as the circumstances of our own lives confirm their messages. There is also magic in the ways in which our teachers eventually speak through us. Our thoughts, words, and deeds are informed by the writing of our teachers. It is a magnificent experience to see the beauty of our teachers’ souls become manifest in our own lives, to see the loving hands that have touched us touch others through us. Through spiritual reading we gain communion with the divine power on which our hearts are set. (p 112)
Regular study of spiritual texts can inspire us to keep moving on the inner path of self-realization; the words of the masters can offer us solace and boost our will to continue during those times when the going gets tough. But what does this path look like on a daily basis, out in the real world? How do you establish the insight necessary to experience your daily activities as opportunities for learning about yourself? The interactions that you have with family members, intimate partners, colleagues, friends, strangers, animals, plants, even inanimate objects–are all rich grounds for the realization of who you are. How, in the midst of all of these interactions–some of them irksome at the best of times and volatile at others–can you sustain the awareness of the self in you who is already fully awakened?
Some kind of regular contemplative practice is key to carrying this inner awareness with you as you step through the gateway between the two worlds and venture out into the world of form. Whether you write in a journal, or sit in meditation, or practice asana, taking time to explore your inner world will give you the tools to successfully navigate the outer world. As you become familiar with your inner landscape, you will see how the consequences of each of your thoughts, words, and actions are manifested within as well as without. With svadhyaya, you will learn how to choose your thoughts, words, and actions–and be a conscious co-creator of the universe.
But be warned! Do not expect results to come quickly and easily. It is the daily showing up for your practice that will give rise to transformation, and transformation on the deepest level of being can take time. The changes that contemplative practice brings can be so subtle and arise so slowly over time, they may be imperceptible to the analytical mind.
Take heart. No effort is ever lost, and even the smallest attempts at gaining understanding of ourselves will draw us closer toward union with all that is. The path of yoga has been tread by many, and there are clear signs along the way pointing us in the direction of our supreme self. As with any new endeavor, our first steps may be shaky, but as time progresses we will walk our path with greater confidence. And, we’ll never be done with this work. As long as we are alive, life will present us with experiences that will teach us about ourselves, countless opportunities to explore and honor who we are at the center of our beings. A lifetime of learning? Yes! No race to the finish line–we’ll never be finished!
T.S. Eliot wrote in his poem Four Quartets:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Yoga is the path, svadhyaya helps us to understand why we’re on it. Keep walking, and eventually we will remember that we already are what we have been seeking. Happy walking everyone!
Coming next: Isvarapranidhana, the final niyama. We’ll be wrapping up our discussion of the second limb of yoga, and preparing to dive into the third. Stay tuned, friends!
In what ways do you already practice svadhyaya in your life? Are there any particular activities that naturally draw you inwards and prepare you for self-reflection? Do you have any contemplative practices? Are there any teachers whose writings inspire you? Please share!