As we continue to explore the yogic precepts for living, we turn our focus this month to the fourth Niyama (self-study): Svadhyaya.
“Study, when it is developed to the highest degree, brings one close to higher forces that promote understanding of the most complex.” – The Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali, Sutra II.44
Svadhyaya, the practice of self-study and observation, has been translated many different ways. “Sva” means “self” or “belonging to me,” while “Adhyaya” can mean “inquiry or examination,” “to get close to something,” “investigation,” or “education.” Svadhyaya encourages awareness and self-reflection, with the goal of discovering your true being and living an authentic life.
The observance of svadhyaya is as varied as its translations. It traditionally refers to the study of sacred texts, such as the Yoga Sutras themselves. All major religious texts, regardless of the faith represented, are considered valuable sources of enlightenment. Asana practice is also an opportunity for personal inquiry, as the postures are ideal moments in which to be quiet with ourselves and focus on our breath, bodies, emotions, and thoughts. What we learn about ourselves in these moments can add tremendous value to our lives.
Meditation, an integral part of the Yogic path and one of the eight limbs prescribed in the Yoga Sutras, is also a common method of self-study, as it is dedicated solely to observing ourselves and exploring our minds without distraction in moments of stillness. Traditional meditation refers to the pursuit of self-knowledge through the practice of sitting quietly with the mind focused on a single object, like the breath or a particular sound (a mantra), but the intentional self-awareness of svadhyaya can be achieved in many ways.
“The soul tends to be lured by those activities that will best illuminate it,” explains Donna Farhi in Yoga Mind, Body & Spirit . “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.” You may find yourself drawn into self-reflection while playing music, hiking in the woods, knitting a sweater, or planting a seed in your garden. Ultimately, the form the self-study takes is not important. “As long as there is an intention to know yourself through it,” Farhi concludes, “and the commitment to see the process through, almost any activity can become an opportunity for learning about yourself.”
Through svadhyaya, we see ourselves more clearly. Svadhyaya offers the opportunity to look deeply at our behaviors, motivations, needs, and desires to discover our own essential being. This month, take the Donna Farhi quote above into consideration, and discover what facilitates svadhyaya for you – perhaps it is traditional meditation, perhaps it is jogging, perhaps it is sketching, perhaps it is something else – and ask yourself meaningful questions like “What are my priorities?” and “Where am I now, and what is my direction for the future?”
“I believe that the physical, mental, and spiritual aspects of the chakra system make it a fully comprehensive structure for self-study.” – Alan Finger