As a quick reminder, the niyamas are five personal qualities mentioned in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras that we’re encouraged to cultivate within ourselves, to help us on our yoga path. In this article we’re looking at the fourth niyama: ‘Svadhyaya’, which means ‘self-study’. I warn you now, I may go off on one a bit in this article, as svadhyaya is something very close to my heart on my own yoga journey!
Traditionally, svadhyaya is often translated as the study and repeated recitation (mantra) of ancient scriptures such as the Vedas. The Vedas are a collection of huge tomes of work on many mystical and spiritual topics, including yoga, which are thousands of years old. It is said that ancient yogis channelled the universal wisdom contained within the Vedas direct from the divine/cosmos, and the teachings were then passed on orally, through mantra (repeated chanting of the scriptures with precise intonation and pronunciation). Through mantra, yoga students would begin to penetrate the mysteries contained within the Vedas and understand their teachings fully.
However, in this fast-paced modern world, most yogis don’t have time to chant mantras all day (although I highly recommend you try it out with an experienced mantra teacher – it is incredibly powerful)! So a more accessible translation of svadhyaya has come to mean the study of oneself. To me, study of the self is absolutely fundamental to the inner path. The inner path, to me, is the path towards knowing ourselves truly, in all of our divine magnitude. And, the good news is that this happens as a natural by-product as soon as you embrace yoga into your life. Through the postures, the breathing, the meditation, the relaxation, the concentration exercises etc, you are constantly challenging and re-evaluating the perceptions you hold about yourself. You are continually connecting to yourself at a deeper and deeper level.
It starts with the gross and becomes more and more subtle. At first you will be finding muscles you didn’t know existed before, achieving postures you thought were beyond you or, conversely, finding postures that you just can’t seem to master for some reason. Your body will become more of a familiar friend, rather than a stranger you once knew. Then you’ll start noticing how yoga affects your mood and vice versa, and you will start noticing patterns of behaviour that play out in your yoga, such as laziness, procrastination, over-achieving, perfectionism etc. And then you realise that your yoga practice is simply a mirror to your soul – as on the mat, as in life! 😉
Another wonderful aspect of how yoga is a great tool for self-study is that, unlike the egoic mind, the body doesn’t lie. Our minds will tell us all kinds of stories about who we are but, through working more closely with the body and breath, we gradually come to recognise the monkey mind for the insane, nonsensical and incredibly unhelpful despot it truly is! The body has a deep, innate intelligence and wisdom – it will teach us all we need to know if we will only be still and listen to it. Yoga helps us find the inner stillness and quiet that allows the body to find its voice. It speaks to us through long-held traumas and tensions, echoes of injuries, stress-holding patterns, emotional-holding patterns… And, eventually, it will speak to us in energetic terms too, as we start to feel energetic shifts in the body, and notice how our energy field interacts with those of others around us, and in different environments. The journey of self-exploration never ends!
However, although yoga will naturally be working its magic on us, to truly cultivate svadhyaya we need to complement this by making a concerted mental effort to dispel the old beliefs about ourselves that no longer serve us, which our yoga reveals to us. Any inner-exploration needs to be done in the spirit of what I like to call ‘brutal honesty’. To explore who we truly are we have to be willing to release all preconceptions we hold about ourselves, others and the world we live in – we have to systematically drop the veils of illusion that hide our true light.
We all create a particular life view that we feel keeps us safe and gives us known boundaries and parameters to operate within, and the reality we experience as a result will corroborate this world view, such is the way of things. However, svadhyaya will blow such parameters and life views out of the water! And this is not easy for the ego to deal with, and unfotunately the ego is under the impression that it is the sum total of what you are, which is very far from the truth! So, you can expect lots of egoic resistance to any concerted attempts at discovering your truth, and the only way to thwart the ego’s panicked hissy-fits is through relentless,courageous and calm honesty, and through trying to live in the present moment as much as possible on order to see clearly what ‘is’ rather than becoming lost in the mind’s illusions, which tend to dwell in the past or future.
Finally, I know this is just my own take on things, but I do truly believe that we are all immense, glorious, divine, spiritual beings who have just forgotten how amazing we are! So, as we go through the process of dropping layer after layer of who we thought we were, and becoming closer to the truth of who we are, we expand with each layer that is shed. The process of continual change and expansion is terrifying, especially at first, but the liberation, joy and feeling of expansive freedom that comes with it is far too addictive to let the fear stop you delving deeper – once you get on this train there’s no getting off!
So, to tie up this immense topic, let’s just get back to the simplest of things – just breathe! By breathing mindfully, we immediately arrive in the present moment and the mind immediately loses some of its power over us. So, next time you practise yoga, you can rest easy, knowing your svadhyaya is ticking along nicely in the background, just by dint of you being on the mat. But you can also give it a helping hand by noticing your breath, being present, and examining everything that is going on within your mind and body in that moment, in complete honesty.