“Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power.” – Lao Tzu
It is time to dig a little deeper into the process of getting to know our inner landscape – mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of ourselves. This process, an inward journey, is central to a yogi’s path to a successful personal transformation and perhaps enlightenment.
When we get to know ourselves – our personality, our ego, and our identity – we begin to learn about our patterns of conditioning. We learn that we are a collection of numerous habits and behaviors that we have acquired through our experiences, maybe even lifetimes, yet we must not stop here. Have we asked whether these habits and behaviors are serving us well? If they are, great. If they are nor serving us, the question is – are we willing to unlearn them? If our answer is yes, then we have chosen to embark on the path of Svādhyāyā. We have embraced the process of intense study which will provide us the means to unlearn behaviors which are not aiding us – leading to personal transformation. Besides, when we stay focussed on this path, there arises a sense of awareness, that can bring about valuable change in our thinking and processing, putting us in touch with our true nature.
Svādhyāyā has various meanings in Samkritam. It is made up of two words, Sva and Adhyāya. The first word “sva” means own, self, from within, or the Higher Self. In many yogic texts, ‘self’ written in lowercase ‘s’, it refers to ourselves in this physical body, our ego-self, and who we consider ourselves to be on a daily basis. Whereas ‘Self’ with an uppercase ‘S’, refers to the true Self, Puruṣa or Ātman, essentially the divine within each of us. The second word, “Adhyāya” means lesson, learning, or reading, and studying.
What are we studying? We begin by studying ourselves – basically how our ego behaves in every interaction through reflection and introspection. To make sure this process of inquiry is going in the right direction, we also must study about the Higher Self through the yogic texts and scriptures, listening to gurus and yogis and participating in satsang, spiritual companionship. Essentially, Svādhyāya implies the study of oneself, our ego-self, in order to realize the Higher Self.
Svādhyāyā is the fourth Niyama listed in the Sādhana Pāda of Patańjali’s Yoga Sūtra. It is the Niyama has the potential to deepen our yoga practice far beyond the four corners of the mat. As with any sūtra, multiple interpretations are available for our study; the ‘correct’ meaning and understanding will reveal itself in time based on the depth and sincerity of our practice.
In the sections that follow, the first paragraph under the heading of the author briefly introduces the writer, followed by their commentary on the topic at hand. Their books and others are listed below for further study.
Svādhyāyāt-ishta devata Samprayogaha ॥Y.S. 2:44॥
Study your ego- self, discover the Divine, your chosen Ideal.
By self-observation, union with the desired deity is brought about. (Swami Satyānanda Saraswati)
Charlotte Bell began practicing yoga in 1982. She received her yoga teaching certification from B.K.S. Iyengār in Pune, India.
The fourth Niyama, svadhyaya is commonly translated as either “self-study” or “study of spiritual texts.” Without self-study, yogic and Buddhist (or that of any other spiritual system), while certainly comprehensible at the level of the intellect, is not particularly relatable to one’s own life experience. Self-study, without taking advantage of the wisdom of those who have passed before, can be confusing and can sometimes get bogged down in self-obsession. Like any other practice, continued study, through the avenues of mindfulness, and the wisdom of our teachers, weaves understanding into the fabric of our being. Moreover, each reading of the sutras yields new discoveries as self-understanding deepens. (p.110-111)
Alice Christensen began her studies under her guru, Rāma, (early 1960’s) who, before his death, advised her to complete her training under Lakshmanjoo in Kashmir, India. She founded the American Yoga Association in 1968.
Svādhyāyā is an important source of nourishment to the spiritual body. Anything you read can be transformed into usable food for the spiritual body. Our mind, part of our physical body studies the script. It is up to us to offer the material to our spiritual body in order nourish our inner self or the spiritual body. Everything you read has meaning to the spiritual body. By offering everything to the spiritual body, you open yourself to an expansion of experience.
Study leads you to other activities, including many that you may not have considered before, such as silence. Many people do not consider silence to be an activity, but in Yoga, silence is considered an intensely energetic state. Sometimes, you will find that when you have offered your period of study to your spiritual body, you become filled with a deep and comforting silence. This silence clears the way for the emergence of the intuitive voice. In silence all thinking and functioning falls away. You become aware of a marvelous feeling of expansion. The feeling is similar to what you experience in mediation when you finally succeed in stopping your inner conversation.
Studying to find the true meaning of life and our higher purpose in it, should be the aim of spiritual study. For most of us, practice begins on the yoga mat; if we are alert and mindful, we can see transformation happening right before us. In order to transform, we need to get familiar with our habits, behaviors, and perceptions so that we can identify if they are helping or not serving us. For example, are we judging our peers, wanting our pose to be better than theirs, with a sense of competition? This awareness can bring great change in our perspective of moving away from only physical practices and open up to destructive effects of the mind and ego.
Remain aware of your Inner Conversation:
- What sorts of books do I read? Novels, mysteries, scriptures, biographies, etc.
- Am I willing to read scriptures of other religions or about Saints and Sages??
- Am I truly understanding or falling to ego’s persuasion?
- Am I willing to introspect in silence and be the police at the door of my character?
- Am I able to use the information I read in my daily life?
Experiment Svadhyaya in your life by:
- Reading Inspirational material 10-20 minutes each day
- Reflecting on its meaning and journaling the effects in your daily life.
- Rereading passages that may be confusing, nourishing, rewarding or exciting
- Challenging yourself to understand the Universal Truths in different ways
- Experience the power of silence by controlling your inner conversation
Tapas and Svādhyāya are closely related. In the Bhagavad Gītā (17.15) Lord Krišna spoke is svādhyāya –abhyāsanam, the practice of svādhyāya as an essential limb for vocal tapas. The practice of Svādhyāya requires Satya, honesty in order to view ourselves from an honest standpoint, Tapas, effort and discipline, because taking a candid look at ourselves takes great effort. And, without the ethic ahimsā, non-harming at the forefront, which reminds us to look upon ourselves without judgement or criticism, Svādhyāya can only lead to intellectual hoarding.
Svādhyāya should not be mistaken for intellectual hoarding. For example, simply verbally quoting what someone else has already said is a function of the ego, physical body (Christensen). Giving credit to the right source when we share quotes, verbal or written, brings in the practice of the Yama – Asteya and Aparigraha. Living these principles by example is a way of unlearning selfishness.
Svadhyāya is not about reading any material at hand, because not all articles or texts are appropriate for spiritual growth. For example, reading or watching violent information and movies can be disturbing and upsetting. For Svādhyāya to be meaningful and successful, we must consider readings that are powerful, uplifting, non-violent and inspiring.
Svādhyāya must be done with an open mind. If we study in a judgmental way, believing that we must accept or reject what we read, it defeats the purpose of reading. Lessons appear when we least expect them. Constant self-analysis and introspection prepares the mind for the reception of real knowledge from within, an awakening of the intuition. It helps to develop Sākśi Bhāva, Witness Consciousness.
Svādhyāya leads to deepening our faith. We begin by observing how we treat ourselves through life’s ups and downs. Do we trust ourselves to make the right decisions? Do we believe we have the tools to help ourselves? Our trust in the higher ideal supports that way we approach life’s challenges, along with confidence in our own efforts. Svādhyāya shows that we can choose an ideal, be it pure love or a divine being, to direct our faith. With this faith, the sūtra points out, and by studying ourselves we discover we are not this body, mind and senses; we discover we are divine, the light of Purusha, shining through us. Our Svādhyāya must be disciplined to make this monumental discovery. “The higher the being that you want to realize, the harder the practice,” says Swami Vivekananda (p.178).
There is a lot to learn when it comes to understanding the true message of this sūtra, but there is also a lot to unlearn about how we see ourselves more than how the world sees us.
Our habits, patterns of thinking and living categorize us into certain personality types, portraying us a certain way. We listen to ego-self who’s nature is of basic survival through fear, doubts, pride, power, etc.; we succumb to its allures, without heeding to possible consequences. The quicker we unlearn and the faster we recognize what we are not, bringing us closer to realizing who or what we truly are. Through disciplined inquiry into our real nature, we become aware of what we are doing to harm ourselves, and remove them carefully and methodically, lest they return with more strength than before. At the same time, we also recognize those practices that serve us, those that help us evolve and bring us closer to discovering our true nature.
Sincere, immense effort to know oneself is the real Svādhyāya.
Yoga is the journey of the self, through the self to the Self. – Bhagavad Gītā
Christensen, Alice. 1998. Yoga of the Heart: Ten Ethical Principles for Gaining Limitless Growth, Confidence, and Achievement. American Yoga Association, Rodale Books, NY, NY.
Taimni. I.K. 1961. The Science of Yoga: Yoga Sūtras of Patanjali. The Theosophical Publishing House, Chennai, India and Wheaton IL.
Carrera, Jaganāth, Rev. 2006. Inside the Yoga Sūtras. Integral Yoga Publications, Satchitānanda Āśram-Yogāville, Buckingham VA.
Bell, Charlotte. 2007. Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice. Rodmell Press, Berkley, CA.
Venkateśānanda, Svāmi. 2011. First Edn 1988. The Yoga Sūtras of Patanjali. Motilal Banarasidas, New Delhi, India.
Iyengar, B.K.S. 2002. First Edtion 1993. Light on the Yoga Sūtras of Patanjali. Harper Collins, London, UK.
Aranya Hariharananda, Svāmi; Mukerji, P.N. 1963. Yoga Philosophy of Patañjali. Reprint 1981 by State University of New York Press, Albany, NY.
Mishra, Rammurti. M.D. 1973. Yoga Sūtras – A Textbook of Yoga Psychology. Doubleday Anchor Press, Garden City, New York.
Prabhavananda, Svāmi; Isherwood, Christopher. Patañjali Yoga Sutras. Rāmakrishna Mission Press, Mylapore, India.
Feuerstein, Georg. 1979. The Yoga-Sūtra of Patañjali – A New translation and Commentary. Inner Traditions International, Rochester, Vermont.
Sarasvati Satyānanda, Svāmi. 1976. Four Chapters on Freedom – Commentary on Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali. Yoga Publications Trust, Bihar School of Yoga, Munger, India.
Iyengar, B.K.S. 2013. Core of Yoga Sūtras – The Definitive Guide to the Philosophy of Yoga. Harper-Collins, India.
Satchitananda, Svami. 1978. The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali. Integral Yoga Publications, Buckingham VA.
Yogānanda, Paramahamsa; Kriyananda, Svāmi. 2013. Demystifying Patañjali – The Yoga Sūtras. Crystal Clarity Publishers, Nevada City, CA
Govindan, Marshall. 2000. Kriya Yoga Sūtra of Patañjali and the Siddhas – Translation, Commentary and Practice. Kris Yoga Publications, Quebec, Canada