Svadhyaya: Self-Study & Scriptural Study

prenatal-yogaIn this week’s article here at “The Living Yoga Blog” we continue our exploration of the ethical principles of Yoga with the fourth niyama, svadhyaya, which has the dual meaning in the Yogic tradition of both self-study and study of scripture.   As with our previous principles, we’ll look at svadhyaya in both the direct and subtle forms in which it can be understood, as well as concrete ways we can apply it on the mat and in our lives.

The Literal Meaning of Svadhyaya & the Power of Self-Knowledge  

To begin once again on the literal level, the Sanskrit root sva means “one’s own unique nature,” while dhyaya means “to study” or “to examine.”  In turn, in its most direct sense the practice of svadhyaya involves observing and reflecting on our basic disposition and tendencies, bringing several benefits.  The better we know ourselves, the better we are able to choose circumstances that are most harmonious and productive for us, including lifestyle, social interactions, ways of learning and growing.  Ultimately, this allows us to not only experience more joy but also to find ways of contributing to the world that fit our disposition and therefore are more powerful and beneficial to all.

In addition, greater self-knowledge also helps us be more aware of our “less-than-ideal” patterns, whether part of our inherent nature or from past conditioning.  The more aware we are of our challenges and issues, the more mindful we can be when they arise, allowing us to guide them in healthful directions rather than falling into unconscious patterns, such as fear and anger, which tend to prevent us from thinking clearly.  Understood this way, what might at first seem a “self-centered” practice, ultimately becomes a bridge to others – that is, through greater awareness of our own issues, we can reduce the likelihood of falling into them during our interactions while also increasing our compassion, realizing even those who have very different issues are at heart wrestling with the same basic challenging process of self-awareness….

Self-Study vs. Therapy

At this point, you are probably noticing many parallels between self-study and therapy, and this aspect of svadhyaya does have much in common with the Western practice.  However there are a couple significant aspects which set it apart.  The Yogis realized there are essentially two major challenges to therapy, the first being the fact that causality is an “infinite regress” – that is, if we get overly concerned with trying to determine where our patterns come from, we can unconsciously get lost in what is essentially a bottomless process.  For this reason, the Yogis realized it is essential to keep our focus largely on perceiving patterns themselves rather than excessive focus on where they come from, which can easily shift from awareness to affixing blame.

The second major challenge with therapy is, the deeper we go into our challenges and issues, the easier it is to unconsciously trigger old patterns or even “re-wound” ourselves – that is, instead of stepping beyond our past, we can unwittingly get caught up in it.  For these reasons combined, the Yogis realized, in order for self-study to be effective, we need two additional processes to compliment and support it: the first is checking our personal experiences with the wisdom of those who have gone before us, a process the Yogis referred to as “scriptural study,” and the second is cultivating awareness of our thoughts so we can see we are unconsciously falling into old patterns, a skill achieved through meditation.  Let’s take a look at each, now, as they relate to svadhayaya.

Study of Scripture: The Yogic Definition & Its Role in Self-Awareness 

Once more, part of the importance of the practice of svadhyaya is emphasized in the root sva, which again means our own distinct character.  The Yogis realized we all have unique dispositions, even as we come into the world, which in turn are further deepened by our own unique experiences.  For that reason, one of the first keys to a productive, balanced life is knowing ourselves – even and especially in circumstances where those around us might not feel and think the same things.  That much said, they also realized our attachments and biases can make it difficult to see parts of ourselves – a shortcoming which can be addressed by taking advantage of the insights of others.  By balancing the two, we are able to honor our own unique nature while also reducing the likelihood of falling into programmed habits and also take advantage of the efforts and unique observations of those before us.  For this reason, in the Yogic understanding, svadhyaya has the dual meaning of both self-study and scriptural study.

Of course, for many of us here in the West, the term “scripture” can bring up overtones of dogma and doctrine, so it can be helpful to know a bit about both the traditional scriptures of Yoga as well as how the Yogis define scripture in general.  Most of us only know of a few scriptures of the Yogic tradition, primarily The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, The Bhagavad-Gita, and The Upanishads.  But there are in fact literally thousands of texts that are considered part of the Yogic canon.  These texts come from all across India, written in a variety of languages and styles, by authors ranging from saint to scholar to humble home-owner and composed for audiences equally diverse.  And though some are more popular, all are considered equally valid and “sacred.”  The reason for this surprising diversity is the Yogis realized we all have very different temperaments and in turn will resonate with different approaches.  This is in marked contrast with the West where our natural tendency is to ask: “But which is true?” or at least: “Which is better…?”  In the Yogic world, these aren’t meaningful concepts, much like it’s would be illogical to ask: “Which is better: Italian food or Chinese food?”  Obviously, both are equally “good,” the only real question is which do we enjoy more and which better suits our bodies and temperament.

Similarly, when it comes to scripture, the Yogis believed that finding the teaching or teachings that speak to us is the only real issue.  My teacher, Swami Satchidananda, often reminded us that if we enjoy The Gita that is great, but if we resonate more with The Tao Te Ching or the Bible or Koran or even a “secular” work such as Man’s Search for Meaning that was every bit as valid.  He further reminded us that, as all works are expressed in human language and also usually though the very human acts of translation and commentary, it is natural for them to have a “coloration” we want to take into account in our reading.  That is, because even the most mindful translator naturally uses wording and concepts that reflect his or her history and background, it’s equally natural some versions of even passages may speak more to us than others.  For that reason, he encouraged us to trust our inner sense, feeling free to say: “I resonate with much of this, but this portion doesn’t fit my sense of things.”  Interestingly, in this form self-knowledge can be seen to influence and guide our understanding of scripture every bit as much as study of texts guides our own self-reflection.

Svadhyaya & the Importance of Meditation 

A final aspect of svadhyaya it can be beneficial to understand – particularly in terms of how the Yogic view compares with Western therapy – is the link between self-study and meditation.  Again, the Yogis observed one of the major challenges with self-analysis is the tendency to unconsciously shift from observation to “dwelling” or ruminating – obviously processes that not only don’t contribute to stepping out of our patterns but in fact tend to deepen them.  Therapists who work with those suffering from trauma are especially aware of this issue, supporting their clients in staying mindful and in knowing it is always okay to “step back” when we fall into re-wounding or the dissociation that can take place when diving too deeply into past suffering.

For this reason, the Yogis believed it is essential to be sure we are balancing self-reflection with actively cultivating awareness of our thought patterns as well as the ability to guide our minds – capacities we are building every time we meditate.  As discussed in our earlier article on meditation, every time we sit, we are building awareness of the constant dialogue of our minds.  The more we develop this skill and tendency, the better we get at seeing when we move from objective reflection on the past into brooding or lamenting or blaming.

Another major benefit of meditation is we are building our capacity to redirect our minds – again, during meditation simply toward our given focus, but over time this skill translates to the ability throughout our days to pull our minds away from unhealthy focus toward more constructive ones.  In the case of self-study, this gives us greater power not only to see when we fall into critical thoughts (of ourselves or others) but to purposefully redirect our minds toward thoughts that are more healthful, shifting for example from blame or shame to compassion and commitment to forward movement.  In this way, meditation helps keep our self-study constructive rather than binding or restricting.

 Svadhyaya On the Mat & In Our Lives

To conclude once more with a brief look at some of the practical applications of svadhyaya, again we can start with asana.  Obviously, our time on the mat can be a perfect opportunity for building self-knowledge.  One of the most important ways in which asana differs from other physical endeavors is it is as much about learning to see and embrace where we are as it is about striving toward a specific goal.  The more we can stay in touch with this part of our physical practice – especially if we have a tendency to be “goal oriented” – the more our time on the mat can build self-observation throughout our days.

The body-based nature of our practice also makes it especially powerful for those of us who have a tendency to get caught up in our thoughts or emotions or inner-dialogue.  Again, by learning to stay in touch with our bodies on the mat, we can cultivate the skill of checking in throughout our days, using any experience of tension or agitation or “dis-ease” in our bodies as a reminder to check in with and redirect our thoughts – to take a moment to observe: “I am clenching my jaw…” or: “My back is tense…” and then to ask: “What am I ‘armoring’ myself for or from?”  By building this awareness – particularly of our personal patterns in terms of where and how we manifest different imbalances – we can carry the self-awareness developed on the mat into all avenues of our lives.

Beyond the mat, as mentioned in our discussion of tapas, it’s worth noting the practice of svadhyaya may be more powerful for us in some areas than others.  Again, we all tend to have different areas where we are more self-aware and areas where we have a greater tendency to fall into old patterns – for example, we might be very conscious of negative patterns in our relationships but less aware at work or vice versa.  By mindfully exploring each of the avenues of life with the principle of self-awareness in mind, we can often find the areas in which we can most powerfully benefit from purposeful self-study.  In turn, by engaging in daily reflection on our thoughts and conduct in those areas and noting when we fell into unconscious patterns, as well as the situations that triggered them, we can learn to watch for them in the future and make more conscious choices in our behavior.

Interestingly, this is also an area where scriptural study can bring great benefit: by learning from the experiences of others, we often can gain valuable insight into our own blind-spots, using the wisdom of those who have wrestled with similar issues to accelerate our self-knowledge and growth.  In this way, svadhyaya can help us move beyond our patterns and experience greater ease and happiness.  And again, as we get better at observing and navigating our own patterns, we not only generate less friction in the lives of those around us but also become more compassionate and understanding, realizing that they too wrestle with their own patterns just as we wrestle with ours….

In Our Next Article… 

Obviously, far more could be said about svadhyaya, but we hope this gives some food for thought in terms of how it might apply to issues on your own personal path.  In our next article we’ll take a look at the final niyama, isvarapranidhana, the very powerful practice of learning to embrace those aspects of life that are beyond our control.  Until then, once again wishing you the best in your own personal relationship to “Living Yoga….”


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