Practicing yoga is a lifelong process of earning a Master’s degree of the Self. The foundation of self mastery is knowledge of self. In yoga, we call this process of self-study svadhyaya.
Yoga is a set of practices and principles that create union. When we engage in these spiritual exercises, we unite our mind, body and soul and awaken to the deep connection we share with the Divine.
Svadhyaya is the fourth of the five niyamas, a group of yogic principles that guide our beliefs and actions. By observing or studying ourselves, we can unearth how unhealthy energy upsets union, throwing us physically, mentally and emotionally off balance, and learn how to use our prana (life force energy) to reestablish and experience union.
With the help of svadhyaya we get to know ourselves. Who are we? What are we? What is our relationship to the world? It is not enough to keep ourselves healthy. We should know who we are and how we relate to other people. — bks iyengar
When we make time and space through the practice of yoga to view and reflect on the landscapes of our inner worlds, we connect more deeply with ourselves and our experiences and discover what has blossomed in our lives, where in our lives fertile ground is laying fallow, and how to seed and grow our souls to reap a bountiful harvest of health and wellness.
Through the practice of svadhyaya, we can notice the progress we’ve made in our personal growth, recognize areas where growth is urgently needed, and gain the fundamental knowledge of how to achieve balance and harmony.
Going within to study ourselves can be an uncomfortable process, especially when we look into our internal mirrors and see a reflection of ourselves that troubles us.
And yet, if we refuse to gaze into the looking glass of our own hearts and minds, we will miss the opportunity to release the depleted energy (in the form of stress, trauma, fear and pain) that robs us of our inner peace.
We can use our yoga practice, from asana (poses) and pranayama (conscious breathing) to mind/body movement and meditation, to plant seeds of svadhyaya in our souls that can sprout into a deep-rooted sense of peace within.
Reading and writing are two of the most important elements of education, the process we use to acquire knowledge. We can engage in self study by keeping a journal of our thoughts and experiences, and regularly referencing sacred texts and divine literature.
Studying universal truths and laws in books focused on faith and spirituality provides us with reference points for how to achieve union with ourselves, our community/environment, and the Creator.
As we come to understand the meaning of the scriptures by realizing how this ancient wisdom manifests in our own lives, we are reminded of the cultural and indigenous beliefs and practices that have helped our people and planet heal and grow throughout countless centuries in the past.
Be it the Bible, the Yoga Sutras, the Koran, or the Egyptian Book of the Dead, we can use spiritual texts to teach ourselves how to maintain health and balance through union with a Higher Power.
Journaling our ideas, feelings, experiences and revelations as we study ourselves helps us create our own sacred text that can serve as a map for our spiritual journey. Reading our written reflections on life and its lessons helps us understand our thought patterns (especially those based in ignorance, illusion and fear), release stale energy and document new steps we can take to realize union.
The person practicing svadhyaya reads his own book of life, at the time that he writes and revises it. — BKS Iyengar
Practicing postures supports us in developing an awareness of our bodies. Asanas teach us how to observe with our minds how our bodies feel, and to use what we know or learn about ourselves through our observations to make adjustments to the pose so that we can experience how it can benefit us on a physical, mental and spiritual level.
Rhythmic breath control (pranayama) brings oxygen to our brains, calming the mind and preparing the mind to focus its attention in one direction during the practice of meditation. Breathing deeply, we teach our minds to control their responses to the senses (touch, hearing, sight, taste, smell) of our bodies. When we control the senses, it becomes easier for us to concentrate on what we’re feeling inside.
How we feel affects what we think, and as we observe our thoughts in meditation, we synthesize the information we’ve gathered through our self-study — the poses we’ve practiced, the breaths we’ve taken, the wisdom books we’ve read — and direct the energy we acquire through knowledge we gain toward uniting our inner spirit with the Great Spirit so that we might experience samadhi. It’s from this place of bliss, a beautiful blend of peace, joy and wisdom, that we can most effectively affect personal and social change.
Planting the seed of knowledge within ourselves can be tough: inside the garden bed of our souls, the soil is dark and dirty. Surrendering to the process of change that will push our higher selves past our internal and external barriers and out of our shells can be trying. Still, svadhyaya is a fundamental element in the process of transforming our selves, our families and our communities.
As we return to the study of ourselves and our ancient spiritual beliefs, traditions and practices, we evolve to become our ancestors’ dreams come true — a people and a planet revolutionizing the world by using health to create union and peace.
Revolution begins in the self, with the self. — Toni Cade Bambara