According to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, Yoga can be attained by practicing its eight limbs. These limbs are the Yamas, Niyamas, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi. In essence, the Niyamas are the precepts that govern how we interact with ourselves. The fourth Niyama is Svadhyaya.
When we do not have a good understanding of what Svadhyaya is, our egos absolutely love it! What does the ego love more than studying itself? The ego can go on about itself ad nauseum! It can tell us all about where it grew up and what it does for a living. Our ego can explain to us why we sometimes don’t treat others as lovingly as we could. It can also look into our past and point out exactly who it is we can blame for our poor behavior. Our ego acknowledges that, yes, we do seem to repeat the same mistakes over and over again, but it can also write a novella on why it really isn’t our fault. Give it time and that novella becomes a novel. Give it even more time and Netflix will turn that novel into a ten-episode series to be debuted in the fall.
I really don’t think this is what Patanjali had in mind.
Svadhyaya: Know thy self and thy Self
Svadhyaya is akin to the Western injunction to “Know thyself.” Both edicts work on multiple levels. Simple English grammar assists us in navigating a conversation around what exactly is indicated by Svadhyaya. There is self-study (with a lowercase s) and Self-study (with a capitol S). There is no hierarchy between the two. Both are necessary. The ultimate purpose of understanding our self is to know our Self. When we study our self, we cultivate an awareness of what we ultimately are not. However, if we come to know our Self through some sort of spontaneous or drug-induced enlightenment experience without having done the deep work of knowing our self, we risk being ruled by our desires, attachments, and neurosis.
Traditional Svadhyaya practices include studying sacred texts, mantra, and the self through other yoga practices such as asana and pranayama. As one keenly focuses on that which is studied, the ego begins to fall away. It is like taking a light into a dark room. Darkness disperses in the presence of light.
However, these are not the only Svadhyaya practices we can engage in. We may require different practices at different points of our personal evolution so our spiritual practice does not become stagnant. Here are five Svadhyaya practices for times when we are stuck in a yogic rut!
- Writing: There are many types of personal writing: journaling, blogging, keeping a diary. All of these are excellent ways to de-stress. However, writing is different when we are doing it as a spiritual practice. Patanjali says in order for a practice to be considered yogic, and not just something fun or relaxing that we like to do, we must do it consistently, for a set amount of time, and with devotion. When we apply these qualities to a writing practice, our intention is key. Otherwise what tends to happen is our same neurotic thinking patterns wind up on the page day after day with no real change or growth. To an extent, this is necessary. But set a time limit on how long you spend getting your mental gunk out and then get down to the deep work of contemplation and self-inquiry. If you are just beginning writing as a spiritual practice, I would recommend working with a book such as Life’s Companion by Christina Baldwin.
- Relationships: The primary place where our wounds and neurotic tendencies come to the surface are in our relationships. This could be as simple, although tough to swallow, as a friend gently pointing out to us when we are behaving poorly. It might also show up as an argument with a partner or loved one where both of us have “stuff” come up that needs to be addressed. We may even find that an encounter with a stranger who either rubs us the wrong way or touches our heart gives us valuable insight into a part of our self we have been ignoring. When we are tempted to judge, criticize, or condemn another person, that is a perfect opportunity to take a step back and carefully consider the situation at hand. Often, we find that how we are feeling about another person and his or her behavior says more about us than it does them!
- Yoga teacher training: Many people embark on a yoga teacher training journey, not because they intend on becoming a yoga teacher, but because they are curious and want to learn more about this practice that they have come to love. Delving more deeply into our spiritual practice is delving more deeply into ourselves. We begin to look at our lives, why we are the way we are and do things the way we do, in an entirely new way. Studying yogic psychology through things like the chakras and koshas sets us on a path toward understanding- and questioning- our deeply held beliefs and patterns of behavior. We also learn practices to strengthen that within us that fortifies us, and to release the things that do not.
- Psychotherapy: At its best, psychotherapy is a spiritual practice. This requires a deep participation in the therapeutic process on the part of both the client and the therapist. We must be very discerning because not every therapist or form of therapy is up for the task. Psychotherapy can be wounding when done in a way that is not in alignment with what we need. However, therapy can be a tremendous tool for self-study if we find a therapist we resonate with. Types of deep therapeutic practices include Jungian therapy, transpersonal therapy, expressive arts therapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy, and many others! To learn more about deep psychology, check out the writings of Carl Jung. To learn more about the mind/body/spirit paradigm as it relates to therapy, the books The Body Keeps the Score by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk and In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Dr. Gabor Mate may be helpful.
- Tarot and astrology: Tarot and astrology are much more than ways we might amuse ourselves at a party or carnival. These are tools that can provide tremendous insight into the subconscious mind through their use of archetypes. As we delve deeply into our psyche we see urges and emotions that we hadn’t realized were there before. These hidden aspects of ourselves, often called the “shadow”, often influence our thoughts and behavior. When we get to know our shadow, we can work with it to optimize the choices we make and thus live more deeply.
If you are new to Svadhyaya, picking one of these practices and delving deeply into it is a great place to start. If you have been practicing for a while, though, don’t feel that you have to limit yourself to just one! Get creative. Try new things. Enjoy learning about your self as you realize your Self!