Svadhyaya: know thyself and thySelf.

Svadhyaya is the fourth Niyama and it means “self-study.” This practice deepens our understanding of who and what we are and who and what we aren’t. When we study our small-self, we realize that we are ultimately not it. We begin to realize the divine Self within us is the truth of who we are. However, that realization comes slowly. In the meantime, yoga practices like svadhyaya give us a way to release our attachment to our small-self so that more and more we embrace the truth of who we are.

One of the most popular svadhyaya methods is to study sacred texts. Studying these ancient, inspired bodies of wisdom is like downloading updates to a computer’s operating system. We frequently update our computer as technology improves. Likewise, svadhyaya is a continuous practice. As we grow and change, how we relate to these texts and what they mean to us does as well.

Reading sacred texts can comfort and inspire us, but at times it can also be confusing. We may notice that different translations of the same text say different things. We may also notice that when we read the commentary written on sacred texts, they are drastically different or do not resonate with us. What are we to do?

Caution: translator’s opinions ahead.

There are some helpful techniques for reading sacred texts.  The word hermeneutic means a theory or method of interpretation. Hermeneutic of suspicion means that we assume that the text we are reading is not meant to be taken literally. Whether or not we take a sacred text literally or contextually is a deeply personal decision. However, it is a helpful practice to approach the commentary on these texts from a hermeneutic of suspicion.

We do not have to read the commentary of a sacred text. If we choose to read the commentary, it is important to realize it is just that. Commentary. It is someone’s thoughts and perspectives. Commentary may provide insight, but it is not necessarily true. It is important to consider the commentator’s perspective. Helpful things to consider when reading commentary include:

  • Who wrote the commentary?
  • Where did they come from?
  • What is the worldview of the commentator like? What is their gender? Race or ethnicity? Religious background? Sexual orientation? Socio-economic status?
  • What is the historical context of the commentary? When was it written?
  • Often the least considered but perhaps the most important thing to consider regarding reading commentary, what was the commentator’s motivation for writing this piece?

Reading the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali as a yogic practice.

The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali are one of the yoga practitioner’s go-to texts for svadhyaya. Like any sacred text, it is easy for the message of the Sutra to be, quite literally, lost in translation if we focus too much on the commentary.

The truth is, we don’t know who the historical Patanjali was, or even if he really existed! He may have been a great teacher. He may have also been a group or series of people who wrote under a pseudonym. Whoever Patanjali was, the community he was writing to was not as concerned with factual accuracy as it was with Truth.

Reading the Yoga Sutra is a practice. It is not a text that we read once and then we are done with it. Because there are many translations available, it can be helpful to read as many as we can and see how they resonate with us. One translation may speak to us more than another, and that might change throughout our lives. Even if there is one translation that we find particularly appealing, it is important that we go back and read it again and again. How we relate to the Yoga Sutra grows and evolves as we do.

We may feel a bit overwhelmed the first time we delve into the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, or any other sacred text. They are certainly not light, before-bed reading! Read small chunks at a time. When it comes to reading sacred texts, a few verses (or sutra) will go a long way! Don’t be too concerned with trying to “figure out” the text. We can trust that as we read sacred texts, their messages will be revealed to us through our lived experience.

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