The Yamas and Niyamas are Yoga’s ethical precepts as outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. The Yamas are practices that govern our outward behavior and the Niyamas are internal observances. The fourth Niyama is Svadhyaya. Svadhyaya can be broken down into two words: sva means “self”, and adhyaya means “reflection” or “contemplation”. Therefore, Svadhyaya is the practice of studying the self/Self.
Big “S”, small “s”.
In yoga we differentiate between the small self and the true Self. Sometimes we call our small self our ego. The ego, or small self, is the way we identify ourselves in our daily lives. It is our personality and how we interact with other people.
Our small self is important! We need our ego in order to do important worldly things like apply for a job, pay our bills, and deposit and withdraw money from our banking account. Having an ego is not problematic. In fact, it is critical to our ability to function in the physical world! It is how we identify with our ego that can create difficulty.
We often confuse our ego-identity with our true-identity. The small self is limited and bound by the laws that govern the physical world. The true Self is boundless and infinite. We are beholden to the laws of the self or Self we choose to identify with. Svadhyaya allows us to distinguish between the two, using our small self as a tool for operating in the physical world while still identifying with our true, eternal Self.
Know thyself… and thySelf!
Svadhyaya is a practice that allows us to do as the ancient Greeks advised and know ourselves. Knowing our small self means far more than just establishing a sense of identity. It is our self-awareness. Self-awareness means that we have a working understanding of our gifts, talents, and the contributions we are uniquely qualified to share with the world. It also makes us aware of our personality defects, the ways we sabotage ourselves, and how and when we become reactive in our relationships with others.
Ironically, knowing our ego does not ultimately teach us who we are. Coming to know our small self teaches us who we are not. We realize that if the ego is a tool we use to interact with the world, then we must be that which is wielding the tool! This realization leads us to a deeper understanding of Self. It is true that Svadhyaya allows us to come to know our earth-bound selves better. However, that is not the point. Indeed, svadhyaya is a practice of coming to know our true essence: our Self as divine.
- Becoming self-aware: There are many ways we can cultivate self-awareness. A daily journaling practice allows us to dialogue with ourselves and uncover what may be percolating just below the surface of that which we are conscious. We give our psyche a voice by allowing it to emerge from our unconscious and onto the page.
- Awareness of our innate connection with others and the natural world: Yoga is a simple practice, but it is not easy. It is easy to stay in our comfort zone. Yoga challenges us to step outside of our comfortability and be in right relationship with others and the cosmos. Svadhyaya is intimately connected with studying texts. One way to practice svadhyaya is through reading and education. When we learn about our neighbors, environment, and the world around us, we also learn about our self/Self. What are our values? What will we stand for? What will we stand against? We can do this by educating ourselves about world events, be they local, national, or political using responsible sources of information. While it is true there is a balance between too little and too much news, there is nothing spiritual about turning a blind eye to issues that contribute to the suffering of our fellow sentient beings.
- Realizing the true Self: Study of sacred texts, mantra repetition, and meditation are traditional svadhyaya practices. Through these practices we are drawn out of our identification with our small self, into greater relationship with the collective, and ultimately realization of ourselves not as individual waves in an ocean, but the entirety of the ocean itself.