Svadyaya: the Practice of Self-Study

Gatineau River

The Gentle Breath Practice Chair Yoga class is followed by community conversation where, for the past 9+ months, we have been studying the wisdom behind the practice of yoga through the Yamas and Niyamas.

The ninth blossom of the Yamas and Niyamas garland is called Svadyaya (pronounced swahd-yah-yuh) which loosely translates to self-study. This Niyama, studied for the month of February, reminds me of the maxim “know thyself.” Given that the Gentle Yogis practice community has already been on a journey of “self-study” for many months now, we have to dig a little deeper to know what the invitation of Svadyaya is about. First, we review. 

Over the months, we have asked ourselves many questions:  Am I being kind to myself or others? (Ahimsa) Am I being honest with myself and others? (Satya) Are there ways that I steal what’s not mine to have, or what has not been offered to me? (Asteya) Do I waste my energy? (Brahmacharya) What am I holding onto that’s ready to move on and open up some space inside? (Aparigraha) Where can I cultivate purity in my life? (Saucha) Do I indulge my discontent or am I aware of the atmosphere of blessings that I live in? (Santosha) What am I committed to and do I need to re-evaluate what I dedicate my time and energy to? (Tapas) 

This journey of studying Yamas and Niyamas has been more of a bumpy ride than many of us imagined it would be. Sometimes I have been surprised by what the inquiries have revealed; I notice that I’m not always willing to let go of some of my habits. At times, I have been disturbed to notice that I have been unkind, dismissive, critical, selfish, or afraid to be honest with myself. Then I remind myself, and also the community. that yoga is a practice, not a destination. 

I notice the layers of ego-self that I have become accustomed to and continue to peel the onion. “You are God in disguise”, Swami Kripalu tells us. How do I remember that? What would life be like if I always remembered that “I am spirit having a human experience” instead of focusing on being a flawed human trying to be spiritual?

The occurrence of Valentine’s Day, in the middle of the month of the study of Svadyaya, encouraged us to think about love and the inquiry, “how can I be more loving, to myself and to others.”  When I affirm that “I am entitled to be in development with anything, anytime, anywhere, forever,” it is a profound act of self-love. When I let myself be a human being who learns by trial and error and by experience, then I can release myself from the pain of unrealistic expectations, harsh judgment, and limiting criticism. In other words, we can give ourselves and others the space to be human beings, perfect in our imperfection. 

As we studied this Niyama of self-study, one of the many illuminating sharings that emerged among community members was this key awareness:  To look within takes an ability to focus.  Just like meditation, I need to be able to cultivate a one-pointed focus and settle my mind to look within at these subtleties. Svadhyaya invites us to explore deeper levels of awareness. Notice what you’re aware of in this present moment. Notice what you are aware of in your body. And, now go through the layers diving into ever-subtler levels. What are you feeling, emotionally? What is the quality of your thought activity? What is your sense of what you need now? May it be a practice to continually explore, what do you need now, what is needed here, what is needed in this moment? What are your options? What are ways that you could meet this need, these needs? Are there ways you haven’t considered? Do you need a second opinion? Do you need to consult someone with expertise? Do you need to ask for help? Might you pray for help? Do you need to be patient? Do you need to sleep on it? How can you soothe any sense of urgency, your impulse?

Is this a moment to pause, reflect, let go and wait for more information? When you make your choice, how do you feel? Are you attached to being right? Are you open to seeing the result unfold like an experiment? Could these choices be approached with humility, peacefulness and sensitivity.

When one is disturbed, impatient, determined, attached, what is the root of that disturbance? If one traces my disturbance to its origin, is there a belief at the tip of the root? Is there a false self-perception, a lie, about oneself, an untruth that it’s time to let go of?

Consulting contemporary and ancient writings, we hear that it’s not easy to see oneself clearly. The yogis discovered that the cause of human suffering is just that…not seeing ourselves clearly. In his fabulous book, The Wisdom of Yoga, A Guide For Extraordinary Living, Stephen Cope writes, “Yogis used their own minds and bodies as laboratories for experiments in living. They arrived over and over again at a series of stunning insights into the human condition: The ordinary reality in which most human beings live is merely an elaborate construction based on subtle but important errors in perception. These chronic errors and inadequacies in perception become “fetters”  which obscure a clear view of reality, and lead us to act in ways which are counterproductive. 

In the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, we are taught that the five kleshas are considered to be the “afflictions” that obscure a clear view of reality and are the root cause of all suffering. They are (a) avidya, meaning ignorance or lack of wisdom and understanding, (b) asmita, understood as pride or egotism, (c)  raga, also known as attachment, (d) dvesha, aversion, (e)  abhinivesha, fear of death and clinging to life. The first two are intellectual. The second two are emotional. The last is instinctual.

In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, chapter 2, sutra 4, we read that all causes of suffering are contained in the first klesha, that by not understanding our true nature, the other four are caused. Patanjali further teaches that by understanding and meditation we can gain understanding into our true identity and free ourselves from suffering. Practice supports self-study which guides us to a place of peace inside and trusting that on some level, we are okay. 

This is why I practice.

I come back to the breath.

I soothe my nerves.

I quell my trepidations.

If I’m not feeling peaceful.

I know peace is in there somewhere.

I practice. And I welcome trust to the table.

We welcome you to join us for practice and/or Community Time. We are a friendly, welcoming sangha (spiritual community). If you haven’t taken class with us previously, you can begin with a free week of classes. If class fees feel like an obstacle, please check out our Shared Abundance Fund. We have options for you!

Photo credit:  Gaye Chicoine (via Linda Henderson)

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