Throughout our lives, we spend so many hours in the classroom of our school. From a young age we sit at our desks, read our books, listen to the teachers, and learn about subjects that are purely academic in nature. While formal education is extraordinarily important, beneficial, and rewarding, what about the time we spend studying our lives, our values, and ourselves? When do we learn about what is important to us, and discover whom we truly are? Certainly throughout our schooling career there are opportunities to learn about the self, for example our learning style and how we process new information, what types of activities we are interested in, and how our behavior and actions affect other people. However, it is no wonder that so many adolescents, teens, and young adults struggle during these times when seeking who they are. There is a massive disconnect between academics and life education. While svadhyaya (self-study) is something that we take with us throughout our entire lifetime, it is important that we are given tools in our formative early years to carry along so that self-study can be a beneficial practice. It is only of great value to us as human beings to take some time to re-evaluate ourselves in a non-judgmental, subjective, and kind light. Are we living our best lives as our best selves? What is a personal quality that needs some extra love, attention and improvement? Are we exuding kindness so that others act kindly, too? These are all questions we can ask ourselves to learn about ourselves in a pure, gentle way. The better we know ourselves, the more secure we are in our skin and the better we can treat others. My mentor once told me this simple piece of advice, “you cannot authentically and deeply love someone else, until you authentically and deeply love yourself.”
Svadhyaya in Sanskrit translates to self-study, sva meaning self and adhyaya meaning lesson. Yogis have interpreted this for hundreds of years to be the principle of studying and learning about the self. In Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga, svadhyaya is placed as one of the Niyamas, the limb translating to positive duties and observances. As humans, we have a duty to ourselves and others to always learn and study myriad aspects of the self, and continue to grow into soulful people that can contribute to society positively and effectively. There are two major distinctions within the self. The self refers to the physical body, and what is portrayed to the world and seen through the naked eye. The Self refers to our inner divine, or the “true self,” our universal self that connects our divine light to a higher divine power, however we decide to interpret what that might be. Patanjali says, “study the self, discover the divine.” In other words, in order to find our way to the divine, we must first study the self, and become truly aware of who we are and how to carry ourselves throughout life and in the world. Without self-study and knowledge of the self, we lack the tools to experience all that the divine can offer. Without access and connection to the divine within, reaching success and brightness in our crown chakra (enlightenment) would be nearly impossible, and it is already quite tricky enough!
We are lucky as a species to have the cognition and skill to be able to think retrospectively, introspectively and objectively. Retrospective thought means that we can take a step back from actions that we have already committed, or words we have already said, and re-visit them in our minds. We are able to recall past events that affected us in some way, whether they had a small or large impact is irrelevant. This is only to our advantage that we can remember the past with detail, and be able to re-evaluate. Perhaps there was a conversation you continuously replay in your head because you felt it did not go as planned, or you said some hurtful words to a loved one by accident. Maybe there was a time where you acted on impulse without thinking what your actions could mean for yourself or other people. These are all things that we have the cognition to think about after they have happened. We can take a moment to recognize that they might not have been constructive or beneficial. In saying that, we have the skill to then think, “okay, what could I have done differently in that situation?” “What could I have said to make things better?” “Why did I not think before I spoke or acted?” An integral part of svadhyaya is asking ourselves questions that we can then figure out the answers to.
When we ask ourselves those questions, this is then thinking or looking introspectively. Thinking introspectively allows us to dive deeply into the self, our true self. When evaluating our actions and words that have occurred in the past, we can examine these within the framework of the self. What I mean by this, is working to recognize that we may have done wrong, and searching for answers within the self to achieve improvement is what is necessary. We can surprise ourselves by having many answers to questions already inside of us, and there may not be a need to seek information outside of the self. Seeking advice from peers, loved ones or a professional is most certainly beneficial and should be practiced, yet we need to practice gaining answers from within in order to grow, learn and evolve. When we study these answers provided by the self, we are able to live more fully and gently, respecting others and ourselves wholly and completely. When we seek introspectively, we begin to build a positive relationship with the self, and rather than consistently listening to the Self, our ego and what everyone sees from the outside, true self love develops, and we are better able to meet our personal needs, and the needs of the people in our lives.
So now we can use our minds to think retrospectively and introspectively, however, we need to be mindful of our attitude when we have these thoughts and this time of self-study. The most important thing we can do whilst practicing svadhyaya is remaining objective. By staying objective, we can look at ourselves in a non-bias manner so that we do not go directly to a place of self-judgment. No growth and evolution of the self can occur when bias and judgment are in place. We absolutely must review and evaluate objectively to ensure that we do not develop self-hate in place of self-love. We can recognize anything that needs recognition, we can acknowledge whatever it may be for what it is and then meet it with the utmost kindness and compassion. We are a complete make up of our thoughts, actions, and words, thus if we want our Self to be represented positively in the world, we need to ensure that we are treating our true self with dignity, integrity, and love. Just as we strive to view others in a nonjudgmental manner, we must treat ourselves identically. Our dedication to ahimsa, non-violence towards all beings, is a piece of svadhyaya, and the two entities truly go hand-in-hand. Non-violence is a crucial aspect of self-study, and maintaining these two in a symbiotic relationship is what will propel us into positive self-development, growth, and evolution.
We can practice svadhyaya through yoga asana and meditation. Yoga and meditation are both beautiful mechanisms to get in touch with the self, and shed away insecurities that the Self might be holding onto. Yoga has an interesting way of beginning as a physical practice; most of us find yoga because we want to become stronger, more flexible, or do as the Instagram-yogis do. When practicing we start by only focusing on the physical asana, the correct alignment, and making sure that we breathe while twisting and turning into new shapes. However, the more we practice yoga asana, it slowly turns into an intrinsic practice and through our movement we begin to explore internal parts of ourselves that we might not have seen before. When we find strength in the physical body, we also find strength in the mental body. We become more mindful in our movements and our actions. The 60, 75, or 90-minutes in a yoga studio under the instruction of a teacher is time we have given ourselves to dive deep and explore who we are in the context of the world through movement. Developing a self-practice at home too is an exceptional way to learn more about whom you are and truly embrace svadhyaya as a life principle and duty.
Meditation as well is a practice we can integrate into our daily lives to further study ourselves in an objective light. Meditation, often dubbed mindfulness, is taking time to sit with our bodies and our minds. Although yoga asana is considered a meditation too, meditation focused on breath work and controlling thoughts is a way to incorporate stillness into our extraordinarily busy lives. So often we stretch ourselves so thin that we barely have anytime to take care of ourselves and put our personal needs first. However, putting our needs first is extremely important so that we can function properly for those that need us, too. Sitting still, letting our thoughts free flow without judgment, and breathing deeply can actually be a truly daunting task for most, and may seem impossible when first starting out. There are so many meditation resources available nowadays though, including guided meditation apps for your smart phone, and an endless amount of books that teach you about meditation. Even though there is plenty of advice out there in the world, meditation is a way for us to work towards seeking those answers within ourselves, giving light to our inner divine, and exploring many depths of our self that are truly exciting to see.
In teaching svadhyaya in your yoga class, it may be beneficial to openly speak about the principle to your students in a form of story telling. Typically in my yoga classes, I’ll have the students choose a still seated or supine (on their backs) position where they can remain comfortable for a few minutes. Once everyone is settled, I’ll speak about a concept or something I’ve been reflecting upon my personal life. It could be something I read about, it could be an interaction I had that day, it could be truly anything that has provoked some thought. Speaking about svadhyaya as a niyama, a limb of yoga, something that is already within them that they can unlock and start to integrate in their daily lives is a concept that most of your students will latch onto and embrace during their practice, and hopefully beyond the mat. When introducing svadhyaya in your yoga class, explain to your students that it translates to self-study, and what that could mean to them; diving deep into the true self to grow and evolve, connecting with your divine light, developing a positive and healthy relationship with the self, bettering the self in order to be better for others, and more. You might also instruct students to continue to think about the theme of svadhyaya as they practice their asana throughout the class. Emphasize that non-bias and viewing the self objectively is an absolutely crucial part to the practice of svadhyaya. Teach them that self-study throughout their asana practice will help them to gain an understanding of their body and not only their limits, but also their victories and all of the brilliant movements that their body is completely capable of. Slowly, you will not even need to cue students to observe self-study while they are practicing, it will eventually become something that clicks and is a regular practice. As a yoga instructor you are merely a guide for others to explore the depths of the self, to encourage and allow students to become aware of their bravery. This is great power, and it should be observed carefully and respectfully. By practicing svadhyaya ourselves, we can observe our teaching practices, our voice as a teacher, and take advice from the self without fear of judgment.