The Fourth Niyama: Svadhyaya – Self-Study
The fourth of the niyamas (personal observances) from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is svadhyaya. In Sanskrit, sva means “self;” dhyaya translates as contemplating, meditating on or reflecting upon. Svadhyaya therefore can be translated as self-reflection, self-contemplation or the study of oneself. Like many aspects of the Yoga Sutras, this introspection can be approached in a traditional way, as in the time of Patanjali; or the practice might veer towards a more modern interpretation.
A traditional form of svadhyaya is mantra recitation: repeating a word or group of words believed to have spiritual resonance, such as Om. Patanjali particularly emphasized the recitation of Om (Yoga Sutras 1.23-29), which he considered to be a representation of pure consciousness. By chanting Om or another mantra, one’s attention is singularly focused on that word and all other thoughts fall away. One can then submit fully to the present moment and experience this pure consciousness within oneself free of the constructs of the mind.
Another classical form of svadhyaya is the study of sacred scriptures. This could refer to yogic scriptures, such as the Bhagavad Gita or Yoga Sutras, but could also include any writing that is spiritually revealing and uplifting and which encourages investigation of our own divinity. When we study these works and tap into the wisdom of previous spiritual seekers and sages, we also engage in our own self-examination. These resources can be used as a mirror to reflect the sublime in our own soul.
More broadly, svadhyaya refers to any activity wherein we quietly study ourselves and reflect upon our actions, thoughts, emotions, motivations, aspirations, desires and needs in pursuit of a deeper experience of our lives and our own selves.
Asana practice offers the perfect opportunity to explore svadhyaya. To create each asana you must move and place the various parts of your body. You could do this without any real engagement or awareness, carelessly going through the motions while your mind is a million miles away, or you could work towards staying present with each and every moment as it arises. You could notice how the body responds to being aligned a certain way, observe physical sensations, watch how your mind reacts to what you’re doing with your body, experience any emotions that show up, and listen to the ebb and flow of your breath.
Often when we’re practicing asana discomfort—or sometimes pain—arises. If we slow down, apply svadhyaya and contemplate what’s happening in our bodies and minds, pain becomes an important teacher. We can examine the subtleties of pain and begin to understand the difference between “bad pain” that is harmful and injurious to our bodies; and “good pain,” mild or moderate discomfort that we can stay with, breathe into and observe as it shifts and changes.
We sometimes investigate what lies beyond our comfort zone and intentionally create uncomfortable and challenging situations in our asana practice so we can study ourselves and reflect upon how we react and respond to stress and discomfort. When we incorporate svadhyaya into our asana practice we observe our natural tendencies. We might notice that when something unpleasant arises we immediately turn away from it and do whatever we can to feel safe and cozy. Perhaps instead we push even harder, believing that without pain there’s no progress.
The way in which we respond to unpleasantness while we’re holding a pose is likely the same way we’ll respond to whatever stress arises in our lives off the mat. If we take the time to explore our reactions to aches and twinges when we’re on the mat, we gain a deeper understanding of ourselves and then can apply that knowledge when we’re confronted with uncomfortable or painful situations outside the yoga studio. Through svadhyaya we gain a deeper understanding of ourselves and cultivate an inner strength that is invaluable in times of real adversity.
Beyond noticing reactions to discomfort, there’s so much else to observe about your own self while practicing asana. Do you constantly compare yourself to the practitioner on the next mat, evaluating how you measure up? Or are you content to keep your gaze inward, paying more attention to your inner world than to your neighbor’s prowess? Are you always one of the first to arrive to class, or do you habitually show up five minutes after class has started? Do you feel a silent rage burbling inside when someone’s cell phone rings during Savasana? Or is it your phone that regularly interrupts class? Maybe you always find yourself in fast-paced, sweaty, intensely challenging classes. Perhaps instead you usually gravitate towards a slow, gentle, quiet class.
As you observe and notice your habitual tendencies and patterns, it’s important to adopt an attitude of non-judgment. When studying yourself it’s easy to succumb to a judgmental mindset: either chastising yourself or, conversely, patting yourself on the back. If that happens, that’s another tendency you can notice. Notice it, acknowledge it, and then come back to observing yourself with no judgment.
See what you discover when you delve into yourself with an open mind and heart. By thoroughly contemplating yourself, perhaps you’ll move beyond the boundaries of thought and emotion and tap into the pure consciousness that lies deep within.
Christine Malossi, RYT is based in New York City, where she offers a mindful, alignment-focused Vinyasa practice that cultivates balance, awareness and equanimity. In addition to teaching private clients and group classes at studios throughout Manhattan, she also teaches at the Spencer Cox Center for Health at Mount Sinai Hospital’s Institute for Advanced Medicine whereshe designs a practice specifically tailored to patients diagnosed with HIV and other chronic illnesses. Christine is honored to be teaching yoga and to have the opportunity to pass on to others the joy and freedom that she has found in her own practice. Find her at www.christinemalossi.com.