Practicing Svadhyaya and Aparigraha: Yoga and Our Stories

Yoga student in forward fold which is representative of folding inward to examine one's true nature

Article At A Glance

The Yamas are behaviors or ideas that we avoid in working toward the goals of yoga practice, one of them being aparigraha or “non-attachment.” The Niyamas are observances for a healthy life, one of being svadhyaya or “self-study.”  How do these observances affect our stories”?  Learn more here.

Yoga instructors who reveal their authentic humanity to their students—“warts and all,” as the saying goes—most often really resonate with me. One time when I was caught in a busy day’s “monkey mind,” one teacher’s opening sharing about yoga helping her to “change the stories I tell myself” made me stop and think. What stories am I telling myself that are holding me back? What stories between my ears commandeer mental space, keep me from taking measured (and potentially fruitful) risks, and simply cause me unneeded anguish.

Shedding Your Stories: Tools From Yoga Practice and Philosophy

I felt like she could have been speaking directly to me that day, but there’s a reason she said it to the whole class. Mental narratives, some of them not productive and not healthy, are part of the human condition. Ancient yogis knew this and therefore included it as part of their Eight Limbs. The Yamas are behaviors or ideas that we avoid in working toward the goals of yoga practice, one of them being aparigraha or “non-attachment.” The Niyamas are observances for a healthy, whole life, one of being svadhyaya or “self-study.” Let’s break down how these yogic principles can help us to change our mental narratives.

young woman in activewear sitting in lotus pose keeping hands in namaste for relaxing meditation

Regarding aparigraha, it takes leaving behind ideas we have about ourselves or faulty predictions (for instance, being certain that something has happened or will happen a particular way because of x or y) to release habitual unproductive and unhealthy mental narratives. This takes not being attached to those ideas or predictions. As when you’re clearing out space in your home, once you’ve cleared these narratives, there is room for what may serve you far better than the perhaps stale, now-irrelevant things that were there.

Svadhyaya is a key tool for being able to do release our narratives. You first have to know what your narratives are, what situations or people may trigger those narratives, and what specific things help us to surrender our attachments (for instance, whatever may be our best self-care or support from a romantic partner or close friend). We are then far better equipped to notice when we are caught in a narrative that doesn’t serve us and be ready to shift course when we see it. When cleaning a mirror, it can look very dirty when we first take notice of it. It always looks dirtier before we start cleaning it. In the same way, this can all be a difficult process that we can find to be well worth it after we’ve made big strides.

Asana Practice for Non-Attachment and Self-Study

Young beautiful sporty yogi woman practicing yoga concept, sitting in Child exercise on black yogic mat, Balasana pose, working out, wearing sportswear

I’ve heard it many times and experienced it personally: one comes to yoga for the physical practice and stays for something much deeper. Yoga has many, many advantages for physical health—healthy weight maintenance, flexibility, the release of pain-causing muscular tension, ways to address countless physical ailments, to name just a few of the benefits. Yet what can be most fascinating about the physical practice are things that have significant meaning far beyond our physical selves.

What we learn about ourselves and how our minds and spirits can grow from that learning can be the real journey. If we stay mindful and observant, asana practice can leave us little choice but to observe our habits, tendencies, and reactions. For instance, do we keep pushing to touch our toes even when our hamstrings scream at us for mercy and our instructors tell us, “don’t do it if it hurts?” Do we stay in Balasana (Child’s Pose) after a teacher demonstrates a challenging arm-balancing pose, convinced that we’ll never achieve it—that we’ll just “face-plant?” Do we always rush out before Savasana (Relaxation Pose), not even wanting to imagine being silent in our own thoughts for minutes on end?

It’s called a yoga “practice” because once we observe these tendencies, class after class, we can consciously make different choices. Over time, these choices become natural and no longer need the same level of focused consciousness. In this way, the mat can become a true laboratory for studying ourselves (svadhyaya)—the first step to releasing what doesn’t serve us (aparigraha), which is the first step to filling our choices and our lives with what does serve us. The true wisdom of yoga practice is its emphasis on awareness of how our bodies, minds, and spirits are interconnected. Working with the body becomes working with the mind and spirit. To a certain degree, that’s unavoidable. Therein lies the magic of yoga practice!

Where Yoga and Modern Science Meet

Surprisingly enough (or not, perhaps, depending on your outlook), clinical psychology, neuroscience, and even quantum physics bear out these yogic principles. For instance, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a psychotherapy methodology that focuses on the link between thoughts and behaviors—if you change one, and the other can also change. It also emphasizes our agency to make such changes (a kind of aparigraha). This approach offers tools for doing so. These tools bring greater awareness to the faulty logic in one’s habitual and perhaps unproductive mental and behavioral patterns (a kind of svadhyaya).

Neuroscience shows us how those patterns are ingrained in us. Like a path through the woods, neural circuits associated with behaviors and patterns are worn in, and thus, more likely to be repeated. As we observe ourselves and release from attachment to the thoughts and behaviors we notice, we can begin to change those thoughts and behaviors. It can be a slow process that requires consistent self-redirection, but we can literally begin to change those neural circuits and patterns in our brains and thus change the character of our thoughts and behaviors in the longer term. Without ever looking at one brain scan, ancient yogis seem to have had a sense of these processes at work.

Lastly, quantum physics theorizes that with every choice we make, a new existence for ourselves emerges. Have you ever wondered what it might be like if you acted differently in a certain situation or made an alternative life choice? There’s a whole other world of possibility. This is a very new area of study, yet even short of empirical validation, it holds powerful inspiration for our patterns of thought and behavior. If we come to know ourselves and release our attachments, we can find new possibilities. We can watch our lives blossom and grow, flowing in the stream of such new possibilities. It can all begin on the mat.


Marlysa Sullivan, Yoga U Presenter, Yoga Therapist, Evidence-influenced treatment for back pain


Kathryn Boland, writer, yoga teacher

Kathryn Boland is an RCYT and R-DMT (Registered Dance/Movement Therapist). She is originally from Rhode Island, attended The George Washington University (Washington, DC) for an undergraduate degree in Dance (where she first encountered yoga), and Lesley University for an MA in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, Expressive Therapies: Dance/Movement Therapy. She has taught yoga to diverse populations in varied locations. As a dancer, she has always loved to keep moving and flowing in practicing more active Vinyasa-style forms. Her interests have recently evolved to include Yin and therapeutic yoga, and aligning those forms with Laban Movement Analysis to serve the needs of various groups (such as Alzheimer’s Disease patients, children diagnosed with ADHD, PTSD-afflicted veterans – all of which are demographically expanding). She believes in finding the opportunity within every adversity, and doing all that she can to help others live with a bit more breath and flow!

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