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Deepening your practice through svadhyaya

Yogis are seekers, I’m a big believer of that. Regardless of where we might be with our practice — two classes or two decades in — it’s the searcher in us that first draws us into the room, and onto our mats. My reason for trying yoga years back was a hope to work through a loneliness buried deep underneath my upbeat and bubbly exterior. Over the years, I’ve seen students come to yoga looking for all sorts of things — greater mobility, stress relief, a spiritual understanding, the list goes on.

Independent from what brings us to yoga, much of its beauty lies within its richness and the ways in which we can continue to seek and grow through the practice. Most of us are familiar with deepening the practice by uplevelling our physical know-how. We hold onto an idea that mastering more advanced asanas (postures) is the main goal — the best indication of how “good” we are at yoga. In reality, there are more ways to make progress, including svadhyaya, a term which translates to “self-study”, found in the Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutras.

The Yoga Sutras is a text commonly used as a roadmap as to how we practise yoga in the West. Within the second Sutra there are five niyamas, and each is a guideline as to how we can inwardly commit to a path of freedom and presence. Svadhyaya is the fourth niyama, with Sutra 2.44 — svadhyaya ishta samprayogah — instructing us to take part in self-study to connect with our higher consciousness or, for some, connecting to our own unique understanding of God. While doing a yoga class and sitting down to meditate is a great starting point for self-awareness, by taking the concept of self-study off the mat, we can deepen our understanding and experience of yoga.

In my work, I often refer to svadhyaya as inner work — a three-part process where we dig deep to unveil our truth and highest potential. We begin with self-observation to look at how our thoughts, habits and beliefs might be creating resistance in our life. This is the work of self-enquiry to understand where we might be repeating patterns that hold us back from opportunities and, ultimately, love. The second component of inner work brings in the work of healing and may include contemplative work and journalling to bring a sense of forgiveness and softness to our negative patterns, to arrive in the third part of inner work: self-acceptance and love.

So how can svadhyaya help us to deepen our yoga practice? There’s no one way to do the work. Instead, it’s a process of experimenting with what best brings us to non-judgmental self-enquiry. Taking the inner work off the mat can inform our practice, guide us to our truth and help us cultivate an open heart.

Informing our practice

In Sutra 2.46, “sthira sukham asanam”, Pantajali advises that the purpose of yoga is to create steadiness (sthira) and ease (sukham). The physical practice was designed to prepare the body for meditation, rather than an exercise alternative, which is how many of us utilise yoga today. An energising and moderately challenging practice can feel great — who doesn’t want to build strength and feel lithe and limber? But our practice can become distorted when we become attached to physical goals, causing us to push ourselves to a point of over-exertion and ignore our true needs.

Many of us look to yoga for external results. Even when guiding yoga teachers through the inner work, the first thing that often needs healing is a tendency towards imposter syndrome. The direction that yoga has taken means teachers feel enormous pressure to perfect poses and continuously advance in asana technique. By working internally and confronting these fears, teachers can recall the true purpose of the practice and feel confident in changing how they practise and how they teach. This might mean slowing down, exploring props and modifications, taking a more compassionate approach. By focusing on stability and ease rather than achieving goals, we might unlock great wisdom and transform how we experience yoga — going deeper inwardly, rather than externally.

Our truth

It takes conscious effort to understand our truth. Rather than expressing how we really feel and what we really want, we can get caught second-guessing ourselves and overthinking how we appear in the eyes of others. By incorporating svadhyaya into our practice, we can pick up on our blind spots, where we might be judging, blaming and acting out our blanketed fears. As Sutra 1.3 explains, the purpose of yoga is to bring us to our true nature, and while a yoga class can prepare the body to do the inner work, if we overemphasise the physical or depend on others for guidance, our self-awareness might get a little foggy.

I once worked with a teacher who was in the throes of anxiety while pregnant. Fearful of her changing capabilities with her changing body, she believed that having a baby would end her teaching opportunities for a long time. As we explored her fears, we revealed the perfectionist in her and a belief that to be a good teacher, she was required to deliver a unique and fancy sequence, a heavily sweaty practice, and look super slick while delivering it all. To heal, she repeated exercises and mantras to understand the pleaser in her — the part of her that sought approval of others. Her understanding of a good yoga practice transformed and so did her teaching — it was less about doing, and more about being. The softer, feminine nature in her came to life, and from there, her anxiety eased and she continued to teach from an authentic place, where she believed she could best help her students.

Cultivate an open heart

Not many of us speak about matters of the heart in everyday life. Today’s culture tends to shield away from the uncertainty and disappointment that can come with a quest that all of us belong to, but only some take part in: the pursuit of love. In a yoga practice, backbends are traditionally considered heart-opening poses, with which we might have a love/hate relationship. Sometimes they can unleash repressed emotions, which might feel exhilarating one day, and too much the next.

By incorporating svadhyaya off the mat, we can explore how to cope with these emotions once unlocked, and how we can bring in the work of healing to help us move closer to love. Although love is most often associated with another person whom we are in a relationship with, love is also the feeling of joy that arises when we feel connected to our truth. Love enables us to drop our judgments, let go of our ego and feel nurtured.

This process is no simple feat, which is why the inner work is important to help us to work through what arises. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach, but to help open our hearts, svadhyaya might include looking at how we have been betrayed in the past, and how this betrayal has shaped a repetitive belief we hold about ourselves. Through self-reflection, we might reveal what frightens us when in the pursuit of love, and create actionable ways to get better at opening our hearts and sharing this with the world.

Endless opportunities exist for us to delve into our yoga practice. Rather than limiting our understanding and focusing solely on the physical practice, it’s important to bring in various ways to incorporate svadhyaya, so that we can awaken on the interior and experience one of yoga’s most potent lessons: compassionate presence.

Leanne Raab

Leanne Raab

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