Yoga for self-study
Self-study or svadhyaya is one of the niyamas that Patanjali directs us to do in the eight limbs. The beauty is that it’s available in every moment of every day, especially when we make mistakes.
It starts with you
When you look at the sum of your life, there’s only one constant across it all: you. Every experience, every relationship, the wins, losses, tragedies and triumphs, mistakes and miracles, they all have one thing in common … you. If you want to make sense of your life, if you genuinely desire more yoga and peace and if you want to grow into the best version of yourself, it has to start with you. Self-study is at the heart of transforming your life. Prescribed by Patanjali in the eight limbs of the Yoga Sutras, svadhyaya, one of the niyamas, or observances, is a fundamental practice to experience the state of yoga. It connects us to something greater than ourselves, which ultimately, according to Master Iyengar’s translation in Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, ultimately fulfils all the practitioner’s desires.
The hero’s journey
We see the process of svadhyaya at the heart of so many great stories and myths. Our hero embarks on a journey to reach some elusive goal. They overcome obstacles, become victorious, but most importantly, they learn something about themselves and return home changed. This change comes from the self-knowledge obtained thanks to the trials and tribulations of their journey, enabling them to discover who they really are and what they are made of. As yogis, like Arjuna in the Bhagavadgita, we are constantly on the hero’s journey, navigating the battlefield of life. It’s our job to stay awake and seek to understand who and what we are, through this process of svadhyaya.
This is good news for all of us, because it means the ability to transform your life is at your fingertips every moment of every day. Each time you get triggered, make a mistake or find yourself filled with joy is an opportunity to look in the mirror and understand your patterns, habits and tendencies. As you examine yourself and the way you interact in the world with fierce clarity and honesty, you become familiar with the patterns of your behaviour and in this way no longer are a slave to your reactivity. You put yourself in the driver’s seat and start to resolve anything that is getting in the way of you experiencing more ease in your life.
Self-study on the mat
In formal practice, every time you step on the mat for asana practice, it’s an opportunity to check “in”, not “out”. Sure, using the yoga practice to check out of our otherwise beleaguered lives can feel good momentarily. You bliss out, you move your body, switch off and maybe feel zen for a few minutes when you leave the yoga studio. But then you lose your mind at the parking ticket you return to, or traffic light, or tantrum-throwing child that awaits you at home. The yoga is fleeting and very easily undone. Self-study on the other hand is the process of checking in on the mat. Checking in with your body and every little pleasant and unpleasant sensation. Checking in with the breath, and keeping it smooth as the practice gets a little more intense. Checking in with the mind as it plays out all its intricate patterns and noticing how it adds layers of meaning to everything, instead of being present in the experience of what is. The sound of the teacher’s voice, the music, the poses you hate, the ones you love, when you push too far, or back away. The glorious nature of your mind will be played out in all its splendour on the mat. You just have to stay awake, notice and get curious. Everything you need to know about yourself will reveal itself to you in the yoga room.
Becoming familiar with the patterns of the mind
Meditation practice is another great way to work with this process. In meditation, we get to observe the monkey mind jumping around from thought to thought. The beauty of this is that you become a good observer. By watching your thoughts as they arise and fall, with no story or judgement, you become very familiar with the patterns of your own mind. Just like when we get to know someone; at first there’s a lot of chatter and filling the silence with nattering. But over time, as you get to know someone better, you can sit in comfortable silence with them for long stretches. Maybe even road trips! It’s the same with the mind. Through meditation, you study the self by observing your thoughts. As you become familiar with the nature of your mind, thoughts stop having so much power over you. The more you get curious about the nature of your mind, the closer you get to the natural state of who and what you really are.
Connecting to the sacred
Part of svadhyaya is the idea that we are studying to understand something greater than ourselves. We seek to understand something beyond the mundane. Some like to call it the divine, something sacred or God. By understanding ourselves, by working through our everyday “stuff”, we start to transcend the mundane. We discover what we are not, which is our ever-changing patterns of behaviour, and instead we realise our true nature. We see that we are sacred.
Chanting and recitation of sacred texts
Traditionally svadhyaya was practised by recitation of sacred texts such as the Vedas. Chanting facilitates a comprehension of the teachings at a cellular level. Sound allows knowledge through vibration; it’s not until you try chanting yourself that you feel the power of it. If you’ve ever practised kirtan you’ll know what I’m talking about. Chanting is indescribable — it elevates you. Even just chanting the Sanskrit “Aum” alters your experience. Sometimes I step on my mat amid the chaos of daily life and am completely overwhelmed. I may physically be in the room, but part of me isn’t there. One conscious “Aum” and everything has reintegrated. Gareth, one of my teachers, calls it “the great eraser”. Undoubtedly, repetition of sacred words and texts are enough to transform you and your life. They plug you in directly to something sacred in a very potent way. The more you chant, the more you connect to the divine. If you feel disconnected, give chanting a go.
Studying the sacred texts
Another way to practise is to read and study the yogic texts. I’ve been contemplating the classical yoga texts for over two decades, and every time I pick one up it’s like coming home. Nothing takes me from a state of feeling anxious and disconnected to a state of connectivity, then sitting down to study with my teacher Manorama D’Alvia, even if it’s in the modern context of online teleclasses. Notice how you feel when you read these texts. It’s not the same as sitting down to read a juicy fiction or your favourite magazine. Reading these texts creates an elevated state internally. You can start by picking up a copy of the Yoga Sutras or the Bhagavadgita. Read a page then sit and contemplate. It may journey you home in
a way when nothing else does.
Introspective yoga flow
The following practice is designed to take us into introspective forward folds and hip-openers, while also keeping a little fire in the heart so we have the impetus to facilitate the changes we discover we need to make in the process of our self-study. Enjoy the deep dive into yourself.
Chant “Aum” three times
Choose a comfortable seat and sit with a tall spine. Check in with the body, mind and breath and notice how you feel. Chant “Aum” three times. Check in once more and see if you feel any difference.
Wide-angled seated forward bend (Upavistha konasana)
Sitting with a tall spine, extend the legs and set them about 90 degrees apart. Flex the feet, toes pointing straight up. Hinge forward from the hips, keeping the seat connected to the earth and the spine long. Take five breaths.
Upward-facing wide-angled aeated pose (Urdhva upavistha konasana)
Sit with a tall spine, soles of feet together, knees out to the side. Grab the inside edges of big toes with peace fingers grasp. Balance on sit bones as you lift feet up and extend legs. If you need, keep them bent. Lift the sternum up and take five breaths.
Wide-legged forward fold (Prasarita paddottanasana)
Release hands and take them back to hips. Adjust feet so that heels are in line and toes are turned in so that the gap between second and middle toe dissects centre of the heel. Hug the outer ankles in. Extend legs without locking knees. Use hands to lift frontal hip bones up, lengthening the tail down. Crown of head yearns for sky, lengthening the side waist and spine. Quads lift, navel lifts, spine long as you hinge from the hips and fold forward, spine parallel to earth. Shift hips over ankles. Take five to 10 conscious breaths. Strong legs to lift spine parallel to earth, then all the way up on an inhale breath.
Bend knees into your chest and allow them to open out to the side. Create a diamond shape with the legs. Curl forward, allowing the whole spine to curve. Palms can face up. Soften the shoulders, face and jaw. If it feels more comfortable, rest your forehead on a block or whatever you have that can bring the earth to your forehead. Allow the body to relax down and shift awareness to the breath. Close the eyes. Take 10 conscious breaths.
Legs up the wall (Viparita Karani)
Lie on your back, with legs up the wall. Separate the legs as wide as you can. If hamstrings need a bit of love, put a pillow or folded blanket under the pelvis or shuffle away from wall a little. Elevating pelvis also gives a lift so the heart is slightly above the head. Palms face up. You can stay here for as long as it’s comfortable or set a timer for five minutes. To come out, bend the knees and roll over to one side pausing for a few breaths, using hands under head as a pillow.
3 steps to practise svadhyaya
Pull your awareness in. When all the senses are moving outwards, it’s impossible to listen to our internal world. It is only in stillness and introspection that we start to become aware of our patterns and vrittis, or whirlings, of the mind (as Patanjali calls them). It’s only when we reduce distraction and start to wrangle our senses which are normally moving outwards into the external world, practising pratyhara, another of the eight limbs, that we become aware of our internal landscape. Find time for stillness and contemplation, the first step to obtaining self-knowledge. Otherwise, you will be prisoner to the vrittis controlling how you view the world and your reactions and habits in your experiences. You will feel like you are a victim to the external world. When you pull your attention in, you connect to that deeper part of yourself beyond the external. Then move back out into the world with clarity.
As you start the process of noticing your patterns and understanding yourself more fully, look at it lovingly and kindly. Observe with clarity, compassion and curiosity. Contemplate what the thought or behaviour is revealing about your nature. Then you can consider how to resolve those patterns so you can be completely present in your true nature more of the time.
3 Break the pattern
For most of us the process of observing and identifying patterns and habits is a lifetime of work. But if you want your life to change for the better, it involves changing your behaviour and doing something different. This is the trickier bit. Habits are hard to break. And it will require your commitment to be honest and compassionate with yourself in the process. As Einstein said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”