Studying Your Self (Svadhyaya)
From a young age, most of us are taught the value of studying. “Study hard in school and you’ll get good grades!” we often hear from our parents.
As we grow older, we recognize that study is the foundation of almost any undertaking. To learn to do something well, whether playing an instrument or a sport, we must study the masters at violin or basketball. Starting at a new job, we examine and learn the various tasks by reading information, observing our trainer, or practicing new skills. Scientists understand the behavior of various animals or sub-atomic processes by careful observation and evaluation – study is the hallmark of their work.
Studying is the foundation of learning, growing, and evolving in every aspect of our lives. Yet, do we really know what it means to study? According to Webster’s New World Dictionary, to study is “the act or process of applying the mind so as to acquire knowledge or understanding.” Study requires several steps.
- Focus: First, we must be able focus our attention. Without careful attention, we will not know what is pertinent and what isn’t.
- Observe: Then, we observe, listen, or read. This opens us to take in what we are putting our attention on.
- Integrate: After we receive the new information, we attempt to understand. This is like digesting food—the knowledge needs to be broken down in ways we can integrate and assimilate into our mind.
- Reflect: Once we take in this new information, we reflect on it. How does it apply to other knowledge we have? What implications does this have in my life? What does this reveal about me?
- Apply: Lastly, new knowledge becomes fully embodied when we know how to apply it to situations, whether it’s on an exam, in a yoga pose, or when responding to others. When we apply this new understanding to any given situation with skill, we know our studies have been fruitful.
Yogic philosophy also recognizes the value of studying. The ancient yogis were scientists: they inquired into themselves and their experiences of the universe with tremendous depth and acuity. An essential part of yoga practice is the concept of Svadhyaya: the “study the Self”.
According to TKV Desikachar, the word is composed of Sva, meaning “self” or “belonging to me,” and Adhyaya, meaning “inquiry” or “examination.” Quite literally, Adhyaya refers to “getting close to something.” Thus, the practice of Svadhyaya allows us to become closer to our true self through study and inquiry.
Small “s” self
As we engage in Svadhyaya, there are two aspects of the self that we examine. The first and most obvious is what many call the small “s” self—our mind, ego, personality, and also our physical bodies. Until we deeply examine our thoughts, words, and behavior and align them with our highest integrity, it will be difficult to become the best we can be as human beings. And it will be nearly impossible to pursue our spiritual growth.
This first level of Svadhayaya necessitates that we observe all of our relationships. How am I treating my partner, friend, parent, child, co-worker, subordinate, boss, or a stranger in a grocery store? What is the quality of my speech—am I speaking truth to others? Am I loving in my communications, or angry? Do I listen to others, or do I only want to talk?
This inquiry applies to our relationship with our own self as well. How do I treat myself? What are my beliefs and attitudes about who I am, and what I’m capable of? Do these attitudes support or hinder me? Do these thoughts affect how I behave towards others? How do I treat my body? Am I loving and compassionate towards my body and myself? There are a myriad of questions that one could explore through the practice of Svadhyaya.
Self-inquiry can be a moment to moment practice of self-observation. It can range from simply watching the breath to noticing emotions arise during an argument. It also includes reading self-help books, going to counseling, taking personal growth workshops, journaling or artwork, and a vast number of other experiences that heighten self-awareness.
During our yoga practice, we include Svadhyaya in observing the responses of our body and the reactions of our mind. In Svadhyaya, we study ourselves so that we may become more of who we truly are—our highest and greatest good within.
Large “S” Self
The second and more traditional aspect of Svadhyaya is the study of the “Self” with the capital “S”: our Divine essence. Svadhyaya is a practice of getting to know our true nature, beyond our personality, thoughts, body, or emotions. It includes studying spiritual texts, practicing meditation or breathwork, chanting, or prayer, all of which are forms of yoga. It may involve going to a teacher, minister, or spiritual gathering for inspiration and understanding. There are many ways in which we can unearth a deeper connection to the Divine within.
Ramana Maharshi, a well-known yogi of the early 20th century, suggested one simple spiritual practice of self-inquiry. He recommended the repetition and contemplation on the question, “Who am I?” The “I” he referred to is none other than the capital “S” Self.
Beyond the layers of titles we associate with ourselves (like mother, husband, accountant, Latino, woman, Methodist, gay, straight, etc.) and beyond the sense of me and mine, there is a spaciousness of Self. This I transcends definitions and can only be experienced. It is the ultimate goal of yoga, the sense of Union with all that is. As we practice this question over and over, Maharshi asserts that over time, the true essence reveals itself.
Whether you are on or off your yoga mat, you can incorporate Svadhayaya into your daily life. For example, take the time to focus your attention on your inhalations and exhalations. Observe how the experience of breathing affects you in the moment. Notice the thoughts, emotions, and sensations.
Integrate this experience with what you have understood previously about your breath, and what this momentary experience reveals to you now. Reflect on the impact of deepening your inhalation, lengthening your exhalation, holding the breath, and releasing it. What does the breath, right now, teach you about yourself and your life? Explore how breath awareness connects you more deeply with nature, the universe, or the Divine itself. Then apply these observations to the next pose; the conversation with your neighbor; a hike through the woods; taking an exam; or returning your client’s phone call.
Utilize what you have learned through studying your breath, or any aspect of your life, to enrich your daily experiences. It is said in the Yoga Sutras that when one firmly establishes Svadhayaya in their life, they attain union with the Divine. Just as physicists have discovered that the deeper they examine sub-atomic particles, the more they see that the universe is composed of impulses of energy and information, the deeper we look into ourselves, the more we unearth the profound truth that we are one with all of consciousness. We are Spirit itself. Study yourself, and you will find your Self within.
Copyright © 2009 by Constance L. Habash
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