“Watch your thoughts, they become words; watch your words, they become actions; watch your actions, they become habits; watch your habits, they become character; watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.” – Author Unknown
Svadhyaya is the fourth Niyama (the personal observances) as laid out in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. In Sanskrit, ‘sva’ means self and ‘dhaya’ means contemplation: or more simply Svadhyaya is the study of self.
In many writings regarding the practice of yoga, when we see the word ‘self’ written with a small ‘s’, it refers to ourselves in our physical body, our ego, and who we consider ourselves to be on a daily basis. When you read the word ‘Self’ with a capital ‘S’, this is likely to refer to the True Self, or the divine within us. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra says: “Study thy self, discover the divine.”
When we listen to our ego, we often do things that don’t align with our true beliefs or intuition. The ‘I’ or small ‘self’ is mostly concerned with survival and fitting in, which usually goes along with getting what we want and proving that we are indeed ‘the best’. We often don't consider the consequences that our actions might have for us. The small self judges, criticizes, fears, doubts and is basically the cause of the ‘fluctuations of the mind’ that we are all familiar with especially during our meditation practice.
By paying attention to, or studying our ‘self’ throughout our day, we become more aware of the things we do that may harm us, and also those which may serve us. Choosing ‘right action’ as we slow down and observe ourselves may bring us closer to that process of uniting with the True Self.
On our yoga mats:
Asana, our movement practice, offers the perfect opportunity to explore svadhyaya. To create each asana we must move and place the various parts of our body. We could do this without any awareness, carelessly going through the motions while the mind is a million miles away, or we could work towards staying present with each and every moment as it arises. We could notice how the body responds to being aligned a certain way, observe physical sensations, watch how the mind reacts to what we’re doing with our bodies, experience any emotions that show up, and listen to the flow of the breath. Studying our habits on the yoga mat can go a long way towards recognizing our habits off the mat too. The way in which we practice yoga is actually very reflective of the way we practice life.
More broadly in our daily lives, svadhyaya refers to any activity that may help us to study ourselves. As examples, we can be guided into self reflection by spiritual or self-help books or listening to talks or lectures. We can also meditate with a focused mind and practice our yoga with great thought and introspection. We can then reflect upon our actions, thoughts, emotions, motivations, aspirations, desires and needs in pursuit of a deeper understanding of our lives and our own selves.
“Yoga is the journey of the self, through the self, to the Self” – The Bhagavad Gita
See what you may discover as you dive deeper into your heart once you get past all of the limiting thoughts and emotions. Perhaps you’ll find greater peace in this deeper consciousness.
Joslyn Shehab MD, RYT-200