As with most of the yamas and niyamas, this week’s niyama has multiple layers of meaning. SWADHYAYA (often written as svadhyaya or svadyaya) is simply translated as self-study. It does NOT mean self-study in the egotistical sense of congratulating yourself on being so smart, good-looking, rich or powerful. However is DOES mean self-study in an egoistical 1 sense – discovering who you really are.
Most people’s introduction to yoga is at an asana class. Probably, the first instruction in that class will be to relax. This is also the introduction to swadhyaya, self-study. “ ‘Relax’ the teacher says. How can I relax in this stark room that’s too cold (or too hot), lying on a thin rubber mat on a hard floor, and all those other people so close to me?”
Unbeknown to you, you have just taken the first lesson in swadhyaya.
You realize – as you look around while your eyes are meant to be closed – that ‘all those other people’ appear to be relaxed. “If they can relax here, surely I can too! What do I have to do to my body and/or mind to allow me to relax?” Congratulations! You’ve just learnt something about yourself.
The next lesson in swadhyaya comes when you’re instructed to breathe deep into the belly – not the upper chest! Each time you confront an asana there’s an opportunity to practise self-study. Do you do the ‘Cat’ pose the way you always do it? Or will you do it slowly and mindfully? Perhaps a little faster than usual to see how that feels. Stretch a bit more this time – how does your body feel about that? How does your mind feel about that?
In one sense, swadhyaya is “awareness” – the overall aim of yoga – being aware of your body’s current strengths and limitations, on a day-to-day basis.
However, swadhyaya can apply to everything you do, not just at a yoga class.
It means being aware ALWAYS of what we’re doing. It means being brave enough to question ourselves: “Why am I doing (or, why did I do) this thing?” “Can I do it better?” “Do I need to change the way I do xxxx ?”
We humans generally tend to not like change, but swadhyaya means we have to recognise our habits and let go of those that come from our ego, and hold on to and develop those that come from our Higher Self.
There is a little saying which I’ve read in various places. I think it’s written by that most prodigious writer, Anonymous:
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!
In other words, we control our own destiny.
The Bhagavad Gita (probably the most holy book in India) says “Yoga is the journey of the self, through the self, to the Self”.
So to find our true ‘Self’, we could observe ourselves as if observing someone else minutely. We could look at how we react when things are going our way – and again when things are not going our way; look at how we conduct ourselves in relationships – with people we know and love, people we don’t know, people we don’t like. Do we really live our lives without causing harm to any creature or the world (ahimsa)? Are we honest and open (satya)? Are we only taking what is ours (asteya)? Do we keep our senses under control (brahmacharya)? Are we greedy for what we don’t have (aparigraha)?
In questioning ourselves, however, we must be honest with ourselves (satya), we must practise discipline (tapasya) and we must look upon ourselves without judgement or criticism (ahimsa).
Studying ourselves is only part of the meaning of swadhyaya – it also means studying.
Historically, that meant studying the ancient scriptures and learning them by rote. These ancient scriptures (e.g. “The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali”, the “Bhagavad Gita”, the “Hatha Yoga Pradapika”) are all about how to be a better person and how to find our true Selves.
Because these ancient texts always “confront us with ourselves” swadhyaya also means to reflect or meditate upon their contents.2
Another aspect of swadhyaya is Mantra meditation, as chanting mantras brings peace and tranquility enabling us to focus more cleaarly on the subject of that particular mantra. For example in yoga, we have the Mahamrityunjaya, which is for health. In Satyananda yoga ashrams all around the world this mantra is chanted 108 times every Saturday evening just before dinner.
Some other ways to help ‘Know Thyself’ are:
– Spending some time each day in introspection – getting to know our Strengths, Weaknesses, Ambitions and Needs (Swami Niranjanananda calls it SWAN)
– Reading some of the proliferation of self-help books (for the regular attendees at my yoga classes there is quite a collection of these books available for borrowing).
– Keep good company. The yoga texts frequently refer to the need to associate with good, like-minded people.
As with all the yamas and niyamas, the purpose, the aim of swadhyaya is attaining bliss, by discovering the real Self. Patanjali’s sutra says “Study thyself, discover the divine”.
So the ultimate aim of swadhyaya is self-transformation – a “constant evolution towards yourself” through study and self study. 3
1. Egoistic is focusing on yourself and being able to think, explore and be curious about yourself; whereas egotistic relates more to vanity.
2. Georg Feuerstein, The lost teachings of yoga, Sounds True, Boulder, Colorado.
3. David Lurey: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w1h10BRaY1I