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Wednesday, September 18, 2002

Svadhyaya: Self-Study

This niyama derives from the Sanskrit sva, "self" or "own," and adhyaya, "study." Some say the object of the principle is the perusal of spiritual texts and attending satsangs, spiritual lectures and gatherings. Others argue that the idea means you should ponder your own self and its nature.

The famous Sri Swami Sivananda held the first view. In his essay, Satsanga and Svadhayaya, he forcefully reminds his students that when reading profound and important books "a host of powerful and positive ideas rush to your mind and at once your mental powers are sharpened." He also focuses on the obvious fact that we live in a world that ignores or downplays the powerful ideals of yoga.

Reading yogic books helps us surround ourselves with more supportive environment and increases our understanding of how we can use yoga to change ourselves and our relation to the world. This is one of the reasons Sivananda also advocates satsang. Attending spiritual lectures and kirtans not only inspires us mentally and emotionally, but helps remind us that we're not alone in our journey, that there is a yoga community of helpful friends.

But clearly, simply learning texts or chanting little verses by rote is pointless. The goal isn't to see who can memorize the most or wittily quote an a propos phrase from an obscure bit of the canon. Learning can be a powerful tool for individual change, and the knowledge we gain can help us understand why we do our yoga. Or it can be a meaningless ego-trip as, like arrogant and power-hungry scholars, we wrestle for dominance in abstruse and useless debates. It's obvious which one we're after here!

Renowned yoga teacher Judith Lasater belongs to the "know thyself" school of svadhyaya. She agrees with Sri Vinoba Bhave, who describes it as "the study of the one subject which is the basis or root of all subjects or actions, upon which the others rest, but which itself does not rest upon anything." Lasater believes the benefit of svadhyaya is to come to understand the truth of inter-being, that by examining ourselves closely, we come to see how we cannot exist in isolation by are connected to all.

And in a recent piece in Yoga Journal, she takes a broad view of what constitutes the principle: "But in truth any practice that reminds us of our interconnection is svadhyaya. For you, svadhyaya could be studying Patanjali's Sutra, reading this article, practicing asanas, or singing from your heart."

There are more formal practices of svadhyaya. For example, this one advocated by New York City-based yoga teacher Jason Brown: pausing internally at various times of day just to ask yourself "how exactly do I feel right now, in this moment? What exactly am I doing right now, in this moment?" This practice is especially powerful if done first thing in the morning, right before going to bed, and when in conversation with someone else.

It may sometimes be easy to know, to say, "I'm angry; I'm bored; I'm typing listlessly; I'm listening half-heartedly; I'm tired." But you may find that the real insight comes more readily when you discover that you don't always know what you're feeling or doing; you're on auto-pilot. You, yourself, the thing you think you know so well, can often escape you! Where has it gone and what is it doing?

The second part of this exercise is to subtly change your present actions based on your internal reading. If your answer's "I'm hungry," then you should eat. If your answer's "I'm bored," engage yourself. If your answer is "I'm listening half-heartedly," then start listening deeply. Canny yoga students will immediately recognize this as a practice of mindfulness and a cultivation of compassion.

.: posted by Poep Sa Frank Jude 12:07 PM

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