This is part nine of a 10-part series exploring each of the Yamas and Niyamas to discover how we can incorporate them both on and off the mat for a deeper, richer life of yoga.
In Ancient Greece, in the heart of the city of Delphi, stood the Temple of Apollo. It was home to the Oracle—a woman, who it was believed, could answer any question given to her. From across the Mediterranean, statesmen and kings would come to seek her counsel. No colony was founded without her consent. No battle fought without her input. No crop planted without her guidance.
She was the all-knowing.
Upon entering the mystical sanctuary of the Oracle, those who came to consult with her would pass beneath a gateway of stone into which two words were inscribed—two words that legend has it were chosen by seven sages as a command for all seekers: Gnothi Seauton, Know Thyself.
It is this journey to self-knowledge that svadhyaya, our fourth Niyama, implores us to take. The Sanskrit word translates directly as “self-study,” and it asks us to do just that.
At first glance it can seem an unnecessary reminder. From the moment we begin yoga—be it from our first Yama, asana, or meditation—we are stepping onto a path of self-study. We are becoming aware of parts of our body we have never felt before. We are observing the quality of the breath we have never paused to notice. We begin to learn about our thoughts, and our physical and emotional reactions to them.
If we know we are love and light, then we can never be tainted by the world around us.
But svadhyaya reminds us that to fulfill the journey to Samadhi we cannot be halfhearted in our efforts to look at ourselves, to look inside. Svadhyaya is more than analysis—as helpful as analysis may be. Self-study goes beyond learning the triggers caused by our past. It runs deeper than observing that our body is out of whack because of something we ate yesterday. That would be to know about ourselves, as spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle points out in his book A New Earth. Svadhyaya, on the other hand, wants us to get to know who we really are beneath the mind’s explanations.
Its timing is perfect, because often as we approach this Niyama along our yogic path we begin to experience glimpses of peace and joy, and this journey of inward-looking stops.
For many of us, yoga can be our first experience of knowing what it is to feel safe, to feel loved, to feel beautiful. “I know who I am now,” we boldly state. “I am light and love.” And we become so enamored with this realization that we start to push away anything that could “bring us down.” We avoid the people we used to call friends. We turn away from conversations that we deem “un-yogic.” We close our eyes to the things that are happening around us for fear that our “vibrations” will be lowered. But the truth is… We still don’t know.
And, if we close our eyes, we will never get to find out who we are. If we know we are love and light, then we can never be tainted by the world around us. If we know we are divine, then we can hear others in their hate, and remain unaffected. If we know we are beyond the body and mind, we can sit in our pain without pushing it away. As Robert Adams, student of Ramani Maharshi, and teacher once said when asked if his disease was causing him pain: “Yes. Absolutely. But what’s that got to do with me?”
Most of us will come to know ourselves by wading through life, hands dirty, eyes and hearts open, observing all that we would prefer to turn away from.
Svadhyaya asks us not to shy away from doing the deep dive, and it offers us a practice to take our search to a whole new level. When we feel uncomfortable hearing sad news, we don’t ask why we are uncomfortable. Rather we ask “who feels uncomfortable”? We try to reach that eternal self that lies beyond the mind and the analysis—the one that observes the body in pain, the one that observes the script of the world playing out. Self-study is study of the self with a capital S.
Knowing ourself is the path to freedom. The fact that seven sages etched it into a temple in Ancient Greece is one clue in thousands. It’s written in every scripture, it falls off the tongues of poets. It has driven mankind across the world and into outer space in search of answers: Who are we? Who are you? Who am I?
If this study of the self seems self-indulgent as a practice, know it is not. Think of how life would be if we knew that we were divine. We wouldn’t avoid old friends who are not on a yogic path. We wouldn’t run from the challenges our world faces. Rather we could sit with others in their suffering. We could remain present and open-hearted without fear of how “we” will be impacted. We could bring about positive change in the world, because we would not be afraid of what we would witness. We could be a compassionate force.
It is for all our benefit when we come to know ourselves. And svadhyaya asks us to not be like the kings and statesmen who wandered blindly into the sanctuary of the Oracle expecting her to have the answers to the problems of the world. Instead, it urges—let us be the ones who, upon entering, look upwards, see the inscription on the gateway that says Know Thyself, and understand that we don’t need to take another step.
4 Ways to Put Svadhyaya Into Practice
1. Study Wisdom Teachings
Spend time immersed in the words of Buddha, Mooji, Krishna, Ramana Maharshi, Martin Luther King Jr., Eckhart Tolle, Byron Katie, Jesus, Mohammed, Walt Whitman, Shakespeare… There are pearls of truth to be found everywhere, and when we bathe in the words of those expressing the truth we are learning who we are. By doing so we can better recognize who we are not.
2. Practice Being the Witness
“Seek and you shall find” we are promised. So seek. Ask yourself throughout the day: Who am I? Who is thinking these thoughts? Who does this body belong to? Who eats this food? Who wakes up? Who goes to sleep? Who is reading this?
3. Cultivate Self-Compassion
It takes great courage to search out all the things that disturb us. Who wouldn’t prefer to head to a commune where we think we will be surrounded only by love and light and high vibrations? But that’s not the path to self-realization for most of us. Most of us will come to know ourselves by wading through life, hands dirty, eyes and hearts open, observing all that we would prefer to turn away from. We don’t have to become taskmasters in our search for self. It’s far better to approach our journey with joy and curiosity, than with dread.
4. On the Mat
The mat is a haven for us to explore and study who we truly are. We can discover parts of the body that we have never felt—the back of the knee, the inside of the little toe. We can explore the breath: Here it is in ujjayi, here it is in dirgha pranayama. We can observe the mind. Look at how it wanders in downward facing dog, but focuses in Vrksasana.
But to truly embrace svadhyaya we can use our practice to become the witness and search for the self. So instead we ask: Whose toe? Whose breath? Who is thinking the wandering thoughts?
The yogic texts recommend using a mantra to help connect to our true nature. Too often in our practice we mindlessly begin or end with Aum, but actually this one word can put us in touch with the fullness of who we are—our divine nature. Taking time in our practice to chant Aum, or “I Am That I Am,” or another mantra that encapsulates this essence, provides a bridge from our meditation to an experience of who we really are.
Join us soon as we explore the fifth and final Niyama, ishvara pranidhana: surrender.
Helen Avery is a Section Editor at Wanderlust Media, working on the Vitality and Wisdom channels on Wanderlust.com. She is a journalist, writer, yoga teacher, minister-in-training, and full-time dog walker of Millie.