The Practice of Svadhyaya (Self Study)

Svadhyaya asks you to suspend looking outside for perceptions of yourself, and instead, look at your inner life–your beliefs, your priorities, and your actions. -Suzan Colon

The term svadhyaya literally means ‘one’s own reading’ or ‘self study’. It is is the fourth niyama of patnajali’s sutras and has the potential to deepen our yoga way beyond the mat.  My favorite translation or definition of this beautiful inner work called Svadhyaya refers to any activity wherein we quietly study ourselves and reflect upon our actions, thoughts, emotions, motivations, aspirations, desires and needs in pursuit of a deeper experience of our lives and our own selves.

The physical aspects to the yoga practice offers the perfect opportunity to explore svadhyaya.

To create each posture you must move and place the various parts of your body into a shape on a rectangle. You could do this without any real engagement or awareness, carelessly going through the motions while your mind is a million miles away, or you could work towards staying present with each and every moment as it arises. You could notice how the body responds to being aligned a certain way, observe physical sensations, watch how your mind reacts to what you’re doing with your body, experience any emotions that show up, and listen to the ebb and flow of your breath. 

Often when we’re practicing yoga on the mat discomfort—or sometimes pain—becomes evident.

If we slow down, apply this form of self awareness, or svadhyaya, and truly contemplate what’s happening in our bodies and minds, pain becomes an important teacher. We can examine the subtleties of pain and begin to understand the difference between “bad pain” that is harmful and injurious to our bodies; and “good pain,” mild or moderate discomfort that we can stay with, breathe into and observe as it shifts and changes.

Since my first hip surgery in 2016, I have greatly avoided the physical practice and therefore, avoided this kind of deeper self-inquiry. Sure, I did some chair yoga as I taught my classes and I would occasionally unroll my mat but honestly it was more as a way to simply say that I am practicing. Truth is I wasn’t practicing at all. Or at least very often.

I might find myself being a tad more consistent and then another injury and another surgery would put me back in the same resistance and emptiness of anything closely resembling a physical yoga practice.

With great honesty I can say that as time has gone on I have made up a million excuses as to why I was not practicing a physical yoga. Some of the excuses were legitimate and some of them were downright falsehoods.

I missed my time on the mat a lot, but I still resisting it until recently when I began to choose time on the yoga mat. Rather than spend too much time in the morning reading and journaling (and avoiding the mat), I have since shortened that sitting time to spend more of my so-called ‘spirit time’ with myself on the mat. This inner work has been transformative to me in just a few weeks.

I began to feel like I had come home after years of being away. I felt like the dear old friend has returned and without any judgment she has welcomed me into the sanctuary of pure love and acceptance.

This morning as I was paying attention to the sensations within my body (while also fighting the grumblings of any ego based thoughts entering my mind about what my body used to be able to do or feel…more self-study), I realized this magnificent practice of self study is a gift that opens the doors to so many other deep discoveries. I found the voice speaking softly to me while practicing the way any dear old friend would speak; encouraging, kind, compassionate, loving. This beautiful friend reminded my body of all that it has endured and welcomed her back to feel and soak in the sensations as perfect and whole.