The niyamas are a set of five self-discipline practices or observances within the 8 limbs of yoga. The fourth of these five niyamas is svadhyaya, or self-study and inner exploration. Using this principle in your yoga practice and life can lead to a better understanding of yourself and stimulate personal growth. This introduction will help you learn how to use the practice of svadhyaya to deepen your self-study.
The Sanskrit word svadhyaya can be translated as sva (self, or the human soul) and adhyaya (inquiry or examination). It can refer to the study of sacred texts such as the Yoga Sutra, The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, or the Bhagavad Gita, as well as the practice of studying the self. Svadhyaya encourages us to turn inward to observe and study our actions, reactions, emotions, and habits in order to learn about our true nature.
Along with two of the other niyamas, tapas (self-discipline or internal fire) and ishvara pranidhana (surrender or devotion), svadhyaya comprises part of Patanjali’s threefold practice of kriya yoga, or the yoga of purification and action. Patanjali believed that by purifying the body, mind, and spirit through these three niyamas, obstacles would be removed and the yogi could experience clear perception.
There are many ways to use the principle of svadhyaya within our yoga practice and daily life to deepen our self-study. No matter how you choose to engage in your inner exploration, the main goal of svadhyaya remains the same: to foster a deeper understanding of our true nature.
When we know and understand ourselves better, we are able to identify our needs, anticipate obstacles that are likely to get in our way, and position ourselves to succeed. Through a cycle of Study, Reflect, and Apply, we can identify the unconscious patterns that influence our experiences and find ways to improve all areas of our life while learning from our mistakes. The following are ways that you can use svadhyaya in your practice and life.
An important part of self-study is learning new information. Reading, listening to information about the yoga practice, and observing our daily actions are all sources of new learning. Here are a few examples of how to incorporate study into your day:
- Sacred Texts: Texts like the Yoga Sutra, The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, or the Bhagavad Gita allow us to recognize our experiences as universal so that we may develop greater compassion for ourselves as we go through them. The universality of these experiences can give us insight into the human condition and how we embody it.
- Online Articles: Since today’s busy world does not always allow for in-depth study of the sacred yogic texts, online articles on yoga are a great way to supplement your learning about your yoga practice or personal growth.
- Books on Self-Discovery/Realization: If you want to stay with one topic over a longer period of time, a book about self-discovery can be a useful tool to study your actions, reactions, emotions, and habits. Daring Greatly by Brene Brown is a great choice to examine your relationship with vulnerability, and Emotional Agility by Susan David can help you learn how to navigate your emotions. Looking for additional titles? Check out these 5 mindfulness books.
- Podcasts: Another option for busy lifestyles is listening to podcasts. Easy to listen to during a morning or evening commute, podcasts span a wide range of topics and can help you think about yoga or personal development in new ways. To get started, try the Happier podcast with Gretchen Rubin which explores happiness, habits, and human nature, or Tiny Leaps, Big Changes with Gregg Clunis which discusses our day-to-day behaviors that determine the results in our lives. This list of personal growth podcasts will give you a few more options to check out.
- Breath Observation: One of the most basic and primary observations we can have is that of the breath. The speed and depth of our breath gives us clues about our current state. Rapid and shallow breaths can indicate stress and anxiety, while slow and deep breaths can indicate ease and relaxation. We can also expand this study to any of our physical experiences such as tension in the body, emotional responses, and pain. All provide valuable information about ourselves.
To achieve clear perception as Patanjali intended, collecting information must be followed by active reflection. Setting time aside to learn from the information you study is essential in knowing how to apply it later. The following options are some ways that you can create space for this important practice:
- Meditation: Taking time to meditate after learning new information can give you space to think about how it resonates with you and how you might apply it to your life circumstances and situations.
- Yoga Debrief: After your yoga practice, debrief your experience. Explore the way you entered or left difficult poses. Do you see a connection with how you approach challenging situations in life? Where did you hold tension? What thoughts ran through your mind during your practice?
- Journaling: If you prefer thinking through writing, having a dedicated time to journal each day can help you reflect on your yoga practice as well as your everyday experiences. Some powerful ideas to consider include: Did I speak from a place of compassion today? How did I react in times of stress? What behaviors did I engage in when I felt stressed/peaceful?
- Solitude: Spending time alone in nature or a sacred space can provide you with the chance to reflect on things you have learned through observation and study without distractions.
After studying and reflecting, applying what you have learned is what will help you grow in your yoga practice and life. With that growth, you will continue to learn more about yourself and go deeper into your self-study practice. While the application of knowledge will be very individual to what you study and observe in yourself, here are a few practices that can support you as you put your learning into action:
- Self-Compassion: As Ekhart Yoga points out, “the practice of svadhyaya requires… ahimsa (non-violence) which reminds us to look upon ourselves without judgment or criticism.” As we study, reflect, and apply, we need self-compassion in order to allow space to confront the uncomfortable, make mistakes, and learn from them. Striving for improvement rather than perfection is a perfect way to show compassion for where you currently are.
- Mindfulness: A mindfulness practice such as observing the sights and sounds as you walk in nature is a great lesson in staying present so that you can more accurately study your experiences in moments throughout the day.
- Mantra Repetition: The sacred mantra “om” is thought to connect us to our true nature. Using this mantra during your yoga or meditation practice, or anytime throughout the day, is a reminder to connect your observations of self to your practice. This sets the stage for continued learning and reflection.
For more on the individual niyamas, check out how to practice saucha both on and off the yoga mat and why santosha is so important in yoga and everyday life.