Niyama 4: Svadhyaya
Welcome to this series on the Yamas and Niyamas of ashtangayoga of Patanjali. It is a classification by the Sage Patanjali for the practice of classical yoga. Why are we writing about yoga in a sound meditation website? These are the principles that guide our founder, and understanding of the ashtangagayoga (Sansrkit for "eight limbs of yoga") informs how we conduct our sessions.
We hope that you find the explanations and application ideas practical and inspirational.
Yamas translates into "moral discipline"and "restraint". They govern our outward, perceivable actions much like "Do unto others what you want done unto yourselves". Niyamas translates into "observances" and are seen as recommended personality traits and habits that govern our inner world. In yoga, nothing stands alone. Whatever we practice within will eventually radiate outwards, so we can see Niyamas affecting the outside world too. In Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, we are prescribed with five Yamas and five Niyamas.
This is the second out of the series of 10.
Svadhyaya = study of self, study of sacred texts
Of the 10 Yamas and Niyamas, Svadhyaya and Isvara Pranidhana (devotion to a higher power) are the two that makes yoga uniquely different from just another workout. A yoga practice is a holistic one combining body, mind and spirit. What Svadhyaya asks is for you to add in the element of self-inquiry into your practice, and learn about your true self. It makes your yoga practice more than just poses. It makes your yoga practice truly personal and alive to you.
Have you met people who say one thing (usually a positive character trait, like "I'm very generous!") about themselves, yet proceed to contradict themselves with their action (e.g. calculating down to the last penny their share of the meal)? This is potentially due to a lack of self-awareness, they say what they think they are, without realising they aren't really what they say they are. To use a simpler example, in yoga classes, people who lack body proprioception will move the knee when the teacher cued for the heel.
"Do you understand what exactly you are doing?" is one of my favourite questions to ask my students. What is happening in the big toe when I'm struggling to hold a Warrior pose? Why are my fingers tapping when my teacher leaves us in a child's pose for too long? Am I getting annoyed that the teacher is keeping us in a pose I hate cos someone in the class just couldn't get it? Am I overposing because someone in the next mat is being an aboslute newbie?
Why is all of that happening?
That, to me, is the magic of yoga. The sheer awareness that you gain about yourself, your emotions and thoughts during your practice is worth more than the postures.
Svadhyaya is also the difference between the Warrior and the Worrier pose. A worrier is distracted by the mind and unable to control the flow of worries. The yogi who understands svadhyaya will be aware when the mind drifts, the yogi may not understand what is happening, but he/she is aware of what is happening within.
This level of self-awareness only comes around with active self-inquiry. Taking that pause, stepping back to observe your own instinctive reactions, and studying it with a non-judgemental curiosity to understand yourself better.
Another element of Svadhyaya is the study of sacred texts. There is a reason why people of religion study and meditate on their holy texts. There is wisdom in the teachings of God's Chosen One(s), meditation on sacred texts can help you understand yourself better, and understand the human condition better.
Understanding yourself clears the lens through which we view the world. When we see ourselves without judgement, when we can accept the person we see in the mirror, it is easier to see others with the same kindness and recognise their humanity. It is easier to see our similarities than our differences.
If you can't know yourself, how can you hope to understand others?