Self-education, education of the Self

Svadhyaya is the fourth of the five niyamas (observances towards ourselves). Sva means “self” and adhyaya means “investigation, inquiry, or education.” TKV Desikachar defines svadhyaya as “Self-inquiry; any study that helps you understand yourself; the study of sacred texts.” These definitions all offer us different paths towards educating ourselves.

Self-inquiry is a beautiful benefit of yoga, even if we aren’t expecting it. Asana practice (doing yoga postures) is largely a process of being quiet with ourselves, and observing our bodies, breath, and thoughts. As the body focuses its purpose with each asana, we have a chance to see how the breath and emotions have responded. Gradually, we learn more about who we are – the bodies we live in, the emotional habits we have adopted, and our reactions to challenge and to stillness. This information can be of tremendous value to our relationships with our selves, and with all the people in our lives.

Most great yogis actually consider meditation to be the primary method of self-inquiry, because it is dedicated solely to watching the responses and habits of our minds. The asana practice is widely regarded as a technique to make our bodies healthy enough that we will be able to sit quietly and comfortably in meditation; and to make our minds focused enough that we will not succumb to each and every potential distraction. One translation of svadhyaya we sometimes see is “repetition of mantra” (japa). This technique can be used during asana practice, but is more traditionally used during meditation. The repetition of a sound/word/phrase gives the mind an activity to focus on, and gives the heart a quality to develop.

Within the yoga philosophy, meditation usually refers to the practice of sitting quietly with the mind focused on something (a word, a flame, a sound, the breath…). However, many people enjoy activities which are meditative for them: running knitting, hiking, playing music, sketching, or gardening. All of these examples are similar to the yoga practice in that the keep our bodies and verbal minds occupied, so that we have a chance to quietly reflect on any problems or questions we might have in our hearts. For this reason, “any study that helps you understand yourself” is part of svadhyaya. It’s like the expression “All roads lead to Rome,” all passionate pursuits lead to self-knowledge.

“The study of sacred texts” is one of the most traditional translations of svadhyaya. In the context of yoga, some of the primary sacred texts would the The Yoga Sutras by Patanjali, or the Bhagavad Gita. These books can be dense and overwhelming if you just dive right in, so it’s a good idea to find a translation that includes some commentary – to help shed light on the author’s meaning. You can always ask your yoga teacher or someone at a bookstore for a recommendation. If religion is a part of your life, then reading the major texts of your faith is also encouraged. In fact, all the major religious texts are usually mentioned as valuable sources of self-education for all interested people. Reading these texts gives us a chance to see things from a new perspective, to encounter new concepts, to reflect on our assumptions and mental boundaries, to learn new ideas about ourselves and the world around us. In fact, many books can do this, -- novels, poetry, books by inspirational authors, and biographies about amazing people.

Overall, svadhyaya is about making time to know ourselves better. The more honestly we know ourselves, the more we are able to be in control of our moods and emotions. We are increasingly able to distinguish between reactions that sit well with our hearts and reactions that we would rather avoid. We learn to cherish the space and time of yoga practice and seek to create those qualities in the rest of our lives.

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Updated January 10, 2005