The 8 Limbs of Yoga - The Niyamas - Svadhyaya

svadhyayat istadevata samprayogah
self-study leads towards the realisation of God or communion with one's chosen deity
YS II,44 translation by BKS Iyengar

The fourth of the niyamas (the second limb of Patanjali's eightfold yoga path) is svadhyaya.  Svadhyaya means self-study - literally sva one's own / adhyaya going into.

Svadhyaya has two meanings - the first is study of sacred scriptures such as the Upanishads, or the Yoga Sutras, the Bible, the Torah... (wherever your heart and interests lie), and the second meaning is the study of yourself.

From the earliest times of the Vedas, teachings were passed down orally from teacher to student.  As Georg Feuerstein describes it "in Vedic times, study meant the memorisation of the sacred tradition through repeated recitation."  This is another reason why many yoga texts take the form of sutras (sutra means thread and each of the Yoga Sutras represents a perfectly succinct teaching, which can be extrapolated to infinity by teacher and student).  In a climate where paper rotted quickly, oral transmission was practical; making teachings short and pithy enabled easy memorisation.  Ultimately the chanting of sacred texts became a spiritual practice in itself, leading to deeper states of meditation and understanding.

In this sense then, svadhyaya means personal study.  Going deeply into the texts that inspire you.  For some people this could be Bible study, for others it will be daily reading or recitation of the Yoga Sutras.  But this might also mean reading books or poetry by people whose view of the world and the human condition resonates with you, or whose writing or teachings inspire you. 

You could try this... read something every day that inspires you.  You could try poetry, or read a paragraph a day of a book by a teacher you admire, you might have one of those diaries or calendars with a daily meditation from the Buddhist tradition, or you might have a set of angel cards and choose just one word a day to consider.  You might want to frame each day with a particular piece of writing, so that you read it in the morning (as you brush your teeth or wait for the kettle to boil), then let it percolate throughout the day and come back to it in the evening, last thing before you go to sleep.  You might be surprised by how much it has subconsciously absorbed you during the day and how much more meaning you bring to the same passage when you come back to it in the evening.

I consider reading a book by a teacher that I admire to be travelling along with that teacher for a short time.  It's a great luxury.

The second meaning of svadhyaya is the study of oneself.  Yoga practice of all kinds brings us greater clarity about our motivations, passions and behaviours.  We learn to regard ourselves with a clear eye and to approach ourselves with honesty and compassion. 

So, for example, we might face up to the fact that we have not behaved well.  The first step is in admitting this to ourselves (difficult sometimes, when we have felt justified in our anger or selfishness, our greed or bad temper); the next step is to delve deeper and ask why.  What was it about that situation or person that caused you to behave that way.  The answers to this can sometimes surprise us.  More importantly the answers to this deep self-enquiry can help us to do better next time.  Through this practice we move away from patterns of behaviour that lead us towards pain and suffering and away from habitual responses to certain situations or people.  Through this practice we move towards being able to remain calm and compassionate in the face of stressful or trying situations.

And of course, we can work through the same process with positive feelings and actions too,  thus deepening our understanding of what makes us happy and why.  If the Dalai Lama is right and the key to happiness is simply finding what makes you truly happy and doing it, then svadhyaya is the method. 

  • Bring yourself to a quiet place where you are comfortable and set your timer for 5/10/15 minutes - however long you think you have.
  • Sit on a chair or on the floor or against a wall (anywhere you are comfortable), but make sure that your spine is straight.
  • Take your mind on a journey from your toes to the top of your head (and everything in between) and invite each part of your body in turn to relax.
  • Feel your body heavy, relaxed and still.
  • Calm your breathing and ensure that your exhalation is long and smooth (this calms your nervous system)
  • Once you are happy and quiet, bring to mind a time when you felt really happy.  remember how it felt in your mind and in your body to feel happy and content.  Allow those good feelings to radiate throughout your body.
  • After a short time, bring your mind to a time when you have been troubled by your response to something (perhaps you regret shouting at your child or your partner; perhaps your found yourself jealous of a colleague or angry with someone in a traffic jam).  Avoid berating yourself for what is natural human behaviour and remind yourself that you are not here to judge yourself or to find yourself lacking.  Be kind.
  • Ask yourself why.  Why? 
  • If you're a visual person you might find yourself confronted by images.  Or you might find that (from somewhere deep within) you answer yourself.  When that vision or answer come to you, simply ask yourself again.  Why?
  • You can go deeper and deeper and create more and more self-understanding just by following this line of questioning - why? - with patience and kindness and by delving into yourself from a quiet calm place of peace.
Ram Dass has a wonderful phrase for this kind of process, he calls it "wisdom distance" - it's the difference between wallowing in bad feelings or self-justification and getting stuck there, and watching those feelings, emotions and actions from a non-judgmental, calm and peaceful state of mind, so that they can pass by and you can move on. 

The world exists to teach you, svadhyaya is the technique.


  1. I like the idea of "wisdom distance" - it is too easy to think the same thoughts and never move on and learn. Vanessa.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts