So now it’s really starting to get good. A little less comfortable, for sure, but in a good way, I think. The consensus seems to be that moving through the yamas and niyamas, and actually incorporating them into your life, is not exactly easy or even pain-free, but it’s a necessary part of getting “there.” Samtosha and tapas blended so beautifully into each other, and here comes another that helps push us towards change and becoming more conscious: svadhyaya, the fourth niyama. It has some different interpretations, having to do with studying the self, learning sacred texts, or reciting mantras, depending on whom you ask or what period of history you’re talking about.
For our purposes, it has more to do with self-reflection and introspection, but it didn’t start out this way. Matthew Remski, who wrote threads of yoga: a remix of patanjali’s sutras with commentary and reverie, tells me that up until the Middle Ages, svadhyaya was really about studying and memorizing the sacred texts – but since there wasn’t a lot of written material a few thousand years ago, it was more about learning oral verse from a teacher. Memorizing texts and mantras, the theory goes, gets you in touch with god, the universe, and with yourself (of course, these are all one and the same, say most yogis) because the contents of these writings serve as mirrors that reveal us to ourselves.
But more recently svadhyaya has come to mean “self-reflection.” This shift makes it more straightforward, but also a little intimidating. After all, self-reflection is the thing that most of us not only resist, but resist with vigor. Sitting with all our pain and trying to understand it by looking into it can feel like the most heinous undertaking in the world, and it’s often the reason why we eat, drink, smoke, get high, or spend an extra few hours a day futzing around on the computer. It’s also not the simplest undertaking, since it seems (at least to me) like thinking about yourself or a problem in your life doesn’t always get you anywhere at all.
So to look inside isn’t often comfortable, but, like samtosha (practicing contentment) and tapas (burning up our negative thought patterns and crutches), we really have to “ go there” if we want to change.
To get started with it, Remski recommends just carving out some time in the day to sit alone with yourself. “The first part of practicing svadhyaya is just structural; it’s timing. Manage to rise an hour before sunrise, and have that hour or even 45 min, to yourself to pursue and contemplate whatever moves you most deeply, whether it’s sitting with your thoughts, reading, or what have you. What I usually suggest to people is to make a cup of tea after rising, sit by the window, wrap yourself up in a blanket, and ask yourself, ‘what do I need to know?’ ‘What do I need to know about myself, or to learn?’”
Remski says that this “god hour” of the early day, or brahmamuhurta, is also known as the hour of expansiveness, where our thoughts tend to be clearer and crisper. “Every person needs to find his or her holy hour,” he says. “That’s the beginning point. We’re a very nondenominational bunch in western culture. For my students, for my clients, my job is to help people structurally, to create the space for them to find out how they’ll study their internal states most closely. From there, then, it can unfold.”
It’s probably worth pointing out that there’s a difference between self-reflection and the self-centric thoughts we so often have throughout the day (the mind chatter, worries, and self-flagellating thoughts we often resort to). Svadhyaya is about inquiring in an interested, non-judgmental way – trying to figure out our patterns, beliefs, habits, and maybe even our purposes in the world. Paying attention to how we look inward is really important, as it can be easy to get caught up in our regular cycle.
For people who are having a very hard time with this niyama, you can always back out of it, just like any other part of yoga, and come at it another way. “If this question [svadhyaya] makes you feel anxious,” says Remski, “then sitting in contemplation isn’t for you just yet and it would be really good to move your body instead. So if the question brings up anxiety, if it causes the mind to buzz or whir, then that’s the time to go for walk rather than sit. Use that time for movement instead.” Come back to it when you’re ready.
That’s the beautiful thing about the yamas and niyamas – they offer different ways of getting towards the same end. If one avenue doesn’t feel right at this particular moment, you can always focus on another, and come back to the first when you’re able. And the thing about svadhyaya is that there’s no measuring stick for it: With this one, it’s up to you to measure yourself. This is what makes it both more challenging and more engaging. Of course, that’s true of many parts of life, and certainly many aspects of yoga.
“Nobody has the truth,” writes Remski in his book. “Truth is the product of sharing what seems to be true. We all inquire into yoga.”
How are you doing with self-reflection, or svadhyaya? Is it intimidating, exciting, scary, enlightening, or all of the above?
Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga last year. She is the Associate Editor at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com and a Contributor at Forbes.com. Alice will be exploring yoga’s different styles, history, and philosophy, and sharing what she learns here on the YogaGlo blog. You can follow Alice on Twitter @AliceWalton and Facebook at Facebook.com/alicegwalton.