Tuesday, March 29, 2011


Today we come to the fourth niyama, or observance, known as svadhyaya, meaning “self-study.”  Sva means “self; one’s own” and  adhyaya  means “study; going into.” Often translated as “study of the scriptures,” it is really more about availing ourselves of all the resources that will help us understand the nature of the true Self. Both scriptural study and inner inquiry through meditation and prayer are essential tools for illuminating knowledge of Self.

Please note that in Indian philosophy, the word “self” (with a lower-case “s”) refers to the egoic self, the personality, the part of our being that is caught up with worldly desires and concerns.  The “Self” (with a capital “S”) refers to the transcendent, Divine essence that is our true nature. It is Self-realization that is our true life’s purpose.

In addition to scriptural study, contemplation and meditation, svadhyaya involves associating with like-minded seekers who will support us on our path. Gatherings where yogis come together to share inquiry are called satsangs, or “meetings in Truth.” This can happen through a community of practitioners that mutually support one another, or in a group of devotees that follow a particular guru or teacher.

Japa, or mantra repetition, is another aspect of svadhyaya. It is traditionally practiced with a mala, a necklace or bracelet of prayer beads. Repetition of a mantra helps to still the mind and focus awareness on the Divine. It is seen as a way of purifying one’s mind and heart, clearing away distractions and obstacles to knowledge. One can use any name or attribute of God/dess that one finds inspirational, or any prayer that serves to open the heart and turn the mind toward Spirit.

On the mat, our asana practice offers us an opportunity for deep Self-study. Paying exquisite attention to the movement of the breath, the sensations in the body, and the arising and passing of emotions and mental states can cultivate deep insight into who we truly are. Eventually we see that there is something greater, deeper, more subtle and vast than what is passing through this body-mind.  In the words of poet and yogini Danna Faulds:

What is the soul of yoga? Follow your heart into the center of the pose and find in the midst of detail and precision, in breath, alignment, balance, bliss, fear, and sadness—
at the very core of all this is Love.

One of the methods of inquiry into the Self is the deep and relentless use of the question “who am I?” This is the core practice of Jnana Yoga, the path which uses the power of the mind to transcend the mind. One peels away the layers of the self by affirming: “I am not this body, I am not this thought, I am not this wave of emotion, not this ego—not this, not this, not this,”-- to discover what is left when all those false layers the self are dissolved. One asks, over and over,” Who am I, essentially, in truth, beyond appearances, beyond what is always changing?”

As rivers, flowing down, become indistinguishable on reaching the sea by giving up their names and forms, so also the illumined soul, having become freed from name and form, reaches the self-effulgent Supreme Self ~ Mundaka Upanishad

What I’ve mentioned above are some of the traditional methods of Self-study. However, there are countless ways that one can explore the nature of the Self.  Any sport or athletic discipline, artistic or musical endeavor, or the development of any skill or art form can be an avenue into one’s true nature if undertaken as a spiritual practice (rather than motivated by the ego’s need for recognition and achievement). Any study that helps cultivate self reflection is part of svadhyaya.  Just as it is said that “all roads lead to Rome,” all passionate pursuits lead to Self-knowledge.

The practice of Svadhaya is supported by and interwoven with the observance of 2 other niyamas—tapas (discipline) and Ishvara-pranidhana (surrender to God). When our inquiry into ourselves is energized by the inner fire of tapas and inspired by a strong  devotion, then we have found a powerful formula for awakening.

There’s a simple and lovely meditation practice that I’ve been working with lately. It uses the repetition of the mantra So Hum. (aka So Ham). So Hum literally means "I am That" (So = "That" or "Thou" or "Divinity"; Hum = "I am") and the mantra’s aim is to bring about union (yoga) between one’s individual consciousness and Divine Consciousness. 

Find a comfortable seated position, either in a chair or on a cushion on the floor, with the spine erect and the body relaxed. Inhale on the word “so,” exhale on the word “Hum.” Let the mantra follow the breath, with the exhale being longer than the inhale. Soooo…  Hummmmmm.... This mantra is repeated silently to oneself—no actual sound is made, except for the breathing. As the breath cycles in an out, the mantra becomes an endless loop affirming “I am that I am that I am…”

Just a few minutes of this practice has the power to calm the mind and sharpen the awareness, reminding us of the vastness that we truly are.

Self is what gives breath to Life. You need not search for It, It is Here. You are That through which you would search. You are what you are looking for! And That is All it is. 

Here are some suggested inquiries for exploring svadhyaya in your life:

--In what ways do you seek out community that supports you in turning toward your true Self? How do you experience satsang?

--using a mantra or Divine name that resonates for you, make a commitment to practice japa (repetition) of that mantra for 40 days. Reserve judgment of the efficacy of the practice until after the 40 days are over. Keep a journal to record what changes you notice in your life.

--Similarly, practice the So Hum meditation for 40 days. Take it on as an experiment, with a spirit of adventure. Notice what shifts, either in subtle or more obvious ways, in your life.

--What sacred texts have been powerful for you in shifting your views of self or reality? Be willing to read something new. In exploring scripture, one need not be restricted to Hindu texts. The Tao Te Ching, the Buddhist sutras, the Hebrew or Christian Bibles, or the writings of contemporary authors such as Eckhart Tolle and Gangaji can all be inspiring and transformative tools for exploring the question “Who am I?”

--Don’t forget to have fun in your inquiry!

The Self that is subtler than the subtle and greater than the great is seated in the heart of every creature. ~ Katha Upanishad

Be the Self and that is bliss. You are always that. The Self is always realized. ~Ramana Maharshi

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