When it comes to designing a yoga practice, it’s easier to picture doing seated forward bends and downward dogs than engaging with the yamas and niyamas (the first two rungs on the ladder of classical yoga). Postures fit solidly into a daily schedule and have beginnings, middles, and ends. But yogic attitudes such as nonharming and contentment are more contemplative in nature and require a measure of self-examination. As a result, they tend to fall off our practice map.
Suppose, for example, that a fellow student in your yoga class turns to you and says, “I’m working on the fourth niyama. Do you have any suggestions for me? I could sure use some help.” Would you have advice to offer?
If you think you might be stumped, perhaps it’s time to dig a little deeper into the underpinnings of yoga, where classroom work merges with philosophy, and the point of practice is to explore the nature of yoga itself. The fourth niyama is a perfect place to begin.
That mystery niyama? It’s svadhyaya—“self-study,” although the translation is a bit awkward. This Sanskrit word, like many, has a richer history than can easily be captured in one or two English words. Even within the Yoga Sutra (the bible of yoga, so to speak) the term svadhyaya picks up increasingly richer meaning as it winds its way through the first two chapters.
To translate svadhyaya as “self-study” is, on the surface of things, quite precise. The first part of the word—sva—means “self.” The second part—dhyaya—is derived from the verb root dhyai, which means “to contemplate, to think on, to recollect, or to call to mind.” Thus, it works to translate dhyaya as “study”—to study one’s own self.
But we Westerners carry some baggage along with the concept of self-study. In the West, the study of one’s self is psychoanalysis and this is not what yogis had in mind. Analysis of our thoughts, feelings, associations, and fantasies is not what svadhyaya is about. To get at that, we need to approach our subject from a different angle.
The Nature of the Self
Svadhyaya reveals itself in the traditional yoga teaching image of the ocean and its waves. Here, each wave, traveling across the surface of the sea, is likened to an individual being. It is distinguished by its location in space, as well as by other qualities, such as shape and color.
But the substance of every wave is the sea itself. Waves and the substance from which they arise are one and the same. And since individual waves are part of the sea, as they appear and disappear, they neither increase nor decrease the immensity of water in which they have their being. A wave is never other than the ocean—though it has its individual identity so long as it is manifested on the ocean’s surface.
The premise of svadhyaya is similar. Like the waves of the sea, it is said that individual awareness is never separate from the infinite consciousness in which it has its being. Individual minds have distinctive qualities, preferences, and colorings, but they are not entirely autonomous. Each mind is a wave in a vast expanse of consciousness.
Individual minds have distinctive qualities, preferences, and colorings, but they are not entirely autonomous.
The aim of svadhyaya is to bring the experience of that immense Consciousness, the Self, to awareness (these words are capitalized here to set them apart from ordinary consciousness and self-identity). Just as we might theorize that one day a wave could discover its watery nature, so a human being may discover the deep Consciousness that is the substance of individual awareness. It is this process of Self-discovery that is the essence of svadhyaya.
But to say that Consciousness may be brought to awareness, or “known,” does not mean the Self is an object, like a book or a piece of fruit. We can never claim to have stumbled upon the Self like we would a piece of loose change in a parking lot. Just as a wave cannot be the possessor of the ocean, the Self cannot be possessed by individual awareness.
Instead the Self must be experienced as the deep basis of individual awareness, and this is possible only when the mind can grasp its own underlying nature (sva) through yogic means. Broadly speaking, we could say that all yoga leads to svadhyaya, but certain specific methods are more closely associated with it. The sages tell us that we are the Self and that to “study” it is to gradually know it. The specific techniques for gaining this kind of experiential knowledge are collectively called svadhyaya.
The concept of svadhyaya is not limited to the East. In every age and place, East and West, poets, mystics, and philosophers have explored its ramifications. Shakespeare opens Sonnet 53 with these intriguing lines:
What is your substance, whereof are you made,That millions of strange shadows on you tend?Since every one hath, every one, one shade,And you, but one, can every shadow lend.
If we interpret the words shadow and shade to mean individual human souls, then Shakespeare is portraying us all as strange shadows—shades who only darkly reveal the light dwelling within us. To paraphrase Shakespeare, then, we might ask, what is the substance in which every individual soul has its existence? As we have seen, this is svadhyaya’s essential question.
Walt Whitman, in Leaves of Grass, also illumines the concept of svadhyaya, but with a different kind of imagery. Whitman speaks in the first person, and in a voice that bridges the finite and infinite. Here are some lines from “Song of Myself”:
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,And what I assume you shall assume,For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. . . .
Myself moving forward then and now and forever,Gathering and showing more always and with velocity,Infinite and omnigenous. . . .
I am not an earth nor an adjunct of an earth,I am the mate and companion of people, all just as immortal and fathomless as myself,(They do not know how immortal, but I know.)
In his characteristic style and with unguarded innocence, Whitman proclaims here that his is a soul whose compass is universal. He speaks of himself as if he were both wave and sea—simultaneously embracing both. This is the vision of svadhyaya.
How can such a vision be part of our daily practice? An alternative translation of the word svadhyaya tells us that the word means “reciting, repeating, or rehearsing to one’s self.” Thus, svadhyaya consists of repeatedly impressing on the mind the idea of infinite Consciousness and returning again and again to an intuitive vision of it. This is accomplished through contemplative recitations (usually taken from sacred texts) and meditation on a mantra (mantra japa). It yields an increasingly transparent vision of the Self.
When the mind is transparent, when it is not distracted by competing thoughts or disturbed by likes and dislikes, it does not conceal the Self. At such times it is said to be sattvic—filled with sattva (the principle of clarity and even-mindedness). This state is the aim of svadhyaya for it allows the experience of Self-awareness to permeate the mind.
But if the mind obscures the Self, the mind is dark and insensitive to its underlying nature, and there can be little Self-knowledge. At such times it is said to be filled with tamas (the principle of obscuration). At other times, when the mind is distracted by desires and mundane involvements, it is said to be dominated byrajas (the principle of activity). Rajasic elements of mind need to be disciplined in order to acquire a taste for quietness, but when the mind is tamasic we need preparatory practice, drawing from the complete range of yoga disciplines, to prepare the way for svadhyaya.
Look for inspirational scriptures, readings, poems, or lectures delivered by those who seem to have acquired inner knowledge.
Use these resources for contemplation of the Self.
Begin the practice of mantra japa—repetition of a mantra in meditation.
Rest in the mantra for 10–20 minutes each morning or evening (or both).
Let the silent witness, the indwelling consciousness in you, gradually awaken.
Over three millennia ago, poets of the Vedic age spoke of the Self as the One dwelling in the many, calling it the Purusha (the cosmic person), and described it as a being with “countless heads, countless eyes, and countless feet.” One of their hymns, the Purusha Sukta (the hymn devoted to the cosmic person), is one of the foremost sacred texts in the svadhyaya tradition. The first three verses, which follow, may be used for daily contemplation.
Om. With countless heads, countless eyes, countless feet,Moving, yet the ground of all,The Cosmic Person is beyond the reach of the senses.
He is all this, all that has been, and all that is to be.He is the Lord of immortality, who expands Himself as food.Such is His glory, and yet the Cosmic Person is more.
One part of Him is creation,And three parts swell beyond as His boundless light.
This hymn speaks of the Self as the one among many who sees through the uncounted eyes of created beings; who is unlimited by time or space; who is the essence of the process of life-maintenance; and yet whose nature is only partially taken up by all this. Contemplating on such a presence—thinking and behaving as if it exists, and seeking to know it, though it is not seen or heard through the senses—is the first stage in svadhyaya.
It is in mantra meditation that svadhyaya—silent, inner recitation—bears its fullest fruit. Repeating a mantra anchors the mind to one thought—a sound pregnant with the presence of the Self. Vyasa, the great commentator on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, confirms this in his commentary on sutra 2:2. There he says that svadhyaya means the repetition of purifying mantras. And in his commentary on sutra 1:25 he notes that there is a science of such mantras, “a particular knowledge of His name.” This knowledge lies at the heart of svadhyaya.
According to this tradition, mantras are given to students for protection and guidance. They are recited in the mind. But paradoxically, they are the source of inner silence, for when a mantra permeates the mind, it draws awareness in while the outward-going aspects of the mind become silent. Real silence in meditation is not the mind emptied of sound. It is the mysterious experience of the mind filled with the sound of a mantra.
When a mantra permeates the mind, it draws awareness in while the outward-going aspects of the mind become silent.
After first learning to observe the breath in the nostrils, beginning students are usually given the mantra soham (pronounced so with the inhalation and hum with the exhalation). This starts the process of quieting the mind and awakening the inner witness, for soham means, “that…I am; the Self…I am.” Repeating soham is the first step in acquiring direct, intuitive knowledge of the Self. Thus it is in daily meditation that the practice of svadhyaya comes to fulfillment.
A Final Thought
In his own intimate way, Walt Whitman places a few final elements of svadhyaya before us for contemplation. Again, in “Song of Myself,” he avows that the Self is not running away, not struggling to keep the truth from us, not unresponsive to our efforts at Self-knowledge. Instead, he tells us that knowing the Self is the consummation of a search requiring patient and repeated effort. And most touchingly, as is the case with so many other revelations of being, he reports that the Self is nearby and filled with grace. In Whitman’s words:
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,Missing me one place search another,I stop somewhere waiting for you.