Item #1 of the yama / niyama challenge … beginning with the niyama svadhyaya. To break down the sanskrit of it all … svadhyaya combines the word sva (self) with a derivative of the word dhyai (to contemplate, think on, recollect) and is generally translated to mean “self-study”. Besides being a pretty fun word to say (svad-YAYA) … it’s also a critical part of a holistic yoga practice … a practice that moves beyond the (admittedly awesome) physical asana practice of backbends, inversions, and arm balances that we instagrammers have come to love so much.
Unfortunately, Patanjali wasn’t 100% clear when he was writing about this particular niyama. It can easily be interpreted to mean at least two different things.
First, it could mean to study on one’s own. Although most yoga disciplines involve a close teacher-student relationship, the expectation is that students also do some learning on their own. That might involve cultivating a personal asana practice, engaging in regular meditation, or studying yoga philosophy. For me, this exercise is an example of this type of svadhyaya. I have been interested in the yamas and niyamas since I was exposed to them in my 200-hour teacher training certification, but I want to dig into them more deeply over the next little while and see where / how they each fit in my life.
Second, it could mean the study of oneself. It is this interpretation of svadhyaya that begins to become a tiny bit mind-numbing. In Hindu texts sva (self) is usually written with a small “s” which is generally believed to mean the smallest version of oneself … the personal self, the ego, the individual. However, just to keep us all on our toes, it is occasionally written with a capital “s”. In this context Sva is believed to mean the higher self … the spiritual self, the divine self, the universal self. So … is Patanjali asking us to study our sva or our Sva? Probably both. But I’m honestly just guessing. I think the Ekhart Yoga site describes it best. Here’s their interpretation of the sva / Sva in svadhyaya:
When we listen to the ego, we often do things that may not align with our true beliefs or intuition. The ‘I’ or small ‘self’ is mostly concerned with survival, which usually entails getting what it wants in all situations, and proving it is indeed ‘the best’ despite what consequences that might have for us. The small self judges, criticizes, fears, conditions, doubts. By paying attention to, or ‘studying’ our ‘self’, we become more aware of the things we do that harm us, and also those which serve us and bring us closer to that process of ‘yoking’ or ‘uniting’ with the true Self.
Alright … so far so good. We need to look at the personal so we can ultimately understand how to more easily and authentically unite with the divine (the Sva that includes the millions of small “s” selves that dwell on this planet). But there’s a further mystery to be solved. In studying the self / Self, are we to do that in the context of a yoga practice or in the broader context of everyday life? For the purpose of my own svadhyaya, I was going to try to separate my thoughts in this way. However, I don’t think that’s exactly what Patanjali had in mind. I think he saw it as all one big melting pot … throw the full self in, give it a stir, stare at the broth, and see what bubbles to the surface. Also … honestly as I started to think about the things that are needing some attention as a yoga student and yoga teacher (the “on the mat” stuff) and as a general person in the world (the “off the mat” stuff) … they’re kind of the same things.
These are a few of the questions that helped kick things off for me … as well as my slightly wandering, far from formed thoughts about each.
1. How am I treating myself physically? – Honestly … not great. I’m not sleeping. I’m eating awful food (if I remember to eat at all). I’m working WAY too many hours. I’m teaching so many classes that my own practice is suffering (which creates a weirdly awful snowball in which my teaching begins to suffer). When I do make time to exercise, it’s all yoga all the time. I miss doing other things – running, going to the gym, riding my bike, taking random classes (kick-boxing, krav, spin), rollerskating, etc. I’m indoors ALL THE TIME! I need to buy some groceries and make healthy lunches. I need to eat and I need to sleep. I need to practice at least 4 times a week. I need to do some other kinds of exercise. I need to get outside more and breathe in real oxygen and be bathed in real light. I need to spend more time by the ocean.
2. How am I treating others? What is the quality of my relationships (with friends, family, coworkers, etc.)? – I’m kind of afraid to answer that question. The honest answer is that I don’t know. I’ve been so busy that I feel like I’ve lost touch with some of my most important people … like in a genuine way … I don’t REALLY know what’s going on for them. I know I’ve irritated a few of my closest friends lately … maybe done damage … feels like things have changed. I keep waiting to get through the next round of business. I tell myself “when I get through this week, things will slow down and I can make time for people”. My schedule is so busy that every interaction is planned. There’s no spontaneity. I hate that. I’m in conflict all the time with people at work … maybe not overt conflict but covert conflict. I feel like I don’t fit in anymore … like my values no longer gel with the values of the masses. I feel like I don’t have any allies (besides my own tiny little team and another select few) … nobody who notices the good work I do … nobody who really has my back. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. It’s causing me huge stress and confusion. It’s starting to rock my confidence. There are a couple of particular relationships that I’ve invested in inappropriately … ones that I need to let go so that I can make space for new ones (healthy, positive, fulfilling ones).
3. What is preventing me from bringing the best I have to offer into every situation / interaction? – Easy. See the answers to Q1 and Q2 above. I need to take better care of myself and pay more attention to the important relationships in my life. Also … I seem to have one foot out of many doors. I keep talking about giving up my vegetarian ways so it will be easier for me to find food to have the energy to do all the things I want to do. I keep talking about leaving Vancouver (to move to California, to move back to St John’s, to travel around for a year). I keep talking about needing to find a new job (or a new way to be in the job I currently have). It’s keeping me from fully engaging. That’s a pattern that’s going to take more svadhyaya than I have in me right now … will come back to that one at a later date. 🙂
4. What is the quality of my communication? Am I being kind and honest and precise? Am I truly listening to others? – Again … see above. My communication is definitely not at its best. I’m rushed with friends and family. Often when I reach out, it’s in a pretty narcissistic way right now … because I need their support, their advice, their compassion. I don’t feel I’ve really been there for the people in my life lately. At work, I’m engaged in more gossip and complaining that I would like … it feels draining and toxic. Because I’m so busy and so preoccupied, I’m being careless with my words. Then I get frustrated when people don’t understand. There are those (at work and in my life) who I know need my gentleness … I’ve been avoiding those interactions because I feel like I don’t have much to give. I need to reevaluate my relationship with social media … that’s causing me problems … that needs some further analysis too.
5. What is one message that goes through my head that needs to stop (on the mat / off the mat)? – This one is easy. The message that constantly plays in my head is “you need to do more”. It has it’s place, but is not serving me well right now. I’m never quite measuring up to what I think I should be doing. That’s true on the mat (“you really should be able to do full hanumanasana by now”, “why do you still rely on the wall when you’re doing a handstand?”, etc.) and off the mat (“you should probably put in a few extra hours at work when you get home tonight”, “you should try to see ____ because he / she called you last week and you didn’t call him / her back”, “you should pick up a couple of extra shifts so you can make more than a minimum credit card payment this month”, etc.).
There are, of course, much deeper questions to tackle, but you have to begin somewhere. If you believe Abraham Maslow and Robert Schalock, you can’t tackle big things until you deal with the basics. For me, the things I’ve started with are key. I’m living very on the surface of things right now. I’m having shallow interactions. I’m thinking about shallow things. I’m even breathing more shallow than usual. Getting control of some of these things will help me settle into deeper territory. Turns out that svadhyaya is not a one shot deal.
So … that was my first effort in the yama / niyama challenge. What do YOU have for me? What do you think of it all? How would you tackle this niyama of svadhyaya? Comment below or mssg me.