What does feeling connected mean to you? How does this relate to your yoga practice? Read on to discover why our fourth niyama, svādhyāya, is crucial to a truly mindful practice.
Svādhyāya translates roughly as self study; sva meaning self and dhyaya meaning to contemplate, or think. It’s also thought of as spiritual study, or self reflection. Without svādhyāya our practice can become empty, or feel meaningless. Whilst there’s no doubting that our physical yoga practice can make us strong and fit, so can many other forms of exercise. In yoga, improved flexibility and greater strength are positive side effects of our practice but the real rewards are a deeper sense of ease and contentment as we realise we are not alone in this world.
Feeling lost already? Don’t worry! There’s a reason Patañjali saves this heavy stuff towards the end. It takes practice of the other yamas and niyamas, and indeed, of the other eight limbs, before this stuff really begins to make sense. There are other ways we can practice svādhyāya right now though, such reviewing and evaluating our progress to make sure we are still working towards goals which are still relevant to us.
What we want when we are 21 may be different to what we want when we are 41. So, although discipline is important to allow us to meet our goals, flexibility is also needed to change them when necessary. Discipline and flexibility are often two things we aim for in our āsana practice, so let’s look at practical ways we can practice svādhyāya on the mat.
Using Svādhyāya On The Mat
Imagine someone holding a mirror to your practice. This is what the practice of svādhyāya is like – showing you what is, not what you mind wants to perceive. This mirror of reflection can help us to observe how much our ego is driving us, how focussed our minds really are, and how relevant our practice really is for us.
We can begin to understand our tendencies, our habits and our behaviours, and with this knowledge we can begin to change these tendencies. It is here when we start to go deeper into our yoga practice. This isn’t about going deeper in our posture work; in fact we may even back off our posture work if we realise it isn’t serving us. So how do we hold this mirror up to ourselves? Try these three ways:
In the previous article, we discussed tapas, the fire of transformation. Whilst it’s true that practising consistently and knowing how and when to challenge yourself are essential parts of tapas, there is a reason wise old Patañjali gave us svādhyāya straight after. If we let our egos take over our āsana practice, we risk hurting ourselves. Trying to hold headstand for longer than our neck and shoulders are ready for or forcing our knees down to the ground before our hips have opened properly put us not only at risk of injury but also the risk of actually missing the moment when we’re simply in the posture. This is why for a lot of of us, slowing down the practice can feel beneficial.
Practice In Silence
Speaking of slowing down, have you tried yin yoga? Holding postures for 2, 3, 4, 5 minutes or more, we not only give our bodies time to open and release, but we also give ourselves a chance to notice our thoughts passing through our minds.
What beliefs are you carrying on the mat? You may notice certain characteristics that you adapt in your daily life which you then bring with you to the mat. Perhaps you have a job which requires you to be quite aggressive, target driven, eager to always get results, and coming to yoga straight after work means you take this same approach to your practice. It can be an uncomfortable realisation when we wake up to the fact that our āsana practice is not always benefitting us but for many of us this is when the journey can really begin to get interesting.
Find Your Mantra
You may find that a traditional verse from the Sutras, chanted in its original Sanskrit form, suits you as a mantra. Other people may choose to come up with a positive affirmation which comes naturally from your own heart as a mantra. Traditionally, to practice svādhyāya your mantra would need to reiterate that you are not alone, that you are connected to the wider universe. If this just doesn’t sit well with you at this stage, choose something else. The important thing is that it feels true to you – if you get a greater sense of connection from it, all the better.
Mantras can also be repeated silently, known as japa. Try this next time you practice āsana at home on your own. How easy is it? Can you keep your mind focus on your mantra, or does it easily get distracted?
Taking Svādhyāya Off The Mat
There is so much literature out there, it would take lifetimes to get through it all. The Yoga Sutras is the staple of most yoga teacher training courses, but there are probably hundreds of translations to choose from. Forming a study group and reading through the older books together could be a fun, lighter way to access these sometimes overwhelming books.
There’s also an inordinate amount of literature of the web. Don’t confuse information with wisdom and be discerning with your reading choices. Whatever your area of interest (anatomy, technique, philosophy) nothing is straightforward in yoga!
The point is that it must be inspiring, something that you can hold up to yourself (back to that mirror again) and connect with. Quite often people discuss the older texts like the Bhagavad Gita or Upanishads here, but it is a personal choice so don’t feel pressured to choose the ‘right’ book. Whatever feels right to you, at this moment, will do the trick.
Make Time For Reflection
Make a date with yourself and get serious about it. I mean it, put the date in your diary, be strict by saying no to any drink invitations which come up and spend some time reflecting. Turn off your phone, turn off the TV, maybe grab a notebook, or colouring pencils, or whatever you need to be creative, and review where you are right now.
Not your cup of tea? We can do this in everyday life as well. Question how you respond in your relationships with the people in your life. Do you always clash with your manager, no matter where you work, or do you always play the strict parent when it comes to your children? Making these observations requires us to be truthful and non-judgemental with ourselves. This isn’t about berating or criticising ourselves, rather observing, with a sense of kindness (ahimsa), just how we are, right now.
This might seem like an odd choice, but hear me out (get it?). For years, yoga lore was passed on orally, from guru to student. It is only relatively recently that the words of wisdom came into print form, and were disseminated across the globe. In order for the teachings of yoga to survive, pupils had to be able to listen, concentrate and remember what they were being taught, so that they may pass it down.
Well, not only can we find other ways of retaining information nowadays (writing, for example), we also have a whole volume of conflicting data out there. I’m not suggesting you chose a dogmatic point of view and rigidly stick to it no matter what, rather that you cultivate a sense of listening to your daily life. If you ask someone how they are, really listen to the answer. Notice if this affects your conversations, and indeed your relationship with the people you are conversing with. Paying attention to someone’s words can improve the quality of both your day and theirs.
Taking Svādhyāya From Here
You may be wondering why are we bothering with all of this by now. I mean, the majority of us probably originally came to yoga wanting to relax and stretch. However it doesn’t take long before the depth of yoga can become intriguing enough to want to know more. Studying ourselves, studying yoga is our way of bringing meaning to the different shapes and sounds we make on the mat and understanding our place in the world more fully.
Learn how to see. Realise that everything connects to everything else.
~ Leonardo Di Vinci
The more we practice yoga, the greater our awareness becomes. As we progress to the last of the yamas and niyamas, we begin to connect more deeply to what we could term the spiritual side of yoga. As we steadily keeping moving forward on our journey through yoga, we begin to realise we are not as separate as we once thought. We feel more connected – to one other, to our surroundings and ultimately to our true sense of being.
As always with yoga it’s 99% practice and 1% theory, so begin to practice your self-reflection and study and begin to notice how it changes your experience of yoga and as always, we’d love to hear how you get on.