Self-Study: A Life-Long Practice
Here we are, week nine of Yamas and Niyamas. After Tapas, my favorite Niyama is Svadhyaya- self-study and inquiry. Long before I began practicing yoga, I always spent quiet time in reflection and self-study through journaling since I was 13 years-old. So this idea of self-study and inquiry was very familiar to me in the yoga practice. Studying and watching other people has always been a favorite guilty pleasure of mine as well. Whenever I was alone someplace, at school, a coffee shop, or the zoo, I would people watch. I would watch these unaware passer-bys go about their day, too busy to notice me watching them do nothing important or special. I still love to observe people, animals, and nature; I will sit on the beach and watch the sunlight dance on the waves or look up at night and notice how many more stars are visible here than back home in LA. At one point before I graduated high school, I thought I would study psychology in college because I was so curious about brains and behavior. My Mom said when I was a baby, I would just observe everyone with my big brown eyes, taking everything in, and quietly watch. Apparently, not much has changed, except I spend more time with the lens pointed inward rather than outward at others.
In The Secret Power of Yoga, Nischala Joy Devi, writes "Svadhyaya guides us to know our selves through outward observation and inner reflection." Inside the Yoga Sutras, Reverend Jagganath Carrera echos a similar message, "Ultimately, all study in Yoga is aimed at helping practitioners achieve self-realization." These yogic practices of self-inquiry and reflection are beneficial for so many reasons. We learn lessons when we reflect. We change behavior when we realize it does not serve us. We are able to step outside of ourselves and look in with an objective perspective. I am always astonished how some people do not take time to reflect and question their behavior and motives of why we do the things we do. Since I spent so much time observing behavior and understanding the functions of children's behavior, it seems almost second nature for me to delve into this practice. And what better way to achieve this, but through the physical asana practice and pranayama. Rolf Gates writes in Meditations from the Mat, "The postures and the breath form a bridge between the wisdom of the mind and the wisdom of the body. A divine spark is kindled, and the resulting fire is our spiritual transformation." The breath, body, and mind work together, not separately. We use the breath to link the mind and body together. When we use our breath as a tool, we see that it can reveal so much of our inner and outer worlds. Our goal is for our inner world of peace and tranquility to be reflected in how we show up in the outside world.
"Svadhyaya is about connecting to the energy you find healing and inspiring," Gates writes telling his students to stay inspired through art, workshops, music, theatre; anything that brings inspiration and healing. Even now, as I write on the Yamas and Niyamas, this practice, this task, I assigned myself for the last nine weeks has given me inspiration and plenty of chances to reflect. I've been reading over the same books and passages I've read many times before, yet they have a new meaning which has lead me to a deeper understanding than I had before. Gates reflects that same sentiment when re-reading books by his teachers, "I read their books over and over again, and as the years go by I find that their lessons are always fresh. . . Often we find statements or concepts that we couldn't understand, or had no use for when we first read them, come alive days or months or even years later, as the circumstances of our lives confirm their messages." Now, I don't believe in order to be a "good yogi" a person needs to read all the yoga books and memorize every word cover to cover. Rather, we need to find books or authors which lead to inspiration and self-reflection. This same thing can transpire during an asana practice. Perhaps you have a teacher that gives a verbal cue one way and you don't pay much attention to it because it doesn't make sense to you in your body. Then one day, you go to a different teacher's class and she gives a similar cue, yet different, but then all of sudden, DING, it all makes sense! Our spiritual practice is no different. In all three texts I've used for this piece, each teacher writes how we need to find our own inspiration, whether that is through books, yoga teachers, healers, or anyone or anything that teaches us a lesson. The big takeaway from this is to not avoid or dismiss some of the teachings because they make us uncomfortable. I think when something makes us uncomfortable, it means we have some inner work to do and uncover why it brings up certain feelings.
"The traditional translation of the sutras describe two aspects to Svadhyaya: the study of the scriptures and the repeating of mantras as a means to commune with, and to draw closer to, your desired deity." While I was high school and junior college, I always enjoyed the debate aspect of religious and philosophy classes. The discourse that would take place in those classes helped me to break down some of the larger concepts and ideas to have a better understanding of these teachings. We'd ask each other questions, debate, disagree, and maybe agree. Once we had an understanding of the basic concepts, we could begin to build on that foundation. Reverend Carrera reminds us, "Yogis should not be blind followers." As yogis, we find text and or teachers that inspire us, we ask questions and we begin to have a better understanding of the foundations of our practice. This is how I found myself leaving the Catholic Church at 15. I had questions, I received the answers from my teachers, yet I didn't agree with their rules, so I decided to not take the sacrament of Confirmation. We cannot follow anything, blindly. As students of life, we must question and debate with our teachers so we can understand and gain more knowledge. Once you have decided to follow a path, Yogic path or not, and you have a foundation of the ideology, then you can apply the practice to your daily life.
Each day presents plenty of opportunities for us to practice self-observation and reflection. This is where and how we put the practice into practice. There are days when it is too heavy to unpack the events of a day or situation and apply the practice of self-inquiry and reflection. We give ourselves a break and practice giving ourselves love and compassion until we can pull it off the shelf to ask the difficult questions of ourselves. Like I always say, it is a practice, not a perfect. Keep practicing. It gets easier the more you do it.
Be well, stay well.