At some point in life, many of us seek to create changes in our existence. Stepping onto our yoga mat every day is a serious endeavor to transform ourselves. Yoga is a path towards this self-realization. The second chapter of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali clearly lays out this journey. It begins with the practice of kriya yoga which consists of: tapas (enthusiasm), ishvara pranidhana (unshakeable faith and devotion to the sacred), and svādhyāya (self-study).
Svādhyāya is an act of yoga which helps us to know ourselves. It is reflection on our inner self, study of the scriptures, and chanting to gain divine wisdom. It is advised that in the first two years of practice, svādhyāya is simply self-study; your physical practice, body, breath, mind and thoughts. Bring awareness to these and then begin to study the yoga texts. Students who only focus on the first part of svādhyāya may become self-absorbed and lost in their own minds. Studying the yoga texts allows us to gain broader and higher knowledge to help cultivate clarity of mind and true wisdom that carries us on the road towards self-transformation.
In Yoga Mala, Sri K Pattabhi Jois defines svādhyāya as “the recital of Vedic verses and prayers in accordance with strict rules of recitation. Vedic hymns must be recited without damaging the artha (meaning) and Devata (deity) of a mantra through the use of a wrong swara (pitch) or the improper articulation of akshara (letter), pada (word), or varna (sentence)”. To chant correctly takes much study and effort, but it pays off. As noted in Patanjali Yoga Sutras II.44: “svādhyāyad ishtadevata samprayogah” (owing to the learning and application of personal mantras, there is union with (one’s) desired deity).
I have heard Sharath Jois, the current lineage holder of Ashtanga yoga, say: “Svādhyāya means: The guru can’t make you climb up. If you want to learn how to climb a coconut tree, what do you do? Someone will tell you how to climb. He will try to push you as much as possible, as much as he can reach, and from there you should climb up. Your guru can’t push you all the way up. You have to put effort to climb the rest of the tree – to get the coconut. That putting [your own] effort is called svādhyāya.”
In his book, Asthanga Yoga Anusthana, Sharathji’s full explanation of svādhyāya is as follows: “Studying what we have learned from our teacher, not only trying to understand what has been said, but deepening that understanding and expanding our knowledge by reading manuscripts and thinking more about the subject we are learning. Self-study is to engage our mind, to further our studies. It is our duty to do our homework, to practice and review what the guru has said, to go deeper into whatever yoga subject we are learning, and in understanding and experiencing the self and the divine. The teacher cannot push, he or she can only guide. If he or she shares who Ganapati is, the remover of obstacles, it is up to the student to find out”.
I remember a few seasons ago at a conference in Mysore, India, Sharathji said that although it is important to study the texts, they are meaningless if not practically applied to your daily life. Scholars are not necessarily sadhakas (spiritual aspirants). In India for example, there are an abundance of engineers and people studying to become them, but they cannot actually fix anything. There are also mechanics on the side of the road in small stalls that can repair your scooter or a myriad of other electrical appliances. Sharathji advised us to “be the mechanic, not the engineer” in terms of approaching our practice and our studies.
When I discovered yoga, I journeyed to India for long periods and sought the silent simplicity of remote ashrams and caves, delving deeply into the heart, mind and philosophical aspects of the practice. I was inspired by my teachers in London who had travelled to India before airlines were so prolific, at a time when it took 6 weeks overland from the UK and was far more uncomfortable. One well known Ashtanga teacher, Rolf Naujokat, walked from Europe to India with his dog (I believe it took him several years). Talk about commitment and tapas!
Historically, seekers had to go to great lengths to find knowledge. In fact, after struggling, walking for miles, climbing mountains and spending years to find a guru, they might even be turned away – until proving they were worthy of the knowledge they sought. When the first foreigner, Norman Allen, asked Pattabhi Jois to teach him Ashtanga yoga in Mysore, Guruji refused. It took some persistence for Norman to demonstrate he was a good person and deserving student before Pattabhi Jois would agree to instruct him. If you have doubts concerning the amount of effort sometimes necessary, I recommend reading about the journey of Milarepa, the famous Buddhist practitioner.
Not too different from the proverb “you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink”. The teacher can show you the path, but you have to make the effort and walk it.
In this age of social media it is easy to take things flippantly and expect everything to come to us. But we cannot wait. We have to search for it. We also cannot expect our teacher to do everything for us. Particularly when “yoga” is served up conveniently, little effort is required and it is difficult to avoid complacency.
It takes many, many years of daily practice – with the right attitude of effort and surrender. There are no shortcuts. Even if you are bendy. Even if you are stiff. Even if you are an intellectual. It will still take many years for proper spiritual knowledge and wisdom to grow in you. Perhaps decades. It may take a lifetime of practice to reach the lofty goals of svādhyāya, but it is possible within this lifetime. Have no doubt that magical things will happen if you try. It is an invaluable endeavor.
By doing our āsana daily and observing the breath, body and mind, we study the practice, we listen to our teacher, and we learn the sequence with correct vinyasa and dṛṣṭi. We continue by chanting, studying the texts, and allowing ourselves to give space for wisdom to grow within us. Through studying the self, we hope to dispel āvidya (spiritual ignorance) to transform ourselves.
Never forget, we are seekers on a sacred and worthy quest. Let us not waste this life…
Categorised in: Blog
This post was written by Natalé Ferreira