In the last issue we began a three-part series on Kriya Yoga from Patanjali‘s Yoga Sutra, starting with tapas (self-discipline). Now we’ll address svadhyaya (self-study). Remember that while Kriya Yoga contains three distinct actions—tapas, svadhyaya, and Ishvara pranidhana (devotion)—they are not hierarchical. Each action contains the other two: Self-discipline, for example, not only prepares us for self-study but is also a means for self-study.
Svadhyaya literally means "to recite, repeat, or rehearse to oneself." The question is: Recite or repeat or rehearse what? According to Vyasa, a fifth-century commentator on the Yoga Sutra, svadhyaya involves the "repetition of a sacred Mantra, the sacred syllable Om, or study of scriptures relating to Moksha, or freedom from bondage."
Svadhyaya thus has two aspects. The first is the recitation of mantras. Patanjali placed particular emphasis on the seed-mantra Om, which is the symbol of the higher Self or Lord. By reciting this sound, we can "tune in to" its source and, as Vyasa says, reveal the supreme soul.
The second aspect of svadhyaya is the study of sacred scriptures. Which ones? Patanjali was surely thinking of his own compilation of verses in the Yoga Sutra, but maybe also books like the Bhagavad Gita or the Vedas. The goal here wasn’t to pile up intellectual lumber, but to use the material as a mirror for intense self-study. Nowadays we have access to many books and schools of thought, both Eastern and Western, ancient and modern, so our possibilities for this second aspect of svadhyaya are endless.
Sound it Out
You might think that the best way to recite a mantra is as loudly as possible, so all the deities in the universe will hear you. But the most effective way to recite is as quietly as possible.
Try this at the start of your next Pranayama or meditation session: Inhale, and then, as you exhale, whisper a long, slow Om. Repeat for 10 to 15 breaths, feeling the sound reverberate in your skull and spread through your body.