Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth yoga, fitness, & nutrition courses, when you sign up for Outside+.
When we use the yoga practice of svadhyaya—self-reflection—effectively, our actions become much more than a way to achieve something external; they become a mirror in which we can learn to see ourselves more deeply. If we are willing to look at behaviors, motivations, and strategies we habitually use to maintain our own self-image, we can use svadhyaya to pierce through the veil that this self-image creates and into the nature of our own essential being.
Along with tapas (purification) and Ishvara pranidhana (recognition of and dedication to our Source), svadhyaya is part of the threefold practice of kriya yoga described by the great sage Patanjali in his Yoga Sutra. Traditionally, tapas, svadhyaya, and Ishvara pranidhana referred to specific activities, but they may also be understood in the context of an overall relationship to action. The tradition of svadhyaya suggests that any sacred or inspirational text that offers insight into the human condition can serve as a mirror, reflecting our true nature back to us. Classical texts of this sort might include the Yoga Sutra, the Bhagavad Gita, the Tao Te Ching, the Bible, the Talmud, and the writings of the saints of any tradition. But the source might also be any spiritual or inspiring text we use not simply abstractly or academically but as a means of deeper self-understanding.
In fact, carrying the same logic a step further, svadhyaya can refer to any inspirational activity, from the simple act of chanting, using a mantra, or singing a hymn to receiving teachings from the guru or going to hear a sermon. Rituals of the major religions—for example, the ritual of confession in the Roman Catholic faith—can act as svadhyaya. To take a similar example, repentance and seeking forgiveness are integral parts of the process of purification and illumination in both the Jewish and Islamic faiths. In a somewhat different form of svadhyaya, the Tibetan Buddhist contemplates the “great thoughts that turn the mind to ultimate dharma,” thus turning the mind away from the worldly toward the spiritual life. In svadhyaya, spiritually inspiring teachings are tools to help us understand ourselves, and, through that understanding, change our attitudes and behavior.
Attuning Our Inner Navigator
This teaching is not only meant for those dedicated to matters of the spirit. It has great practical meaning for all of us who recognize there is room for improvement in our lives. Svadhyaya represents an ongoing process through which we can assess where we are at a given moment. It is like attuning our inner navigator and finding meaningful answers to questions: Where am I now, and where am I going? What is my direction, and what are my aspirations? What are my responsibilities? What are my priorities?
We often find ourselves on cruise control, acting habitually and being so swept up in the momentum of our daily lives that we don’t take the time to check where we are or where we are headed. The mantras and textual studies offered by the classical tradition function as references from which we can measure where we are. If we come back to the image of the inner navigator, then the mantras and texts can be seen as the polestar, which shows us true north.
One of the greatest opportunities we have to see ourselves is in the mirror of relationship. Therefore another means of svadhyaya is to look at how people are responding to us and let that be the opportunity to understand something about the way we habitually operate. For example, it is difficult to hide aspects of our personality from our mates, our parents, or our children. Even with intimate friends, our pretenses are not likely to endure for long. While we are quite able to play the games of avoidance and self-deception in our own company, in the mirror of our relationships, it is not so easy to hide.
In other words, svadhyaya suggests that we can use all of our activities—solitary and relational—as mirrors in which to discover something important about ourselves and that we can use what we discover as valuable information in the process of arriving at a deeper self-understanding. Finally, the ultimate purpose of svadhyaya is to function as a mirror reminding us of our higher potential—in other words, as a way into the interior where our true Self resides.
To this end, the classical means of svadhyaya include using a mantra, reading a text, or sitting with a spiritual master (guru). In fact, the ancients used the word darshana—which means something like a mirror image—to describe the teaching contained in a particular group of sacred texts, and they used the same word to describe what happens when we sit with
a spiritual master. In both cases, we can see our neuroses, our small-mindedness, and our pettiness mirrored completely. At the same time, we can also see beyond our current state to something like our divine potential. And that too is who we are.
Although the classical means of svadhyaya were mantras, texts, and masters, we can use our wives, husbands, lovers, friends, yoga students, or yoga teachers. Everybody. Everything. In fact, all of our activities can be an opportunity to see more deeply who we are and how we operate, and on that basis we can begin to refine ourselves and thus become clearer and more appropriate in our behavior.
Balancing Action and Reflection
Tapas (purification) and svadhyaya exist in mutual relationship, tapas being the means whereby we purify and refine our systems and svadhyaya being the means of self-reflection through which we come to an increasingly deeper level of self-awareness and self-understanding. By cleansing the vessel of the body and mind, tapas makes us fit for svadhyaya; by examining the vessel, svadhyaya helps us to understand exactly where we should concentrate our practices of purification. And thus, in this relationship between purification and self-examination, we have a natural method for discovering who, in essence, we are.
We cannot truly consider tapas apart from svadhyaya; therefore, an intelligent practice of tapas must of necessity include svadhyaya. For example, if we do intensive asana (postures) without being adequately self-reflective, we may end up destabilizing our hips, creating vulnerability in our lower back, and ruining our knees. If, however, we consider the asana practice itself as a mirror, we are certainly more apt to avoid injury and may even come away with a better understanding of ourselves as well.
For many of us who are drawn to styles of asana practice that reinforce existing tendencies, this is a tricky point. For example, if we are the high-paced, hyperactive type, we might be drawn toward a very active practice—one that makes us sweat and that generates lots of heat—whereas what we may really need is a more soothing and calming practice. Or if we are the slow-moving, sluggish type, we may be drawn to a very gentle and relaxing practice, whereas what we may really need is a more active and stimulating one. In either case, the result would be tapas without svadhyaya. And in both cases the result would most likely be a reinforcement of existing patterns or, even worse, a possible injury or illness.
When we practice, it is important to look carefully, both at who we are and what is actually happening in our practice so that we have a constant feedback mechanism through which we accurately feel what is happening in our systems, and as a result of which we learn increasingly more about ourselves.
In short, tapas accompanied by svadhyaya ensures that tapas is transformational activity and not simply a mindless application of technology or, worse yet, an abusive activity.
According to the ancients, svadhyaya develops tapas, tapas develops svadhyaya, and together they help us awaken to the spiritual dimension of life. And thus, as we go deeper and deeper into the process of self-investigation and self-discovery, we also go deeper and deeper into the Self, until eventually we discover (or uncover) the Divine. One great teacher has described this process with the image of a drop of water dissolving into the ocean. At first we wonder whether we are the drop. But eventually we discover that we are not and have never been the drop, but only the water itself.