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When our spiritual lives and day-to-day actions are out of sync, we lose the ability to intuit. Yes, intuit as a verb. (As Deepak Chopra said, “There are no nouns in this alive universe.”) The less we intuit, the more disconnected we are from our selves, and the more inert we feel. The solution to this is internal activism, a practice of many parts including svadhyaya, or self-study.
Svadhyaya is one of the components of kriya yoga, the yoga of action.
I think of svadhyaya as a differentiating factor (that and the breath) between exercising and practicing asana. In asana, you move in ways that stretch and tone your body. That alone is a healthy endeavor but doesn’t give you any insight about your physical, emotional, or mental wellbeing. If, however, you pay attention to how your body, breath, and mood feel as you’re moving through asanas—or at least compare the beginning versus the end of practice—that is yoga. It is yoga because you are studying the self, noticing how choices and movements affect you, and perhaps even feeling gratitude in the process.
3 Stages of Svadhyaya Practice
Life is full of choices, but it’s often easy to get stuck. You don’t need to cast routine aside if it is serving you. I love my routine of drinking a glass of water with apple cider vinegar in the morning and preparing my coffee for a morning walk with my three dogs. It serves my foggy morning mind and my soul. But there are other larger choices that you may not even regard as choices anymore if you’ve been living them for long enough—your job, where you live, who you have relationships with. When do you breathe fresh air into these? You will only change your choices if you notice your experience and who you are within these places and contexts.
Noticing your feelings is the deepest form of self-acknowledgement you can give yourself. It is a way to validate who you are. You are not your feelings, because they change moment to moment. But you are the being that chooses, or does not choose, whether to honor your feelings by noticing and listening to them.
2. Take action
Once you notice your feelings, what do you do with what you find? With the choices that are revealed to you? The self-knowledge you gain offers you opportunities to change behaviors or continue those that already serve you.
Changing behaviors takes intention and action of a particular kind. It requires you to take purposeful and often opposite action. Some opposite actions take restraint, or open-heartedness, or non-judgment, or patience, or boundary-setting. If an interaction or experience isn’t serving you, then why not trying the opposite action and see what happens?
For example, I can smell a conversation I need to have but want to avoid from mile away. At times, I get into my head and think about whether there are good reasons to not have it and have a short internal dialogue. I acknowledge that the discomfort comes from a feeling, notice in my body and from my initial reaction what that feeling is, jump to the opposite action and have the conversation.
This is a form of experiential instead of anticipatory learning. At the very worst, it will be uncomfortable to do something differently. At best, you can learn a behavior that is helpful to you or an effective way to be in relationship with others. Either way, you can never know until you try.
You ensure activism is internal by staying inside yourself through svadhyaya. This doesn’t mean you become a hermit or wander around in circles in your head. In fact, get out of your head.
Staying inside yourself is traveling to your intangible center. I don’t know about you but I’ve never located my ‘gut.’ Anatomically speaking, there’s a whole collection of goodies more or less in the middle of your body. But that’s not what I mean. We can travel to our intangible centers in a number of ways. When I hold my dogs and take a minute to pet them I am reminded of my center. Why? Because I love them, I am showing them love, maybe they are showing me theirs by accepting belly rubs, and I connect back to myself. When I sit down, close my eyes, and slow my breathing it is there again. When my husband hugs me a few seconds longer than usual, I am there again.
Choose to notice. Choose to act. Accept that you can only be you and you are enough. Engaging with your internal life this way makes it possible for you to live the rest of your life as who you truly are.
About Our Expert
Laura Riley is a writer, yoga teacher, and social justice attorney based in Los Angeles. This article is adapted from her manuscript Internal Activism.