Svadhyaya plays an important role in Yoga, to learn to practice mindfully instead of mechanically. The Sanskrit word “Svadhyaya” means to study and to observe what’s been studied. Svadhyaya is to study by first gathering knowledge that has been formulated and passed on to us by other beings. After gathering knowledge, we observe how these facts relate to us in our lives. When we gather knowledge from others, we just have a contact with the facts. But when we observe and reflect, we cultivate an intimate contact and a communion with the facts. Only when knowledge is joined with observation does it lead to understanding.
Interestingly, when we study intellectually by gathering information and facts, we easily forget the knowledge. But when we study experientially with reflection and observation, the knowledge becomes integrated with the substance of our being, and we won’t forget it. Vimela Thakar says in Glimpses of Raja Yoga, “Once you have seen the light, you never confuse it with darkness.”
Next, let’s look closer at “spiritual books,” which are sacred texts that have been passed on to us by enlightened beings. They are words of wisdom that will elevate our minds and remind us of our true self. Some sources of sacred texts from the past are the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, the Koran, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and many others. There are also enlightened beings living today that guide us with their inspiring words.
Svadhyaya is to study sacred texts, not just intellectually, but also experientially with observation and reflection. When reading sacred texts, we read and reread the same words and reflect on how the words relate to our daily life to absorb the depth of the teaching. As our life and life situations continually change, the sacred words touch us in different ways as life unfolds. Each time we read it we see it in a new light.
Swami Satchidananda in his The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali says, “It is something like going to the Empire State Building. When you look out of the first floor window you see something. From the second floor you see a little more; from the third, still more. But when you finally reach the hundred and first floor and look over the balcony, you see something completely different. Similarly, in reading the scriptures, we slowly rise up expanding our mind and consciousness. The more we elevate our mind, the better our understanding is.” Swami Satchidananda also reminds us that reading many different books just once will only give us knowledge but no wisdom. When we focus on a few sacred books by reading, rereading, and reflecting on the words through the years, a deeper understanding and communion with the truth is cultivated.
Let’s look into Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. The word sutra means a thread. There are 196 Yoga sutras and each sutra is a link, or a thread, of sacred words that offer us guidance in life. The 196 sutras combined make up a very small book with only a few pages. But most books on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are large with elaborate interpretations for each sutra. Each author’s interpretation comes from their own traditional background as well as their social and individual experiences. When you read a variety of translations of a specific Yoga sutra, they sometimes sound very similar and sometimes not at all. In my experience, reading three to five translations gives me a broader view of the core meaning of each sutra.
There is an old story about several blind men who were told to touch an elephant and from their perceptions describe the elephant. One man touched the tusk and said the elephant was long and hard. Another touched a leg, describing it as short and stubby, and a third touched the trunk, calling it large and solid, etc. Individually, they had very different perceptions of the experiences, but together their analysis created a more holistic view of the complete subject.
The Yoga Sutras are words of wisdom giving us step-by-step guidance on how to be the best human beings we can be and how to live in harmony with the world around us. But, the Yoga Sutras are not dogmas, but karmas. They are not rigid rules with right and wrongs, “shoulds and have tos.” Instead they are guidelines with a cause and an effect. For example, the sutra on Ahimsa (2.35) does not say we should be non-violent. Instead it says “When non-violence in speech, thought. and action is established, one’s aggressive nature is relinquished and others abandon hostility in our presence.” (B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Yoga Sutras).
For any reader interested in looking deeper into Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, it’s advisable to first read the 196 sutras without the interpretations to get an overview of the teachings. Then choose one sutra each week. Read translations from different sources, and reflect on how the sutra relates to your daily relationships with yourself, with your Yoga practice, with others, and with nature. Reflect on all life situations without judgment, but with curiosity and honesty. Keeping a journal with daily reflections can be a powerful tool in learning more about yourself and life.
Rohit Mehta, in his Yoga the Art of Integration, reminds us that “one cannot walk on a spiritual path by following the values that belong to others.” Instead of being blind followers, Svadhyaya teaches us to walk on our own two feet. When we study sacred words, and observe and experience them in our own lives, they become integrated into our being. A deeper understanding is cultivated—we experience a communion with the source of the teaching, which connects us to our true self. In this concept the Yoga Sutras are unique in that they can be adapted to any belief system and can enhance anyone’s spiritual path.
Now, let’s see how Svadhyaya relates to our practice at home on the Yoga mat. When you do a Yoga pose you follow instructions you have learned on how to get into the pose and how to align all body parts in tune with gravity. This is the knowledge and the foundation of the Yoga posture. But to be able to just do a perfect head balance, backbend, or triangle pose does not necessarily mean you are enlightened. The power of the practice comes when we add observation to the knowledge, Svadhyaya.
In each asana (Yoga posture), add the quality of curiosity, observation, and exploration in each step while moving into a pose, being in it, coming out, and the effects afterwards. Instead of doing your asanas mechanically by going on “cruise control,” practice mindfully to cultivate a deeper understanding of your body.
In our practice of Iyengar Yoga, alignment plays an important role in the practice of our asanas. In each pose we align the body mindfully in tune with gravity for maximum balance, space, and freedom to the spine, inner organs, and to the breath. We cultivate good “postures” in each asana. When the alignment is off, there is compression and wear and tear to the outer and inner body. Some time back, there was an article in Wall Street Journal saying most back problems can be eliminated by learning how to stand up straight with Yoga!!
When we are in our Yoga classes we follow the guidance of our teachers and gain knowledge in how to practice. But it’s only at home on our own mat that the true practice of Yoga is cultivated. At home we can focus deeper on the sensations in our own unique bodies. In each asana we observe the internal balance of each pose. Is the right or left side tighter or weaker? Where is there tension or tightness? Where do I feel weak or dull? And how can I create balance and harmony in my own body today? Instead of being a blind follower, find your own truth in your practice. And in each asana observe the quality of your spine, the breath, and the presence of mind. Is the spine compressed or elongated? Is the chest and the breath compressed or open and free? Is the mind scattered or silently present? The observation leads to a deeper understanding and a communion with each asana. “When we see the light, we don’t confuse it with darkness.”
Leboyer says in Inner Body, Inner Light, “To do the same thing day after day, year after year must be boring, and it’s true that mechanical repetition only dulls, but where there is profound attention one never stops seeing deeper and deeper.”
And my teacher, Mr. B.K.S. Iyengar, explains Svadhyaya beautifully in Light on the Yoga Sutras: “Though consciousness exists in the body, it needs to be tapped through the practice of asana and pranayama (breath control), in which the intelligence acts as a bridge to connect awareness of the body with the core and vice versa. This connecting intelligence alone brings harmony of body, mind and soul, and intimacy with the supreme soul (Ishtadevata).”
The next time you step into your downward dog, add Svadhyaya into your practice and the dog pose might take you on a journey beyond the hamstrings into the unknown.