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Maitri musings: svadhyaya (self study)

  • by Claire Ferry - Apr 11, 2019

This week's niyama is svadhyaya, self-study, reading and understanding oneself. It is a natural continuation of the process started in other yamas and niyamas of seeking truth (satya) with effort (tapas) and non-violence (ahimsa). It has its counterparts in the limbs of yoga, the turning in of the senses (pratyahara) and then concentration (dharana) to study internal processes whether physical, emotional, mental or breath-related.

Such exhortations exist in many philosophical, religious or spiritual traditions. The Ancient Greek maxim 'know thy self' as expounded by Socrates and Plato and by later philosophers encourages us to seek this internal understanding, also in order that we might better understand others.

Iyengar asks in Light on Life, what is the value of knowing oneself? He offers that self-knowledge allows us to live deliberately out of a state of freedom, that we learn not to totter and fall like a child, but to walk like an adult with balance, direction and purpose. I find the additional layers from the Sanskrit language fascinating here: Maanava (man), manas (mind) and maana (to live with honour and dignity) all from the same route.

We are human beings. gifted with intelligence that lends purpose and direction to our steps, striving to live ethically, that is with honour and dignity

This is the study which encourages us to shine a light on our internal processes, whether physically in an asana practice, or mentally. We follow the spiral inwards from the physical body. At first this is even noticing bringing the attention from the front of the body (which we can see) to the back, from the limb extremities (hands and feet which move easily) to the hips, shoulders and spine which require more focus, from the conscious and seen to the unconscious and unseen. We journey inward to discover the more subtle 'bodies' of energy, breath and emotions, the mental body of thoughts, the intellectual body of wisdom to the divine soul or universal Self. These are the koshas if you would like to do further reading - an introductory article by Shiva Rea is a good start.

I also think of it like looking down a microscope: we focus closer and closer, and then suddenly there's a leap of the brain and what we're looking at in miniature in the cell reflects the circling of the stars in the heavens. The lens expands from small everyday self to Universal Self, that essence of togetherness and one-ness that we sometimes experience in our lives.

How do we make this a practical step in our lives? Bring the attention back to each moment. Use the breath right now. Pause and check in. Notice, reflect then act. We know this deep down, it's a case of constant practice!

Svadhyaya: "may it be a light for you in dark places, when all other lights go out" (spot the nerd reference there....)

This article offers more about the self/Self as discussed in yogic texts, and Patricia Walden (Iyengar teacher) has an interesting blog here too.

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