The term, svadhyaya, is most often translated as “self-study.” It comes from the Sanskrit, sva, meaning “own,” “one’s self” or “human soul”; and adhyaya, meaning “a lesson” or “reading.” So, svadhyaya literally means “to read one’s Self” or “to learn the lessons of your own soul.”
In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, svadhyaha is listed as one of the niyamas, or inner observances. These niyamas help you to cultivate a positive mindset and internal environment for growth. Observing the niyamas deepens your yoga practice from something which you do on the mat to a way of living your life. As such, practicing svadhyaha is said to be an essential step in your spiritual development.
But why would you want to study yourself? When there is so much value placed on learning about the external world, what could you possibly gain from studying the lessons of your own soul?
Benefits of Svadhyaya
1. Understanding of the nature of your mind. Through self-study, you notice the transient nature of your thoughts and realize that you are not those thoughts. By stepping into the role of observer, you develop the potential to become the master of your thoughts, rather than letting your mind take the driving seat. (Learn how to master your mind.)
2. Connection with your inner self. Another benefit of learning that you are not your thoughts is that you connect with your true essence, or what you actually are on a deeper or even spiritual level. Svadhyaya can teach you who or what you really are. You may experience a connection with the Divine within yourself or simply enjoy a deep sense of calm and wholeness.
3. Better influence on others. How often have your actions toward another human been misconstrued or not had the desired impact? In interpersonal relationships, there is often a gap between our intention and our impact. Self-awareness is the key to closing the gap between intention and impact. The better you understand yourself, the more conscious you will be of the way you are carrying out your actions and, thus, the more likely those actions are to have the intended impact.
4. Greater capacity for compassion. It is said that you can only love others as much as you love yourself. And it certainly seems likely that you can only understand others as much as you understand yourself. By developing your understanding of your own nature through svadhyaya, you increase your ability to understand and empathize with others.
5. Better objectivity. All you learn about the external world is experienced through the filter of the self. So, everything you learn is, to some extent, tainted by your own perceptions and biases. Svadhyaya won’t stop this from happening, but it can make you more aware of your own subjectivity and, thus, help you to be fairer and more balanced in your approach to the world.
6. Wisdom and insight in navigating your life. The busy-ness of modern life can make it all too easy to just “keep going” without any real consideration for your life direction, purpose or dharma. Self-study can help you to reflect on the contribution you wish to make to the world and, if necessary, to adjust your path accordingly.
How to Practice Svadhyaya
The traditional method for practicing svadhyaya is through the study of spiritual texts; not as an abstract or academic practice, but rather to hold up a mirror to yourself. You read the text then consider its relevance to yourself, your mind and your life. Any spiritual or even scientific text can be helpful for svadhyaya if it is used as a tool for self-reflection and enhancing self-understanding.
Another very powerful means of practicing svadhyaya is through going about your life with more mindfulness. Mindful awareness of ourselves, our thoughts and the roots of our actions is a sure sign of successful svadhyaya practice. Often, mindfulness is most effectively practiced during meditation, but any yoga practice can become a svadhyaya practice. The key is to be incredibly present and tuned in to your own body, mind and emotions. (Read more about the art of mindfulness.)