I, like most people, spend a fair amount of each day thinking about myself: my needs and desires, my hopes and fears, thoughts and feelings. This is human nature and to a certain degree we need to understand our personality self in order to function well in life. I have spent many years in therapy deepening my self-knowing, so when I started studying yoga philosophy and ran across the term, svadhyaya, most often translated as “self-study," I was interested. Why was this a part of the yoga system of living?
But maybe you have never wanted to study yourself. When there is so much value placed on learning about the external world, what can we gain from studying the lessons of our own soul? I have found greater peace, purpose and connection to my inner guidance system that sustains me through trying times and the inevitable challenges of being human.
Here I'll share more on the background of svadhyaya, some major benefits to practicing this yogic way of getting to know yourself and tips on how to go about it.
Meaning of Svadhyaya
Svadhyaya 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 us to cultivate a positive mindset and internal environment for growth. Observing the niyamas deepens our yoga practice from something which we do on the mat to a way of living our lives. As such, practicing svadhyaha is said to be an essential step in our spiritual development.
Benefits of Svadhyaya
1. Understanding of the nature of the mind. Through self-study, we can notice the transient nature of our thoughts and realize that we are not those thoughts. By stepping into the role of observer, we develop the potential to become the master of our thoughts, rather than letting our mind take the driving seat. (You may be interested in learning these 4 Methods to Mastering Your 'Monkey Mind.')
2. Connection with our inner Self. Another benefit of learning that we are not our thoughts is that we connect with our true essence, or what we actually are on a deeper or even spiritual level. Svadhyaya can teach us who we really are. We can experience a connection with the Divine within our self 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 our understanding of our own nature through svadhyaya, we increase our ability to understand and empathize with others.
5. Better objectivity. All we learn about the external world is experienced through the filter of the self. So, everything we learn is, to some extent, tainted by our own perceptions and biases. Svadhyaya won’t stop this from happening, but it can make us more aware of our own subjectivity and, thus, help us to be fairer and more balanced in our 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. (Here's a Guided Meditation for Finding Your Life's Purpose.)
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. (To help, here's 6 Techniques to Staying Present.)
Ultimately, svadhyaya has led me beyond a singular focus on my human personality self to an awareness of my unified higher Self. As a result, I feel a greater connection to everyone around me, even people I don't know or necessarily relate to. This motivates me toward more compassion and goodwill for all beings and makes me feel at home wherever I go.