To know oneself is a primary aim of the yogic path. The road to self-actualization may take time, but through the practice of svadhyaya, or self-study, you can get there much faster than you would if there was no contemplative practice in your life. (Read more in Svadhyaya: A Lifetime of Self-Study.)
Knowing oneself is so integral to the yogi’s journey, that Patanjali gave it its very own place in the famous Yoga Sutras. As the fourth niyama, self-study is a way to deliberately familiarize oneself with the inner Self on a psychological, emotional, and spiritual level. But it’s not just our ego we’re getting to know, it’s also the egoless part of ourselves, which ultimately leads to awakening and liberation. Yoga is all about freedom. When we become aware of the ways in which we formulate our opinions, make the choices we make, or say the things we say, we attain a state of freedom that ultimately leads to inner peace and contentment.
Knowing oneself is about knowing what makes us tick as human beings. On some level, we’re all conditioned by our upbringing or life experiences to behave and perceive things in certain ways. As we uncover our habits, behavioral patterns, and worldview, we transform and transmute these patterns so we can connect more easily to our Higher Self. Sometimes the more difficult our life experiences are, the more we’re drawn to seeking truth.
Cultivating self-awareness is one of the most powerful things we can do if we want to transform our lives and negative thought patterns. Delving into this fourth niyama, that of svadhyaya, is a practical and intriguing way that helps us experience life from a place of greater freedom. Self-awareness brings about positive change, both in our inner and outer world.
One way we cultivate self-study is through meditation. Meditation can help us open our heart, calm our anger, and clarify our mind. Meditation is one of the single most effective ways we have to get to know ourselves. It teaches us to become the witnessing presence of our thoughts and emotions. When we step back and step into the witness role, we naturally become more aware of our internal state. There are many different types of mediation practices. The key is finding one that you can stick with. When you do, even if it's just a little bit each day, you’ll grow more and more into your true nature. (Learn more in Meditation 101.)
Another way we get to know ourselves is through the practice of yoga asana. Yoga can be challenging and when we reach our edge, how do we react? Do we give up and vow never to do a particularly frustrating pose again? Or do we stay the course and breathe through the challenge. Maybe we find ourselves asking, “Is this really worth it?” Or, “What’s the point of all this?” Or perhaps, “You can do it, you can do it, you can do it.” Paying attention to our inner dialogue when we find ourselves in a grueling yoga pose is an excellent way to practice self-study. (Read more in Why We Practice Asana.)
I love looking through old journals and discovering just how much I’ve evolved. Self-study via writing in a journal is an effective way to practice this niyama. We can journal about our day. We can journal about the day’s yoga class or our home practice. We can journal about our meditation practice or about a challenging conversation. We can journal about whatever comes to mind. It’s a great tool for self-reflection and contemplation. (More on Why Contemplate? and Should I Be Keeping a Yoga Journal?)
The many scriptures and books that surround yoga offer us valuable insights into svadhyaya. From Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, from the Bhagavad Gita to the Upanishads, yoga is filled with timeless wisdom teachings that lead us closer to self-actualization. We also have modern teachers who have written wonderful books to help us cultivate self-knowing as we journey along the spiritual path. Insights surround us if we just open our eyes and receive. (Read about the Secrets of the Ancient Yoga Scriptures.)
Yoga Teacher Training
Retreating for a month on a yoga teacher training intensive is yet another accelerated way to delve into self-study. You’ll be learning new things everyday from philosophy to teaching skills, from meditation techniques, to practices designed solely for this fourth niyama of self-study. A two-hundred hour yoga teacher training is a hands-on way that might be the fastest path to learning about who you are and how you tick. (Learn What to Expect from a Reputable Yoga Teacher Training.)
However you get to know yourself, know that the way you choose in this moment is the right one for you. Have fun with the process and laugh at all your quirks. We’re all human, doing the best we can. So as always, practice self-compassion as you cultivate self-knowledge.