The niyama on my mind right now is Svadhyaya, often translated as study.
Seems to sum up my entire approach to yoga really – the study of the practice and the study of the Self. Without that, there is no yoga, just a bunch of fancy moves thrown together on a mat.
Svadhyaya is the difference between rotely moving from posture to posture to get it done, and actually being present with how the postures affect the body and mind differently from day to day.
Of course, it also bleeds off the mat. Life gives us the opportunity to study the self every time we interact with it – and that’s every single moment of the day.
We can observe how we think and speak, how we walk and move and how we interact with other people. We can observe how different people seem to trigger different reactions within us, and how some situations frighten us and others excite us.
All this observation of the Self in action is Svadhyaya – we begin to know ourselves more deeply.
We start to see aspects of our Selves that we don’t like and would prefer to hide away. The Shadow reveals itself. In doing so, we’re able to integrate and heal the shadow and become more whole as people.
It’s an integral part of yoga, and something that has been integral to my practice from day one. In fact, I wonder if the process of Self study actually came first and yoga came after that. It’s always been my natural inclination to observe and question and to wonder what the truth really is.
For a long time, that natural inclination was focused purely on the outside world. Sometime in my twenties – I suspect when I experimented with various consciousness-expanding drugs – I began to question more deeply what was going on inside of me.
- What was I thinking and feeling?
- Why was I thinking and feeling that?
- What did I actually believe?
- Where did that belief come from?
- Was it true?
It’s a process which continues today, and it likely the mainstay of my yoga practice – more so than asana or even meditation or pranayama. There’s always a part of me watching me in action and learning from the watching. This creates a feedback loop that generates a constant evolution. I’m not the same person I was nine years ago, three years ago, a year ago, six months ago or even a month ago.
I can read an article I wrote and see the false belief that gave rise to those thoughts and ideas even four weeks ago – when four weeks ago I thought those thoughts and ideas were true.
In the seeing, I can let go of that false belief. Such is the purification of Svadhyaya.
It’s the peeling back of the ego-identity, onion-thin layer after onion-thin layer. All that I think I am is reveled to be an illusion – or at least just a belief picked up somewhere along the way from my parents, school, society, culture and/or the world.
Toss that into the fire, and that, and that.
I can see now where this is going. I can see how the fifth and final niyama, surrender, falls into place.
For if all layers of Self are stripped away and revealed to be false – just another idea, just another thought, just more programming – what is left? Under the layers? What remains? What is there to be seen? Who is there to be seen? Is there even a Who anymore?
What am I, truly, but a collection of ideas and thoughts and beliefs?
With all those gone – then what?
I don’t know yet.
There are still ideas and thoughts and beliefs that make up my ego identity. I am a writer. I am a mother. I am… yet are these not just roles I’m playing? Costumes shrugged on for the duration of the play? Can I be that which is asked of me in this moment without confusing the role for my identity?
I wonder much right now.
What is underneath it all?
Who is underneath it all?
How far does the rabbit hole go?
Dare I strip it all away until nothing more to strip away?