Svadhyaya: Know Yourself
There are many things I don’t enjoy about winter: the layers, the cold, the additional time it takes to get places, the darkness. I’ve lived in a place that has a pretty intense winter all my life so I’ve also learned to find the silver lining: coziness, introspection, the beauty in snowfalls, hot chocolate by warm fires, time to slow down and be with the people I love. Winter is nature’s way of reminding me to pause, take in the moment, and check in.
Are you happy?
Are you doing the things that you want to be doing?
Where are you?
Where do you want to be?
In the yogic tradition, checking in is called Svadhyaya, or self study. It was this concept that transformed my yoga practice from focused on the physical to focused on the energetic. There are myriad benefits of yoga as a tool for healing our bodies damaged by living these modern lives. Many people I’ve encountered as a teacher and student come to the practice because their back hurts, or their knee feels weird, or their hamstrings are too tight. I was one of these people. I ran my physical body into the ground and needed healing.
The real magic of the practice happened when I realized that as much as my physical body needed healing, so did the rest of me. I saw the work of the practice revealing aspects of me like how I show up in the face of challenge, how I talk to myself when I fail or fall, how I engage with the idea of perfection, how I engage with the idea of end gaining. I stopped being just my failures or success, my job, my degree, the place that I lived, my race, my politics, my gender identity, my religion. I started being a human being. The yoga wasn’t just healing my body, it was healing and evolving the relationship I have with myself.
So what exactly is self study and how can we engage with it?
The Yoga Sutras tell us how Svadhyaya happened in a classical sense, but we need to translate that into the circumstances of modern life . Self study happens in both introspective and social ways. Through self study we try to understand our reactions and motivations for action. Why am I doing what I’m doing? There are so many ways to unravel, but one of the most effective is writing it all down. I am a fan of journaling because it forces me to hold my self accountable to my thoughts and feelings and reactions. There is something about untangling thoughts and seeing them physically represented that eases any anxiety or stress they cause me. When I go back and read what I’ve written over the past few days, I usually find patterns. These patterns, these scripts, who are they? Who is saying them? Where did they come from? And, if I’m running away, why? Let me make a very important distinction: we do not study the self so we can avoid and disengage the things that make us uncomfortable. We study the self to do the opposite. Perhaps writing is not your way in. As long as you mark for yourself the answers, you are doing the thing. This internal investigation helps us define who we are away from the the pressure of the outside world to fit into a category. Instead, am I acting from a place of compassion? Am I the love and light I see in others?
All of the introspective work is wonderful and most definitely necessary, but Yoga is ultimately about the union, the community. Building awareness of reactions and motivations extends to the ways in which we interact with other people. In the same way that we recognize our relationship with our self, we recognize our relationship with others. We can observe the ways that we habitually show up in groups. Are you the space holder or the healer or the leader or the instigator? The practice looks to create a community of vibrant, collaborative, interdependent souls by recognizing the same core of light and love inside each person. Life gets turbulent. Uncomfortable conversations and experiences will happen with other people. Instead of running away, can I enter situations that make me uncomfortable, that stick me in the center of my feelings and turmoil and show up as a more compassionate, empathetic, and open individual? We have to start seeing other people as more than just their job title or political party or race. Because I have done the work to see who I am at the core of my being, I recognize that same core of bing in other people.
What I don’t ask is for you to leave part of yourself behind and outside of the work, the situation, the moment. That denies the places you have been to reach this moment. If we want to build a community of openness, rooted in love, and interested in evolving, we have to bring our whole selves, baggage and all, to the table. Part of recognizing our light also means understanding that each person, just like us, has a past, but that does not make them less worthy of time, space, or connection. All of us are equally worthy of a seat at the table, a voice in the conversation. Yes, it is an act of courage. No it will not be easy. But yes, it leads to deeper more meaningful connection. 2018 is the year of courage moments. Can we together commit to be courage in this way? Look in to go out. I believe.
What are your practices for learning more about yourself, your motivations, your reactions?