Integral Yoga Teachings

Svadhayayat Ista Devata Sampra Yogah
Return to Oneself, Discover the Divine

The second element of Kriya Yoga is svadhyaya. It is a beautiful word. Its verbal root “i” (which becomes aya), means to go or to move. Adhi is a prefix meaning “toward.” Adhyaya is a verbal derivative meaning “to move toward.” And sva is a reflexive pronoun meaning “self” or “one’s own.” Literally and etymologically then, svadhyaya means “to move toward one’s self” “to return to oneself,” “to come back (by some means) to who we are.”

svadhyaya3Tapas and svadhyaya exist in mutual relationship, tapas being the means whereby we purify and refine our systems, svadhyaya being the means of self-reflection through which we come to an increasingly deeper level of self-awareness and self-understanding. By cleaning the vessel, tapas makes us fit for svadhyaya. By examining the vessel, svadhyaya helps us to understand exactly where we should concentrate our practices of purification. And thus, in this relationship between purification and self-examination, we have a natural method for discovering who, in essence, we are.

When we use svadhyaya effectively, our actions become much more than a way to achieve something external; they become a mirror in which we can learn to see ourselves more deeply in terms of our true motivations. And, assuming a willingness to look at the behaviors, motivations, and strategies that we habitually use to maintain our own self-image, we can even use svadhyaya to pierce through the veil that it creates and into the nature of our own essential being.

Classically and in a technical sense, adhyayana refers to the chanting of texts and mantras that pertain to freedom (moksha) and that were learned exactly from a teacher, and svadhyaya refers specifically to chanting texts and mantras that were part of one’s lineage and that were passed down by one’s ancestors. In a more general sense, however, svadhyaya suggests that any sacred or inspirational text that offers insight into the human condition can serve as a mirror, reflecting back to us our true nature. Classical texts of this sort might include the Yoga Sutras, the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible, the Talmud, the Tao Te Ching and the writings of the saints of any tradition. But the source might also be any spiritual or inspiring text that we use, not simply abstractly or academically, but as a means to deeper self-understanding.

svadhyaya1In fact, carrying the same logic a step further, svadhyaya can refer to any inspirational activity from the simple act of chanting, using a mantra, or singing a hymn to receiving teachings from the guru or going to hear a sermon. Thus, even the rituals of the major religions can act as a type of svadhyaya process. For example: The ritual of confession in the Roman Catholic faith is an example of a different kind of svadhyaya process. In confession, we reflect on our past actions and expose ourselves to ourselves before God. In this ritual, the priest serves primarily as a medium through which the confession is transmitted and the prescribed penance and absolution are received. In both the Jewish and Islamic faiths, to take a different example, repentance and forgiveness-seeking are integral parts of the process of purification and illumination. In yet another form of svadhyaya, the Tibetan Buddhist contemplates the “great thoughts that turn the mind to (ultimate) dharma,” thus turning the mind away from the worldly toward the spiritual life. Thus, in this context of svadhyaya, spiritually inspiring teachings are tools to help us understand ourselves, and, through that understanding, to change our attitudes and behavior.

This teaching is not meant only for those dedicated to matters of the spirit. It has great practical meaning for all of us who recognize that there is room for improvement in our lives. In this context, svadhyaya represents an ongoing process through which we can assess where we are in relation to many things at any given moment. It is like attuning our inner navigator and finding meaningful answers to questions such as: “Am I at the right place at the right moment? Where am I now and also where am I going? What is my direction and what are my aspirations? What are my responsibilities? What are my priorities?”

svadhyaya5We often find ourselves on cruise control, acting habitually and being so swept up in the momentum of our daily lives that we don’t take time to check where we are or where we are headed. And, since our lives are in motion, where we are today is probably different from where we will be tomorrow. The mantras and textual studies offered by the classical tradition function as references from which we can measure where we are. If we come back to the image of the inner navigator, then the mantras and texts can be seen as the polestar, which shows us true north.

One of the greatest opportunities we have to see ourselves is in the mirror of relationship. Therefore, another means of svadhyaya is the ability to look in the mirror of how people are responding to us and let that be an opportunity to understand something about the way we habitually operate. For example, it is difficult to hide aspects of our personality from our mates, our parents, or our children. Even with intimate friends, our pretenses are not likely to endure for long. And while we are quite able to play the games of avoidance and self-deception in our own company, in the mirror of our relationships it is not so easy to hide . . . that is, if we will look, avoid deflecting messages that we could benefit by hearing, and avoid playing victim or becoming self-righteous, of course.

In other words, svadhyaya suggests that we can use all of our activities—solitary and relational—as mirrors in which to discover something important about ourselves and to use what we discover as valuable information in the process of arriving at a deeper self-understanding. Finally, the ultimate purpose of svadhyaya is to function as a mirror to remind us of our higher potential——in other words, as a way into the interior where our “true selves” reside. To this end, the classical means of svadhyaya include using a mantra, reading a text, or sitting with a spiritual master (guru). In fact, the ancients used the word darsana—which means something like a mirror—to describe the teaching contained in a particular group of sacred texts; and they used the same word to describe what happens when we sit with a spiritual master. Because, in both cases, we can see our neuroses, our small-mindedness, and our pettiness mirrored completely. At the same time, we can also see beyond our current state to something like the divine potential. And that too is who we are.

svadhyaya 4Ultimately svadhyaya is a means to reach that higher potential, a way to the interior where our “true selves” reside. Although the classical means of svadhyaya were mantras, texts, and masters, we can use our wives, husbands, lovers, friends, Yoga students, or Yoga teachers. Everybody. Everything. In fact, all of our activities can be an opportunity to see more deeply who we are and how we operate; and on that basis we can begin to refine ourselves and thus become clearer and more appropriate in our behavior. This is very important. We cannot truly consider tapas (purification) apart from svadhyaya; and, therefore, an intelligent practice of tapas must of necessity include svadhyaya. For example, if we do an intensive asana (posture) without being adequately self-reflective, we may end up destabilizing our hips, creating vulnerability in our lower back, and ruining our knees. If, however, we consider the asana practice itself as a mirror, we are certainly more apt to avoid injury and may even come away with a better understanding of ourselves as well.

For many of us, who are drawn to styles of asana practice that reinforce existing tendencies, this is a tricky point. For example, if we are the high-paced, hyperactive type, we might be drawn toward a very active practice——one that makes us sweat and that generates lots of heat——whereas what we may really need is a more soothing and calming practice. Or, if we are the slow-moving, sluggish type, we might be drawn to a very gentle and relaxing practice, whereas what we may really need is a more active and stimulating one. In either case, the result would be tapas without svadhyaya. And in both cases the result would most likely be a reinforcement of existing patterns or, even worse, a possible injury or illness.

svadhyaya6When we practice, it is important to look carefully, both at who we are and what is actually happening to us in our practice. In our tapas there must be svadhyaya so that we have a constant feedback mechanism through which we accurately feel what is happening in our systems, and as a result of which we learn increasingly more about ourselves. In short: Tapas accompanied by svadhyaya ensures that tapas is a transformational activity and not simply a mindless application of technology, or, worse yet, an abusive activity. According to the ancients, svadhyaya develops tapas; tapas develops svadhyaya; and together they help us awaken to the spiritual dimension of life. Thus, as we go deeper and deeper into the process of self-investigation and self-discovery we also go deeper and deeper into ourselves until eventually; we discover or uncover the Divine. One great teacher has described this process with the image of a drop of water dissolving into the ocean. At first we wonder whether we are the drop. But eventually we discover that we are not and have never been the drop, but only the water itself.

(Excerpt from Yoga for Transformation, by Gary Kraftsow; reprinted in the May 2011 IYTA Newsletter)

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