In the waning days of summer, with back-to-school preparations underway for everyone from kindergarteners to post-grads, we enter what is, for all intents and purposes, a new year. There are no champagne corks popping or showers of confetti, but you can certainly sense the excitement of new beginnings and the setting of fresh agendas. No matter what age you are, it’s a great time to re-dedicate yourself to learning.
Svadyaya, or self-study, is one of the niyamas (virtuous habits) prescribed by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutra. It is a fundamental step in the ongoing endeavour to yoke together mind, body and spirit. Traditionally, svadyaya meant studying ancient texts, (i.e. the Bhagavad-Gita) and using them as guides to one’s inner workings. (Today, authors like Brené Brown, Stephen Covey and Eckhart Tolle also provide readily available suggestions for exploring the mysteries of the human psyche.) Mantra repetition and meditation are other time-honoured techniques on the yogic path. Keeping and/or rereading a journal, engaging in deep and attentive asana, attending religious or ritualistic ceremonies — all of these may provide a platform for svadyaya. The key is to apply the intention - and, at times, the discipline - to observe yourself.
In this new scholastic year, perhaps you can pledge to ask yourself at least one penetrating question each day. For example: Why do I feel the need to power through this pose even though it hurts, while I immediately give up on this other pose? How did I react when my co-worker told me about her promotion: was it envy or appreciation? Do I feel connected to something greater than myself? What is the difference between what I want and what I need? Between who I truly am and who I appear to be? (Some questions may be tough enough that you need to ask them repeatedly!)
There are times when self-examination yields revelations that may be disappointing or embarrassing - behaviours or patterns that you don’t like about yourself. But svadyaya is not a license for merciless self-recrimination. It means observing yourself and taking steps to live authentically and ethically. Be an impartial witness, rather than a strict judge, to your thoughts, emotions, habits and actions. Then, process what you observe and instigate change where it is required.
The process of svadyaya is endless because the circumstances and behaviours that surround one’s true and abiding essence are continually changing. That’s why self-study requires patience, discipline and unrelenting honesty. It sounds like an awful lot of work, but the results generally dwarf the effort. Furthermore, insight into oneself yields greater understanding of others. Even if you’re not strapping on a loaded backpack and lacing up your new sneakers, make time for renewed self-study. For as Socrates so boldly and incontrovertibly said: “An unexamined life is not worth living.”