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The Yoga practice of Svadhyaya

Updated: Nov 29, 2022

An analysis of oneself on a regular basis can provide invaluable insights into one’s nature, on a fundamental level. It is all about being centred in the moment, and being quiet (mauna) during the entire process of self-enquiry. This quietude can be a lengthy observance, and is not one of negation but encourages a voluntary and enthusiastic reorientation of the student’s (sadhaka) awareness and energy (prana) from association with external objects, to his spirit nature. Self-enquiry is termed svadhyaya in the Samskrtam language. The Samskrtam word svadhyaya is composed of two parts: ‘sva’ meaning the Self, and ‘dhyaya’ meaning ‘of contemplation’. Thus, we get contemplation of the Self. Some people associate svadhyaya with the study of the Holy Scriptures (shastrani). The seeker reads the passages of holy writ and ponders their inherent wisdom, with the intention (samkalpa) of integrating these into his/her life, systematically, in order to refine his/her nature; leading one, ultimately, into the experience of Self-Realisation (atma jnanam).

The Yoga Sutras (YS) 2:32 states:

shauca santosa tapah svadhyaya isvara-pranidhanani niyamah II

“The precepts also include purity, contentment, self-discipline and purification, contemplation of the Self, devotion/surrender to the Lord.”

I feel that the categorical order of the niyamas, as set forth by Sage Patanjali, foremost exponent of Yoga, is significant in itself, and an examination of the individual elements will go a long way towards developing an understanding of self-enquiry and what it entails exactly.

In order to contemplate the Self, one must first develop purity (shauca) of the body and the mind. This links back to guna karma, viz. the delicate and subtle play, and interplay, of the triple qualities of Nature on the mind level, and their resulting effects. The trigunah of Nature are: illuminating (sattva), activating (rajas) and stultifying (tamas). In an attempt to understand our true nature, we must first develop an understanding of these triple qualities. To develop in sattva, the student (sadhaka) must engage himself/herself in those activities which bring about a gradual and beneficial transformation in his/her behaviour, and character. This involves nothing less than a gradual extirpation of disturbed psycho-physical states, brought about by a preponderance of the rajo-guna and tamo-guna influences on the mind, which ordinarily prevent the sight of the soul (atma-drsti), and a gradual elevation and cultivation of sattva instead.

Next in order is contentment (santosa) which, in my experience, arises spontaneously as a result of the acquisition of shauca. Purity leads one into a state of psycho-physical synergy where one no longer feels the desire to grasp for objects of the senses. It is the ability to experience and accept all things as they arise in space and time without being vexed. I feel that the stabilisation of the pre-eminent prana, in the psycho-physical sense, brings about a state of tranquillity and the desire to protect and keep the body still. This is another aspect of the practice of mauna. In that holy stillness, and as one increases in purity, one gets a glimpse of the perfection one is striving to recollect, on a much deeper level: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). What more could one hope to gain on this level of life, when one experiences the Divine touch even fractionally? In my experience, the Divine seems closer at this time, and even the yogi’s immediate environs seem sanctified. The effect of santosa is santosat anuttamah sukha labhah (YS 2:42), meaning,”From contentment, one gains supreme bliss”. The acquisition of bliss (ananda) is the objective of all sentient life. When one first experiences this bliss, one’s mind will forever be turned to the Beloved, and a desire to abide in that blissful sphere always.

Penance (tapah) consists of self-discipline and an intensification of the sadhaka’s efforts, over time, to develop towards perfection: kaya indriyah siddhih ashuddhi ksayat tapasah (YS 2:43) meaning “Through the intensity of self-discipline and purification comes the dwindling of all impurities, and the perfection of the body and senses.” Here, I feel that Patanjali is exhorting the sadhaka to decrease the rajo-guna and tamo-guna influences, on the mind level, which defile the atma in primal mud associated with the acquisition of temporary happiness from external objects of the senses. However, this does not mean that we harm our bodies and become dysfunctional mentally, in an attempt to do so. If harm is caused to the body and senses, the mind becomes disturbed by either rajas or tamas. This has no spiritual value and, in the end, one only increases one’s difficulty on the spiritual path. Austerities or penances should originate ideally from the scriptures and other Yoga treatises viz. those that come down to us from the Wise Ones i.e. those who have attained Self-Realisation themselves. Never should they be based on one’s own imagination and ideas of what is right or wrong, unless of course that person enters this world as an advanced devotee already. A proliferation of pages would be required to elaborate on these matters, however, let us look at some examples: