Svadhyaya (self study) (yama – Patanjali II.32 and II.44)

“Self study deepens communion with one’s personal deity.”  (Hartranft)

“Union with the chosen divinity comes from the study of self through the sacred texts.” (Bouanchard)

“Navel gazing” I thought when I was first introduced to Svadyaya, “not sure that’s for me!”

The comment about a personal or chosen deity being the outcome didn’t inspire me much either if I’m honest, being someone with a fair suite of prejudices about religion and the ‘god’ word.

However, perhaps surprisingly, over the years I have come to think of Svadhyaya as one of the central pillars of yoga.  In a way, it is the essence of what I think I ‘do’ in asana, pranayama and meditation practice.  In each of these practice forms I began and continue to begin with ‘paying attention’.  I observe carefully what was previously ignored or at best monitored by my sub-conscious.  My breath, the tension of my muscles, the position of my body in space.  I begin to see patterns of reaction – engagement or resistance.  Occasionally I even manage to explore new possibilities of response.

The same thing happens in the realm of my thoughts and feelings.  My patterns of fear, attraction, aversion, ambition etc.  The list is a long one!  As I pay attention, patterns of response and reaction become apparent.  As in the physical body, it seems that drawing these patterns into awareness brings the possibility of choice and change.

The territory of ‘self study’ described so far, I think of as the study of body-mind patterning.  It has the potential to teach me ease and fluidity in a wide range of physical circumstances.  It seems to me, however, that there are two further territories of exploration that fall within the realm of Svadhyaya.

The study of the way things are

The first of these might be described as the ‘study of the way things are’.  By this I do not mean exclusively an exploration of the ‘external’ world and its workings.  Neither am I referring to the learning of scientific or philosophical arguments or other authoritative teachings.   These areas may inform or be included within my study.  However, I refer to a personal investigation of how I encounter, engage with and make sense of my experience of being alive.  That’s a bit long winded, so here’s an example.

I am angry that the man in the Volvo cut me up in traffic and then didn’t even acknowledge me. 

What this simple sentence fails to convey is that I was furious at the time and returned to the memory on multiple occasions following the incident, to growl and complain to whomever would listen or even just to retell it to myself.

Inquiring into what is happening here might first reveal the physical discomfort caused by my intense reaction and apparent difficulty to let it go.  My body reflects the anger by tensing and hardening in a way that is quite uncomfortable if I can pause long enough to see it.

Beyond that physical observation, I may ask why my reaction is so strong?  Perhaps I am redirecting a building frustration that things are not going my way at work.  Or providing a let out for anger bottled up against my partner in an earlier argument.  Or even simply finding an outlet for my adrenal response to a potentially dangerous incident.  In this last version, my body reacts at the moment of the Volvo pulling out in front of me in a classic flight or fight response.  My system is flooded with adrenaline, my blood vessels dilate, heart rate and muscle tone increases, my attention is focused to an extraordinary degree.  A few moments after the danger is over my sympathetic nervous system, and the hormone flood it has triggered, should and be ready to subside, but by then my thought processes have by taken over.  Although the threat has passed, my anger and aggression toward the other driver continues to rail and this prevents my system returning to neutral.  I have got myself stuck in a stress response – ready for fight or flight even though the danger is gone.  I continue to look for someone to fight in my memory of the Volvo driver.

Of course, there may be many layers of stories underneath this angry response that relate to previous experiences that increase the likelihood of a strong initial reaction and/or a difficulty in letting it go.

If I sit with the experience and can maintain a sense of observer I may begin to see these layers for what they are.  Patterns of reaction and then further knock-on reactions that have much more to do with me than with the actions of the Volvo driver.

Self study in this instance might help me let go of the Volvo incident and calm down.  Over time I may spot such reactions more quickly and speed up the ‘letting it go’ process.

The study of the nature of self

The third area of exploration under the heading of Svadhyaya seems to me to be the one that has most relevance to the outcome translated by Hartranft as the ‘deepening of communion with one’s personal deity’.  This I think of as ‘the study of the nature of self’.  By self I mean this sense of ‘I-ness’ which is so central to my experience.  What is it, where is it, how does it change over time?

This has been for me a very challenging part of Svadhyaya as it leads me to question the very sense of who and what I hold myself to be.  Yet it seems important, partly because in II.3 Patanjali identifies I-ness as one of the five causes of human suffering (the Kleshas) and partly because a sense of ‘I’ seems so inherent to my experience which all seems to be about ‘me’ and ‘the world in which I find myself’.

Eyes crossed yet!? 

Well one more step.  For me (and a bit of reading reveals that I’m not alone in this finding!) this inquiry leads to a growing recognition that no permanent physical or mental location or state seems to be the definitive ‘I’.

How does this finding lead to a ‘deepening of communion with one’s personal deity’?

I guess it’s possible that the language used here by Patanjali simply reflects the cultural context of the author.  However, I suspect that Hartranft’s use of the term ‘personal deity’ opens the possibility that this is not necessarily about relating to an ethereal soul or archetypal god figure.  Such communion may also be framed in language more reminiscent of physics, poetry or psychology – unified fields, amazing grace, the collective unconscious etc.  It seems to me that any language I use here to describe the experience below or before ‘selfdom’ kicks in, is simply a finger pointing to the moon.  A very rough approximation of a sense of ‘being’.  Finding words to describe, or concepts to explain, that sense of being, inevitably removes me from the experience and I have to conceive of someone (my ‘self’) having the said experience.  So if all words are just a pointer to the experience why not ‘lost in love’, ‘lit up by the grace of god’, ‘touched by grace’ or any other evocative phrase.

I could say much more here.  About my own journey as well as of others who have felt drawn to write of their own experience.  About my glimpses of that ‘being state’.  The falling apart process that seems to have been part of the unravelling of half a lifetime of stories, mental constructs and body patterns.  The ongoing challenge to stay present and not look away, as yet another layer of beliefs peels away.  To embrace opposites such as joy and pain as part of the same journey.  To stay grounded and walk on, walk on.

But as Svadhyaya suggests, telling my story is not necessarily helpful to anyone else.  We each need to unravel our own stories, our own patterns of response that colour everything we experience.  Svadyaya in this context seems to point to a deeply personal exploration of a story shared intimately with everyone and everything.

Such exploration has certainly led me to a sense of communion.  I still prefer not to use the word ‘deity’ because of its connotations in human history.  But I confess, I do not have a satisfactory alternative.  All I can say, is that the sense of communion arises from an experience of being something far more expansive and inclusive than a human skin and the stories that converge into an individual lifetime.

This is part 8 of a 10-part invitation to inquiry centred on the yamas and niyamas described in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.  The full series is available at