The Yoga Sutra-s, one of the oldest texts explicitly about yoga, states that a practitioner must have three skills to practice “kriya yoga.” In later texts and times this phrase takes on other meanings, but here it is a form of dedicated practice. The things that will keep you practicing yoga, and the things that will help you continue on your own path are svadhyaya, tapas, and ishvara pranidhana.
This post is about the first of these three, svadhyaya or “self-study”… I remember once teaching the idea of svadhyaya, self-study, and watching someone visually recoil at the idea. I was surprised by such a strong response to something that I value so greatly. I spoke to the students about their feelings toward the topic and the aversion became clear.
When you turn inward and deeply examine your words, thoughts, and behaviors, you sometimes find things you don’t like. That is not always a pleasant experience. For some people, the experience is so unpleasant, they would rather do anything than look inward. As I sat with this feedback from my students, I began to reflect on how people alter their recollections of past events, re-frame their perspectives in retrospect to be something else, or even lie to themselves and others to avoid facing what may have occurred. I’ve thought about people who rely on excuses and shifting blame rather than staying true to personal accountability in times of difficulty. I reflected on my own behaviors and the many emotional responses that arose over the years when I have examined my own actions.
In my teens I relied on writing to sort through my internal noise. I was especially attracted to poetic forms, and while in high school a customer brought a poem into the copy shop where I worked that resonated a great deal with me: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.” At 16 I was still unfamiliar with twelve-step programs, so I did not yet know how significant this prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr was to many others. The poem continues into a second, less well-known stanza that relates to other ideas in kriya-yoga, but the part quoted here was the one that stayed with me most.
For much of my life I have swirled these words around in my mouth as though attempting the most detailed discernment at a wine tasting. Acceptance has never come easily to me because I have witnessed it become a tool to be abused by others, something I mention in a prior post. I have generally always followed the ‘courageous’ path to a fault, occasionally banging my head against a wall in a pointless effort to bring it down. Although “wise beyond her years” is a phrase that has been applied to me on occasion, “possesses the wisdom to know the difference” never has. For more than half of my life I have struggled to cultivate this wisdom and continue to revisit it regularly.
It is only through self-study that my habitual patterns, instincts, and tainted perspectives can be overcome. While sometimes looking at the events or choices that lead to these views and behaviors is not always fun, it is a vitally important part of my process, like sucking poison out of a snakebite. What makes it most challenging for us all, I think, is how often I myself have been the snake that bit me. Like any challenging task, however, it depends on the perspective one takes into it and the degree to which one practices it.
If you have been practicing yoga with our studio for a while, you have hopefully begun to cultivate an attitude of patience and forgiveness with yourself if you did not already have one. Imagine your asana practice: perhaps when you first came to the studio you pushed yourself to do a “good job” (whatever that means). Perhaps you compared yourself to other students, used negative self-talk to shame yourself into improvement, or just felt disappointed in yourself for some silly thing or another. Perhaps you had a minor injury and pushed through the pain, only to have it sideline you and hold your progress back.
Internal yoga is much the same. Many of my students who shy way from self-study do so because their inner roommate discourages them. They find the act of looking inward and seeing past injuries too harmful. They find examining their own errors too humiliating. They would rather wipe the slate clean and start from today. Unfortunately, that isn’t how things work.
If you are reading this, you are not a tabula rasa, a blank slate ready for fresh, new writings. (Even if I believed we were born blank, arguably antithetical to yoga, you obviously have a higher reading level than a baby. Q.E.D.) You are instead in medias res, a story that has a past and a future that we are popping into right in the middle. A meditative practice allows you to see your identity as independent of this time stream of events and external conditioning while allowing you to examine their relations and how You, whoever that is, fit into it all.
Just as an asana practice can reveal traces and impressions of your past as written in your body, whether a rainy day twang from a skiing accident 20 years ago, or a sprained ankle from last year that hasn’t quite recovered completely, an internal practice can help you with your self-awareness and a steady and sustainable progression toward whatever or whoever you want to become.
Like any long, winding, intricate story, there are twists and turns in the events of your life. Things that seemed “bad” at the time were necessary to get you here today, and the “good” that followed could not have been possible without it, nor would it have tasted as sweet. Things that seem “good” at the time can decay or transform, sometimes turning into deeply disappointing experiences or mournful moments grieving the loss of an expected future or a joyful past.
All of it, the full catastrophe, is merely part of your story, each moment, person, or detail: for want of a nail, the kingdom was lost, and yet England still stands after the fall of Richard III. If one examines their story from the stance of participant, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune can still sting. If one reads his or her personal experience as an epic tale criss-crossing with others, suddenly each moment has purpose and value outside of the individualized and personalized process of self-inflicted value judgement.
In self-study, the yoga practitioner approaches without judgement or ego to examine what is there exactly as it is. Asana and pranayama are techniques to help cultivate awareness without i-am-ness, to tune the student into their inner observer who is undisturbed by the comings and goings of events. This attitude and viewpoint is what protects students from falling into old patterns of blame, shame, and pain. (There are other emotions as well, but they didn’t near-rhyme and weren’t nearly as catchy.)
In order to begin a svadhyaya practice, the yoga student must approach with understanding and compassion. Sometimes it is far more challenging to be understanding and forgiving of your own actions. In a prior post I mentioned pratipaksha bhavana, the practice of cultivating opposite thoughts when you deviate from your ideals and values. This idea is a part of the process of self-study as well. You are not looking to dwell in past, painful memories, but rather to observe patterns and behaviors that do not serve you or are inconsistent with who you want to be. When approached from this perspective, whatever you find inside is just something to be sorted as part of a spring cleaning.
Several texts have helped me gain this sort of perspective when I have found troubling thoughts in my mind. In Yoga for Anxiety, by Mary and Rick NurrieStearns, they advise that frequently we have written additional stories around events that were simply misunderstandings. Think of times when you have approached a situation from one perspective only to find out later you were wrong. This isn’t a cause to mentally berate yourself, but rather a time to acknowledge that sometimes human beings have to operate without all the facts, do the best we can, and that we are occasionally unskillful. When sitting with a memory that is especially painful or while examining a story of Self that may be false, they advise using the mantra, “Such an innocent misunderstanding!”
Daring Greatly by Brene Brown raises the issue of cultural shame and its influence on our decisions. In it, the author suggests that we have become culturally conditioned to fear vulnerability and making mistakes as a result of a public culture of shaming by parents, schoolmates, employers, and officials. She makes a distinction between shame, something externally applied to an individual in order to exert power over their behavior, from guilt, the internal emotion experienced when the individual is not behaving in a way they believe is appropriate. She argues that shame has lead to a fear of being vulnerable and of making mistakes, despite the fact that mistakes are inevitable and a necessary part of innovation, creativity, and self-transformation.
One of my friends once told me that she doesn’t like stories of missed communications. At the time she said it I thought both “how oddly specific” and at the same time how they have always created discomfort in me. Many people know (as mandated by our public school system) how Romeo and Juliet’s communications were “star-crossed.” If only the messenger had arrived on time… those fictional Italians would still not be alive today! Similarly I’ve always been unsettled by Sleeping Beauty, the story of a social faux pas leading to trauma for an entire kingdom. The reason for the curse in most versions was an uninvited guest who felt insulted. In some early versions, she was uninvited because everyone thought she was dead or no longer present. In the version I first heard, her invitation was sent but lost in transit. Such tragedies over such innocent misunderstandings!
So it is with us, here in the middle of our respective and intertwined stories. Many of us have followed paths as a direct result of innocent misunderstandings, unspoken or lost communications, or reactions instead of responses. To err is human, we say, but we have confused the idea of errare, to go astray, innocently meandering off the path, withculpare, to blame. We confuse an event or observation, which possesses neither good nor bad itself, with our personal perspective that colors the observation with an opinion and judgement.
As part of our new year, I invite you to begin a svadhyaya practice, taking some time each day to reflect on who you are, who you have been, who you are becoming, and how many of these ways in which you identify your sense of Self may in fact just be small facets of a much bigger gemstone. When you find an experience so ingrained in your sense of Self that it begins to upset you, take some time sitting in the discomfort using whatever texts, words, phrases, breathing or physical practices that help you find your center.
Take breaks and return, sitting with whatever you find until it no longer disturbs you. Uncolor your thoughts through compassionate examination and observation without judgement. Even if the process sometimes feels a bit like being caught in a rock tumbler, make a commitment to work toward personal clarity so that in moments of enlightenment and illumination, light shines into and through you until you gleam brilliantly in all directions.