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Natural Awakenings Atlanta

Svadhyaya: Questions for Yogic Self-Study

Jan 01, 2023 06:00AM ● By Graham Fowler
[This article was originally printed 12/2019.—Ed.]

Like so many others in our yoga community, I am in the process of a major life transition. 
It is a fertile time for the yoga practice of svadhyaya, or self-study, the fourth niyama in Patanjali’s eightfold path of yoga. If you, too, are at such a juncture—or would like to be—I offer this exploration of svadhyaya. 

Svadhyaya is a multilayered practice that has implications for every aspect of life, from gross to subtle to subtlest. Innocent curiosity can lead to insights and new choices about how you want to meet the world. Using questions to trigger svadhyaya, the following can be a guide through your inner exploration.

“The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you. Don’t go back to sleep.” ~ Rumi

Some people are content with a cookie-cutter existence until they are suddenly awakened—or gripped—by an epiphany in nature. Or a soulful encounter with someone new. Or divorce, midlife crisis, or the loss of a loved one.

Such awakenings are pivotal. People either react with ingrained patterns and go back to sleep, or, upon examining their life, they see how they have contorted their lives to fit someone else’s expectations. When such an upheaval awakens, something powerful and sacred happens. 

 “There’s only one life you can call your own and a thousand others you can call by any name you want.” ~ David Whyte

That “one” life that waits beyond all the others can be terribly elusive. How do you feel about the trajectory of your life?

Too often our life assessment is the product of the opinions, fears, beliefs, judgments and attitudes that we have taken on from family, teachers, friends, colleagues and the media. Some of it is useful—even vital. Some of it just barely works. The result? A life like a thousand others. 

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves...” ~ Rilke

Deep Listening

Be sure to carve out some space in your life for some deep listening. The following questions can be helpful prompts for your svadhyaya. Choose one question at a time and then drop into a space of deep listening. Sometimes the answer is just waiting to reveal itself and sometimes it needs to germinate. If that is the case, let the question “work on” you rather than the other way around. Give it time. Keep a journal nearby to jot down your insights.

• What phase of your life is coming to an end now?

• What new phase of your life is getting ready to be born?

• Consider a major pattern or habit that keeps showing up in your life. How does it serve you?
How does it interfere with the life you can call your own? What new choice does your soul want you to make about this pattern? 

• What do you say to yourself when you talk to yourself? If you have negative self-talk, once a thought materializes, can you head it off at the pass with a more life-supportive thought? 

• To what or whom have you relinquished your power? What has been the payoff? What did you get for giving your power away? At what cost?

• What masks do you present to the world? To yourself? How do they serve you? Is there a deeper truth waiting behind that mask?

On and Off the Yoga Mat

1. Results of your practice

• At the conclusion of your practice, do you usually feel uplifted? Connected? Harmonious? Alive? 
 • Or do you feel dull, depleted, out of gas or prone to anger? 

2. Relationship with your body 
Practice a standing pose for svadhyaya when exploring these questions:

• Should I direct more effort? If so, where in my body should I direct it?
• Where in my body is the struggle in this pose? 
• Can I take a breath, exhale, and unclench? 
• Where can I be more stable in this pose? More open?
• Would lengthening or shortening the length of my stride enhance stability or openness for more balance in this pose?

3. Connecting the dots
How can the above questions relate to your posture in life after your practice? 

4. Relationship with the “edge”
The implications of this question are huge both on and off the mat.

The edge in a yoga pose is that place where any more is too much and any less is not enough. It’s very useful to explore and learn where the edge is and how to be with it. 

• Do you always play it safe? Very safe? 
• Or, on a scale of 1 to 10, do you always push for 11? 
• Where do you tend to be on that spectrum? 
• Where else does it show up in your life? 
• How is that tendency serving you? 
• How is it holding you back? 

5. Relationship with the breath
Breath is your link to all the parts of you. 

• Can you feel how and where your body receives and moves with the breath? And where it doesn’t? 
• Off the mat, can you set a timer to remind you to check in with your posture and breath throughout the day?

Who Are You?

The answer to this—life’s most important question—cannot be found in any book, philosophy or app. The deepest teachings in yoga are teachings in silence. 

The pinnacle of svadhyaya is attained effortlessly, not by any cognitive process, but by a simple technique of deep meditation, by which awareness gradually comes to know its essential nature, which is much deeper, greater and more authentically you than personality. 

Traditionally called “self-realization,” it’s the absolute goal of yoga. When stabilized through the daily alternation of deep meditation and life-supporting activity, we can begin, at last, to blissfully discover who and what we are. 

Once touched, it is never forgotten. Once stabilized, it is never lost. It is truly the “one life you can call your own.” ❧

 “When the mind has settled, we are established in our true nature, unbounded.” ~ Yoga Sutras 1:3

Graham Fowler, a former yoga editor for this publication, provides private instruction of deep meditation drawing from an unbroken 49-year daily practice and formal study with several world masters of meditation. He also teaches yoga at Peachtree Yoga Center. Contact him at [email protected].
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