svadhyaya, self study

Svadhyaya: Know Thyself


In Ancient Greece, in the heart of the city of Delphi, stood the Temple of Apollo. It was home to the Oracle: A woman, who it was believed, could answer any question given to her. From across the Mediterranean, statesmen and kings would come to seek her counsel. No colony was founded without her consent. No battle fought without her input. No crop planted without her guidance.

She was the all-knowing.

Upon entering the mystical sanctuary of the Oracle, those who came to consult with her would pass beneath a gateway of stone into which two words were carved. Legend has it that these two words were chosen as a command for all seekers:

Gnothi Seauton:  Know Thyself

There is a similar concept in the ancient yoga texts: Svadhyaya.  Sva means self.  Adhyaya means reading or lesson.  Svadhyaya means the reading of one’s self or self-study.

On the surface, most of us feel like we know ourselves. But when you begin a yoga practice, suddenly you start to become aware of parts of your body you may not have felt before. You see the impact breathwork can have. You start to notice that certain foods make you feel great, and others, not so great. You begin to observe the difference between your thoughts and the reactions you have to them. And maybe you begin to feel glimpses of peace and joy. It’s at that stage that the journey to know yourself can sometimes stop, as in an effort to maintain that feeling of peace, you avoid things that ‘bring you down’ or close your eyes to the uncomfortable things happening around you.

Yoga asks us to get to know who we really are, even the deepest, darkest parts. The uncertainty and difficulty over the last two years have taught us much about ourselves, both individually and collectively. It takes great courage to stand and face the things that disturb us, but most of us will come to know ourselves best by moving through life with dirty hands, open eyes, and receptive hearts, and by addressing the very things we’d rather turn away from.

This is where practice comes in. When we are committed to practice, our mat sometimes feels like a peaceful haven to rest in, and other times feels like a cauldron where our discomforts, disappointments, and destructive habits bubble to the surface. In reality, it’s both of those things.

Yoga is not an escape or a way of balancing out the rest of our lives. What we gain from practice over time is awareness, compassion, and a new capacity to love and accept ourselves. When partnered with a deeply felt sense of connection to the world around us, the fruits of svadhyaya create the inner spaciousness necessary for true understanding, and a more benevolent way of being in the world

© Julie Smerdon 2021

Photo:  Pete Longworth

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