One thing I love about the Yoga Sutras is the emphasis it places on personal experience and discovery. While Patanjali covers very lofty concepts and mind-altering perspectives, he also lays out these ideas in a very accessible way, inviting the student to put these theories into practice. And although much has changed since Patanjali’s time, the universal truths he outlines are just as relevant for us to practice now as they were then – maybe even more so.
At the start of section 2 of the Yoga Sutras, there is a brief mention of Kriya Yoga, the yoga of action. Unlike some schools of yoga (such as Tantra, Bhakti, or Hatha), Kriya Yoga doesn’t really have additional texts that expand upon Patanjali’s view. (I’m not counting the Wikipedia article. It references much more modern teachers than what I’m talking about here.) Kriya Yoga appears as almost an aside, a brief nod to another approach, before he goes back into detailing the 8-limbed path. Nevertheless, the yoga of action can be a powerful access to progressing your practice, especially as it exists primarily off the mat. Like the rest of Patanjali’s teachings, Kriya Yoga aims to eliminate the obstacles we have to seeing truly, and helping us integrate with something greater than ourselves.
Specifically, Kriya Yoga is made up of three elements: tapas (discipline or heat), svadhyaya (Self study or study of ancient texts), and isvara pranidhana (surrender to pure awareness). While combining these ingredients seems to bake a simple cake, keep in mind that sanskrit is a language rich with depth. I liken it to a quote from one of my favorite authors, Patrick Rothfuss: “[the language of] Aturan was like a wide, shallow pool; it had many words, all very specific and precise. Ademic was like a deep well. There were fewer words, but they each had many meanings.” (The Wise Man’s Fear, p745). Granted, Rothfuss is comparing two non-existent languages in a fantasy world, but the more I learn about sanskrit (which I do not speak), the more it seems to fall into the second, Ademic category: full, deep, and meaningful concepts can be disguised by seemingly simple words.
So although there are only three components of Kriya Yoga, if we keep our cake metaphor, those ingredients somehow manage to create a seven-layer, filling, delicious dessert that you might have trouble swallowing without a chaser. Seriously – you could practice for a lifetime and still unearth new levels of experience. This month, we’re focusing on (some of) the interpretations of svadhyaya, so grab your water glass.
Svadhyaya is most often translated as self-study, and shows up in the niyamas (internal disciplines) as well as in Kriya Yoga. This type of self study includes noticing our thoughts, actions, words, and reactions, rather than moving carelessly through life. How well do you know yourself, really? How often do you question where your perception of events influences your relation to reality? When you hear yourself thinking, have you ever analyzed what that sounds like? Where it comes from? What it likes/dislikes/ignores?
One of my favorite practices to try on when approaching this aspect of svadhyaya is noticing the automatic opinions seeded in your language. In my classes, I invite people to notice if their default thought is real, or if it’s a judgement call. There are layers of difference between the following three examples:
“I hate this pose, I can’t do it, my knee sucks.”
“This pose is hard, I don’t like it because my knee hurts.”
“I’m noticing I’m reacting to this pose; my knee feels strained on the inner side when I get to this point.”
…Can you hear the differences? The levels of observation? The neutrality of observational language instead of opinionated language?
This observation alone has layers and layers to explore. Moving from not noticing you have a voice that comments on your life, to distinguishing observations from opinions, to staying in a neutral space – you can keep unraveling, but it never seems to end. Watching how you tackle poses in yoga is one aspect, but what do you notice out in your life? How do your opinions and habits of thinking affect your relationships? Your work life? Your hobbies?
Despite this first, layered aspect, svadhyaya has more to offer. It can also be translated as “moving towards the Self” – note that capital S – which is a distinct shift of focus. One of the primary tenents of Yoga is that we have forgotten who/what our true Self is. So how much are we gaining, really, by only studying the self that moves through this world, talking and thinking? It’s necessary, yes, but don’t allow yourself to be trapped in a box, analyzing the walls’ decorations instead of learning to open the lid. As you get more familiar with the little-s self, you’ll find its flaws and limitations; remember that there’s something deeper, something bigger, a big-S Self to discover and experience.
I believe this approaching of Self goes hand in hand with a third translation of svadhyaya, “studying the ancient texts,” because it is those ancient texts (like the Yoga Sutras) which lay out the pathway to full realization, ie connecting to the Self. In essence, much like Buddha encouraged his students to try things on for themselves before accepting his word, I interpret this aspect of svadhyaya as comparing your personal experience of practice to the teachers who have gone before you.
Certain texts stand the test of time, inviting interpretations and a deeper understanding every time you read them. Many of these texts have a religion or philosophical following; I personally believe some fictional stories can also contain life lessons that are teased out over many perusals. When Patanjali was writing, he likely was referring to studying the ancient Vedic texts, although the Sutras clearly became one such guide in the journey towards the Self.
In taking the time to study, rather than simply read, these works, we have an opportunity to alter and adjust our understanding and interpretations. Even in studying our selves, or our Self, we can find the same phenomenon. We are invited in Kriya Yoga to apply our awareness, our focus, to layer after layer of discernment, teasing out more of the truth as we understand it before comparing it to what our teachers say lies ahead. It is a personal journey in the truest sense, because you are the only one with you all the time; the only one who can embark on such a deep, personal dive.
And don’t we need that study, that svadhyaya, now more than ever? Our world is growing ever more noisy, ever more distracting. We have more choices and challenges than any people before us, and with a very different level of impact. Nuances are arising that previous generations couldn’t imagine having to deal with – ethical comportment in online business; gender identity; technological burnout. The more we know our selves, and the sooner we remember to connect to our Self, the better we’ll be able to handle the social climate of today.
Ironically, it is in going more inward that we increase our capacity to deal with the outer world. I believe that the more we do, the less we reflect; and the less we know ourselves, the more we use doing as a distraction. Where will you start? Where can you study, intently, who you are? To what level are you willing to take action to progress towards your Self?