This stepping onto our mat every day to practice is a serious endeavor. We should not take it lightly. The task is an important one: to transform ourselves. Yoga is a path towards self-realization. Coming to class is a good start, but that alone is not enough. An active effort is required constantly as we practice yoga 24 hours a day.
The second chapter of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (which is concerned with the practical actions of achieving yoga) begins
The practice of kriya yoga consists of:
tapas (enthusiasm), svādhyāya (self-study), and ishvara pranidhana (unshakeable faith and devotion to the sacred).
These are also three (of the five) niyamas (observances) of Ashtanga Yoga.
Each of these aspects are equally important if we are to succeed in our sadhana. Many students possess one of these, but they will not be transformed until they practice all three. Some have discipline, but do not study. Most have little devotion, which is the spark that sets us on fire and brings this yoga into the heart!
Sva means self
adhyāya means study or investigation
Svādhyāya helps us to know ourselves. Svādhyāya is an act of yoga. It has these two elements: studying the scriptures and chanting to gain divine wisdom; and reflection on one’s own inner self.
We begin by doing our āsana daily and observing the breath, body and mind. We study the practice, we listen to our teacher, we learn the sequence with correct vinyasa and drsti. We continue by chanting, studying the texts, allowing and giving space for wisdom to grow in us. Through studying the self we hope to dispel āvidya, spiritual ignorance (which is the first of the kleshas, afflictions). Without bringing this awareness to ourselves and without studying, the practice becomes rather useless in terms of awakening and we miss the whole point of it.
In the first two years of practice, it is advised to simply study yourself, the physical practice, your body, breath, mind and thoughts. Bring awareness to all of these things. After that (the part many students neglect) one should begin to study the yoga texts. I have noticed students who only focus on the first part of svādhyāya and not the second become a little too self-absorbed and lost in their minds. It is important to gain some broader higher knowledge to cultivate clarity of mind and true wisdom. Along with chanting, it will help you understand yourself and find devotion.
In “Yoga Mala” Sri K Pattabhi Jois defines svādhyāya as “the recital of Vedic verses and prayers in accordance with strict rules of recitation. Vedic hymns must be recited without damaging the artha (meaning) and Devata (deity) of a mantra through the use of a wrong swara (pitch) or the improper articulation of akshara (letter), pada (word), or varna (sentence)”. To chant correctly takes much study and work. But it pays off as noted in Patanjali Yoga Sutras II.44 “svādhyāyad ishtadevata samprayogah”: owing to the learning and application of personal mantras, there is union with (one’s) desired deity.
Ashtanga Yoga is a śrutiparamparā, which means it is passed down directly from guru to śisya, teacher to student. “Śrutiparamparā dates back to the Vedic period and has a tradition of approximately 5000 years. It evolved as the best means of preserving and transferring knowledge acquired by sages and scholars” according to Dr M A Jayashree of Mysore. It requires the student to listen and memorize. Śruti means listening, smrti is memory and paramparā is lineage. The onus is on the student to store what has been told them twice or thrice in their memory and apply it to their practice. This includes scriptures, chanting or the method of Ashtanga Yoga practice itself. These are very important skills to maintain if one wants to advance in their practice and on the spiritual path.
I have heard Sharath Jois, the current lineage holder of Ashtanga yoga, say:
“Svadhyaya means: The guru can’t make you climb up. If you want to learn how to climb a coconut tree, what do you do? Someone will tell you how to climb. He will try to push you as much as possible, as much as he can reach, and from there you should climb up. Your guru can’t push you all the way up. You have to put effort to climb the rest of the tree – to get the coconut. That putting [your own] effort is called svādhyāya.”
Not too different really from that age old proverb “you can take a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink”. The teacher can show you the path, you have to walk it and make the effort.
In his book “Asthanga Yoga Anusthana” Sharathji’s full explanation of svādhyāya is as follows:
“studying what we have learned from our teacher, not only trying to understand what has been said, but deepening that understanding and expanding our knowledge by reading manuscripts and thinking more about the subject we are learning. Self-study is to engage our mind, to further our studies. It is our duty to do our homework, to practice and review what the guru has said, to go deeper into whatever yoga subject we are learning, and in understanding and experiencing the self and the divine. The teacher cannot push, he or she can only guide. If he or she shares who Ganapati is, the remover of obstacles, it is up to the student to find out”.
Beyond merely studying, more is required. I remember a few seasons ago, Sharathji mentioned in conference in Mysore that although it is important to study the texts, they are meaningless if not practically applied to your daily life. Scholars are not necessarily sadhakas (spiritual aspirants). In India for example, there are an abundance of engineers and people studying to become them, but they cannot actually fix anything. There are also mechanics on the side of the road in small stalls that can change your tires or repair your scooter (or a myriad of other electrical appliances if you bring them to them). Sharathji advised us to “be the mechanic, not the engineer” in terms of approaching our practice and our studies.
Seekers of old historically had to go to great lengths to find the knowledge that is freely available to most yoga students these days. In fact, after struggling, walking for miles, climbing mountains spending years to find a guru they might even be turned away until they proved they were worthy of the knowledge. I recommend reading about the journey of Milarepa, the famous Buddhist practitioner, if one is in any doubt about the amount of effort sometimes necessary. When the first foreigner, Norman Allen, asked Pattabhi Jois to teach him Ashtanga yoga in Mysore (India), Guruji refused. It took some persistence for Norman to demonstrate he was a good person and deserving student before Pattabhi Jois would agree to instruct him.
I know in this social media age it is easy to take this all so flippantly and expect it to come to us, we are not willing to search for it. We expect our teacher to tell us everything and do everything for us, from getting us in to the postures we would like to attain to studying the texts for us (and emailing us the Cliffs Notes!).
When I discovered yoga, I journeyed to India for long periods and sought the silent simplicity of remote ashrams and caves, delving deeply into the heart, mind and philosophical aspects of the practice. I was inspired by my teachers in London who had travelled to India before airlines were so prolific, at a time when it took 6 weeks overland from the UK and was far more uncomfortable. One well known Ashtanga teacher (Rolf Naujokat) walked to India from Europe with his dog (I believe it took him 7 years). Talk about commitment and tapas!
In Los Angeles where “yoga” is served up conveniently at the nearest pristine studio with parking, facilities and little effort required, it is difficult to avoid complacency.
I urge you to study with enthusiasm and devotion, to read all of the relevant texts and find philosophy courses with authentic teachers who follow paramparā. Value each drop of the precious wisdom you find and the opportunity you have to discover it in this lifetime. Do not be passive about it. Of course, also be aware that this knowledge will not come suddenly or overnight. It comes from many years of sadhana and the guidance of a guru.
Verse 1.14 of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras “Sa tu dīrgha kāla nairantaraya satkārādarāsevito drdha bhūmih”: these practices should be carried out continuously, for a long time, with dedication and devotion. That is the firm foundation for restraining the fluctuations of the mind.
It takes many many years of daily practice with the right attitude of effort and surrender. There are no shortcuts to that. Even if you are bendy. Even if you are stiff. Even if you are an intellectual. It will still take many years for proper spiritual knowledge and wisdom to grow in you. Perhaps decades. It may take a lifetime of practice to reach the lofty goals of yoga, but it is possible within this lifetime. Have no doubt that magical things will happen if you try. It is an invaluable endeavor.
Never forget you are a seeker on a sacred and worthy quest. Do not waste this life…