The second branch in the Eight Branches of Yoga are the Niyamas. Svadhyaya is the practice of self study. In a Yoga Teacher Training, self study is emphasized because it helps the future teacher deepen their practice. In order for one to share yoga, one must have a continuous, deepening study of their own yoga practice. Svadhyaya is even helpful to casual practitioners of yoga. It can help you increase your self-understanding on and off the mat.
Here are seven ways to apply svadhyaya to improve your yoga practice and your life:
1. Study your body in the poses
Yoga means union. Many practitioners mean this means the union between mind, body, and soul. When your mind starts connecting with your body in each asana it strengthens the union between your body and your mind. This can start by truly feeling what goes on in each pose and how you move to each one. When you’re in table top and getting ready to go into Cat, don’t just get into the pose. Feel your lower abdominal muscles scoop towards your spine so your tailbone begins to tuck, followed by the entire spine. When you start to truly feel your body in each pose, you’ll become aware of things going on inside of you that you hadn’t noticed before. You’ll feel connected to your body and realize how many wonderful things it can do for you.
2. Express gratitude for yourself
When studying how your body moves into each pose, it’s important to express gratitude. If you’re looking in the mirror you may start to think you’re seeing flaws. For example, for a while I was not a fan of my legs. I felt my thighs were too big. One of my yoga teachers would remind us at the end of class to thank our legs for being strong and holding us up. It’s SO important to remember all the amazing things your body does for you! Your muscles support you in challenging poses. Your organs are constantly working to keep you alive. Your bones hold you up. Your spinal fluid sends and receives messages to keep everything going. After deepening your practice by studying how each part of you feels in each pose, thank your body. It may feel odd at first, but over time your relationship with your physical body will become more positive and filled with love. By default, your overall self confidence will increase.
3. Study the mind in meditation
When we first come to meditation, it’s easy to think that you cannot think of anything, that the mind must be blank. But by only focusing on how thoughtless the mind must be, we miss the point of meditation. First, it’s important to study the mind and the energy in the body. It helps to do this in a passive manner, whatever thoughts or feelings come up are okay. What do you feel? What do you see when you close your eyes? All of these things are okay. Welcome each thought and understand that it is only a thought. Thoughts come and go, they drift in and out of our minds. Practice a soothing pranayama. Take a slow breath in with the nose, and sigh it out with the mouth. Let your thoughts flow through your mind like prana flows through your body. If something stressful or negative comes up in your meditation, acknowledge it as something you will deal with off the mat. Your intuition will start to tell you things as you study the mind in meditation.
4. Notice and reflect on how you react to things on the mat
Being mindful about how you react to things on your mat is so important to your practice. When you try a challenging pose in class and you fall, how do you feel? Do you get frustrated and give up? Or do you use it as an opportunity to keep working hard at this asana? Are you able to even attempt the pose or does fear stop you? This used to happen to me in my practice. I was too afraid to release control to try inversions like headstands, shoulder stands, and handstands. I was so scared I would fall over and hurt myself. One day I kept trying, forgetting about my fears, and I ended up flipping over and falling! And guess what? Nothing happened. It didn’t even hurt. Now I love practicing inversions.
5. Reflect on how your mind reacts to things in your life off the mat
By noticing our thoughts and emotions in meditation, it becomes easier to notice how they impact us in our everyday life, especially as we interact with people around us. Notice how you react to things during the day. When you make a wrong turn, do you beat yourself up? Or do you use it as an opportunity to find a new way to where you’re going? When someone notices one of your flaws do you get defense? Or do you choose to use it as an opportunity to grow to become a better person? When you feel bummed out do you wallow in your sadness? Or do you use it as an opportunity to cultivate your own joy? By noticing your reactions to things you may find that there are opportunities to increase more positive things in your life.
6. Write a list of wishes/intentions in the present tense
We all have wishes and dreams for the future. These are our intentions. When working on svadhyaya, we should cultivate the intentions we have for ourselves and manifest them. The first step is to write down your intentions in the present tense. If you are striving for success in your career perhaps you will write, “I am successful in achieving the promotion.” Write your wishes down, meditate on them, and take action.
7. Embrace the journey
Perhaps the most important thing to learn about svadhyaya is that it is a never ending journey. There is limitless knowledge inside of you. Enjoy learning about the most fascinating thing in your world: you!