The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali is a guidebook of classical, or rāja (royal) yoga, featuring a collection of aphorisms guiding behavior and offering contemplations for yoga practitioners. In this book, Patañjali outlines an 8-fold path of yoga, and a selection of observances called the yamas and the niyamas.
One of the niyamas is svādhyāya, “study of the True Self.” To understand this concept, it helps to know another underlying concept of the yoga philosophy: our personalities are created out of our reactions to life events, but inside, we have a True Self—a spirit, or a consciousness, that is untouched by our likes and dislikes in this world. For example, as a child you might have hated asparagus, and as an adult, your palate changed—and now you find asparagus delicious. Your opinion changed. The consciousness that has always been with you to witness these changes in opinion did not change, because it is pure and constant.
We all come to yoga from different religious and cultural backgrounds, and some of us are not comfortable working with the concept of “spirit” —so it might be helpful to think of the True Self as being “consciousness,” or the “best within” oneself. For example, when I am being my Best Self it’s easy to be patient, because I’m not “sweating the small stuff,” and I care about others. When I am wrapped up in my own personality, I might be quick to be impatient—because “I” want what “I” want. “I,” “me,” “mine” are all expressions of ahamkara—attachment to ego.
Interestingly, I often hear yoga teachers defining svādhyāya as self-examination, observing the thoughts and feelings, or personal inquiry. But if you look at the commentary of the sutras, translators quite clearly state svādhyāya is not that.
Next comes svādhyāya, or study. This means study that concerns the True Self, not merely analyzing the emotions and mind as psychologists and psychiatrists do. Anything that will elevate your mind and remind you of your True Self should be studied: the Bhagavad Gita, The Bible, The Koran, these Yoga Sutras, or any uplifting scripture. Study does not just mean passing over the pages. It means trying to understand every word—studying with the heart.
—The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: Translation and Commentary by Sri Swami Satchidananda, Sutra 2:1
“Study,” in the context of this aphorism, means study of the scriptures and of other books which deal with the spiritual life. It also refers to the practice of japam, the repetition of the name of god
—How to Know God: The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali: Commentary by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood, Sutra 2:1
Based on these expert commentaries, it seems that svādhyāya means “study of wisdom traditions and practices that point our minds to the best within us.” Svādhyāya helps to elevate our minds and create states of sweetness within.
Inquiry into our own thought processes is not technically svādhyāya. Inquiry is observation of the behaviors and thoughts we’ve developed in our personalities. However, personal inquiry and svādhyāya really go together. When we read the sutras, or other uplifting texts, we look at our thoughts and behaviors. When we reflect on our thoughts and behaviors, we seek to align them with our Best Selves.
Personal inquiry is an important part of the spiritual process, and maybe it’s not highlighted enough in Patañjali system. The concept is certainly a theme in the sutras—but it doesn’t have its own line item in the yamas and niyamas. Perhaps that is why svādhyāya is colloquially being defined as inquiry. We need it. Developing a witness consciousness and observing our thoughts and behaviors helps us to discover our knee-jerk reactions that sometimes get in our own way. When we gain awareness through witnessing, we can make different choices in the future. This is also a basic component of learning to meditate. Observing what comes up, and maintaining a calm, steady attitude is part of the process of mindfulness meditation.
Svādhyāya –the study of our wisdom lineage–and personal inquiry are both important parts of the spiritual journey, and they go hand-in-hand. As teachers, we should be incorporating both into our personal practices. When discussing these concepts with our students, we should honor the philosophy we hold so dear by explaining concepts accurately, and with some of the original context. This can only help to contribute to clarity and understanding in the yoga community, and develop connection and trust with students.