Shanna Small from the Ashtanga Picture Project interviewed me on svadhyaya. This important term, that occurs several times in the Yoga Sutra is usually translated as ‘self-study’ but in yoga the term is narrowly defined and has important connotations.
Q: I, like many people, was told that, Svadhyaya simply meant self-study and that any studying we did of ourselves was self-study. Recently, It has come to my attention, that this is incorrect.
A: No idea how this rumor developed. “Any study of ourselves” sounds a bit like homemade psychoanalyzing. Yoga believes this is essentially not possible unless you are a very advanced practitioner and svadhyaya is a building block of kriya yoga, which means introductory yoga. So in introductory yoga we are expecting something very basic, simple and not something like being your own psychoanalyst.
Let’s have a look first how, according to yoga, we can arrive at the truth concerning ourselves, i.e. correctly perceiving ourselves (because that’s necessary to truly study yourself). In sutra 1.7 Patanjali states that correct perception (pramana) can be arrived at through three modes: direct perception (pratyaksha), deduction (anumana) and valid testimony (agama). Direct perception through the senses (so-called empirical data) in yoga is ruled out as a means for arriving at the truth. Yes, you heard that right. With one large sweep yoga rejects everything that Western Science is built on. Yoga says that the sensory data we perceive is incomplete and so warped by our perceptual biases and semiotics (biases inbuilt in language) that our view of the world is really only a view of what’s going on in our head. A lot of scientists have actually admitted that. So said for example the Polish mathematician Alfred Korzybski, “the map is not the territory”, meaning the map of the world that we have in our head is not identical with the real world out there. A similar thing was already said by nuclear physicist and Nobel price laureate Niels Bohr who stated that our laws of physics do not describe the world but only our knowledge of the world. He said this over 100 years ago but we still walk around claiming to know the world. Yoga says that the world can only be directly experienced through the state of samadhi but this is not the subject of svadhyaya (part of Introductory or Kriya Yoga) but of advanced yoga.
The second way of perceiving correctly is through deduction (anumana). Our quality of deduction depends on the make-up of our intelligence, which according to yoga is made-up of the three elementary particles sattva (information particle), tamas (mass particle) and rajas (energy particle). Tamas and rajas are slanting our ability to deduce towards dullness and frenzy respectively. The more we are overcome by either tamas or rajas the poorer our judgments and decisions. Advanced yoga is the process of purifying the intelligence from dullness and frenzy to that we can see clearly (sattva). Again this is not something included in svadhyaya and Introductory Yoga.
The third and final element of the correct-perception-triad is valid testimony (agama). It is of two kinds: testimony of the sacred scriptures and testimony of an expert. The expert testimony in our case falls pretty much flat. Until we have purified our intelligence we cannot discern who is an expert and who puts it on. As long as we have perceptual biases and subconscious needs we tend to project them on so-called and self-styled experts who often not before too long fall off their pedestals.
So of those many ways to arrive at the truth, in the beginner’s stage of yoga we can only really rely on the study of the sacred texts.
Q: That Svadhyaya is actually study of ourselves in relation to Yogic scriptures and the teachings of the student’s chosen lineage.
A: Rishi Vyasa, the historical commentator on the Yoga Sutra, stated that svadhyaya needs to be done through study of the sacred texts and through meditation on the sacred syllable OM. In all of my decades of study and practice I have never come across the ‘chosen lineage’ bit.
Let’s have a closer look at why the ancient sage Vyasa suggests meditating on OM is important. In the Yoga Sutra Patanjali says by repeating OM and contemplating its meaning inversion of the mind is achieved and the obstacles do not arise (1.28-29). Inversion of the mind is important so that the mind gives up its constant looking for sensory stimulus outside but “is reabsorbed into the heart”, as the Upanishads poetically call it. The obstacles, of which sutra 1.30 lists nine are what keeps you from practicing and succeeding in due time.
But what is OM and why could it have this effect? Here is a passage from my 2015 text Samadhi The Great Freedom that makes it clear:
“In sutra I.27 Patanjali says that God’s expression is the sacred syllable OM. Some yoga scholars argue that Patanjali does not subscribe to the idea that God created the world. May they be blessed! He actually says much more. He says that there is nothing but God!
When pronouncing the sound OM we are sitting down and hum more or less. That’s why some commentators who read this sutra simply imagine a person (in this case Ishvara), who admittedly is immortal and all-knowing, but still sitting in the corner humming. This is not what OM means. OM means OMnipresnt, OMniscient, and OMnipotent. It is the roar the electrons make when circling around atomic nuclei, it is the thunder of Higgs Boson particles crashing into each other in the Large Hadron Collider. It is the first cry of all babies ever born and the sound of the last exhalation that you will release on your deathbed. It is the sound of our sun exploding into a supernova four or five billions years from now when it supposedly will incinerate our beautiful planet Earth. It is the sound of the paradise bird at sunrise and the sound of the Titanic hitting its iceberg. It is the sound of Beethoven’s ninth symphony and of the gunshot that killed Martin Luther King. It is the sound of the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima and of Luis Armstrong’s “What a beautiful world”. It’s the song of the lover in rapture and the lie of the politician. It is the cracking of tectonic plates shifting, the sound of all rivers rushing towards the ocean, it is the sound of all your moments of guilt, shame, fame, glory, love and defeat combined with that of all beings that ever existed and ever shall be. It is the sound of wind, fire, water earth and space. It is the silence of the Buddha under the Bodhi tree and the voice of Jesus saying, “Lazarus, come forth”. It is the sound of that one humongous intelligence that transforms itself into everything but miraculously even in that process is never changed. It is everything. Our rise and our demise as an entire civilization, everything that we know, that we don’t know yet and what we will never know is OM. Knowledge of all civilizations that have been, scattered through space, and all those that will still come is still OM. All matter and all forms of energy are nothing but vibratory patterns of that one presence that is everywhere in everything and expresses itself through everything as everything. That one presence expresses itself as kinetic energy, as potential energy, as electrical energy and as magnetism. It is the alpha and the omega, the beginning, the middle and the end of all phenomena and beings. It is “Be still and know that I am God”.
Yoga is experiential. OM must be experienced and it’s meaning cannot be inferred from scholars speculating on words. Once OM is experienced the realization dawns that there never was, never is and never will be anything real that is not God. “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God.” That is the true meaning of OM. By means of this primordial vibratory pattern the Divine transforms itself to become the phenomena, the material universe and all beings. With this sutra Patanjali says there’s nothing but God. It is not something that can intellectually be understood. It must be experienced so closely that ones hair stands, ones breath stops and ones heart wants to jump out of ones chest.”
Q: What is your understanding of Svadhyaya?
A: It means to invert the mind, that is to train the mind to look for solutions not in the outer world but inside, that is to seek the consciousness, the self.
Q: Can a student just study themselves and not study scriptures or have a Guru and become awakened? If so, why is the study of the scriptures and the Guru’s teachings important in Svadhyaya?
A: Svadhyaya has only very indirectly to do with awakening. The term occurs prominently in the first stanza of the second chapter of the Yoga Sutra. Each chapter of the Yoga Sutra was addressed to a different student and each sutra is an answer to a particular question of the student to which the chapter is addressed. The four chapters of the Yoga Sutra are reflective of the fact that Patanjali had four students.
The first chapter is addressed to the most advanced student. It is an Indian tradition to work with the most advanced student first, get them out of the door (possibly so that they can teach themselves) and then only deal with the remaining students.
The second chapter is addressed to the most novice student. After having to listen to the first chapter (the chapter on samadhi) without understanding what it was about he asked along the lines of, “What if all of this went straight over my head?” An important question. Patanjali’s answer was the sutra 2.1; “In this case we start with Introductory Yoga (kriya yoga) which consists of simplicity (tapas), inversion of mind (svadhyaya) and placing yourself into the service of the Divine (ishvara pranidhana).
It is obvious now that we are very far away from awakening (otherwise this student would have understood the first chapter) and we are now looking for a simple, basic and alternative approach. The answer is to cut out of your life whatever is not absolutely necessary and important (tapas), to invert the mind and look for solutions in the innermost sanctum of our being (svadhyaya), and to place yourself into the service of a higher intelligence to receive guidance from it. The three together constitute the most powerful kick-starter and crash course in yoga possible.
Q: What scriptures should a student study and why?
A: If the student has a historical approach to knowledge then the so-called Itihasa are best. These are the Mahabharata, the Ramayana and the Yoga Vasishta. I recommend complete editions rather than abridgements.
If the student has an emotional, bhakta-type personality then the Puranas are best. There are many different Puranas relating to different aspects of the Divine.
For philosophical-rationally inclined students the sutras, such as Yoga Sutra, Brahma Sutras or Samkhya Karika are preferred.
Mystically inclined students may turn towards the Upanishads of which there are over 100 but the early ones are considered a good starting point.
Technically inclined students are best to focus on the Tantras, including the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Goraksha Shataka, Hatha Tatva Kaumudi and Vijnana Bhairava. There are over 800 Tantras. A broad approach would take all of these classes of texts into consideration but not at the same time but sequentially.
Finally, it must be said that the Indian and yogic culture is not the only keeper of such knowledge. In fact, the knowledge of inner freedom was handed down in such diverse cultures such as the Maya, Sufi, Hebrew, Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan, Native American and many more. From a certain point of progress the yogic student would benefit to consult those ones as well. Initially such broad approach would be too confusing, though.