by Morgan Webert
When I look back at the nearly 15 years of yoga practice I’ve done and think about how and why it’s impacted my life, I see that behind every positive change and transformation has been the process of getting to know myself better.
I had a friend this week mention she’d love to see what she would have turned out like without following a yoga path, and how different she might be. We speculated on how much of our growth came from our yoga practice and how much was just a natural result of maturity.
We don’t have a special time machine to find out, but when I look at my life and my peers or friends I went to school with I see some clear themes. Some people seem comfortable with who and how they express themselves in the world, be it as a lawyer, IT expert, chef, artist, surfer bum, mom etc, and others who seem “trapped” or “stuck” in their lives.
To no surprise there’s a health correlation; people comfortable in their expression of life often are healthier than those who seem trapped. And, whether they’ve stepped foot on a yoga mat before or not, the people who are comfortable with how they express themselves in life also share in common a strong sense of self.
I personally have been stuck, lost, insecure and unhealthy in my life so many times it’s not even funny (just ask my mother). And, aside from having an amazing mother to talk to, my yoga practice continually gave me a format to look at myself and my situation from a bigger perspective, and from that perspective find my path out of confusion and into clarity.
The truth is, it still does. Confusion, or avidya as it’s called in Sanskrit, is just part of the human condition, and yoga is a practice because we face the same issues again and again. Svadhyaya, self study, is one of the principle yogic practices that guide us out of confusion.
“Sva means ‘self’ or ‘belonging to me.’ Adhyaya means ‘inquiry’ or ‘examination’; literally, ‘to get closer to something.’ Svadhyaya therefor means to get closer to yourself, that is, to study yourself. All learning, all reflection, all contact that helps you to learn more about yourself is Svadhyay.” T.K.V. Desikachar said that.
The stronger I get in my practice the less stressed I feel by this confusion because I’ve learned (and am still learning) to trust in the process of self reflection guiding me to a place of balance and harmony.
Desikachar goes on to say, “Svadhyaya is the process of gradually finding out where we are, who we are, what we are and so forth. Our asana (yoga posture) practice begins with precisely these questions. We take the first step by observing the breath and body. We do this over and over again, hoping that we will with time develop a deeper understanding of ourselves and our current state. In this way we also learn to recognize what our next steps will be.”
Below are five simple ways to practice Svadhyaya, get closer to yourself, and tune into what your next step toward happiness and harmony will be.
1. Get into your body and out of your brain.
The “self” is so much more than the gray matter between your ears. Moving the body taps us into the information of our whole being and can get us out of a mental rut that’s getting us nowhere. Yoga classes, running, sports, dance or anything movement gets us feeling our body is a practice of self study.
2. Ask yourself, “What have I learned today and how can I use that wisdom tomorrow.”
This is a practice my Ayurvedic teach Cate Stillman taught me. I now have this question tacked to my wall next to my bed. Simply reflecting at the end of the day keeps us connected to our wisdom and intuition, and is a simple way to observe our actions and their implications.
3. Close your eyes and meditate.
There’s no better way to see ourselves than simply stopping and watching. Essentially, that’s what meditation is. While the focus can be directed at any number of things depending on the style of meditation, ultimately the practice is self reflection. We’re likely to see all of our neurosis and shadows but if we watch long enough we see our connection to purity, peace and source energy below all that. Seeing this connection is what keeps people sitting on their cushions day after day, even when they know the demons may pop up in the process.
4. Eat a meal alone, in silence, without any devices or distractions.
I eat alone a lot, but not really. I’ll check my phone, open my computer, grab a magazine or write down things I need to do while I eat. Meanwhile I’m shoveling in food without tasting it, not chewing enough and totally disconnecting with how I’m creating this form I live in. To get to know our health issues better we have to start with how we eat. According to Ayurveda all disease starts with poor digestion, and such an important part of digestion is the mindset we have while consuming. I’ve had huge insights into my health problems from slowing down and paying attention to my eating, and I’ve also had great insightful moments during these slow meals.
5. Take a long walk by yourself (without your phone!).
Remember, the world is a mirror. Walking through it and paying attention to all the details can be like walking through one of those multi-mirrored fun houses. Sometimes the reflection is distorted and not so pretty, other times you can see infinity. Either way, it’s all you.