Svadhyaya

We are in the home stretch of the niyamas or observances in yoga. The fourth niyama, svadhyaya, is my favorite because it combines self awareness with intellectual study (well, this is my interpretation of svadhyaya), and these two pursuits seem to occupy a great deal of my time. Unlike shaucha, I can get excited about practicing svadhyaya.

One of the many things I like about yoga is that those sages who created the system thousands of years ago thought of just about everything. The spiritual practice of yoga has something for everyone: the intellectual, the wanna-be monk, the bodily kinesthetic type, musical folks, and those who live to serve. You don’t have to subscribe to one supreme belief and you don’t have to ardently practice one thing. They are manifold ways to grow on the yogic path (of course, you’re strongly encouraged to undertake every practice even if it’s not your forte).

Svadhyaya is often translated as something like “study of scared texts” and “self study.” But it’s not, as my teachers from India caution, “merely intellectual musing” instead, it’s “rigorous self analysis and development.” In academia, we glorify knowledge for its own sake, but in yoga, knowledge must have some practical application. Usually, this practical application has something to do with understanding and observing yourself (your thoughts, your body, your emotions, your triggers, your hang-ups, your pettiness, your darkest fears and wildest fantasies) so that you can work with your mind to achieve that cessation of fluxuation of the thought waves in the mind that is yoga.

Watching yourself on the mat as your body moves (or fights) its way through poses, reading the scared philosophical texts of yoga like Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras or the Bhagavad Gita, sitting in meditation and observing the mind’s chatter, witnessing your stress level rise while waiting in line at the post office, these are all ways to practice svadhyaya.

But here’s something else, a less obvious way to engage in svadhyaya: give up. Specifically, give up hope.

Flipping through Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart (Boston: Shambala, 2000) the other day, I stumbled upon this insight of hers: “To think that we can finally get it all together is unrealistic. To seek for some lasting security is futile…One has to give up hope that this way of thinking will bring us satisfaction. Suffering begins to dissolve when we can question the belief or the hope that there’s anywhere to hide” (39).

Is your head spinning like mine did when I read that? I have to give up hope to begin the path? (Easier said than done when it’s your name!) But hope is the thing that keeps us alive; it’s the thing with feathers that perches in the soul. It’s….ME!

My selfish, egotistical clinging notwithstanding for a moment, giving up hope is entirely counter-cultural to those of us in the Christianized Western world. I know that I have gotten myself through difficult times–clinically difficult times–by holding on to the hope that tomorrow will be better. I have the white knuckles to prove it. But, now, here’s the Buddhist nun telling us that the true Easter morning, the joyous light of a new day, actually comes when we give up hope. And it comes right now, not tomorrow.

Chodron goes on to link our addiction to hope with a deep-seated fear of death. Without retracing her argument here, I simply want to say that she underscores the importance of the present moment no matter how unbearable that present moment might be. When we relax in the chaos and discomfort of what’s actually happening, then and only then can we begin to build lives of compassion and wisdom. She ends the chapter by admonishing “Giving up hope is encouragement to stick with yourself, to make friends with yourself, to not run away from yourself…” (45). Although she doesn’t explicitly say it, staying present and abandoning hope leads us to our inner teacher.

Like most facets of yoga, svadhyaya likewise emphasizes the inner teacher. We don’t engage in intellectual study to find some sort of “answer” “out there”; instead, we engage in study to navigate our inner landscape and unearth the inner teacher, innate to all of us, that our rational, Puritanical, head-strong, and hopeful culture buried alive hundreds of years ago.

Once we dig up the inner teacher, then what? How do we listen to what she says? How do we know it’s the inner teacher and not our own chattering, anxious minds? I’ll have to get back to you on this one.

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