The Eight-Fold Path of Patanjali contains ethical precepts. Five of these, the yamas, entail activities to avoid; the remaining teachings, called niyamas, describe actions to be encouraged. Svadhyaya, or self-knowledge, is the fourth of these positive undertakings. Like so much of the yogic path, this is much easier in theory than in practice; however, the results are very much worth the effort.

Many yoga writers speak of the self as two different entities. Self, written with a capital letter, refers to the part of us which is divine; a small letter self is applied to the ego. All of us act in ways that run contrary to our desire to be morally upright. Think about a time when you were at odds with another person, and note all of the reasons why you consider the other person wrong. How many of these are character defects masquerading as reasons, and how many are objective truth? In other words, in a situation like this, when do we act with our small-s self, rather than with our Self?

Those in 12-Step programs are used to the idea of a vigorous moral inventory. Yogic philosophy suggests the same kind of inner house cleaning. We look for our negative samskaras, or mental constructs, which prevent us from being the person we secretly long to be. Many times, these thought patterns are established in childhood as a defense mechanism; as adults, we then find that these behaviors are now hurting rather than helping us to live happy lives.

The idea of karma becomes relevant when we consider the effects of our negative samskaras. Popular thought tends to over-simplify this concept, reducing it to what comes around goes around. This of course can be true, as evil generally brings about its own destruction. However, note the way in which our fears twist our actions and then the outcomes. How many times do we attract what we most fear because of the ways in which we try to protect ourselves?

Looking at ourselves is not always easy in the moment. This is a good reason for keeping a journal and taking the time to write about what makes us afraid or angry. Writing is a tool that allows us to access our inner selves in a private and safe space; it also gives us a tool for relieving strong emotion that would otherwise stay bottled up. Used in this way, journaling helps us to better understand ourselves and our motivations.

Another way to practice svadhyaya is to cultivate what many call the witness consciousness.. Imagine that there is a fly on the wall watching as we go about our daily lives. What would that fly see? Amidst the hustle and bustle of a yoga class, can we take a moment to observe our thoughts? What judgments go through our minds as we glance around the room? As we observe our own movement in and out of asana? Recognizing our thoughts is the first step to separating ourselves from them. From here, we can move to working with our ideas and ultimately learning to live in a different way.

When we take the time to practice svadhyaya, we find ourselves changed. We become more willing to work through emotions. We are able to calm ourselves down more easily, and to control our actions in a way we could not do before. In this way, svadhyaya becomes another tool, such as asana and pranayama, that moves us from where we are to where we want to be.

You Should Also Read:
Tapas, the Niyama of Discipline
Hygge, Santosha, and Life

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