Svadhyaya: waves and oceans; self and consciousness
These past few weeks in class, we have meditated on the words of Gandhi, of Pema Chodron and of Thich Nhat Hanh. We have contemplated what it means to build a practice - and a life - that cultivates awareness and compassion. We have talked about being unflinchingly aware of and engaged with the physical world that we live in - however troubling or disconcerting it may sometimes feel. Many of us, myself included, have discussed what it means to be both political and spiritual in times like these.
Like many of my students, I'm not especially interested in forms of yoga that feel like cotton wool, or pop culture mysticism. My learnings in yoga and Ayurveda have shown me intelligent systems designed to both provoke and comfort, and as much as I like tarot cards, hip hop and fashion, I tend to keep my yoga pretty yogic. When we're working with something as complex as the human ego, it's tempting to make the practice less confronting, more familiar somehow. But then maybe, we lose the yoga?
Throughout yogic literature the word 'practice' dominates. Not perfection, not achievement, not comfort, not peace - but practice. When we're breathing, and moving, and meditating, and practicing, we are cultivating a sense of knowing ourselves. A sense of knowing our bodies; knowing our minds. And deeper than that, a sense of knowing how to care for and love all aspects of the self warmly and fully. As you can imagine, this takes a lot of time; a lot of practice.
And it’s not always comfortable. Sometimes the practice soothes, sometimes it stings. Like yin and yang though, such binaries appear to be requisites when it comes to journeys of the spiritual or subtle kind.
Svadhyaya or self-study is one of the more formal ways that this binary is explored within yoga. The fourth niyama within theAshtanga Eight Limbs of Yoga, svadhyaya advocates studying the relationship between self (you) and Consciousness.
Sounds big. It's actually pretty simple. Svadhyaya involves learning about the world and inquiring into the rhythms that define existence - rhythms of spirituality, equality, access, justice, love, sex, wisdom, pain, peace and healing. Rhythms of difference and sameness; waves and oceans; self and consciousness. The thinking being that in understanding the world, we understand ourselves (and vice versa).
Svadhyaya also encourages us to acknowledge that everything that exists in the external world - strength, capacity, violence, weakness, greed, goodness - also exists within us. In fact, everything that we judge in others, or desire, or envy exists in some way within us too. In Ayurveda, the saying goes 'as within, so without'.
Once we recognise that everything 'out there' also exists in us… what then? How do we choose which qualities we hone and fine tune, and which we don't? How does this relate to the practice of asana and meditation?
One of the fascinating side effects of a sustained and mindful yoga practice is the neurological re-patterning that occurs on the mat, especially in relation to empathy, compassion and emotion. Turns out that everything we do - from washing the dishes to managing difficult conversations with a loved one - sculpts and fine-tunes our internal coping and managing mechanisms. If actions and thoughts are largely unchecked, we may be fine-tuning behaviours and coping mechanisms that create discomfort, pain, cognitive dissonance. But, if we cultivate awareness of that inner dialogue, if we get really honest about our fears and our envy, then we can begin to lay the neurological groundwork for kinder, more loving patterns of coping and managing.
When we practice consistently, our mats sometimes feel like safe spaces to lean into and rest on; at other times they feel like mirrors that show us our ego, discomforts, habits and hopes. In reality, they are both. Yoga is not an escape, or a way of 'balancing' the rest of our lives. As Sharon Gannon says, 'you cannot do yoga; yoga is your natural state. What you can do are yoga exercises, which may reveal to you where you are resisting your natural state.' On the mat, and out in the world - we are always the same. No better, no worse.
Over time, what we gain from yoga, in the form of awareness, compassion and what Stephen Cope refers to as 'a new capacity to warmly love the self', is often partnered with a deeply felt sense of connection to the world around us. This is Svadhyaya.
If you are interested.... to begin this journey of learning and sharing – some of my favourites (old and new)
- Magical thinking, yoga and inquiry (Karin Burke, achingly honest) http://yogadork.com/2015/06/21/magical-thinking-yoga-and-internal-inquiry/
- Food, sex and space (a dose of Nikki Giovanni to remember the art of living joyously) http://www.onbeing.org/program/nikki-giovanni-soul-food-sex-and-space/8501
- Your brain on yoga (neuroscience, neuroplasticity and dharma) https://yogainternational.com/article/view/your-brain-on-yoga
- Alice Coltrane (because Alice is good for the soul)https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QUMuDWDVd20&list=LLN8m2Gvi5ZFoGm6ny_sBxIQ&index=46
- Why we need more time, less clothes (obvious but necessary reminders about the nature of consumption and happiness) http://www.womankindmag.com/articles/why-we-need-more-time-and-less-clothes