How to Teach ‘Svadhyaya’ – Guided Self-Inquiry

Svadhaya, usually translated as ‘self-study’, is contemplation on the true nature of the self that’s guided by scriptural wisdom.

Rather than mere speculation or self-psychologizing, svadhyaya is a process that provides us with a map to guide us on our journey toward accurate knowledge of our true selves.

Pramana is the Sanskrit word for the methods by which accurate information about the nature of reality may be obtained. In his Yoga-sutras, Patanjali prescribes three such methods: direct perception, logical analysis, and verbal testimony.

Here’s a way for you to lead an exercise in svadhyaya:

Step 1: Have your students make a list of all the different identities they take on during the course of a week.

You can give the process a kick-start by listing some of your own, such as the roles you play at work, the roles you play at home, the roles you play on your way to work, etc.

For example, at work you may be someone’s boss and someone else’s subordinate. At home you may be the head chef or the negotiator-in-chief. When I’m on my way to work my identity may change several times, from in-the-groove-listening-to-my-music guy to impatient-why-is-there-so-much-traffic guy to judgmental-how-come-nobody-in-this-town-knows-how-to-use-a-turn-signal guy.

Our identities change, depending on the relationship we’re engaged in or the mood we acquire, a lot faster than most of us realize. As a result, when we start to make a list, we find that we have a lot more identities in us that we may have realized.

And that’s before we get to the secret identities we’re not going to tell anyone about.

You can make this a group discussion, break your class out into small groups, or have everyone make an individual list in anticipation of a discussion. Once everyone has their list of identities, you can ask, ‘which one is the real you?’
Odds are the answer you’ll hear back is, ‘all of them’.

Fair enough: each of our identities has its own contextual validity. So here’s the follow up question:

Step 2: “Who is the person that experiences all of your different identities?”

In other words, since we can all observe the various changes in our identity that we go through, who is the observer?
Our starting point is a state of identification with the fluctuations of the mind. Our objective is to get to a point where we identify with the self that experiences the fluctuations of the mind rather than the mind that’s fluctuating. Doing this takes practice and detachment: getting into the habit of not readily identifying with the fluctuating mind.

Doing that requires getting a little distance from the fluctuating mind. This exercise is one way to help students start to experience that distance.

This exercise combines direct perception with logical analysis. It’s challenging in part because, our senses are imperfect, our powers of deduction are limited, and our habit of identifying with our acquired psychology is deeply ingrained.

Of the three methods that lead to right knowledge, the most reliable is verbal testimony, provided the source of that testimony is also reliable. If the author of a book about self realization is self-realized or, at the very least, directly referencing literature left behind by self-realized authors, then such a book may be considered a reliable source of information about self-realization.

Is there such a thing as a self-realized person?

The symptoms by which we can recognize a self-realized person, or a person who is steadily travelling the path of self-realization, can be found in the Bhagavad-gita (2.54-61):

How do we know if the Bhagavad-gita is giving an accurate portrayal of a self-realized person? You can look for testimonials from time-trusted sources. For the Bhagavad-gita, there is no shortage of such testimonials: from the sages of antiquity to Emerson and Thoreau and Gandhi and Einstein, deep thinkers with an interest in transcendental knowledge have consistently looked to the Bhagavad-gita as a source of such knowledge.

Yoga has a system of checks and balances to validate a teaching: if your teacher teaches it, the books of yoga wisdom confirm the same teaching, and sages who have illuminated the path of self-realization also confirm the same teaching, then the teaching is accepted as valid.

Contemplative reading

Here’s another way to engage your students in self-study: contemplative reading.

Contemplative reading is not an intellectual pursuit of information; it’s an attempt to allow a wisdom text to affect us by listening carefully to the message of the author. The goal is to let that message enter deeply into the core of our consciousness. Rather than attempting to read a specific quantity of the text, we attempt to make an intimate connection with the enlightened speaker of the text.

Here’s the process:

1. Humility and gratitude

Take a moment to cultivate an attitude of humility and gratitude as an approach to your reading. Find words in your mind that express these feeling before you start to read.

2. Allow the text to stop you

Read until a word, a phrase, or an idea strikes you or catches your attention. Stop at that point. Repeat the phrase that captured your attention a few times. Simple repetition often helps more to inspire insights so going over a point a second or even a third time can result in a deep internalization of the passage that caught your attention. Stay with this point for as long as it inspires you to do so.

3. Free-writing

Write out your insights and realizations. Use a pen and paper rather than a digital device.

4. Repeat the process

When you’ve taken this point of inspiration as far as it will go, pause for just a moment, express gratitude for the insights you’ve received, and then move along, slowly reading again until another passage strikes you in the same way. Repeat the process as often as you wish, or for as long as your allotted time allows.

Since contemplative reading is a solitary pursuit, you can have your students engage in the process for a fixed amount of time – say 10 to 15 minutes. Then suggest an individual week-long experiment that they can take away with them: ask them to actively look for ways that his or her insight or realization from their reading plays out in their lives off the mat. You can also suggest that they write down the way that they saw their insight become manifest in the world. At the end of the week, they can revisit the passage that inspired them by reviewing all of the ways that they saw their insight reveal itself in the world.

Svadhyaya even emphasizes scriptural study because one of the functions of a yoga wisdom text is to provide us with the opportunity to re-create the revelatory experience of the author. The value of a genuine yoga wisdom text is that the person who wrote it – or spoke it – is speaking to us via the printed page for our benefit: they’re in a position to help us wake up because they’re not sleeping.

svadhyaya is not just theory, it’s applied theory.

When we take theoretical knowledge about yoga out of the book and into our lives we can start to experience the transformative power of yoga. By trying to align our thoughts, words, and actions with the conception of the self that’s described by self-realized authors of transcendental knowledge, we can actually begin to feel the distinction between our temporary material identity and our eternal spiritual identity.

How do you like to teach svadhyaya?

Yoga Teachers: If you’ve developed some svadhyaya exercises for workshops or teacher trainings that you’d like to share, please tell us about them.


3 thoughts on “How to Teach ‘Svadhyaya’ – Guided Self-Inquiry”

  1. exactly what I needed to read, as always. Thank you Hari I appreciate your words! I am back living in MD and look forward to seeing you soon! xx

    1. Jimmy: I’m not sure what you mean by ‘group’ but in any event the answer is ‘no’, I don’t get to NYC nearly as often as I would like. But, if you tell me what you’re looking for I may be able to make a recommendation since NYC is home and I know lots of folks and goings on there. – Hkd

Comments are closed.