As we engage in Svadhyaya, there are two aspects of the self that we examine. The first and most obvious is what many call the small “s” self—our mind, ego, personality, and also our physical bodies. Until we deeply examine our thoughts, words, and behavior and align them with our highest integrity, it will be difficult to become the best we can be as human beings. And it will be nearly impossible to pursue our spiritual growth.
This first level of Svadhayaya necessitates that we observe all of our relationships. How am I treating my partner, friend, parent, child, co-worker, subordinate, boss, or a stranger in a grocery store? What is the quality of my speech—am I speaking truth to others? Am I loving in my communications, or angry? Do I listen to others, or do I only want to talk?
This inquiry applies to our relationship with our own self as well. How do I treat myself? What are my beliefs and attitudes about who I am, and what I’m capable of? Do these attitudes support or hinder me? Do these thoughts affect how I behave towards others? How do I treat my body? Am I loving and compassionate towards my body and myself? There are a myriad of questions that one could explore through the practice of Svadhyaya.
Self-inquiry can be a moment to moment practice of self-observation. It can range from simply watching the breath to noticing emotions arise during an argument. It also includes reading self-help books, going to counseling, taking personal growth workshops, journaling or artwork, and a vast number of other experiences that heighten self-awareness.
During our yoga practice, we include Svadhyaya in observing the responses of our body and the reactions of our mind. In Svadhyaya, we study ourselves so that we may become more of who we truly are—our highest and greatest good within.
Large “S” Self
The second and more traditional aspect of Svadhyaya is the study of the “Self” with the capital “S”: our Divine essence. Svadhyaya is a practice of getting to know our true nature, beyond our personality, thoughts, body, or emotions. It includes studying spiritual texts, practicing meditation or breathwork, chanting, or prayer, all of which are forms of yoga. It may involve going to a teacher, minister, or spiritual gathering for inspiration and understanding. There are many ways in which we can unearth a deeper connection to the Divine within.
Ramana Maharshi, a well-known yogi of the early 20th century, suggested one simple spiritual practice of self-inquiry. He recommended the repetition and contemplation on the question, “Who am I?” The “I” he referred to is none other than the capital “S” Self.
Beyond the layers of titles we associate with ourselves (like mother, husband, accountant, Latino, woman, Methodist, gay, straight, etc.) and beyond the sense of me and mine, there is a spaciousness of Self. This I transcends definitions and can only be experienced. It is the ultimate goal of yoga, the sense of Union with all that is. As we practice this question over and over, Maharshi asserts that over time, the true essence reveals itself.
Written by Constance Habash and published on www.awakeningself.com/writing/studying-your-self-svadhyaya/, 2009