What is Svadhyaya?

What is Svadhyaya?

This post is the ninth in a series of articles exploring the yamas and niyamas, the moral principles and qualities that form part of the philosophy of a “yogic” lifestyle. Stay tuned to our blog to continue to learn about each of the 10 concepts and how to integrate them into your yoga practice and daily life.


Yamas are ethical practices that help us create a pure, resilient, healthy lifestyle. The yamas include Ahimsa, Satya, Asteya, Brahmacharya, and Aparigraha. If you’re just starting this series now, you can find more information on each of the yamas in their respective posts.

We’re now into the niyamas, and you can find an introduction to the niyamas as a whole in the post on Saucha, or cleanliness. The second niyama is Santosha, and the third is Tapas. This post moves on to Svadhyaya, the fourth niyama, which translates as “self-study.” The word Svadhyaya is made up of “sva,” meaning “self,” and “dhyaya,” meaning “study,” “contemplate,” or “think on.” You can also think of Svadhyaya as “self-reflection” or “introspection.”

Big “S” and little “s”

Many writers differentiate between “little-s” self and “big-S” Self. In this definition, little-s self refers to your physical body and the layers of your mind that react to everyday events. Big-S Self refers to the centre of you that doesn’t change; it’s the “you” that is often referred to as the “True Self” or the “Divine.” There are two levels of contemplation when it comes to S/self, and they have different purposes.

Observing the self

The first level of self-study is learning about yourself, and it consists of observing and reflecting on your own thoughts, emotions, actions, reactions, habits, beliefs, desires, etc. This might consist of simple mindfulness – noticing your thoughts and reactions as you move through your day – or you might find it more helpful to write, meditate, or talk through your observations. This practice can be uncomfortable because often, you may be observing what you’d rather turn away from. For example, if you notice that you get very angry when someone says something negative about the style of yoga you practice, you may want to reflect on that: why does that dismissal upset you? Why is it important to you that they see your style the same way you do? It’s important here not to judge yourself, but instead to get curious about why you act and react the way you do.

You can also start this type of observation by asking yourself questions and observing situations: What are your priorities? What are your highest values? What direction are you going? How do you treat others? What is your intention when you speak? What do you avoid? What do you crave? How do other people respond to you? This is not about defining yourself through things like your job and your yoga practice, but instead about the things that make up the deeper layers of you.

Study your habits and their effect on your life. Question your actions, especially habitual ones, to ensure they align with your core values and beliefs. Recognize your small-s self’s need for recognition, affection, and pleasure and its aversion to pain, loss, or embarrassment.

Discovering the Self

There is a difference between knowing about yourself (ie. your values) and knowing yourself, or who you are at the core. Learning about yourself is important for living in healthy relationships with others, but knowing yourself is about a relationship with something deeper – something divine, if that is a concept that means something to you.

One way of discovering the Self is through the study of inspirational, poetic, spiritual, and philosophical texts. In yoga, this might mean the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, or the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Reflecting on these types of texts can help you understand the concepts more deeply and determine if they mesh with your own experience. Any inspirational text can act as a mirror and reflect us back to ourselves, and these texts can help to place your experience in a larger context and help you connect more deeply to the experiences of others.

Your true Self is constant through all the good and the bad, so discovering your Self is about finding out who you are when your mind is not distracted by attraction and aversion. The true Self cannot be defined, only experienced; in many philosophical texts, the true Self is the divine within. Imagine an ocean wave; the wave is a defined, individual thing for a period of time, but it is never separate from the ocean. In the same way, discovering the Self is experiencing a connection to something deeper and more expansive, whatever that means to you.

“Study thy self, discover the divine” Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra 2.44

The Self can also be found through a practice of finding stillness or through the repetition of a mantra. Anything meditative that allows you to focus on one thing so completely that the world drops away is a way to enter the experience of the true Self. Remember that “meditation” doesn’t mean that your mind is empty, it just means your mind is focused and undistracted.

Svadhyaya in your yoga practice

Practicing Svadhyaya on your mat is about studying your habits, which often reflect your habits off the mat. Use your yoga practice to hold a mirror up to yourself. How do you react to stress and discomfort? Do you avoid it? Do you seek it out? Do you place blame for the situation outside yourself (damn the teacher!) or do you criticize yourself for feeling discomfort? Do you compare yourself to the teacher or other students? Do you send your mind off a million miles away and avoid the sensations altogether?

Notice where your breath is – it will always show you how your body is feeling. Notice where you hold tension and where you’re more comfortable; notice where you check out and notice any running commentary on yourself or others.

“Yoga is the journey of the self, through the self, to the Self” – The Bhagavad Gita

As you go on this journey of self-study, remember to seek help when you need it. Often, we need a little guidance to make our way through the minefield of our minds, and seeking professional help can make the journey easier. If you’re looking for low-cost, sliding-scale therapy, you can find an Ontario-based referral service here