Q: The Yoga Sutra emphasizes svadhyaya—self-study—as a key component of spiritual practice. How can svadhyaya help me remove obstacles to my spiritual growth?

A: The word svadhyaya means “study of the self by oneself, or by pondering on the scriptures.” Practically speaking, it means doing japa (repetition) of the revealed mantras that we receive from a teacher through initiation, and contemplating the guidance we receive from our teacher or from the teachings contained in the authentic scriptures.

Often we commit ourselves to a spiritual discipline without having enough knowledge about ourselves, our goals, and the means by which we are trying to accomplish our goals. Because of this, when obstacles begin to surface during our practice, we become discouraged. Because we lack sufficient knowledge, we often fail even to recognize the obstacles.

By incorporating svadhyaya into our daily practice we acquire the ability to detect obstacles before they surface.

And once we have recognized them, we do not know how to overcome them because we do not know their cause. We become frustrated and disheartened and blame the practice, the teacher, and ourselves. By incorporating svadhyaya into our daily practice we acquire the ability to detect the obstacles before they surface.

Practicing japa helps us detect and resolve obstacles. It enables our mind to travel toward the center of consciousness without being distracted by the charms and temptations of the world. With japa we reach the self-luminous, peaceful space within, but we also become aware of the dark place from where our unwanted, agitating thoughts arise. As the power of mantra japa quiets our mind, we are able to see our subtle desires, cravings, and ambitions more vividly. We become aware of the unknown parts of ourselves, including those that are painful and frightening. This provides an opportunity to identify what we must renounce in order to advance our quest—what we must let go of in order to acquire something new and auspicious. This is how japa turns into self-study. Through such self-examination we are able to set our priorities.

The scriptures set forth a systematic way of looking at life and its circumstances and gaining a clear vision of spiritual goals.

Another way to practice svadhyaya is by studying the experiences of previous aspirants as told in the scriptures. By applying the lessons of these stories to ourselves, we learn to recognize our own strengths and weaknesses. Studying the scriptures helps us understand that the obstacles confronting us are the same obstacles that have confronted seekers throughout the ages. It may also help us detect obstacles that are lying in wait for us before they manifest, so we can avoid them altogether.

The scriptures also give us clear guidelines for self-analysis, self-observation, and self-reflection. They set forth a systematic way of looking at life and its circumstances and gaining a clear vision of spiritual goals. Those who practice svadhyaya come to know the trivial nature of worldly pleasures, and inspired by scriptural wisdom, they long for everlasting joy. Aspirants who do not practice svadhyaya, however, run the risk of developing a pessimistic attitude toward the world and living an empty and meaningless life, even though they are engaged in spiritual practice. Svadhyaya works like a living inner counselor.

Another benefit of self-study is that it strengthens our conviction that the practice we have undertaken is noble and valid. Through self-study, as the Yoga Sutra tells us, we come closer to our ishta devata (our chosen name and form of the Divine), for svadhyaya infuses our practice with divine awareness. That is what helps our practice become spiritual. Without it, the practice of japa, for example, turns into a purely mental exercise. It is svadhyaya that opens the channel of bhakti (love and devotion) and thereby brings sweetness to the practice. Without this awareness the practice becomes dry and mechanical.

In the Yoga Sutra, svadhyaya has been placed between tapas and Ishvara pranidhana. Tapas means “austerity or discipline.” It consists of dietary observations, physical exercises, mental restraints, and exercising control over our thoughts and feelings. Ishvara pranidhana means “trustful surrender to God”—offering the fruits of our actions to the Divine. Unless the gap between tapas and Ishvara pranidhana is filled with svadhyaya, tapas is merely penance—physical and psychological torture—and Ishvara pranidhana is mere religious sentiment. Svadhyaya, self-study, gives meaning to both; it transforms tapas into self-commitment and Ishvara pranidhana into spiritual ecstasy.

Source: Adapted from Inner Quest book by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait
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