Swadhyaya: How to begin to study yourself

Why do yoga? For fitness, flexibility, stress-relief or well-being? All great reasons. But what those who come to yoga find, perhaps unexpectedly, is that yoga is a powerful tool to learn more about yourself. In doing so, it helps you connect with your true nature. In yoga we call this concept of self-study Swadhyaya. For many yogis, Swadhyaya means studying the scriptures in order to better understand themselves. And this can be very rewarding. Scriptures and spiritual texts provide insights into ancient wisdom, and give you perspectives on yourself that you hadn’t thought of. But where should you begin? If you’re at all unsure, sometimes it’s best to start by simplifying everything down. This where pratyahara comes in.

The Withdrawal of Your Senses

In yogic philosophy, pratyahara refers to the withdrawal of your senses. It might seem counter-intuitive that on a mission to study yourself, you would remove one of the ways you interact with the world. In fact this is precisely why it works. Sensory withdrawal is a highly effective way to go deeper within yourself. Take, for instance, the experience of being blindfolded (or better still, doing yoga blindfolded). What is your instinctive reaction to this prospect? Fear? Anxiety? Excitement? Once you become aware of this reaction, the fun part begins. You can question why you have this reaction. What are you afraid of? What memories or attachments does it invoke in you? How would you prefer to proceed and why is this? All of this reflection is potent self-study, and a great introduction to Swadhyaya. And that’s before the actual practice of pratyahara even begins.
Reading your students’ bodies by their positioning, movement and facial expressions is a key part of being present. Even the students who tell you about their injuries, pains or niggles will only share the tip of their physiological iceberg. It’s for you as a teacher to learn to sense the quality of their sensation, the impact it has on their body, and their mental and emotional response to it within their yoga practice. That deeper connection, combined with a secure knowledge of corrective techniques and modifications, allows you to guide your students to overcome their challenges. When your students find comfort and ease in their bodies, their minds and spirits are free to follow. The power to bring your students skillfully into a state of greater holistic wellbeing is what differentiates a master teacher from a novice.

Darken the Room and Focus on the Story

Once you have actually withdrawn one of your senses, using a blindfold for example, you find that your awareness of your internal landscape increases. You notice where your mind goes, you see your thoughts more clearly, and maybe you begin to cultivate a greater awareness of yourself in the process. What are your thoughts, desires and fears, and what lies beneath them? Without the distractions of your senses, not only is your clarity of insight improved, but your concentration is too. It’s a bit like going to a cinema to see a film – they darken the room around you in order to allow you to completely focus on the screen and the story unfolding there. When you use Pratyahara to remove some of the external distractions, you let yourself focus on yourself, and begin an inwards journey. This is the very essence of Swadhyaya. And remember that in studying yourself, there is no set path. The crucial thing is to let yourself explore and find your own way. Most of all, enjoy the process!

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