Swadhyaya

self-study

We have all heard of someone who is famous for doing yoga. Our current technology of social media has launched thousands of yoga gurus or experts. Although I have no aspiration to become a yogic scholar or expert, I have begun my path into the practice and philosophies of yoga. I committed whole-heartedly into a yoga teacher training course for January of 2019. I thought what better way to welcome a new year through a new level of commitment to discovery and self-knowledge. Little did I know this was the very root of ancient yogic philosophies and I would join a tribe of historians, practitioners, gurus and students.

So who else IS on this very high-trafficked pathway to enlightenment and self-knowledge? Is it the many talented people who are inverted and contorted on Instagram? Or is it the famous authors of so many yogic books? Surprisingly, the most revered person(s) and scholar of yoga is nearly unknown to the outside world, Patañjali.

Who is Patañjali? His life is dated to mid-second century BCE by both Western and Indian scholars. He is so revered in the Hindu traditions that he is widely known as Maha-bhasya or “Great commentary”. He is also said to have been an evolved soul who returned in human form in order to help lift others out of their sorrows.

Patañjali’s very famous composition was entitled Pātañjalayogaśāstra (“The Treatise on Yoga according to Patañjali”) His oeuvre comprises of the Sanskrit sutras (a rule or aphorism in Sanskrit literature) about Yoga (Yogasūtra) and integral to the sutras, a work called the Bhāṣya or “commentary”.

In Hinduism, sutras are a type of literary composition in the form of an aphoristic statement. Each sutra is any short rule that offers teachings of ritual, philosophy, grammar, or any field of knowledge.

Patañjali’s insight comes in 196 aphorisms, which to yogis is known as maxims of truth. The aphorisms provide a step-by-step path toward enlightenment for the spiritually un-evolved. While these statements are compact and efficient in their use of words, when combined or used together they offer endless debates and discussions.

Patañjali is the author of ashtanga yoga, which is also widely referred to as the eight limbs of yoga. This writing explains a natural progression of techniques to train the body, mind, and senses for spiritual evolution. Through intellectual stimulation, analysis, and physical rigour, it offers a system for attaining self-realization.

So thorough and complete with reasoning and vast amounts of text, Patañjali is considered the authority of classical Sanskrit for that past 2000 years. His ideas and philosophies have been influential to ancient eastern religions such as Buddhism and Jainism.

The second limb of the Eight Limbs of Yoga is called the Niyamas. They are ways we can behave to elevate ourselves  and become more evolved highly conscious humans. They offer a process and order to develop a personal code of discipline and spiritual aspiration on an arduous yogic path. They are to help reduce mental and emotional challenges so the yogic individual has the tools and techniques for the necessary commitment to a yogic life. The yogi is encouraged to engage in self-reflection by analysing the impact they have on others.

The five niyamas (codes of conduct/regulations) of Patañjali’s Eight Fold Path are:

  1. Saucha (purity or cleanliness)
  2. Santosha (contentment)
  3. Tapas (austerity)
  4. Swadhyaya (self-study)
  5. Pranidhana (devotion to God).

The second of the Niyamas is Swadhyaya, self study. Sva is interpreted as ‘self’ and adhyaya means ‘investigation or inquiry’. Swadhyaya encourages one to self-inquire daily through practices such asana, pranayama and meditation. This is based on the belief that we need to constantly work at improving ourselves and self-study is a mandatory process to achieve enlightenment.

For those new to the immense and rich history of the yogic tradition and scholarly works, the mind and spirit will become one with the physical. At first, you may approach yoga to build fitness, strength and flexibility, or for any number of reasons, such as a sense of community or self discovery. Through asanas, pranayama (breathing technique), meditation, scholarly study, self-reflection…all of this culminates to the very definition of what Patañjali defines as his second Niyama: Swadhyaya.

I have spent four weeks sweating through grueling asanas, finding my breath through Ujjaya, studying yoga nidra, making new friends, building curiosity through caring teachers, and so much more I can’t list it all here. Through this exploration within this essay I see now how everything we have done is a part of Swadhyaya.

I bow with gratitude to the work of Patañjali.

Inhale Versus Exhale

Most of us have been mispronouncing these two words: breathe and breath.

Breathe is a verb we use for the process of inhaling and exhaling.

Breath is a noun that refers to a full cycle of breathing. It can also refer to the air that is inhaled or exhaled.

Inhale. Exhale. Breathe! Take a breath!

So ubiquitous is the phrase, “take a breath”, we take for granted what an incredibly complex system our body undertakes by the involuntary action of the cardiac muscle and the external/internal respiratory system. But we have been told innumerable times in all forms of media to simply take a breath. If only it was that easy. For each inhale (whether voluntarily or involuntarily) we carry oxygen into the body through the lungs where an intensive amount of work is done, most importantly this is where ‘diffusion’ happens. Diffusion is a gas exchange within the alveoli whereby oxygen diffuses through the walls of the alveoli and enters the bloodstream, carried by red blood cells. When we are not purposely controlling our breathing, we can thank our medulla oblongata, a.k.a. the brainstem which automatically regulates the rate and depth of breathing. Then the carbon dioxide levels increase within the blood, reacts with the water in the blood which produces carbonic acid. Once the blood becomes acidic, we breathe out.

The true trigger to “take a breath” is not our need for oxygen. That’s a close second place. We are carbon-based creatures and we gather carbon molecules in food. These molecules are broken down and we extract the energy that holds the molecules together and it becomes our metabolic energy source. Within this process of breathing our body makes the carbon dioxide that is expelled in the breath from our mouth as a waste product. Our bodies must rid ourselves of the increasing carbon dioxide levels within the bloodstream and that is the primary trigger to keep us “taking a breath”.

Consider this physiological instinct the next time you have an underwater swimming race or who can hold their breath the longest contest. It usually begins with the contestant hyperventilating in order to empty the lungs/body of fresh oxygen and through this belief of priming the lung capacity. Then, the would-be contestant sucks in their largest breath and expands their lungs with oxygen. We have seen news reports and cases of athletic and youthful people dying at the bottom of pools while trying these innocent fun games. Possibly, through hyperventilation, these young people ridded their bodies of carbon dioxide and thereby stunted the essential trigger needed for breathing. Without the need to expel carbon dioxide, the instinct for taking a breath is no longer there and they pass out beneath the water.

The world will remind us all to breathe deeply and inhale, it’s equally, if not more important to purposefully exhale.

Foundation

The patient must be alone if he is to find out what it is that supports him when he can no longer support himself. Only this experience can give him an indestructible foundation. ~Carl Jung, CW 12, Para 32

Foundation

I thought I had one. I thought I could persevere through challenges. I thought I needed to keep working harder on goal setting. I thought I just needed to do something every damn day. I thought stop thinking about doing handstands and start doing them, every damn day. I thought I needed to make my intentions for real, real farmer stick-to-it-iveness. Damn it.

I thought, a lot.

And the more I thought, the more frustrating I became. To myself. I had lived through the magical life changing effects of yoga on many friends. I judged, I’ll admit it. The life change often came with a cushy ride in a luxury car and a lot of time on one’s hands to attend a high profile teacher or a class where the mythical guru of solipsism herself, Gwyneth once attended back in say, 2014. The requisite tattoo on a lithe inner wrist. We know what tattoo, because we know the narrative. And everyone seemed to be ok with this reality, non-realistic reality, whereby every single person was having the same life-altering experience. Meh, I thought, it’s a glitch in the matrix.

I had been indoctrinated at a Catholic high school on the ease with which cults could mind control young people into giving up their entire lives for a single guru who speaks as a god like figure. Cultists would have mind and body pushed to their limits so it would be easier to convince them to give up their lives and money to the cult. The irony is not lost on me that it was a Catholic priest teaching Cult 101. But I was enthralled with how easily the methodology of cult think worked. It works in corporations, countries, universities (go Badgers!), relationships, and most places people congregate.

Well I was guaranteed to not fall for these tricksters! I’m a free thinker. Sign the dotted line, my eyes are scanning for an exit sign. I felt like a short Liam Neeson, a doomsday prepper of sorts. And yoga wasn’t going to take me that easily. And certainly not modern yoga with the fancy pants with strange holes that pucker the skin into funny ellipses and all the soft voices radiating no fear that terrorism is going to spread and our polar axis will suddenly switch. So, I made a conscious decision. Confront my stereotypes. But really, confront my fear.

What am I afraid of? Who was this boogy–bhagwan shree rashneeshyogi! Well, I don’t know. I’ve never seen “IT”. I signed up for the complete mystery course of 200 hours of YTT, allowing myself full-immersion therapy. Living life dangerously! Unprepared, unknowledgeable, unskilled.

I had one goal in mind. Be open to the possibilities. That was it. I have a long and rather tedious physical history involving professional dance, triathlons, marathons, Olympic lifting, functional training. Basically, most areas of fitness with the exception of yoga. As an ex-dancer I figured I could gain back that muscle memory rather quickly. Then our YTT began, currently, we are halfway through our class journey. By day three, the air felt different. By day four, I think I felt invisible energy glowing around me. By day five, exhaustion was confused with elation.

Oh my goodness! It was happening! And I’m not talking about increased flexibility, although I did feel a bit of that too. I may just give my entire life savings to Tirisula! Ok, ok, I’m not going to drink spiked Kool-Aid, but I felt something I never felt before. Oneness. I could feel my fatigue. Something I would normally deny to myself while I forced myself into some set of actions which would domino into more actions I would not truly want to do. Synchronicity. My mind was mellow. My thoughts were now mere watercolors, stains. I found that moment of a sadhana (spiritual practice) speaking to me, moving me, nominating ME for ME.

When I was tired, I laid down. I could breathe. Finally, I could feel the effects of the pranayama breathing. My thoughts began to bend into less cluttered thinking. My mind was no longer on Fitbit mode, “better drink water, you’re only at 3 glasses”. Literally, the water within me was flowing with a current outside of me and leading me to intuitive actions that had escaped me because I had been using the FORCE of my thoughts to dominate even simple physical body functions. (Raise your hand real high if you need to earn a pee break!) This waste of energy was similar to using an entire electrical city grid just to make your morning alarm go off. My mind was no longer using constant FORCE to lug one leg in front of the other. Suddenly, I felt what power means. Power, like gravity pulls things down. Power, that water will flow down a river. Power, that mountains cast shadows which move throughout the day. Power, of an apple seed which will grow and fight through soil to rise.

I was most moved by philosophies we learned our second week. “Do things that are progressive for you”. What a novel idea. Do not express intent, express the positive thoughts without the intent. I feel strong. When I do yoga, I feel my breath and that feels good. Versus my FORCEful self-talk; I WILL feel great when I clean my office today. Every breath creates a pattern. This pattern connects to your brains thoughts. Be interested in what you can do, no need to pinpoint why.

My thoughts thought they thought of everything. Obviously not.

Set An Intention

We know that the mask of the unconscious is not rigid—it reflects the face we turn towards it. Hostility lends it a threatening aspect, friendliness softens its features. ~Carl Jung, CW 12, Para 29

Set An Intention. Easier said than done.

This is especially true during the highly anticipated month of January. We plan, we dream, we sign up for gym memberships we know we will never use! It is kicked off with lofty and truly innocent do-gooder intentions of weight-loss, kindness, and career success. However, year after year, January dolefully ends with the shameful quixotic morning-after feeling of self-imposed amnesia to all the dreams now broken. We crawl to our cubicle hoping no one sees our Venti coffee after two weeks of braggart level confidence, “Some people do ‘Dry January’, I’m doing coffee-less January!”. Our intention seemed so simple. We speak inside our head, ‘A child could do it. But why couldn’t I?”

And thus begins our minds ability to rationalize any number of excuses and reasons as to the answer of WHY? We have been trained through media, family, socializing, nationality, race, and religion to believe that our mind is linear. That in order to have followed through on our January intention we would gain success and reach our goal by following a very circumspect ambition and taking well known routes to our finality of accomplishment. Unwittingly, our dedication will be fraught with failure after failure. How is this so?

Our clarity to answer the WHY; why the failure, why is a linear path not a path to success, why can’t I succeed in my wishful earnest goals, is answered at the beginning of our path.

Many sadhakas (spiritual practitioners) will start their sadhanas (spiritual practice) with subconscious and conscious preconceptions about what a follower on a path of sadhanas is all about. The reality, pain, and difficulty in starting this path are contradictory to our highly-held preconceived ideas about this practice. The typical struggle begins with how the sadhaka reconciles the irritable shocks and unexpected realities on this path. Most often, around mid-January, we see the neophytes backtrack to their former existence. The judgement along the path causes deep primal wounds to reappear, the sadhaka feels gullible to this pain and misery and although it slows one down, it is a necessary limp to overcome. We can find comfort in the many who have lost muster and belief in the sadhanas and the realm it opened to their hearts. The sheer power of spiritual life can make one feel ill. Only through intensely following through on the sadhanas and through this initial disappointment can one progress. Set your intention and find a practice that supports this.

The sadhanas can be any simple daily spiritual practice. Be prepared to dive into your sadhanas by letting go of your pre-conceived judgements and linear thinking. Allow it to free form into whatever it shows you. Only an openness is necessary to begin this journey of intention. You can keep your judgement but it must be carried on the shoulders of wanting to learn more and adjusting yourself to the practice and not the other way around. Soon your sadhana will enhance your everyday life to infinite possibilities.

A true tyaga (renunciation) of your former way of thinking and of the ego’s needs and desires will be necessary to stay on the path. Our mind is Maya and at every turn it will shapeshift reality into an illusion. We cannot decipher it’s intention, nor it’s abilities. But it will seek to enter your path where you once saw clearly, you will become blind.

Be aware. Sadhana for the path of self-realization is an opportunity at every moment in life and time should not be squandered by postponing this urgent duty. Start a regular and systematic sadhana in your life.

Sadhanas can be:

–a mantra

–chanting

–reading sacred scripture

–yoga asanas

–meditation

–pranayama

Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will release responsibility by naming it fate. The subconscious is where our experiences, beliefs and memories are stored. Self-knowledge, the understanding of our thoughts and behaviors and their influence on our lives, will make the unconscious conscious.