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yogi’s guide to public health: svadhyaya

Staying home these past two months has meant spending a lot of time enjoying our own company. Unable to go out and see friends, we’ve stayed in and had more opportunities than ever to truly see ourselves.

Whether or not you were introspectively inclined before we started sheltering in place, it’s hard to imagine anyone going through this experience without some new awareness of themselves — longings, frustrations, patterns of thought and behavior… Self inquiry isn’t always easy. And for some of us, it takes circumstances such as these to get to know ourselves more intimately.

Pursuing knowledge of self, or svadhyaya in Sanskrit, is the fourth of five niyamas or observances in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Svadhayaya is also translated as scriptural study. How is that self study and study of sacred texts can be considered one in the same?

Studying the self in the yoga tradition has a different flavor of inquiry than in our Western psychotherapeutic understanding. Ancient yogis practiced an existential form of self inquiry in order to uncover our divine and eternal nature, not an introspective searching out to gain greater insight into our discreet human experiences. However, from the vantage point of 21st century Westerners, we find that recognizing the unique personal patterns of our individual minds doesn’t stop there. Rather, self knowledge invites a feeling of inter-connectedness and transcendence not unlike the realization of selflessness sought by the yogis who established the tradition.

This key understanding, that exploring the self is a means to uncovering our eternal, collective nature, is why svadhyaya can mean both study of the self and scriptural study. Because the aim of all the sacred texts is to facilitate this same understanding: that we are individual expressions of a collective, eternal energy. The apt analogy that many, many teachers use to explain this phenomenon is that we are like waves on the ocean — uniquely ourselves but never other than the sea itself.

Recognizing this lack of separateness is further achieved by reading (and traditionally memorizing) sacred texts. In doing so, you incorporate their wisdom into your own mind. And by learning them, you join the mindstream of all others who have studied them, again reinforcing the notion of the collective and eternal self.

The irony of feeling isolated while staying home is that this precious opportunity to know ourselves better than before (facilitated by these unprecedented circumstances) is precisely what allows us to recognize that we are never alone. We are fundamentally connected to every other being on this planet.