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Self-study is part of yoga’s moral foundation
One of the ten moral tenets at the heart of yoga philosophy is self-study or svadhyaya. It is a two-pronged practice in which we not only study or observe ourselves – our habits, reactions, patterns of thought and beliefs – but also set about studying things that inspire us to and keep us on a path of growth and change.
Studying ourselves comes fairly easily. We start on our mats, observing our reactions to our successes and failures in yoga postures. How do we handle challenges? How do we navigate distraction? Do we have strong preferences for certain movements and aversion for others? Everything we learn through this self-study is valuable off our mats and in our lives. In fact, the very practice of being objectively self-aware is an even more powerful skill when applied to everything we do in life, but especially our relationships.
Study off of our mats comes harder. After all, students have already carved out time in their very busy lives to unroll a yoga mat a few times a week and they feel they just don’t have any more time to give to this practice. I can intimately relate. I’m pretty sure I said the same thing to my first teacher. And it was true! I didn’t feel like I had any more time in my life for yoga.
Inspiration can come from all areas of life
So, for the first year of my practice, rather than seek it out, inspiration came to me. My teacher loved to share poetry with us as we rested in savasana at the end of class. And then, one day, out of the clear blue, a non-yoga friend gave me a book of poetry that was filled with poems my teacher had read. I had noticed (with some surprise) how patient I was with myself as my practice glacially unfolded, which made me laugh even harder as I recognized wildly impatient, pre-yoga Amy when watching Friends one Thursday night. I started to grapple with the idea of loving myself exactly as I was, rather than waiting to be accepting of a better, shinier, more flexible version of myself and then heard the exact same message from the preacher at my church one Sunday morning.
This world of ours is amazing. When you’re open to inspiration, you will truly find it all around you.
When you’re actively studying, however, inspiration seems to be everywhere
But passively waiting for inspiration is a little like listening to a Mozart symphony through the speakers on your phone. It’s beautiful. It might even give you goosebumps. But once you make the investment in a state of the art sound system (or go visit your brother who has one) or, better yet, buy a ticket to hear it live in a symphony hall, you’ll realize that it’s not enough. That you need more. You need to be deliberate in exposing yourself to great thoughts and ideas about the thing(s) you love every single day.
I started with yoga books. Stacks and stacks of them, actually. These books led me to others about spirituality and philosophy. These books led me to poetry. Which, somewhat curiously, led to books about the practice of writing. Which led me, in an even more surprising twist, to discover my first “favorite” writer about the Christian faith. On and on my journey of inspiration went. Each twist and turn helped me better understand what I was really doing as unrolled my yoga mat to practice.
A practice of self-study ebbs and flows
Years later, I discovered that life commitments could still distract me from active svadhaya. One day a student recommended a yoga book that had really moved them and I noticed my reaction – “I don’t have time to read that. I simply don’t have any more time in my life for yoga!” And I meant it.
Yet another highly intellectual television show (Scooby Doo this time) popped into my mind as I thought to myself, “Ruh Roh Raggy.” I realized in a flash that I’d been kind of coasting on the “automatic” inspiration provided by the world around me. Perhaps because of the smart, curious, challenging students who fill my days and generously share quotes, ideas and thoughts with me, I hadn’t even noticed that I my active practice of self-study had all but ceased.
As is always true when you’re practicing yoga, noticing is sometimes all the inspiration you need to support the change you need to make. I signed up for a yoga workshop with a teacher I love, my first in literally years. Those two and a half days felt like drinking from the fountain of youth. I returned home feeling once again like the passionate, hungry yoga student I hadn’t realized had faded away. I can already see the positive effects of this self-study on my teaching.
This new leg of my self-study journey feels as winding as my first. Yes, I danced around excitedly when my new, hard-to-find copy of a book about Ashtanga yoga arrived. But I’m also devouring a dense, fat, challenging philosophy book called The Theory of Everything by Ken Wilber, that came up at dinner one night. I’ve also decided to spread my wings a little and will be attending two different kinds of workshops – one on Ignatian spirituality and yoga and the other on yoga philosophy.
In short, revitalizing my practice of self-study feels like I’ve upgraded my “sound system” – not just for hearing and exploring “new” music for myself, but also to share all that I discover with my students. If you, like me, ever realize that life is starting to feel a little rote, dive into a new book, or listen to a podcast you’ve heard about or sign up for a class that makes you just a little nervous. I promise a little burst of self-study can make you feel like a brand new person!
If you’re looking to reinvigorate your own practice of self-study, consider my online Yoga Philosophy course. It’s self-paced so you can squeeze it into even the busiest of weeks.