The fourth niyama, svadhaya, can be translated as “spiritual study” or “self-study”. Devi translates it as “sacred study of the Divine through scripture, nature, and introspection”, which is wordy but a very complete description. Svadhaya is important because we’re all seekers on our own path of spiritual understanding. If you don’t seek, if you don’t study, you’re not going to get anywhere.
There are many ways to practice svadhaya. The most obvious (possibly even the most direct translation) is to study spiritual books. The Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, whatever spiritual book calls out to you. But it’s more than just reading the book: if I pick up a Bible and I read a story about a guy who got eaten by a whale, then I think “What a funny story!” and I move on. What we really need to do is not only to read the story, but to think on it, ponder it, discover its deeper meanings. Jonah got eaten by a whale because he said no to God; he turned his back on the gifts and talents God gave him, on the work he was meant to do. It’s not a story about a whale, it’s a story about discovering and accepting your purpose. It’s also a story about surrendering to God’s will, which we’ll talk more about when we get to the last niyama, isvara pranidhana. There are many meanings to discover; each time we read the story, we may find something new that relates to our own lives. That’s why these are the sacred books: people have been finding meaning in them for thousands of years. These stories endure and have meaning for young people, old people, men, women, people of different races, ancient peasants and modern CEOs. We can do a lot worse than to study these books. By reading the Yoga Sutras, reading the commentary on them, and thinking it through to add my own commentary, I’m engaging in svadhaya right now (and I have been for weeks! Score!).
Books about sacred practice are also valuable. Before bed every night I like to read about Buddhism and meditation. Thich Nhat Hanh is one of my favorite writers of this sort of book. Written in simple, beautiful language, Hanh’s books calm my spirits and give me faith and hope (all of which makes it easier to sleep). I also read practical books about how to meditate: I’ve read Pema Chödrön, and right now I’m reading Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche (who based on his cover photo seems like he must be the nicest man in the world). These books are most useful to me, again, when instead of just reading and saying “that’s nice”, I actually go on to use their strategies and practice the techniques.
Satchidananda says that any spiritual practice that you regularly engage in can be a practice of svadhaya. I think something like saying the rosary would fall into this category: it’s a spiritual practice that can be done regularly and that leads to a meditative or contemplative state. Whether you attend a daily religious service, meditate, roll out your prayer rug five times a day, light incense at your family altar, or just go hiking in the woods or ladle soup at a homeless shelter: whatever it is, if you’re doing it thoughtfully and with your full attention, it can be a practice of svadhaya. Mindfulness is key: most of us have known someone who practiced their religion in a huge, time-intensive way, but yet came out of that daily practice with a holier-than-thou attitude. The point of religious practice isn’t to pump up our egos (most of us don’t need any help with that!), it’s to deepen our connection to the Divine.
Last month in class, J told us that svadhaya is important because, simply, it’s really helpful to study the words of those who came before. If we’re following in someone else’s footsteps, it just makes things easier: we already have a map to where we’re going, and we don’t have to break our own trail. In the book Finding Your Religion, Rev. Scotty McLennan likens spiritual searching to hiking up a mountain. There are a bunch of paths going up the mountain already, some more and some less traveled. If you pick one, you’re going to have an easier time of it and will make more progress than if you were off hacking through the brush yourself. You’ll meet more fellow travelers who can help you on the path, and you don’t have to stick to just one path: the paths cross back and forth, all the time, so if you pick one, you’re not committed forever, you can switch to a different one whenever you want. Just pick one and get started. In my yoga practice, I have a lineage and tradition that I’m following (J was taught by Jai Deva Yogendra, who is the son of Sri Yogendra, who founded the Yoga Institute and was a great guru). What J is teaching me was passed down to him from Sri Yogendra, so there’s an established path for me to follow, and I can look to Sri Yogendra’s teachings and example for help on the way. I can also look to others, like Patanjali in the distant past and Thich Nhat Hanh in the modern day. It doesn’t have to be someone from the East, either: I get a lot of inspiration from attending my Unitarian Universalist church. Many people look to American philosophers like Emerson and Thoreau for guidance, or poets like Whitman or Mary Oliver, or religious theorists like Thomas Merton. They can all be guides on the journey.