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The Yoga of Action: Svadhyaya (Part 2/3)

Patañjali's Yoga Sutra is a mirror for self-reflection, a framework for understanding the human experience, and a primary text of the Yoga tradition. The second chapter is written for easily distracted novices - that's you and me! - and it presents the concept of kriyā yoga as the "yoga of action" that takes us to a state of Yoga. In this next part of our series, we dive into svādhyāya.

तपःस्वाध्यायेश्वरप्रणिधानानि क्रियायोगः ॥ २.१॥ tapaḥ svādhyāya īśvarapraṇidhānāni kriyāyogaḥ (Yoga Sutra 2.1)

Yoga Sutra 2.1
"The yoga of action involves purification of body and mind, study and self-reflection, and surrendering the fruits of action to a higher force" (Saraswathi Vasudevan).


This term is a beautiful coming-together of two words in Sanskrit:

sva (self) + adhyāya (movement toward) = "moving toward myself"

Within the framework of kriyā yoga, we understand this concept to mean self-reflection. Svādhyāya also encourages us to engage in study and practices that facilitate such reflection. If tapas is the fire that clears our lens, svādhyāya is turning that clear lens inward. If tapas is the attention we bring to our actions, svādhyāya is the awareness of "Who am I being in this moment?"

I consider svādhyāya as both map and compass. Explorers draw maps to chart their location. Similarly, svādhyāya asks, "Where am I at this moment within my interior geography? Am I located in fear? trust? shame? joy? ..." A savvy explorer pairs their map with a compass so they can adjust their direction in realtime. Likewise, svādhyāya is the invitation to observe where we're headed and to recalibrate our orientation as we journey onward.

Svādhyāya in action!

As we noted with tapas, a key point to hold here is that when engaging with self-reflective practices and study, judgement will attempt to distract us into "should" and "shouldn't" - as in, "I should be a happy person" or "I shouldn't say mean things." My teacher reminds us often that The Judge is just another aspect of our human condition that tends to pull us into a mind-loop of injuctions. We can, however, choose to relate to it with neutrality rather than identifying with it: "Oh, you're here. Again. Well, you can talk, but I don't have to listen."

All right - we've brought the attention of tapas to our actions, which helps clarify our perspective. Now how do we apply the awareness of svādhyāya? A simple starting point is daily bookends (no, not the cutesy ones on your shelf). First thing in the morning, sit quietly for long enough to ask yourself, "Where am I headed today? Where is my compass pointing? How would I like to get there?" Then at the end of the day, sit quietly again for long enough to consider, "What happened today? Were my actions grounded in clarity? Am I progressively moving toward a steady mind and away from agitation?" You can even journal your thoughts, if so inclined!

Let's conclude with a small story about maps and compasses:

Mr. Desikachar once asked a student, "If you were to travel across a vast desert, what one thing would you carry with you?" She considered the question before responding that she really wasn't sure. His clear answer was, "I would take the Yoga Sutra. But not the book; I would carry it in my heart."

Where are you going? And what are you bringing with you to help navigate the way?


When you feel ready to turn your awareness inward, I invite you to open your journal and observe what arises in response to some reflection questions:

  • How can I bring a quality of awareness to my actions and interactions today?

  • What frameworks, beliefs, or values do I carry in my heart? And how do they help or hinder me in understanding myself?

  • How do my daily practices or spiritual rituals guide me in the direction I want to go?

  • What internal patterns am I reinforcing that pull me in the opposite direction?

  • How do I relate to The Judge? Can I make it into a friend rather than a foe?

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