Yoga offers ancient solutions to modern problems. But you could also say yoga offers ancient solutions to ancient problems, because when things go sideways in our lives, the themes are as old as the sun. Grief, loss, disappointment, illness, anger, pain, frustration, loneliness: none of these are unique to the modern world. Your girlfriend may have broken up with you over Snapchat, but there’s nothing newfangled about the heartbreak you feel.
In this series of blog posts, I discuss yogic practices that we can use to navigate difficult times. In previous posts, I looked at the five yamas: ahimsa, satya, asteya, brahmacharya, and aparigraha; and the first three niyamas: saucha, santosha, and tapas. Today I’ll be focusing on the fourth niyama, svadhyaya (“svud-YAH-yah”).
Svadhyaya can be understood as “self-study, and study of sacred texts”. How can we practice svadhyaya during times of difficulty? Here are some thoughts:
Study of sacred texts: Using texts to better understand human nature and the meaning of life is a time-honoured tradition. From religious tomes to self-help paperbacks, people have long sought out guidance in the form of the written word; this, in essence, is svadhyaya. And while a practice of svadhyaya is not necessarily limited to the sacred texts of yoga, there are many yogic texts worth studying (see reading list below). Here’s one example:
The Bhagavad Gita, written between 1000-700 BCE, is a fundamental text of Hinduism. Although the story takes place in the middle of a bloody battlefield, Mahatma Gandhi called it his “spiritual dictionary”. The story relays a conversation between Arjuna and Lord Krishna (a Hindu deity who has taken the form of Arjuna’s charioteer). Arjuna is there to battle his extended family, who have stolen control of the kingdom from him and his brothers. But as he looks out at the battlefield, he recognizes his uncles, cousins, teachers, and friends. He throws down his weapons and tells Lord Krishna that he refuses to destroy his family over a kingdom. Krishna proceeds to explain to Arjuna why it is his dharma (duty) to fight in this battle, and only by performing his duty can Arjuna be released from the samsaric cycle of birth and death (reincarnation).
Self-study: Before studying The Bhagavad Gita, I didn’t understand the concept of dharma. I imagined it as a kind of mystical realization that would come to me in a dream when I was sufficiently enlightened. Luckily, my ever-practical mentor Jamine brought it down to earth for me. She said, “Think of the stuff you already do. It’s likely that you’re already doing your dharmic work.” I thought about my life and the roles I play. I’m a partner to my husband and a parent to my kid. And I’m not parenting just any kid, I’m parenting my specific kid. If you believe in the samsaric cycle of birth and death, you might also believe that my specific kid was reincarnated to his specific parents for, possibly, specific reasons. I don’t know what those reasons are, but, having made the decision to be his mom, I feel it’s my duty to follow through and raise him as well as I can.
This hit home for me last year when I spent a week at the Sivananda Ashram on Paradise Island, Bahamas. It was the first extended holiday I had ever taken away from my husband and son. I imagined that I would miss them terribly and be anxious to get home. In fact, this didn’t happen. There’s something magical about ashram life. My practice changed so profoundly in such a short time that I found myself daydreaming about extending my visit by signing on as a karma yogi and staying for three months. The pull to be single, autonomous, and untethered was real. Luckily, one of the evening lectures was on Arjuna and his duty as a warrior, reminding me that my dharmic work was unfinished, and I needed to brush the sand off my ass and get back to the Canadian winter where my family was waiting for me. This realization only stung for the briefest of moments, because, ultimately, the satisfaction of owning my dharma overpowered my desire to be untethered. There’s something wonderful that comes from knowing your place in this world.
Svadhyaya in difficult times: There are many excellent books to guide people through difficult times. Some people find solace in spiritual or self-help books. Others find it encouraging to read firsthand accounts of people who have overcome tragic circumstances. The following is a list of books that have seen me through some big challenges:
The Secret Power of Yoga: A Woman’s Guide to the Heart and Spirit of the Yoga Sutras by Nischala Joy Devi
The Bhagavad Gita translated by Eknath Easwaran
The Bhagavad Gita translated by Stephen Mitchell
Eastern Body Western Mind: Psychology and the Chakra System as a Path to the Self by Anodea Judith
Bringing Yoga to Life: The Everyday Practice of Enlightened Living by Donna Farhi
When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chödrön
The Wisdom of No Escape: And the Path of Loving-Kindness by Pema Chödrön
The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times by Pema Chödrön
Feeding Your Demons: Ancient Wisdom for Resolving Inner Conflict by Tsultrim Allione
Turning the Mind into an Ally by Sakyong Mipham
Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu, translated by Ursula K. Le Guin
Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu, translated by Stephen Mitchell
The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle
A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle
Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow by Elizabeth Lesser
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Fankl
Like any practice, it’s much easier to develop a practice of svadhyaya when things are going well. That way, when life becomes a struggle, you already have the habit in place.
How else can you practice svadhyaya in difficult times? Let me know in the comments section below.
Image © 2017 Erin Bidlake