Here's the scene, you walk into a yoga studio and see rows of mats with people stretching in very impressive ways. The teacher calls the class to start and as you attempt the movements being described you peek from the corner of your eye people who are fluidly moving in and out of these postures keeping with the rhythm of their breath. Human nature will suggest that you might want to push yourself and try some of the more advanced variations you are witnessing around you in this class, though is it always safe?

In yoga philosophy there is a seminal text known as the Yoga Sutras written by Pantanjali. This text is a series of 4 books with over 40-50 verses each which describe ways of creating balance in life through yoga. In the second book there is a verse which says in Sankskrit, “Tapas Svadyaya Ishvara Pranidanani Kriya Yogaha” which translates roughly to: heat/discipline, self study/self correction leads to personal connection with your source through the cleansing practices of yoga. What I would like to discuss in this article is the idea of Svadyaya or Self knowledge/self correction. Svadyaya is not simply studying yourself and looking at your bad habits, it is also the study of ancient text and other sources which will offer guidance for the individual to keep balanced with their yoga practice. The ultimate goal of yoga is to connect with your true Self, to be joined with the source of creation within. The idea of attaining this goal through asana or yoga poses is one that the Western world has branded and marketed as an exercise program. Here, I will not dwell on this side of yoga, that is the fancy tights and swag that accompanies most established yoga businesses. Rather, I would like to focus on the responsibility of the individual for creating positive changes in their life to stop bad habits and patterns and grow into the glorious being we are all born to be.

 

My yoga journey began a long time ago, observing my grandfather and then my father practice yoga every morning was an inspiration to me growing up. I honestly didn't realize the significance of the Sun Salutation which I witnessed daily until I began practicing myself during times of stress. When I was in my early twenties, this being after years of ballet training, I noticed many physical imbalances in my body and became curious as to how I could correct this. This is the heart of Svadyaya, take a system or an established pattern of movements such as a Sun Salutation and oberserve yourself in the process. For me I noticed shortened muscles, weak muscles and adaptations I was creating in order to 'get into the pose'. In other words, when we have imbalances or injuries in our physical body we will create the movement in another way, often at the cost of other joints in our body. For example, if you have a shoulder injury and lifting your arm above your head hurts but you still need to do this motion, you will create the idea of lifting your arm above your head by side bending your trunk to allow for the arm to be higher. This is a compensation that will create futher muscle strain in other parts of your body, but many will do this or other adaptations unconsciously. When we get hurt we move away from the pain our posture and gait can be copmletely aletered from then on. Coming back to yoga, as I was observing my own compensations from a lifetime of injuries from dancing and other activities (I have had many slips and falls) I realized that I needed to find a way to improve the balance without creating or furthering the bad habits I had adopted for so long. Like any habit that does not serve our higher good the first step is acceptance. See yourself for who you truly are and if what you are doing is creating more stress or suffering it would be a good opportunity to create a positive change. For my Sun Salutation corrections I decided to study with a variety of different experts, here I was given just as many options for doing a Sun Salutation 'correctly' as there are shades of colour in a sunset. Some offered very systematic ways of practicing with the intention of repatterning injuries, others offered me very intuitive ways of practicing which encouraged moving in ways that felt good. In the end I acknowledge both approaches and have created my own path to creating balance, this is Svadyaya.

 

When I think of Yoga I try to avoid the idea of bendy people on yoga mats wearing the trendiest attire and looking really happy. Instead I like to take a deep breath in and then follow it out observing how I feel. Before I begin my practice I sit quietly and breathe, observing what parts of my body are holding tension or that I am having a hard time relaxing, I also observe the acitivity of my mind and how challenging it is for me to quiet my thoughts so I can stay present. This is what's called a self scan or a check in, taking time before practicing to see how you are feeling right then and there. Based on how I feel at that moment I choose asana or yoga poses which are appropriate. When you are in a class full of other students and the teacher is asking you to try postures which are challenging, there is a difference between facing your fears and being recklace. Not all yoga postures are appropriate for all people, and not all yoga postures are appriopriate to be practiced everyday exaclty the same way. There are days when you may already be feeling so wound up and anxious and trying to push up into full Urdhva Dhanurasa or Supine Bow pose could actually hurl you further into a frenzy of axiety. Then again, there are days when you are so sluggish and lacking motivation to even get out of bed and if all you practice on your mat are forward folds and gentle seated poses you will likely never get your fire going enough to leave the house. In yoga terminology, bhramana postures are more invigorating and langhana postures are more calming, if you choose to practice yoga having the self knowledge of being aware of how you are feeling at the time of your practice you will have the knowledge to choose postures which are appriopriate and safe.

 

We all have differences in our anatomy, whether from birth or from injury along the way, it is important to be aware of what makes us unique so that each posture can be adapted to be apporpriate and safe. Some of the most well known images of yogis are of them sitting in full Padmasana or Lotus pose, this is when you sit with your feet folded up on your hips, it looks great and many students feel the need to attain this particular pose. Bringing Svadyaya into the practice will immediately allow one who is practicing to choose if that is an appropriate pose for them. If you have problems sitting on the ground cross legged and your hips are very tight, pushing or forcing yourself into Padmasana is going to result in further injury. In fact pushing or forcing any pose is risky business and never should you try something that is outside of your range of ability for that day.

 

Let's look at it from another perspective. I do not downhill ski, in fact the last time I tried was about 18 years ago. At that time I remember spending most of the time going down the hill on my bum! If I were given a chance to try downhill skiing again, would it be sensible for me to try a double diamond route? Most people would scream, “NO!” Let's bring this same kind of logic with us into other activities. If I am new to Yoga practice and I enter a studio with the idea of trying to get healthy and maybe a bit more flexible and strong, would it be sensible for me to try a headstand on my first day? Doesn't seem to make much sense.

 

Yoga is meant to help us connect more fully with our Self. If you are spending your time lost in thought and being completely disconnected from your body, the risk of injury goes up. If I am walking down the sidewalk in winter and it's slippery, I should be focusing on walking not on the dialogue in my head. If I am not paying attenion when I am walking I might fall over and hurt myself. Likewise, if I am practicing yoga and listening only to the diaologue in my mind, or the awesome tunes being played during class, am I putting myself at risk while in a pose? Let me also suggest that when we are practicing asana we are not simply holding a picturesque pose, we are meant to be listening to our body and our mind. When I take a back bend I might feel overwhelmed with emotions, but if I am thinking about how cool I look or how bendy I am, I am missing the point and could acutally injure myself in a way that is not physical. Emotional and mental traumas are equally addressed with every asana and any good Yoga teacher will encourage their students to have time for self reflection in every pose.

 

Svadyaya, self knowledge, self correction, this is for me the beauty of what Yoga can bring to someone looking for peace and happiness. Study your patterns, your habits, what you're attracted to and what you are averted from, ask yourself honeslty if what you are doing makes sense for you right then and there. Asana in Sanskrit for comfortable seat. If the asana is meant to be comfortable, why are you feeling the need to push harder or look like the other bendy people in your class? Turn inwards and get to know yourself, your true Self. Within all of us is an immense wisdome that is speaking to us and guiding us, all we need to do is listen.