We are currently exploring, in class, the archetype of the Warrior-Saint: a fusion of our ‘will to self-sovereignty’ tempered by compassion and a drive to serve others in love. Growth towards the light side of the archetype are found in the observation of a set of inner ethics or practices to be cultivated.

These habits or dispositions are expressed yogically in Patanjali’s 5 niyamas- a set of inner ethics- that the yogi uses for navigation through life’s turbulence. Last week we explored Tapas.

This week we explore the concept of Svādhyāya.

The Niyamas- internal ethics

The niyamas are a set of 5 virtuous habits that we must try to embody. They are as follows:

  1. Śauca: purity, clearness of mind, speech and body
  2. Santoṣa: contentment, patience, acceptance of others, acceptance of one’s circumstances as they are in order to get past or change them, optimism for self, being in the moment
  3. Tapas: fire, glow, persistence, perseverance, discipline, containment of one’s energy
  4. Svādhyāya: study of self, self-reflection, introspection of self’s thoughts, speeches and actions, self-discipline
  5. Īśvarapraṇidhāna: contemplation of the Ishvara (God/Supreme Being, Brahman, True Self, Unchanging Reality), surrender, service to That which is greater than ourselves

The Path of Self-Discipline: Svādhyāya

Svādhyāya is literally’ the study of the self’ or ‘self-reading’.


Study thy self, discover the divine.

— Patanjali’s Yogasutra, II.44

The art of Self-reading requires and embodies self-discipline.

The words ‘self-discipline’ may make many of us run screaming to the hills! They may make us cringe or cower and begin to think of the times and ways in which we lack self-discipline. They are words that induce feelings of failure or lack.

But let’s begin again in greeting these two words and give them a bit of a make-over. To do this, we will go back to Ancient Greece…

Greek philosophy centred on the belief that a good life was rooted in self-knowledge: if you know who you are- with all your strengths and all your weaknesses- then you are primed and ready for what life can throw at you. Self-knowledge is a tool of self-mastery. Inscribed on the walls of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi was the Greek phrase “Gnothi Seauton!” which means “Know Thyself!”, much like Patanjali’s view in the sutra above. You can build on your strengths and gifts, and you can work on the weaknesses. You can tailor your experiences around self-knowledge. For example, if I have issues with addiction then I want to stay away from potential flashpoints. If I know I am poor at time-keeping then I work hard to be on time, or put mechanisms in place to help me.

Self-knowledge is a process. As we grow and experience new things we learn about ourselves: “I never knew I had it in me!“, we may shout in exhilaration after our first bungee jump! “I thought I’d be able to cope with this...”, we sink into ourselves in the face of some home truths. “How could I have been so stupid?“, harsh words we have with ourselves. But out of self-observing and experiencing, we grow in self-knowledge: if we can be brutally honest with ourselves, and admit our failings out loud in a neutral way, then VAST healing takes place. The Truth shall, indeed, set you free.

Like the Greeks, the yogis saw self-knowledge as crucial to our development. But what are developing into?

We are not aiming at perfection, as that is unattainable. We are aiming at excellence. Excellence is a state of self-mastery. It is when, repeatedly, we have unfolded and unfolded and unfolded every dark corner of ourselves until we can see how we are put together. We know who we are. And this is an ongoing journey. It is a process. Many call this state of excellence ‘enlightenment’. It is when I am fully illuminated, and every dark corner of Self has been uncurled, like a petal, in a loving and compassionate manner. The map can be read in full Light of day. Every pattern, habit, foible, quirk, tic, weakness and gorgeous imperfection is laid out in a neutral way and can be attended to.

The Road to Excellence

How do we attain this state of excellence? Of self-mastery? With self-discipline.

In yogic terms, self-discipline means showing up on our mat, as regularly as possible, to do our practices; our kriyas, our breathing techniques, our meditations. Self-discipline means showing up for your Self. Not for anyone else. Not for brownie points with your teacher. Not to be able to call yourself a ‘yogi’. Not for any other reason than you truly, madly, deeply want to examine this thing called Self from 360 degrees and to see what lies beyond it!

On the mat you pick the thing to work on that is a weakness in you. Your strengths are already strong so need no further building today. Go for the weak spots. In Kundalini Yoga we have a huge wealth of practices. If your liver complains a lot, then pick a liver strengthing kriya with a meditation to release inner anger. If you pick up others’ energy everywhere you go, pick an aura building kriya and a meditation for the arc-line. If you don’t know what your weakness is, then pick a practice you hate and wrestle it down to the ground with daily practice until you have mastered it!

Building on our strengths is the easy road. Like the artist who has mastered oil paints but struggles with water-colours, does she keep churning our more of the same, mastered works in oils? Or does she approach the water-colours, her nemesis(!), in a playful and gritty way? The choice is always yours…but this form of self-discipline is a sure-fire way to excellence/ self-mastery.

Self-Discipline as Self-Hatred?

As a trainee Kundalini Yoga instructor, I witnessed (and self-observed) the pull of self-discipline as another whipping boy in my life. I like to throw myself into things with gusto, and we were given practice after practice, piled one on top of the other, to be getting on with as homework. I did those things. They were part of my training. I went through the experience of dragging myself to my mat at 5am every day. I sweated, fought, raged, ached and stretched…

…and one day I stopped fighting them. I woke up and was drawn to my mat with a very different feeling. I showed up, sat down, tuned in with my mantras and breathed myself into a space of deep contentment. I got it. My practice unfurled like a sweet morning mist.

To break old habits, we need to carve out new paths. One day of walking through a dense forest does not make a path. But repeatedly walking through that forest the same way every day, a path begins to emerge. A new track has been set. In yoga, daily return to a specific discipline makes new tracks through the forest; it carves new pathways. These pathways of action in our body (through postures, breathwork and meditations) are also mirrored in the brain, as we lay down new neural pathways.

Self-discipline feels like hard work. And it is, in the beginning. But, it MUST be fuelled by self-curiosity, a need to ‘Know Thyself!’, and not fuelled by self-hatred. Many use yoga as an extreme- like over-exercising- to self-chastise, self-punish. This is not yoga, but equally, it is a pattern to be observed. And once we’ve spotted it, we can do something about it. That IS yoga.

Sadhana, Aradhana, Prabhupati

My experience of raging at the early morning starts and sweating in the early hours over my yoga, to a sweetly-unfolding experience that I began to leap out of bed for, highlights (even though I didn’t know it at the time) a progression that is known as sadhana, aradhana and prabhupati. It is a progression from the challenging fires of self-discipline (sadhana), through a shift in attitude where that fire begins a glow in us that lifts us above the grit of discipline where a new horizon is revealed (aradhana). Beyond this lies the realm of neutrality- a level of mastery where we see the world as it is, without the lenses or motivations of value judgements, such as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (prabhupati). In the language of psychology, prabhupati is where the conscious mind merges with the subconscious mind and wholeness takes place. There are no more unfolded dark corners. All is revealed. Hence Patanjali says, “Study thy self, discover the divine.”

And this is not just on your mat! Discipline becomes a way of life of Self-Watching. All life becomes our practice. Discipline becomes a quality rather than a quantity; it is a state of being rather than a list of tasks to complete. What happens on a yoga mat is simply a microcosm of your wider life: but it is a clever microcosm in which your attitudes and habits are writ large enough for you to see them…and in seeing, shifting and changing. Clever.

A Definition of Self-Discipline:

Doing what is possible with consistency.

Next week: The Way of the Warrior Saint- The Path of Devotion: Īśvarapraṇidhāna