January 14, 2011

Really. Just Be Yourself.

Yoga Thoughts on the Hard Work of Svadhyaya (Self Study)

Over the weekend I went to a memorial service for a man I’d never met. He was my good friend’s father and I wanted to be there for her. Being at a funeral in empathy rather than grief is an entirely different experience. Your role is more of a witness than participant. Because I was not coping with the powerful emotions of personal loss, my focus was entirely on the service itself – particularly on the various messages of the people who spoke in tribute that afternoon.

From family member, to friend, to pastor, every speaker at the service described a practical, loving man who made a powerful impact on the world around him simply by being himself. In his homily, the pastor spoke about this being our highest purpose in life. We’re each created as uniquely gifted individuals. (There’s even a list of the types of gifts we each receive in the Bible. 1 Corinthians 12:4-6.) It is not for each of us to become heroic warriors, political leaders, rocket scientists or Nobel Peace Prize winners. The greatest hope behind our creation is that we will grow into the very best selves we can be.

While this sounds simple, we can get lost along our way in thickets of expectations (our own and others’), confusion and disappointment. It can be difficult to see the impact we’re having on the world around us while we’re in the midst of getting through a busy week, or a dark, sad period, or even an ebullient time when everything is going just right. We read about great people, we recall childhood fantasies of what we’re going to be when we grow up, we slide down the slippery slopes of comparing ourselves to others. In short, it can be profoundly easy to lose sight of who we are and what an important place in creation we hold.

Yoga can help us find our way back to understanding who we are. It can also lead us in our journey of becoming. Our ancient yoga teachers called this process svadhyaya or self-study. In fact, it is one of yoga’s key tenets. We study ourselves inside and out as we practice yoga. The knowledge we gain unfolds continuously and endlessly. As there is no end to our yoga practice, there is no end to our study of self. We’re not working to get somewhere or become something. Rather, the gifts of our study lie in the journey itself.

As part of our physical practice on our mats, yoga teaches us to see our bodies with crystal clear eyes. We get to know and understand how we’re put together in a brand new way. We become aware of all kinds of tiny, little quirks and characteristics that are wholly ours. While it’s nice to realize that our right leg is a little longer than our left, or that our left arm is stronger than our right, we learn so much more than that.

Rather than seeing our body as a collection of individual “parts,” we begin to see it (and feel it) as an integrated whole. A tight hip could affect our lower back, our feet and even our shoulders. We stop trying to “fix” and instead focus our energies on finding balance. We may also begin to understand the physical rhythms of living in our bodies. We might figure out that we’re much more flexible at night than we are in the morning. We may begin to sense that our energy levels during the day are cyclical and make an effort to get more restful sleep. We might develop a keener awareness of our nutritional needs and begin to eat better.

As our practice deepens, so do our insights and self-knowledge. We begin to understand our inner strengths and weaknesses. Over and over on our mat, we witness our reactions to challenges and successes. We watch ourselves confront exhaustion and frenetic energy. We come face to face with what motivates us, what scares us, what excites us and what fulfills us. In other words, we reacquaint ourselves with ourselves in our yoga practice. As we notice more about ourselves, we notice that we’re changing. Perhaps we find that we’re handling life more like we handle our ups and downs on our yoga mats. Perhaps we find that we’re becoming more like the person we’ve always wanted to be.

The process of developing self-knowledge takes practice. We head off down yoga’s path only to discover that it is endless. On our mats, we’re never done learning. Our bodies will continue to open, strengthen and change. So will our selves. The more self-understanding we develop, the more aware we are that we’re always changing. We’re always becoming. And this is the way we’re meant to be. It is our gift to learn and grow all our lives.

As I walked out of the memorial service on Sunday afternoon, having participated in a celebration of one man’s life, I found myself marveling at the power of being yourself. I headed back out into my life revitalized in my hopes to more fully know who I am so that I can better become the very best “me” I can be. 

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