The great Thai forest Buddhist monk, Ajahn Chah, was asked if it was advisable to read or study the scriptures as a part of practice. He replied “The Dhamma of the Buddha is not found in books. If you want to really see for yourself what the Buddha was talking about, you don’t need to bother with books. Watch your own mind. Examine to see how feelings come and go, how thoughts come and go. Don’t be attached to anything. Just be mindful of whatever there is to see. …….. Be natural, everything you do in your life here is a chance to practice. When you do your chores, try to be mindful. …… don’t feel you are practicing only when sitting still, cross-legged. If there is enough time to breathe then there is enough time to practice. this is your meditation: mindfulness, naturalness in whatever you do.”
Ajahn Chah’s advice here cuts straight through to the essence of all spiritual work or practice; to watch oneself, ideally at all times. To develop this takes time and practice and the interest and willingness to look within. the other practices we come across in yoga need to be done in this manner but also serve to develop the ability of self-observation. All these practices use the breath, especially at the initial stages. The breath is both the grossest subtle thing we can grasp and the subtlest gross thing. Just to pay attention to that, even if just doing an asana, begins the process of self-awareness, self-observation. If you stop now and take a deep breath, see where your attention goes. It must follow the breath and the feeling inside. The inner journey has begun. To keep this up, day after day, year after year, in all activities not just yoga practices, builds a deeper sense of personal observation and awareness.
Related to all this is the subject of ‘Svadhyaya’. It is traditionally explained as study of one’s own subject, which in older style India meant your branch of the Vedas. In modern terms we can’t limit all peoples everywhere to such a narrow focus. Two aspects come up here. Study of scriptural texts, which books on the Yoga Sutras define it as, and study of yourself. Often we hear of recitation of mantra as the vehicle for this. Again the reach of yoga goes across all borders to all people. In its finite the practice of watching yourself is its real message.
The study of scripture and recitation of mantra have positive value toward this though. Ajahn Chah’s words above are very clear as without this self-observation all other practice and study is almost a waste of time. But we are advised to read the scriptures as these contain universal truths that aren’t to be read like a novel. The reading of them forces us to pause and contemplate ourselves. They also offer a guide of true practice that keeps us from falling in to our circular patterns where what we think is self-examination turns out to be brooding, judging and criticism. Just the flip side of the ego coin. Hence mantra. Its vibrations are powerful and ideally is transmitted in an appropriate way. As you go on reciting it the mind is trained and guided on an inner path.
Svadhyaya comes up twice in the Yoga Sutras. First under Kriya Yoga and secondly as part of the Niyamas. Scholars and practitioners will always present slightly varying views on this and their meaning. You can see it as twofold. One is practical, what you must do, which boils down to study and mantra. Secondly, as an ongoing attitude, a constant observation. “How did I just respond now? ; what am I feeling now? ; where is my breath at? ; what is my inner reaction upon hearing such a thing? And so on. This must then mature to the ability to view, almost from afar, how I walk, talk, sleep, eat, behave in general. Again to quote Ajahn Chah “You sustain awareness at every moment and in every posture, whether standing, walking, sitting or lying down. Before you perform any action, speak or engage in conversation, establish awareness first – don’t act or speak first, establish mindfulness first and then act or speak.”
The study and practices are there to help cultivate the ability to be present at all times, mindful. But our mind must also be directed in this way, to want to watch ourself.
Yoga is useless without such a mindfulness. In fact, technically, you can’t call it yoga. It just falls under some other category. Sutra 28 in the first pada highlights this too. In a general sense, whether repetition of mantra or any other practice, asana, etc. that you are doing you must feel it, be part of it, connected. This means you must be watching what you are doing. It boils down to where the mind is at. As you do your asana see where your mind has gone and bring it back to the pose, the feeling and the breath. Ideally the teacher can help guide you more. You are now cultivating the art of self observation, mindfulness.
To highlight such a point I can conclude this with a quote from modern science:
“The discovery that neuroplasticity cannot occur without attention has important implications. If a skill becomes so routine you can do it on autopilot, practicing it will no longer change the brain. And if you take up mental exercises to keep your brain young, they will not be as effective if you become able to do them without paying much attention.”
Read more of the Yoga & Life Series:
Paul is a senior teacher of Pranayama, Asana and the meditative art and science of Yoga. He has been a dedicated student for over a decade of both Sri O.P.Tiwari, one of the few remaining classical yogis and masters of Pranayama, and the late Sri K. Pattabhi Jois in ashtanga vinyasa. Both of these great teachers have personallycertified Paul in these practices, a unique position as the only one to receive this double honor. One of his main gifts is to be able to relate the teachings in a very down-to-earth way for the modern seeker. He does not take life or yoga too seriously and as a result the discussions and philosophical sessions are lively and humorous, helping to explain the meaning behind the practices and philosophy. For more please see his full bio. Paul is the founder and director of Samahita Yoga Thailand, a premier retreat center in Asia, and Centered Yoga, a leading yoga training school since 1999.