Posts Tagged ‘Svadhyaya’

The Contentment in Right Action

Wednesday, July 17th, 2013

The Contentment in Right Action

Yoga is the practice of self-awareness. It’s goals are freedom, Self realization, divine expression. Satya is about living our truth. Finding our truth, both on and off the mat, can be challenging. Svadhyaya (self-study) is the means.

By Kathi Burke

A life story:

Recently, my directors announced that there would be no raises for the fifth consecutive year. We’ve grown too large and our profit margin too small. Despite their request for feedback, I kept my own counsel. My thoughts were most likely controversial ones and I have worked for many years on curbing my often passionate and impulsive flow of words.

After allowing my ideas to percolate, I wrote them. I suggested we increase salaries to a few, should there be a small overage. I advanced the theory that the youngest faculty, who were often repaying loans and prohibitive insurance costs were working for entry-level salaries, thus more negatively impacted by budgetary constraints. I proposed that the best and brightest of these were the agency’s future but also were most likely to be recruited to work elsewhere.  I named a few and took the opportunity to share my pleasure in working with an excellent young teacher for the past two years.

Long story short, I made a mistake. I said something else. In order to dispel the characteristic notion that “no one is hiring”, I shared that I knew that at least one school district had already approached my exemplary colleague with an offer. I pushed SEND. Then, I was flooded with regret.

Satya requires us to take the next “right action” in any given moment. Just because something is truthful, it does not make it right to share. I called my colleague and told on myself only to find out that she and a few others had been given a retroactive increase two days prior from some grant monies. WOW! I was overjoyed! How wonderful!

Not even close.  A day later the raise was retracted. The reason, of course, was my letter. They saw the fact that she hadn’t shared the offer as subversive and offensive. We were shocked! I was guilty of every possible charge I could muster against myself. We engaged in debating the fairness of their decisions for some time; and then it hit me.

Svadhyaya requires letting go of results and complete immersion of oneself in the process.  At the core of self-study is the attitude of non-attachment.  I’ve acknowledged my overly zealous nature. My passion can champion many causes well, but it can also obscure my truth.  I recently read that through santosa we end the war with reality. When we are attached to a particular outcome, we often aren’t able to perceive truth. When invested in our own view, we obscure the views of others. Our curiosity in possibilities is suppressed; as we build our case, we move away from the core of our being.

This problem wasn’t about them, how rational or irrational their decision. It wasn’t even about my colleague. It was about my sharing information that wasn’t mine to share, an old character flaw of impulsive zeal. I stopped participating. I accepted full blame. I apologized. Then I went home and wrote a check. When I put it in the mail the next morning, a sense of calm and freedom returned. This summer, each time I choose not to make an unnecessary purchase, I am reminded to be grateful for the assistance in erasing a samskara, one of attaching myself too passionately to an outcome.

In yogic philosophy,  samskaras cycle through many lives. Only through the awareness of these negative traits through svadhyaya, do we avail ourselves of the opportunity to grow into our divinity and to abandon these patterns. The object of self-study is an emerging awareness of the divinity within. The single most profound illusion is our misguided belief that we are separate from god. It is in birthing the realization that we carry the divine within us that we grow in satya and santosa.

The mat story:

While I’ve had a lifetime to work on the observance of self-study and the restraints of truthfulness, I am in my infancy applying these concepts to the mat. Seneca wrote: “It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare; it is because we do not dare that things are difficult.” Getting caught up in my “story” of injury and poor health distorts my truth on the mat. Recognizing and embracing my improving health will serve me better as I relax into today.

Svadhyaya requires me to put my reactions aside with my “story”.  I can learn to examine my fear, my distrust and my attitudes about specific postures truthfully and with curiosity only when I release my grip and practice non-attachment. I know from life experiences that when I invest in outcomes, I loose my availability for growth and contentment.

I find that when I approach the mat with fear, I am unable to remain still in body and mind, thus becoming unavailable to learn the lessons I require to grow. If I obsess about what I am “unable to do”, I will make that my reality. Letting go of fear will bring greater sensation, awareness and growth.

As with my zealotry in my work life, my fear of physical weakness and strength in balance may be another samskara waiting to be released.

Kathi Burke is the mother of three grown children and lives in Troy, NY with her husband of 40 years and her Jack Russell, Pepper. She finds joy as a speech pathologist working with young children and  in teaching a movement form combining martial, healing and dance arts called NIA.


Friday, December 7th, 2012
This picture was taken by Eileen Muir the other day. Owls have been turning up a lot in her life lately. There is something to be said of the symbolism of different animals. When we get to spend time with them in the wild we often feel blessed.
The experience of communing with a wild animal is often granted to us when we find stillness and silence in the woods. In the context of the practice of Yoga, these chance communions can fill us with sattva and allow us glimpses of purusha. Achieving this stillness often requires an awareness of self. In this sense these moments are opportunities for svadhyaya, or study of the self, a niyama from the second limb of Yoga


By Mary Oliver

When the owl

on her plush and soundless wings


from the black waves

of the oak leaves,

or floats

out of the needles

of the pines

that are moaning,

that are tossing,

I think:

o she is beautiful

with her eyes

like burning moons,

with her feet

like twisted braids

of old gold

flexing and curling-

and I am glad to see her-

some wild loyalty has me

to the root of the heart-

even when she ruffles down

into the feild

and she jabs like a mad thing

and it’s hopeless,

it’s also wonderful,

so I thank whatever made her-

this beast of a bird

with her thick breast

and her shimmering wings-

whose nest, in the dark trees,

is trimmed with screams and bones-

whose beak

is the most terrible cup

I will ever enter.


Owls have held powerful symbolism for many indigenous cultures. The book Animal Speak by Ted Andrews offers this survey on different cultural perspectives of the owl’s significance:

Owls: the mystery of magic, omes, silent wisdom and vision in the night

Symbol of feminine, moon, night- ties to fertility and seduction
worshiped as idol and hated as reincarnation of the devil
Great healing powers- bird of prophecy and wisdom
Greeks- associated w athena- higher wisdom “gaurdian of the acropolis”
Gnostics- associated w lillith- first wife of adam who refused to be submissive
Pawnee- protection
Ojibwa- evil and death
Pueblo- skeleton man- god of death/also fertility
symbolically associated with clairvoyance, astral projection, magic
Ancient rome- beleifs that owls extract secrets- a symbol of the darkness within
***One who works with owl medicine will be able to see and hear what others try to hide. you will hear what is not being said, and you will see what is hidden or in the shadows…this can make others uncomfortable because they will not be able to deceive you about their motives or actions. Owl people have a unique ability to see into the darkness of others souls and life. This is very scary to most people.***
Owls fly silently- those with owl totems should practice silence- keep silent and go about your buisness- this will bring you the greatest success.

The Isvara Sutras: 1:23-1:27

Monday, January 30th, 2012

As part of the practice of Svadhyaya, introspection through study of scripture, students from the 2011/12 200 hour teacher training were asked to contemplate the Isvara Sutras, 1:23 through 1:27, in Edwin Bryant’s translation of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The following post provides examples of how students responded to Bryant’s interpretation and how the sutras resonated for them.

Erin McNally, 200/hr Teacher Training Student 2011

Sutra 1.23

Isvara-pranidhanad va

Or, [this previously mentioned state is attainable] from devotion to the lord.

Bryant: Devotion to God is the quickest way to samprajnata-samadhi; vision of the self by grace of god. This is achieved with bhakti-visesa; “simply by the yogis longing”. Devotion is in meditating on Isvara with love, and the actions of the yogi are desireless, entailing “devoting all one’s actions to the Lord, desiring no fruit for oneself.” The nature of Isvara is also revealed in this sutra: “he is untouched by the deposits of samskaras, fructification of karma, karma, or the obstacles to the practice of yoga, the klesas of II.3: nescience, ego, attachment, aversion, and the will to live.”


Isvara-pranidhanad va is the sutra that establishes how one either includes devotion to the lord into one’s practice or has that become the main method of practice. It would seem to me that, in order to achieve this level of devotion, the yogi needs the foundations set out in the 8 limbs of Yoga. Especially in the case of cultivating desireless action. But Bryant makes a case for the fact that this sutra describes the niyama Isvara-pranidhana as the only effective way to attain samprajnata-samadhi without delay. So the yogi who devotes one’s self to this practice may achieve the goals of yoga faster. But the tone of the commentary is that, while Isvara-pranidhana is a way in and of itself to attain Samadhi, it is  not the only way, and not the mandatory way. I think that this sutra sheds light on not only what one is devoting one’s self to in Isvara, but also what devotion actually is, desireless love.

Sutra 1.24

Klesa-karma-vipakasayair aparamrstah purusa-visesa Isvarah

The Lord is a special soul. He is untouched by the obstacles [to the practice of yoga], karma, the fructification  [of karma] and subconscious predispositions.

Bryant: Discusses the nature of Ivara according to Patanjali and locates the historical context that the sutras were written in terms of what Isvara is. Debates whether Isvara is to be understood as a creator god or as an entity or being representing pureness. Clarifies the difference between Isvara as purusa and the rest of purusa as experienced by all other beings. Isvara is free from four of the conditions of samsara, the klesas: ignorance, ego, attachment, aversion and the will to live, Karma, vipaka: the fruit of Karma-, and asaya (that which lies stored): vasanas (habits) and samskaras. Also notes that, while liberated yogis have broken free from these conditions of samsara, Isvara is not like these liberated purusas because he never was touched by these circumstances.


The clarification that this sutra offers on the nature of Isvara helps to explain how devotion to Isvara is a specific way for the yogi to have purusa revealed and thus find Samadhi. If Isvara was like other yogis in nature that had experienced and had been liberated from the conditions of samsara, it could follow that one could tap into the enlightenment offered by devotion to Isvara by devoting one’s self to any liberated yogi. This argument is not explicitly made by Bryant but it is within my reasoning on what Isvara is.

The time taken by Bryant to establish the historical context of Isvara helps to explain why, in Patanjali’s text, there is a level of ambiguity over what kind of God Isvara is. I’d like to believe, and Bryant argues, that Patanjali had foresight into the potential aversion to theism that some yogis may employ, and wanted to present the universal truth in the system of yoga without clouding it in a argument over the nature of God. As Bryant says “I’d like to imagine that Patanjali is too sophisticated and broad minded a thinker to risk sectarianizing the otherwise universalistic tenor of the sutras and thereby alienating the aspiring yogis with theistic (or non-theistic) orientations different than his own”

Sutra 1.25

tatra niratisayam sarvajna-bijam

In him, the seed of omniscience is unsurpassed.

Bryant: The phrasing of Isvara’s omniscience as ‘unsurpassed’ indicates that there are levels of all knowing. While this seems odd, the sutra means to clarify the difference between Isvara’s omniscience and the omniscience gained through practice or devotion by the yogi (or Jains and Buddhists). Again, Isvara’s is pure, having never been touched by ignorance. Bryant also explains that because Isvara is pure sattva, his “awareness can be in simultaneous contact with everything, that is, omniscience.”  This differs from the human experience of awareness due to the experience of gaining knowledge through the senses, “which is limited by the tamasic element in the senses of their particular bodies”.


While these Sutras set out to clarify the nature of Isvara, they also help to illuminate the restrictions that embodied beings have, i.e. the quality of the senses in terms of the gunas. The explanation here offered by Bryant of how Isvara’s awareness differs from embodied beings helps to further explain what pure sattva is.  While we can read sutra 1.24 and know a list of what Isvara is not, we can only infer what that means he is. By the clarification of what Isvara is in this sutra, sattva, we can come to understand what pureness may look like. In some ways I believe that, although Patanjali is not forcing theism into the practice of yoga, the knowledge available in devotion to Isvara is unlike any other; it is knowledge of purity.

Sutra 1.26

purvesam api guruh kalenanavacchedat

Isvara was also the teacher of the ancients, because he is not limited by time.

Bryant: Isvara is eternal, not subjected to the limitations of time. This is because, according to the cosmology of Yoga, time is “the movement of the gunas of prakrti, that is, the movement of matter.” Isvara is purusa. And Purusa is eternal, whether the special purusa that is Isvara or the purusa in all beings.


The question of what is purusa is touched on here.  We know that Isvara  is a special kind of purusa. The eternal nature of this purusa helps to illuminate to the yogi that even time, which is bound to matter, is not experienced by purusa, Isvara can bestow the knowledge of eternal purusa on yogis because, as purusa, as eternal and not bound by prakrti, the knowledge given is current, present, aware. Not tied to the time or current-ness or awareness of a teacher from another expression of the gunas, or rather, another time

Sutra 1.27

tasya vacakah pranavah

The name designating him is the mystical syllable om.

Bryant: Om is a “sonar incarnation of Brahman”. Om as Isvara is not a culturally agreed upon association of a word to a thing, it is “an eternal designation not assigned by human convention or socially agreed upon usage”. Om is imbued with the power of Isvara. Because om is linked to prakrti by sound which is accessed by the senses, it is a means of allowing praktri to access Isvara, who is otherwise not on the plane pf prakrti.


Om is like a key into a different system of language. Yogis use om to access Isvara from prakrtic existence. Om is a tool, passed down through time by beings bound in praktri, that creates a sonar bridge from matter to soul.


Libby Madden:200/hr Teacher Training Student 2011

Photo credit: Benjamin Rosser

Isvara pranidhana

Summary of Edwin’s translation: the goal of yoga is attainable by the grace of God. Through devotion, bhakti, god bestows his grace upon the yogi and the yogi is gifted with the fruits of Samadhi. Devotion to the lord entails the dedication of all actions to god with no expectation for fruits, and as such the ego melts away and the being is pure and centered. Concentration and meditation on the Lord as represented in the syllable, “om” with loving devotion leads to the realization of the purusa and liberation for the practitioner. Through dedication to Isvara the highest form of Samadhi can be attained, as by a simple act of grace Isvara can free the yogi from his or her material bonds. Isvara is a soul, but a special soul free of all obstacles and samsara, an eternal being untouched by time.  Pattanjali promotes a theistic yoga practice. One may practice the path of yoga non-theistically, but pattanjali promotes devotion to god as the highest path, and performing the guidelines of the yoga sutras with the attitude of devotion to god accelerates the practitioner to the ultimate goal of Samadhi.

Isvara is a special soul. Eternal and untouched by time, he was never once bound to the kind of life and samskaras like other beings. Therefore he is not some liberated yogi, he is beyond that. Isvara’s relationship to the material world and whether or not he has created it is not discussed, and pattanjali is primarily concerned with the function of Isvara in the path of yogic liberation. Though not much is explicitly stated in the Sutras about pattanjali’s view of Isvara (as Visnu, Shiva, etc.), it can be assumed that he was influenced by the mainstream concepts of his time.

Isvara is a degree of omniscience unattainable by any other being. All beings have a certain degree of knowledge that grows over time but Isvara has the highest level of knowledge, the seed of omniscience. Unlike the yogi who is at one point ignorant and over time becomes omniscient, Isvara was always omniscient. He is a distinct and special purusa, in a different category from all enlightened beings. Isvara is active but only for the purpose of all living beings, a benevolent God, purposed to uplift all beings from samsara. Isvara is the teacher to all ancients and all “ages” because he is not subject to time, or the configurations of the gunas. Isvara is designated by the syllable om not as a cultural changing linguistic name but as eternal and timeless designation. As he is unchanging and eternal he can invest this might into a vibration, a syllable, and that is om. By illuminating the vibration om with his presence, by his grace isvara allows aspirants in prakritic life to meditate on and experience his being through this vibration.

My interpretation: My first reaction to Edwin’s interpretation of the Isvara sutras is his reference to god as a “he”. Though the sutras state that Isvara is an omnipresent being, highest of all, I am resistant to the application of a gender. Edwin’s translations imply that god is a being, a unique kind of purusa. This is in a way surprising to me and differs from my perception of god and Idea for “isvara pranidhana”. I interpret the “being”, Isvara as more of an interconnectedness, a flow, existence of all things, the greater Source. Beyond even a being, a sort of ever-being- flow that contains all things and moves all things and is everywhere. I suppose you could classify that as a “special soul”….  Devotion to this Isvara as I perceive it is a submission to exactly what is, always, giving in to the flow and motion of life with a sense of love, devotion, and gratitude. The longer the focus on this the greater the sense of joy and equanimity, the easier the obstacles in the material world disappear. Devotion to god is a freeing state of unattached flowing equanimity, an idea that even to speak of brings butterflies into my heart. It is trust, love, peace, flow, balance.  It is omniscient because it is beyond all and within all, the essence of our beings as well as animals and all nature. To devote all action to god is to live with the understanding that there is something greater out there than your ego-self, and the development of this attitude as such melts the sense of importance around our ego-selves. In this sense my interpretation is similar to Edwin’s, I just perhaps have a less theistic approach. It seems to me that Pattanjali is promoting a theistic style of yoga not necessarily with the implication that god is actually any kind of typical soul but rather a higher nature and interconnectedness between all things, and the application of a theistic view or personification in the form of Visnu Siva or Krishna is more a tool to concentrate one’s devotion in a more tangible form than just some cosmic concept. Pattanjali says that with devotion the practitioner’s god, in whatever form they worship it in, will appear to him, thus implying that it is almost arbitrary what image one decides to devote that love to. To me it is more about the feeling, almost impossible to put into words, that one accesses, that deep love in the heart, that signifies concentration on the lord regardless of whether there is a theistic focus or not. Just as the syllable om is changeless regardless of cultural linguistic changes over the ages, the cosmic presence of Isvara is changeless regardless of cultural ideals and personifications of how the lord would look in human form.

I suppose the key difference in my interpretation of the idea of Isvara is that everything about god to me is less personified. “He” doesn’t “bestow grace” on the practitioner for their devotion, but rather the natural flow of things is that grace just kind of happens through the dropping in, acceptance, submission, and love for the natural flow of all things, God, Nature, existence, stillness.  Even thinking and writing about this, I have a warmth and peace in my heart. That is grace. That is my devotion to Isvara.

V Haddad:200/hr Teacher Training Student 2011, Singer/Songwriter