Ashtanga Quotes,  Ask The APP,  History,  Interviews,  Teaching Ashtanga,  Uncategorized,  Yoga Philosophy,  Yoga Sutras

Ask the APP: What is Svadyaya/Self Study?

I recently received a question asking for clarification on Svadyaya.

Two Schools of Thought on Svadyaya

Svadyaya means studying yourself and any work you do on yourself is self study.  This definition is most popular among modern students of Yoga. There are three reasons that I believe this to be true.  If a student reads the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, without any commentary, one relies on the etymology of svadyaya which is, “self study”. Patanjali does not define Svadyaya in the verses themselves.   The second reason it is popular is because it is more PC. In an attempt to not offend students, some modern commentators or Yoga teachers will use this more palatable definition.

The last reason, I believe this definition has become popular, is because of the modern Yoga class format. Teachers only have, at the most, 90 minutes per class to do what they need to do.  Students expect most of that time to be filled with asana. When  teachers do have a moment to speak on Yoga, they have to use as few words as possible.  Saying that Svadyaya means “self-study” is quick and easy.

Svadyaya means study of the scriptures. This is the popular view for people who have studied the Sutras extensively or follow a traditional lineage.  I  recently asked two teachers, John Bultman and Gregor Maehle, both known for their knowledge on the Sutras and Yoga Studies about the definition of Svadyaya. John Bultman is Level 2 authorized by KPJAYI and Contemplative Science Center Yoga Studies Manager at the University of Virginia. Gregor Maehle is the author of many books on Yoga including Ashtanga Yoga: Practice and Philosophy and Samadhi: The Great Freedom.

John Bultman:

            As yoga can come in many forms, my understanding of Svadaya  (dyaya – meditating on, or self study) is focused on ones particular field of study that has some deep aspect to it. Master Patanjali says that one will submerse themselves in their personal deity. So it seems, if one’s path were to be a lawyer, they of course have to work (tapas), but it might also serve them to regularly study law books, or perhaps law books that serve humanity. If they are an accountant, they read up on IRS stuff every year, and perhaps they somehow grow closer to Laxmi or something, and so on. In my case, as I teach yoga, I have to practice (which is in it’s own way svadyaya), but I also get to read the Shastras and other spiritual texts, as well as study carefully what my teachers have taught. Others state svadyaya is the learning and application of personal mantras (Houston, et al). All of this, though, has the deepening of understanding as its theme and not merely memorization of facts.

It is worth noting what Sharathji has in his book.  He says, “Svadhyaya is studying what we have learned from our teacher; not only trying to understand what they have said, but to deepen that understanding… is to engage our mind.” In other words, if one is a yoga practitioner, their goal should not be to disengage or “to check out.” One needs to use their faculties to engage their dharma (path) as liberation does not simply come from being brain dead nor does it come from mere recitation or memorization of facts but perhaps comes from understanding the root cause, Ignorance (avidya).

Avidya is thinking that the person yelling at you in that moment was not at all related to something you might have done in your past, but ignorantly thinking they are really real and inherently an angry person existing where everyone would see them as an angry person. However, part of the reason they appear as angry to you is because you saw or were angry in your past. As most of us still don’t really believe in karma (if it were instant we all would of course) or that we are partially responsible for the creation of our world view we have to study to get that knowledge of connections of how our world is created. This is a deeper level of Svadhaya that cuts to the heart of Avidya (not knowing) where the scriptures one studies should help them in their daily life to reduce the causes of suffering.

Gregor Maehle:

“Any study of ourselves” sounds a bit like homemade psycho-analysing. Yoga believes this is essentially not possible unless you are a very advanced practitioner and svadhyaya is a building block of kriya yoga, which means introductory yoga. So in introductory yoga we are expecting something very basic, simple and not something like being your own psychoanalyst.

Let’s have a look first how, according to yoga, we can arrive at the truth concerning ourselves, i.e. correctly perceiving ourselves (because that’s necessary to truly study yourself). In sutra 1.7 Patanjali states that correct perception (pramana) can be arrived at through three modes: direct perception (pratyaksha), deduction (anumana) and valid testimony (agama). Direct perception through the senses (so-called empirical data) in yoga is ruled out as a means for arriving at the truth. Yes, you heard that right. With one large sweep yoga rejects everything that Western Science is built on. Yoga says that the sensory data we perceive is incomplete and so warped by our perceptual biases and semiotics (biases inbuilt in language) that our view of the world is really only a view of what’s going on in our head. A lot of smart scientist have actually admitted that. So said for example the Polish mathematician Alfred Korzybski, “the map is not the territory”, meaning the map of the world that we have in our head is not identical with the real world out there. A similar thing was already said by nuclear physicist and Nobel price laureate Niels Bohr who stated that our laws of physics do not describe the world but only our knowledge of the world. He said this over 100 years ago but we still walk around claiming to know the world. Yoga says that the world can only be directly experienced through the state of samadhi but this is not the subject of svadhyaya (part of Introductory or Kriya Yoga) but of advanced yoga.

The second way of perceiving correctly is through deduction (anumana). Our quality of deduction depends on the make-up of our intelligence, which according to yoga is made-up of the three elementary particles sattva (information particle), tamas (mass particle) and rajas (energy particle). Tamas and rajas are slanting our ability to deduce towards dullness and frenzy respectively. The more we are overcome by either tamas or rajas the poorer our judgments and decisions. Advanced yoga is the process of purifying the intelligence from dullness and frenzy to that we can see clearly (sattva). Again this is not something included in svadhyaya and Introductory Yoga.

The third and final element of the correct-perception-triad is valid testimony (agama). It is of two kinds: testimony of the sacred scriptures and testimony of an expert. The expert testimony in our case falls pretty much flat. Until we have purified our intelligence we cannot discern who is an expert and who puts it on. As long as we have perceptual biases and subconscious needs we tend to project them on so-called and self-styled experts who often not before too long fall off their pedestals.

So of those many ways to arrive at the truth, in the beginners stage of yoga we can only really rely on the study of the sacred texts.

What does Sharath, the director of KPJAYI in Mysore, the birth place of the style of Asthanga Yoga this blog is about, say about Svadyaya?

“Swadhyaya, self-study. This is very confusing for many people. Selfstudy—”self”– many people think self-study means, “Oh, I don’t need a teacher. I don’t need a guru. I can just read books.” Now there are lots of videos about yoga. Someone will teach you handstand. You see someone doing handstand. That means he’s a big yogi. “Oh, I don’t need a teacher. Oh, I’m doing swadhyaya.” Long back I met a crazy person. She came to me and, “I was a trained dancer,” she said—and she was asking questions. To the answers, “Oh, I know, I know, I know.” If you know, then why are you coming to me and asking questions? Then I was very curious. I asked her, “Where did you learn yoga? Who’s your teacher?” “Oh, I don’t have a teacher. I’m doing swadhyaya,” she said. “Swadhyaya, what does swadhyaya mean?” I asked. “Oh, I’m watching videos. I’m reading books. And I’m learning yoga.” I said, “Okay. That’s where your knowledge is only this much [gestures small amount].” Swadhyaya means, whatever you learn from your guru, you try to know and practice that. After this workshop, whatever you have learned, to practice, and study that. To improve that in your daily life. And to read all the books. Not the modern books. Ancient books. Veda, Upanishads. Bhagavad Gita. Samhitas. There are so many books. Patanjali Yoga Sutra, Hatha Yoga Pradipika. ” -Sharath Jois, Namarupa, Issue21


What do I think? At this point in my studies, I feel that the study of scriptures is the definition of Svadyaya. It is the definition that is accepted by most scholars of the Yoga Sutras. It is the definition given by Sharath Jois who is the current director of KPJAYI and I follow the lineage of Ashtanga.   Until I see research to the contrary, it rings true for me.


Can a student just study themselves and not study scriptures or have a Guru and become awakened?

John Bultman:

             Sure, but it is unlikely and is probably a misnomer, as a pratyekabuddha (self-made buddha) was probably a student somewhere in their past or previous lives, even though it appears to some that they did it all themselves.

            Svadyaya, in terms of studying scripture (and other texts) and the words of their teacher, are part of the wrestling.  It is what makes the Gita a story; it is life. If Arjuna had just said on the battlefield, “Ok I am a warrior and I fight,” then it would have never had the status it has now and frankly is a pretty short and rather simple story. It is the struggling, the wrestling, that we all resonate with and though sometimes we overindulge in the debating, wrestling with meanings is necessary for the process of understanding. When I first heard the truth of suffering it was really hard to take, then later Lord Buddha says there is no suffering and I was really confused. What is he getting at and why would an enlightened being say seemingly contradictory things? Was he just trying to please the audience or was he trying to make us think deeper about the nature of reality? So it seems many things have a hidden teaching in them a teacher can often open your heart or tune one in to what may be heard.

Gregor Maehle:

Each chapter of the Yoga Sutra was addressed to a different student and each sutra is an answer to a particular question of the student to which the chapter is addressed. The four chapters of the Yoga Sutra are reflective of the fact that Patanjali had four students.

The first chapter is addressed to the most advanced student. It is an Indian tradition to work with the most advanced student first, get them out of the door (possibly so that they can teach themselves) and then only deal with the remaining students.

The second chapter is addressed to the most novice student. After having to listen to the first chapter (the chapter on samadhi) without understanding what it was about he asked along the lines of, “What if all of this went straight over my head?” An important question. Patanjali’s answer was the sutra 2.1, “In this case we start with Introductory Yoga (kriya yoga) which consists of simplicity (tapas), inversion of mind (svadhyaya) and placing yourself into the service of the Divine (ishvara pranidhana).

It is obvious now that we are very far away from awakening (otherwise this student would have understood the first chapter) and we are now looking for a simple, basic and alternative approach. The answer is to cut out of your life whatever is not absolutely necessary and important (tapas), to invert the mind and look for solutions in the innermost sanctum of our being (svadhyaya), and to place yourself into the service of a higher intelligence to receive guidance from it. The three together constitute the most powerful kick-starter and crash course in yoga possible.


How many self realized people do you know? Lets be honest. The idea that we can be self actualized without any help is a lovely one.  The idea that we can all spontaneously stop buying into our negative self talk is a good one and possible but how often does it happen? How many people do you know who have done it? How many people do you know who are truly free and done with the cycle of suffering? How many people do you know who live without  fear? Without the fear of what others think. Without the fear of death. Without the fear of getting old. Without the fear of losing everything. How many people do you know who woke up and stayed awake just by their will alone?



What Scriptures Should a Student Study and Why?


Gregor Maehle:

If the student has a historical approach to knowledge then the so-called Itihasa are best. Chiefly these are the Mahabharata, the Ramayana and the Yoga Vasishta. I recommend complete editions rather than abridgements.

If the student has an emotional, bhakta-type personality then the Puranas are best. There are many different Puranas relating to different aspects of the Divine.

For philosophical-rationally inclined students the sutras, such as Yoga Sutra, Brahma Sutras or Samkhya Karika are preferred.

Mystically inclined students may turn towards the Upanishads of which there are over 100 but the early ones are considered a good starting point.

Technically inclined students are best to focus on the Tantras, including the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Goraksha Shataka, Hatha Tatva Kaumudi and Vijnana Bhairava. There are over 800 Tantras. A broad approach would take all of these classes of texts into consideration but not at the same time but sequentially.

Finally, it must be said that the Indian and yogic culture is not the only keeper of such knowledge. In fact, the knowledge of inner freedom was handed down in such diverse cultures such as the Maya, Sufi, Hebrew, Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan, Native American and many more. From a certain point of progress the yogic student would benefit to consult those ones as well. Initially such broad approach would be too confusing, though.

John Bultman:

  They should study what their teacher suggests but also what speaks to them personally whether the Bible, Quran, Bhagavad Gita, Lam Rim Chemo, Upadesa Sahasri, Tao De ching, Samkha Karika, Theory of the Earth, Walden, it doesn’t matter so much which one as there are loads and loads of books to study, but it should bring peace, even though it might be a struggle to understand the material. Finally, I might add that His Holiness the Dalai Lama mentions that you should follow the spiritual path of your family. Our parents are our first teachers. Following his advise not only might it make things easier for all parties, it might be worth investigating some things they thought were cool, then perhaps reinvestigating in them again and again throughout ones life to potentially dig a bit deeper.


As you have probably guessed, my favorite, as far as Ashtanga is concerned, is the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. I had a great piece of advice from authorized Ashtanga teacher Greg Nardi. He said to just read every version of the Sutras I could get my hands on because each commentator will have a different perspective. Every time I read a verse, I see something I didn’t see before. If you find scriptures to be daunting, you are not alone. In my opinion, the best way to read them is one verse at a time. Instead of reading it like a book in big chunks, read a verse and sit with it. I will tell you a secret. I am not good at multi tasking or taking on too much at once.   It helps for me to focus on one book at a time.

I hope this post helped and I hope it answered your questions.  Feel free to e-mail your Ashtanga questions to If I cannot answer them, I will find someone who can.

For more with John Bultman:

For more with Gregor Maehle:

Shanna Small has been practicing Ashtanga Yoga and studying the Yoga Sutras since 2001. She has studied in Mysore with Sharath Jois and is the Director of AYS Charlotte, a school for traditional Ashtanga in Charlotte NC. She has written for Yoga International and the Ashtanga Dispatch. Go here for more information on AYS Charlotte. For information on workshops, please e-mail

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *