The Anusara Sadhana: Raja Yoga: Tapasya, Svadhyaya and Ishwara Pranidhana

Raja Yoga: Tapasya, Svadhyaya and Ishwara Pranidhana

A Non Dual Spin on Patanjali’s Niyamas Part II

Written by: Julia Pearring

Continuing on the 3 Niyamas that Jacalyn Prete began in November. We aim to speak about the Classical Yoga traditions from a non-dual viewpoint that guides our practice of Anusara Yoga.

Why study Raja Yoga?

Tapasya, Svadhyaya and Ishvara Pranidhana are often extracted from the five observances/five Niyamas. Along with the five Yamas, the Yamas and Niyamas compose the first 2 of 8 limbs that make up the path within Classical Yoga, a path that offers practices that transform all aspects of outer and inner life. These 3 Niyamas are a boon when applied or ‘observed’, especially when we can keep all three within view. In doing so, we have a range of responses that hold the spectrum from rigor to surrender, supporting our ability to meet the particular moments and circumstances in our daily lives with the highest intention to recognize the Self.

Tapasya can be translated as the rigor needed to burn off the deeply seeded grooves/impressions that shape us and limit our potential understanding and expression. Ishwara Pranidhana is an active open-heartedness, which also loosens the grip of our individual identity that has been shaped through contraction, but through radical acceptance and acknowledgement of the great Reality that is arising within us and all around us.

Often, Tapasya and Ishwara Pranidhana are presented as opposites and Svadhyaya, Self-study, is presented as that which helps us to navigate between the two. In fact, I’ve had many yoga teachers say exactly this: like the Serenity Prayer, Svadhyaya is the wisdom to know the difference between what we can change and what we can’t, where it’s appropriate to apply against-the-grain effort and where it’s appropriate to willingly, whole-heartedly surrender. But this is selling these three Niyamas short. Let’s bring it into full view through a look at Svadhyaya. 

Svadhyaya- Self-study

Let’s begin with the story of the Blind Men and the Elephant. In the story, three blind men encounter an elephant and are trying to describe to each other what it is that they have discovered. Only thing is—one is in contact with the elephant’s trunk, one with its tail, and the third with one of its legs. What each of them describes is very different, they become very invested in their own experience and they end up fighting over who is right!! 

The story reminds us that we are all in fact the blind men, contracted embodied consciousness, each only able to describe what we are experiencing, often upset that others ‘see’ things differently. This story reminds us of our limitations but it also aims to inspire us. We are also reminded of the depth of knowledge and insight that we have within us that can, and does, see the bigger picture of Reality and is inextricably connected to All of Life. It reconnects us with our innate spiritual desire and birthright for a deeper knowledge– to know who we are, contracted and expanded, through the practice of Svadhyaya, Self-study. 

Awareness of the Self

To discover who we are through Self-study we use stories, such as The 3 Blind Men and the Elephant, to help us distinguish between what is the reality of our contracted experience and what is the Reality of the Self, our expanded, infinite awareness. Self-awareness allows us to recognize who we really are versus what we are currently doing and what has happened to us. For this to occur, we engage the yoga practices and we study the scriptures that hold deep wisdom and ancient teachings. It’s crucial that we have our own experiences through regular practice and it’s crucial to expose ourselves to the philosophy and the lived experiences of the sages and saints, and devoted practitioners. 

Early in my practice, I was repeating the mantra ‘Om Namah Shivaya’ as I was walking across Central Park, as I did regularly to get from one teaching location to another. There I was walking and repeating the mantra with attention and effort and a medium amount of yearning (as it sometimes goes.) Suddenly the mantra arose from within me with great force and presence. It resounded; it shocked me. The mantra was not the words that I had just been repeating from the vantage point of me as ‘Julia repeating the mantra’. The mantra was a powerful vibration and presence that was the Self within becoming audible. The mantra was in fact a direct awareness of Self. 

As we practice, we will have experiences that arise from within that we start to recognize as the Shakti, the power of the Self upwelling and expanding and moving us. These can be very subtle and they can easily be overridden and suppressed, but the practice of Self Study is to understand these inner movements for what they are– our expanded Self, the underpinnings of Reality as it arises into our individual forms. Once we begin to recognize the Shakti, the more we will see the expanded Self hidden in plain sight, as no individual is without this presence and deep movement. They call it an upward spiral as the more we recognize the Self, the more we will confidently express what confirms and expands our connection, fortifying our Self-awareness… and so on.

Self-reflection and Proprioception

Another very important aspect of Svadhyaya is self-reflection or self-inquiry. I remember one of my teachers proposed a very simple question to us practitioners one day– Are you doing what you think you are doing? I couldn’t believe how profound that question was, it stopped me in my tracks. Hidden in the question is a very important truth– that we are not always aware of what we are doing. We think we are doing one thing, but when we reflect back or watch the ripple effect of our action, we will realize that we were actually doing something very different, we were moving from a contracted, individuated awareness rather than from Self-Awareness. This is a huge topic so let’s shift to one aspect for this discussion. 

Proprioception is our physical sense of ourselves, where our parts are in space and the amount of effort it takes to move. Our physical practice offers us a space in which we take a vast array of different shapes, change our relationship to gravity and seek graceful transitions. Through the asana practice, we are bringing in new information and reflecting upon such feedback as ‘Am I doing what I think I am doing.’ This refreshes our proprioception and gives us a truer perception of where we are and what we are doing. We keep coming back for the feedback that we get, for the Self-reflection that takes place during the practice, as it aligns our embodied self with our deeper intentions and desire for Self-awareness.

Self-study is Relational

A third important aspect of Svadhyaya is to understand that our greatest obstacle is our own resistance. On a very deep level, we choose to not see, again and again. It’s part of the play! One of my teachers has been crucial in helping me to recognize this more and more. Self-study is hard to do on one’s own. We need the support of incredible teachers and fellow practitioners. Our teachers are not just guides, and they are not meant to be examples for us to compare ourselves to. We need meaningful relationships to keep our practices responsive and receptive.

Our recognition of the Self flourishes through the exchanges we have with others who are equally yearning to see the full spectrum of who they really are. These can be student-teacher relationships and they also happen through the container and commitment of a Kula, a group of practitioners. Through relationships, our practices are truly heart-opening, they lead us to better know ourselves in relationship to those around us. Self-study is as much about conscious self-responsibility and demonstrating the ability to see beyond oneself as it is to know the Self that arises from within. 

Self-Awareness is Freedom

Very quickly, we notice that embedded in Svadhyaya there is great rigor and an immense shift towards Grace, Tapasya and Ishwara Pranidhana. This is how one practice is truly non-dual: when you get to the core of it, it is going to lead you to the ultimate freedom that any/all yoga practices offer when practised with dedication and love. Remember, the practices aren’t promising freedom as an end goal. They are reminding us again and again that freedom comes from moment-by-moment clarity and authentic expression. To be reminded of who we truly are is the ‘Seeing’ we yearn for, the practice takes us from the contracted awareness of the blind man to the expanded awareness of Recognition of the Self.

Let’s take the invitation to question “Are we doing what we think we are doing?” into a practice that focuses on our sense of our torso in side plank-oriented poses.

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