Introspection or svādhyāyam – the third Niyama

Post By: Published on: December 4, 2016 Reading time: 9 minutes

School of Yoga explains svādhyāyam (introspection), the third niyama (self-control)

Sva means “self’ or “belonging to me”, adhyāyam means “inquiry” or “examination”.  Svādhyāyam literally means, “to get close to something.” In this context, it means to study oneself through meditation or contemplation (mimāmsa).

Contemplation or reflection increases awareness (prajñā) at two levels – a gross component (sthūla) and a subtle component (sūkṣma). So, when we review any situation, our understanding and cognition of both components evolve. This is called reflection (mimāmsa) which is an element of introspection (svādhyāyam).

Gross (sthūla) – This covers all aspects that can be cognised by the senses (indriya), cognitive apparatus (manas) and logic (buddhi).

For example: the world we see around us is made of the primordial elements (panchabhūtas) such as earth (prithvi), water (áp), fire (agni), air (vāyu), space (ākāṣa).

  • All of these elements can be sensed by the sensory system and decoded into what they represent by the cognitive and logical apparatus.
  • So, when we shop for vegetables, we look at the gross aspects of the vegetable – its colour, texture and feel to ascertain its health through our sensory apparatus and this is decoded by our cognitive and logical apparatus.
  • This covers the physical aspect of any entity like our bodies, physical structures like factories, shops or even systems. The gross (sthūla) aspect includes physical sheath (anna-maya-kośa) and sheath of motility / that which makes it work prāṇa (prāṇa-maya-kośa).

Subtle (sūkṣma) The awareness of gross element is driven by an underlying principle, which is the consciousness (citta).

For example – The internal combustion engine is driven on the principle of “Ideal gas law” which says that increasing the temperature of a gas increases the pressure that makes it want to expand.

  • The gross (sthūla) element is the internal combustion engine, which is physically available to the senses in the form of earth, water, fire, air and space (panchabhūtas).
  • The subtle element (sūkṣma) is the cognition of the principle of “Ideal gas law” (mano-maya-koṣa) and adapting it to build a system (vijñāna-maya-koṣa) that uses fuel to drive the engine.
  • The awareness of this subtle principle (sūkṣma-śarīra) is driven by the consciousness (citta) which takes the principle (vijñāna-maya-koṣa) and visualises it (mano-maya-koṣa) into a gross body (sthūla-śarīra).
  • In the body, this is the awareness of the movement of consciousness within the body is called sheath of cognition (mano-maya-koṣa) and sheath of awareness of the system (vijñāna-maya-koṣa),

For instance, when you read this sentence, the primary information you see is derived through its physical attributes (sthūla-śarīra), of alphabets and words that are transmitted through a device. However, your experience of the underlying principles (sūkṣma-śarīra) comes from the quality of your awareness as you decipher the information (mano-maya-koṣa) relating to the subject (vijñāna-maya-koṣa). 

School of Yoga explains introspection (svādhyāyam).

Introspection is a disciplined manner of reflecting the impact of any action on the Self. It requires the use of regression – working out the linkage between our action, our conditioning and it’s impact on our self. Consequently, we are able to understand the impact of our family, upbringing and family on our lives and decision making process. As a result, we are able to delve deeper into our psyche and increase our awareness of the various building blocks of our personality, thereby increasing jñāna (awareness of our sense of Self or identity). While this process is easy to learn, it is very difficult to sustain, as it means us having to confront many uncomfortable realities of ourselves.

Anecdotes, experiences and situations to help understand introspection (svādhyāyam).


Nelson Mandela

(Wikipedia extract) Nelson Mandela was born into a Thembu royal family. His early life was dominated by traditional Thembu custom and taboo. Growing up, Mandela attended church services every Sunday with his guardians and Christianity became a significant part of his life, though he never really gave up his Thembu heritage. In college, he was a supporter of the British but was rusticated for protesting against the management. Running away from an arranged marriage, he moved to Johannesburg where he pursued a career in law where he found himself attracted to communism. He got involved in South African politics and became part of ANC, becoming a founding member of ANC- Youth League. Also, he participated in the anti-apartheid Defiance Campaign. Initially a peaceful protester, organizer and leader, he worked to unite all non-whites into a cohesive opposition. Finally, concluding that peaceful solution was not achievable, he began to advocate violent opposition to apartheid. As a result, he was imprisoned for 25 years, where he was subjected to privation and torture. Mandela studied Islam in prison. Lastly, when he was released, now having worldwide acclaim and recognition, he transformed to a moderate politician advocating unity and reconciliation.

  • Trace the changes to Nelson Mandela’s thinking and view on life.
  • How does Mandela reconcile what he wants with what he can get?
  • What was the manner of his reconciliation of so many diverse views?
  • How did he manage fear?
  • Is reflection of experiences structured? Or is it flashes of inspiration?

School of Yoga explains how introspection (svādhyāyam)translates to awareness of the Self.

While sthūla (gross) and sūkṣma (subtle) are micro aspects of introspection, the macro aspect of any entity (kṣetra) also needs to be cognised. This cognition (kṣetrajña) has two components;

  • Vijñāna (Cognition of the macro-system): All entities have a centre of existence (raison d’etre). This dictates the structure, strategy, system, and decision-making drivers. As can be seen, this aspect would have both, a gross (sthūla) and subtle (sūkṣma). For example – an engine is placed both, in a truck and a tank. However, the functionality will vary depending on usage, so one will need to understand the gross (sthūla) as well as (sūkṣma) aspects of the two frames of use to completely cognise vijñāna (macro awareness) of that engine.
  • Jñānajñāna is awareness of the Self. Self is that which drives all materiality and is called kāraṇaśarīra (the causal base which drives the movement of consciousness (citta)). Jñāna happens automatically when we act. Our actions bring experience. There is a learning. Where do the experience and learning go and reside? The brain, true. But what drives the electro-chemical modifications in the brain? That is called prāṇa (motility). However, prāṇa is inert and is only a motility factor, like petrol or diesel in an engine. This driver is the Self (ātmā) and cognition of this aspect is called jñāna.

This element is one of the most important aspects of increasing situational awareness (prajñā). While the basics are easy to learn, perfecting this aspect requires study and reflection on the subject (vivekam) and ability to detach oneself from the surroundings (vairāgyam) in order to comprehend subtleties of the situation and the impact on oneself.

Also, a key aspect of introspection is reflection (mimāmsa)

Reflection (mimāmsa): All stimuli lead to response and the transaction results in an experience. Therefore, the quality of the experience is dependent on our awareness of the situation (vijñāna) and awareness of the impact of the experience on our sense of identity (jñāna).

Consequently, when we review any situation, we always consider our present experience in personal terms (do I like this? How do I feel? Why am I anxious?). Finally, what we are actually doing is reflecting the impact of the experience on our Self. This is mimamsa (reflection) and is an element of introspection.

School of Yoga – Ramana Maharishi – the mystic who mastered introspection.

Paul Brunton was a British philosopher and mystic. He left a journalistic career to study a variety of Eastern and Western esoteric teachings. Brunton felt charged with the task of communicating his experiences of inward and spiritual quest to others and to write accounts of what he learned in the East from a Western perspective. His works have had a major influence on the spread of Eastern mysticism to the West. In his book, A Search in Secret India, he outlines his search for a Guru or teacher and rejecting all for very rational reasons. Finally, he surrenders to Sri Ramana Maharishi and this surrender is not on logical terms.


Sri Ramana Maharishi

  • Can we surrender without logic?
  • Is it possible to surrender to a concept or person?
  • Brunton was able to present what he learned from the Orient in layman terms. He was primarily influenced by Sri Ramana Maharishi, who maintained that the purest form of his teachings was the powerful silence which radiated from his presence and quietened the minds of those attuned to it.

Some teachings of Sri Ramana on introspection:

  • Of all the thoughts that rise in the mind, the thought ‘I’ is the first thought.
  • That which rises in this body as ‘I’ is the mind, if one enquires ‘In which place in the body does the thought ‘I’ rise first?’
  • Also, it will be known to be in the heart [spiritual heart is ‘two digits to the right from the centre of the chest’]. Therefore, even if one incessantly thinks ‘I’, ‘I’, it will lead to that place (Self)’
  • The mind will subside only by means of the enquiry ‘Who am I?’ Consequently, the thought ‘Who am I?’ destroying all other thoughts, will itself finally be destroyed like the stick used for stirring the funeral pyre.

Points to ponder on introspection (svādhyāyam).

  • What happens when we accept our fate?
  • How do we reconcile evidence with intuition?
  • Is there any change in our awareness when we reflect on our sense of identity?
  • What are the changes that our sense of identity experiences with each reflection? Is this static or does our awareness of identity change with each reflection?
  • When does reflection result in a feeling of serenity or balance within us?
  • How important is emotional stability in reflection?
  • Does emotional stability change our sense of identity (jnana)?

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