In yoga one of the niyamas (virtuous observances recommended for living a healthy, more spiritual life) is svadhyaya. Svadhyaya refers to the practice of self-study or introspection. How well do you really know yourself? And how honest are you being with yourself? Those ancient yogis were on to something. Turns out svadhyaya IS an enlightening practice — and it can be a wellness super power.
As we go about our (hectic, frazzled) lives, often as if on autopilot, it seems we rarely make time for introspection, for examining our own thoughts, actions, and stories. There is much to be gained when we take time for a regular practice of svadhyaya.
In Yoga Tune Up® classes, teachers often suggest the sankalpa (intention), “I am a student of my body.” Whoa. That’s a big one. You could (and probably) should spend your whole life as a student of your body. There is so much to learn, and I am not just talking about anatomy and physiology studies, although I think learning those things is important. It’s great to know the difference between your scalene and your scapula, but more importantly, can you tune into your “gut instinct?” Can you discern your emotional state as it is revealed in your body? Can you use those indicators as guidelines for course correcting your actions?
The better tuned in we are to our bodies, the more we can use those signs to nurture and support ourselves through our daily actions: the food we eat, when we sleep, where we work, how we move, who we spend time with, and on and on.
As someone who suffers from an autoimmune or other chronic illness, knowing your body’s signs and signals can also help to avoid potential triggers, hopefully at times lessening the frequency and intensity of flares. For example, if you begin to identify what things cause your body to react negatively, you can try to avoid those things, whether they are specific foods, stressful situations, not getting enough sleep, toxins in your environment, etc.
Of course, for this to work, not only do you have to be able to hear those subtle clues from your body – you have to actually respond, course correct, make changes…but the first step is being aware.
This awareness can also improve your ability to communicate with medical professionals, as these clues might give them important information that can help them help you. If you are working with medical professionals who aren’t interested in hearing about your experiences in your body or your gut instincts, then it’s time to hire new medical professionals.
So I highly recommend starting to tune into your body more and more, but I understand that this can feel foreign at first. From a young age we receive many messages that basically train us to ignore our bodies. (Sitting at a desk all day long is not natural for anyone, but especially kids.) As we grow, those societal messages just intensify. We begin to lose touch with our body’s signals for when and how much to eat or drink or how much sleep we need. And for someone with chronic pain, sometimes it is easier to disassociate from your body, to feel betrayed by your body, even make it the enemy. While I totally understand this propensity, in the long run it is not helpful. I suggest making peace with your body, loving it, really spending time to increase your connection with your own self.
How can you do this?
(Some people will absolutely need the help of a qualified professional, such as a therapist. The following options are for those already working with a professional or who are not suffering from a deeper level of trauma.)
An introspective movement practice is a great place to start, such as yoga or qi gong. Mindful movement helps to connect you with your body like nothing else; it wakes up parts of you that you forgot existed! Doing developmental movement patterns, like rolling or crawling are interesting too. Not only does it help you reconnect with movements that you may not have done since you first learned them as a baby, but they are a great way to build whole body strength and coordination. I like to add those types of movements into my yoga practice. Try experimenting with super slow movements, too, and really try to feel into all parts of yourself as you move.
Yoga nidra is another excellent way to connect with your body on a somatic (body) level. Yoga nidra, or yogic sleep, is a meditative practice where you try to sense each part of your body. It can be guided, which is the easiest way to begin and learn the practice. You can find yoga nidra recordings online or go to a class. You can also learn to take yourself through a yoga nidra practice. It’s a great way to prepare for sleep.
Another wonderful practice that can be very healthy is to try to identify or label your emotions as they arise and locate where in your body you feel them being expressed.
For example, let’s say you had a confrontation with someone and are feeling emotions roiling through you. Try pausing, taking a full breath, and then asking yourself what you are feeling in the moment. Try to name the emotion: is it rage? Anger? Frustration? Disappointment?
Once you have a name for it, see if you can express where in your body you feel it? Is it an ache in your chest? A pain in your gut? Tension in your jaw? Be as specific as you can. This practice can actually help you to process emotions; when you take a moment to get in touch with what you are feeling, you allow yourself to feel it fully. Not only do you then start to get a better picture of what is happening inside your body and connecting that to your emotions, but when you actually let yourself feel the emotion, you can quickly release it, rather than letting it fester, and maybe take a toll on your body and health.
Finally, another good way to develop your connection with yourself and your body is journaling. I’ve been making time for this lately, and let me tell you, it is magical for understanding what I’m feeling and why, and like the above practice, it helps move emotions out of your body, so you can move on. While the practice of naming your emotions as they arise works more “in the moment,” journaling can sometimes help to release events or emotions that have remained stuck for a while (especially if we are new to this idea of introspection).
Some ideas for journaling prompts:
How am I feeling right now?
What do I want to say to my body?
Write a letter to someone who has hurt you. (You aren’t meant to send it. Write what you really want to say.)
Write a letter to someone you have hurt.
Write a letter to your 5 year old self, your 10 year old self, your 15 year old self. (You get the picture.)
Sometimes you don’t need a plan. Just start writing stream of consciousness style. Spill your thoughts out. It doesn’t have to make sense. (But you might be surprised by what comes out.)
Answer the question: Am I living my truth?
My body is amazing because…
As I have said before, we are a body-mind-spirit. Those three things can’t be separated, so when something affects one of those, it affects our whole being. Taking the time on a regular basis (daily is wonderful, but at least once a week is recommended) for introspection and personal development should really be a part of our general maintenance for wellness.