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Svadhyaya: How African-Americans Can Harness the Power of Self-Study for Resilience and Self-Empowerment

Updated: Jan 19

Understanding the Niyamas and their relevance to resilience and empowerment:

In the ancient yogic philosophy, the Niyamas or (virtuous observances) are ethical principles that guide individuals toward self-discovery, personal growth, and spiritual awakening 'aka' enlightenment. These principles, which include Tapas (Discipline), Santosha (Contentment), Saucha (Purity), and Ishvara Pranidhana (Surrender to the Divine), are essential for cultivating resilience and empowerment. According to Wikipedia, Svādhyāya is a compound Sanskrit word composed of sva (स्व) + adhyāya (अध्याय). Adhyāya means "a lesson, lecture, or chapter; reading". Svā means "own, one's own, self, or the human soul". Therefore, Svādhyāya means "one's reading lesson" or "the ability to discern one's self." By exploring the Niyamas and their relevance to resilience and empowerment, we can gain a deeper understanding of how we, as African Americans, can harness the power of self-study. I have been a yogi for over 20 years now. And the deeper I go in practice and knowledge, the more yoga shows up as a ‘gift’ in my life, as a trusted friend, a light, and as a shield. Let’s talk about a few ancient concepts that aim to well serve the human body and consciousness. I wrote an earlier article on Yamas. Today we are looking deeper into the Niyamas.

Let's first talk about: Tapas (Discipline) and its role in self-study:

Tapas is often associated with solitude as a discipline and plays a critical role in the practice of Svadhyaya. For African Americans, the fortitude to confront societal challenges and historical traumas is a testament to our collective resilience. By engaging in self-study, we can face our internal struggles and cultivate a deeper understanding of our identity and purpose. But more on svadhyaya, later. 

“Tapas”, is derived from the Sanskrit root 'tap' meaning 'to burn’, and symbolizes a spiritual fire (within.) This fire burns away impurities, of ego, and ignorance. It is the fervent energy, or focus of will and perseverance that one cultivates in a rigorous and dedicated yoga practice. Ultimately this focus purifies and transforms us from the inside out. This is why we ‘hang out’ in a pose and tremble with pain and strength of mind. It is to cultivate the ability for unwavering attention and produce dedication to ourselves through a committed practice. Whether it is asana, pranayama, meditation, or selfless service. Tapas is about cultivating inner strength and resilience that enables us to face life's challenges and adversities with a calm and steady mind. This is different from having a ‘tough no bullshit attitude’ or an “I ain’t scared” disposition. Tapas is one of the main reasons I created my yoga teacher certification program, Santodanta YTT at Santodanta means “one who is calm and self-controlled.” With tapas it is not just physical discipline, it is the deep, burning commitment to grow and evolve in spiritual maturity as a human. This commitment to “Spirit” lay at the forefront of our actions when we practice tapas. This type of change must first start from within.

With tapas, we develop the strength to persevere in the face of adversity and stand firmly in our power. I strongly recommend doubling down on this concept and beg you to invest in learning your African origins via Knowing who you are and where you originally hail from is an invaluable source of information that will truly shape how you operate in life both day to day and as a whole. Tapas is a ‘foundational element’ in the pursuit of spiritual awakening. Mind you, not all of us want a ‘spiritual awakening’. It's scary to think of not ‘wanting’ what you want out of life. But have you ever really stopped to think of where those wants come from? Were they ‘planted’ by the constant stimulation of advertising in the media? By well-meaning parents/teachers? Maybe religion? Peers? What would your life be like if you chose directly from you? But then again, when you strip away all the conditioning that I just mentioned, ...who are you? Tapas is not merely a physical and mental discipline, it is the deep, burning commitment to spiritual awakening.

Tapas requires a balanced approach. Extreme asceticism is not the goal; for many of us are "householders" in modern civilization. We have families, jobs, and all types of responsibilities. Instead, we begin with moderation and regulation of our desires. Our feet always follow our hearts. And sometimes our hearts get greedy. When married we still go to the strip club. Committed men and women continue to have additional love partners in secret. It's not that any of this activity is wrong per se. It is only wrong when it doesn’t line up with your “inner world” or inner way of thinking. When we say we want to grow and do better we must actually be better. Whether we are conscious of it or not, we choose which thoughts to act on and which ones we will not act on. This is where tapas comes in handy. Through a disciplined approach, we can achieve true freedom from the bindings of our desires, freedom from the turbulence of our mind, and ultimately, freedom to live as the unfettered soul.

Tapas is not just about enduring hardship (austerity) but it's about embracing a discipline for growth and transformation. Ask any high-performance, Division 1 athlete, and they already understand innately what tapas is. In closing, tapas is the fervent commitment to one's spiritual journey, over a pleasure-seeking one. On the tapas journey, we discover our true self and transcend the limitations of the physical body (its lusts and desires) and the mind (in its transient and flippant nature). This is a journey towards eternal bliss, peace, and an unshakable connection with the divine within us. Much like our ancestors did in the past enduring unspeakable hardships for the dream of the liberation that we embody today. We must use tapas to secure an even brighter future for ourselves and those yet to come.

Introduction to Svadhyaya and its significance in African-American culture:

Svadhyaya, or self-study, is a practice not often found in contemporary African-American culture. It involves the exploration of one's thoughts, beliefs, and experiences, to gain self-awareness and personal growth. It is not merely an academic or intellectual pursuit, rather it's a profound journey into the self and is a key to unlocking the inner chambers of our consciousness. By engaging in Svadhyaya, we can uncover the layers of our identity and embrace our unique heritage. Svadhyaya allows us to connect with our ancestors, understand our history, and reclaim our narrative. This is why it is critical to shape your understanding with genetic testing and find your direct African heritage. Through Svadhyaya, our African-American community can find both empowerment and resilience in the face of systemic oppression. 

Self-study is the keen observation of the mind, its thoughts, and its subsequent emotions. It is the study of oneself in relation to the universe and the divine. Through Svadhyaya, we embark on the path of self-discovery, which leads us to the ultimate realization of our true nature. Arguably our true nature is that of the soul. All in the universe, including ourselves, are born from the same cosmic energy. With the practice of Svadhyaya, we delve into the sacred texts of yoga. They assuage us to take our journey and not simply rely on the account of others. Svadhyaya teaches us humility. Perhaps the greatest wisdom lies not in what we know, but in acknowledging the humbling vastness of what we do not, a truth echoed by sages across time. This encourages us to continuously learn and grow. In the self-reflection of our ignorance, there is a recognition of the divine within us and all around us. Ultimately that awareness quells the thirst to try and know everything. We realize the impossible nature of that thought, that desire. So we practice svadhyaya not just for the sake of knowledge but for the transformation it brings about within us.

As we study, we begin to dissolve the layers of ignorance that veil our true selves. We confront our limitations, our patterns, and our conditioning. Thus, we gain profound insights into our right way of living, our life's purpose, and how to align with the universe's harmonious flow.

Therefore, self-study is a sacred act – a commitment to self-improvement and spiritual awakening. It is an essential step on the path to moksha, aka, liberation, as it guides us to live a life of awareness, purpose, and divine connection. Remember, the ultimate goal of Svadhyaya is not just to accumulate knowledge of self, but to experience and realize the oneness of all existence and the soul's knowledge that lay deep within us.

Cultivating contentment through Santosha and its impact on personal growth:

Santosha, the Niyama of contentment, is a profound spiritual practice, essential for inner peace and enlightenment. Santosha is not merely satisfaction with what one has; rather, it is a deep state of gratitude and acceptance that transcends material conditions and life's external circumstances. This principle teaches us to find peace and satisfaction in the present moment, regardless of the present situation. For African Americans, cultivating contentment can often be an act of resistance against the forces that seek to diminish our worth. Historically we have always found joy in the most dire of circumstances. As you can see, many of these principles are already held in high regard in our culture. However, these principles are active, they don't just “preach,” they require daily active action and engagement.  

Santosha, at its core, is the realization of the completeness and fullness of the present moment. It is understanding that the external world is ever-changing and seeking happiness from it is a waste of time. True contentment comes from within, from a deep sense of inner peace and acceptance of the way things are.

In the practice of Santosha, there is an acceptance of both joy and sorrow, gain and loss, success and failure. It teaches us to remain equanimous in all situations, understanding that these are but temporary and fleeting aspects of life. This state of contentment is not passive; but is an active state of appreciating the richness of life in all its dimensions as it unfolds.

Santosha encourages us to live in harmony with our true nature. It is not about complacency or lack of ambition, but about finding satisfaction in the journey itself, not just the destination. It is about enjoying the process of growth and self-exploration, without being overly attached to the outcomes. In my book “Peaked: Curious About Why the Mountain Top Looks so High”. Forget the quest for fleeting happiness. When we cultivate contentment as a growth mindset, we discover our deeper purpose and live vibrantly, with happiness blossoming as a sweet reward, not a fleeting goal.

This type of contentment also fosters a sense of abundance and generosity. When we are content we are at ease. There is no room for envy, greed, or dissatisfaction. Santosha cultivates a joyful and serene mind, a mind that is fertile ground for spiritual growth. In the path of yoga, Santosha is a vital element because it brings about a profound transformation on how we perceive life. It leads us to a state of inner fulfillment, where our happiness is not dictated by external circumstances, but is a reflection of our inner peace and contentment. In my book Peaked, the chapter Perspective vs. Perception goes into greater detail on this subject. I recommend reading more there for a richer understanding and exploration of santosha and much more.

Thus, Santosha is a key to unlocking the joy and peace that lives within us. It is a reminder to cherish the present, to live with an open heart, and to embrace life in all its diversity. Through Santosha, we learn the art of living joyfully and peacefully, in harmony with ourselves and the world around us. In this way, Santosha is a guiding light that leads us toward a more fulfilled, peaceful, and enlightened existence.

The practice of Saucha (Purity) and its connection to self-reflection and empowerment:

Saucha, the principle of purity, is deeply intertwined with the practice of self-reflection and empowerment. As African Americans this concept extends beyond our physical cleanliness and encompasses the purification of our minds, emotions, and intentions. This is not just the clean underwear or the Vaseline on the face before church on Sunday morning. By engaging in self-study, we can identify and release negative patterns, limiting beliefs, and societal conditioning that often hinder our growth.

Through the practice of Saucha, we create space and a conducive atmosphere for spiritual growth, self-empowerment, and personal transformation. As within, so without.

Therefore, saucha (purity) is a fundamental aspect of our yoga journey. It begins with the purification of the physical body, encouraging cleanliness and healthy living habits. Practicing panchakarma (detoxification and rejuvenation treatment), shatkriyas (yogic cleansing techniques), or the like is not merely for the sake of health, but it is seen as a step towards purifying the mind. When I studied in Rishikesh at the Art of Living ashram, we performed Shankh Prakashlan a (Shatkriya). This is a process where you drink 32 ounces of warm, saline water and then while under observation, perform 40x specific yoga asanas. The designated asanas have the intent to purify the body. Each time you complete the moves, you must go and drink more of the saline solution. Some people begin to excrete from their bowels on the first pass. For me, it was my third pass. For some, it took 9x passes of doing 40x asanas each pass! Can you imagine drinking 288 ounces of warm salt water before it makes you poop! In any event, this entire process is done on an empty stomach. The reason there is a high concentration of salt in the water is that the body treats the liquid as food instead of transferring it out of the digestive system. The saline water travels through the digestive tract and acts as a long-form enema. Brilliant, I know! I wish I thought of it, but the wise ones beat us to it!

The goal is to defecate clear water, untainted even with yellow bile or any food fragments. I don’t know how long we practiced this. I feel like it was hours, it was at least 60 minutes. Once the floodgates opened, it was hard to shut them off! After a while, I was lucky if I even got to do one move before I had to run off and find the bathroom. It all may sound a bit gross, but the reason I am going into detail is to tell you about the outcome. After the Sankh Prakshalan process was complete, for the next few days, we could only have unseasoned yellow dal, and a tiny half teaspoon of ghee (clarified butter.) I have never slept better in my whole life. Not only was I able to sleep on my back, which I hadn’t done for years due to sleep apnea. I didn’t have a single bad dream. I don’t recall dreaming any time after and for my entire 30-day stay in Rishikesh. All bad dreams ceased, and I rested when I slept. I know we always think we rest when sleeping, but we don't. The mind wanders and tries to problem-solve areas of stress from its ‘waking life’. Through shankh prakshalan I was able to sleep and rest simultaneously, and I must tell you it was a beautiful experience. This is all just to illustrate what the cleanliness of the body does for the mind. 

A clean body cultivates a serene and focused mind, which is essential for meditation. My meditation practice was deeper and more peaceful than ever before. You can not have a clean body with an unclean mind, and you cannot have a clean mind with an unclean body. Therefore, saucha goes beyond just the physical aspects of the body. As I have stated it involves purification of thoughts, emotions, and intentions. A pure mind is free from negative thoughts like anger, hatred, greed, and jealousy. Saucha cultivates positive qualities like compassion, love, patience, and humility. The mental cleanliness derived from saucha creates a positive aura and a peaceful environment, both within and around us.

Saucha also extends to our surroundings. Keeping our living and working spaces clean and organized helps to maintain a calm and focused mind. A cluttered and unclean environments reflect and reinforce a cluttered state of mind. And it doesn’t work to simply clean one’s surroundings or to have a cleaning service clean your surroundings. That is efficient, but will not clear the mind. You will hear me state over and over again, that yoga is a practice, and its benefits must be experienced to be felt. You don’t learn the piano by watching a master play. You become a master pianist after years and years of ardent study and playing. Thus, is the practice of saucha within yoga. 

In the practice of saucha, food also plays a crucial role. We can’t consume copious amounts of warm salt water daily on an empty stomach. We could, but life would take a sudden turn for the worse. Moreover, that would be an act of imbalance. With saucha we are called to “eat clean”, a sattvic diet, that is not too extreme in any direction of too sweet or too salty. Food may be a significant issue for African Americans, given our rich history of tasty and savory delights. It doesn’t mean that we can’t eat in that traditional manner. It just means that we have to eat in that manner way less often. It should become the exception, not the rule. Consuming pure, healthy, and sattvic (balanced) food not only keeps the body healthy but also maintains a calming effect on the mind. The type of food we consume often influences our thoughts and emotions. As evidenced by my ashram experience.

Ultimately, saucha is about cultivating a sense of holiness in all aspects of life. It is about respecting our body as a temple of the divine and our environment (inner and outer) as a sacred space. As above, so below. This practice of purity helps align ourselves with our higher spiritual goals and facilitates a deeper connection with the divine. Therefore, Saucha is not just a practice but a way of life, a commitment to living with purity, dignity, and grace, all in harmony with our highest spiritual ideals.

Ishvara Pranidhana (Surrender to the Divine) and its role in African-American spirituality:

Ishvara Pranidhana, the practice of surrendering to the Divine, is also an essential aspect of yogic philosophy. It emphasizes devotion and the relinquishment of the ego. It is the acknowledgment of a higher power beyond our limited ego and understanding. This practice is not about passive resignation but is an active surrendering of the ego. In the context of yoga philosophy, Ishvara refers to the concept of a personal deity or a supreme universal spirit. It is sometimes translated as "Lord" or "Supreme Being." In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which form a foundational text for classical yoga philosophy, Ishvara is mentioned as an object of devotion and a means of attaining a deeper level of concentration and meditation. I don’t mean to say you can ‘plug and play’ but essentially, since the ‘god element’ in this practice is personal, you can use this concept and place the energy toward the name of the Being that you worship in your religion. 

Let’s look at who or what ‘Ishvara’ is in the framework that Patanjali, author of the Yoga Sutras, conceptualized it to be. The concept of Ishvara can be interpreted in various ways depending on different philosophical and religious traditions within India, this includes Hinduism, Yoga, and Vedanta. It can represent a personal god like Shiva or Vishnu, or a more abstract, formless aspect of the divine reality. For African-Americans and the “Black Church” and its deities, “The Holy Ghost” Jesus, God, Lord, Savior, Christ the Lord, Christ the Savior, Lord Jesus, and the like. Or even in the nuanced New Age element of Black Spirituality where we collectively acknowledge God as, Spirit, Mother, The Divine, the Akash, etc. All point to the subjective “personal” name to which you devote your energy. Of course, Mohammedans or Muslims make up the largest religion on the earth. African-Americans are highly represented in the Muslim culture so Allah, or the Honorable Prophet are also means by which you may transfer your energy of 'thought devotion' aka prayer (mind and heart energy waves) toward this practice of Ishvara Pranidhana. Isvara Pranidhana is not a religion in itself, and it is not a diety, so you will not be moving away from your core belief. Please don’t get caught up in the ‘real name/only name’ argument. Try to understand that no matter how strong your belief is, somebody, somewhere else understands what you understand in a different way and by a different name. 

Black folks have already done this. We were born worshipping and under the stars of a different deity before we were trafficked to the Americas. It was the sons and daughters of slaves who adopted Christianity, “Jesus” and worshiped that energy with the same devotion that we previously had for whatever we venerated before Christ. We already know that the energy of devotion is devotion itself. Although the name may change, it is the intensity of belief and the combined heart-mind energy that matters most.

Patanjali himself describes Ishvara as a special Purusha (spirit) that is unaffected by afflictions, actions, the results of actions, or the latent impressions left by these actions (guilt, shame, lust. etc.). Ishvara is an eternal, conscious, and blissful presence that transcends the limitations of time and the suffering of the material world. Ishvara is also associated with the concept of a universal teacher or guru. Said guru is depicted as having inherent knowledge of being and thus becomes a source of guidance for all individuals. More on yoga knowledge types here.  

Historically it is through spiritual surrender that African Americans find solace, strength, and guidance in times of struggle. Letting go and leaning on something bigger than ourselves helps us face life's difficulties with strength and elegance. Ishvara Pranidhana guides us to connect with a wellspring of endless love, wisdom, and support. This connection empowers us to rise above challenges and discover our true potential, no matter what life throws our way.

Integrating Svadhyaya and the Niyamas into everyday life:

Incorporating Svadhyaya and the Niyamas into everyday life is essential for African Americans who are looking to increase resilience and self-empowerment.

Here are some practical tips and techniques to help integrate “self-study” into daily routines:

  • Create a sacred space in your home or apartment for self-reflection and contemplation.

  • Establish a journaling practice to explore thoughts, emotions, and experiences.

  • Engage in mindful movement practices, such as yoga or walking meditation.

  • Seek out community support (of like-minded and non-like-minded individuals) and engage in meaningful conversations.

  • Embrace ancestral wisdom and explore traditional African-centered spiritual traditions. Look for correlations, not differences. You will start to notice, love, devotion, compassion, and other universal themes across humanity.

  • Prioritize self-care and self-love as acts of resistance, and self-empowerment.

By implementing these practices, the African-American community can continue to cultivate resilience, foster personal growth, and navigate our journeys with grace and strength.

Resources for further exploration:

For those interested in delving deeper into Svadhyaya and the Niyamas within the context of African-American culture, there are numerous resources available. The following books, podcasts, and organizations provide valuable insights and guidance:

  • "The Yamas & Niyamas: Exploring Yoga's Ethical Practice" by Deborah Adele

  • "The Changa Bell Podcast" hosted by Changa Bell

  • "The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali" translated by Swami Satchidananda

  • "The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself" by Michael A. Singer

  • "The Black Spiritual Movement: A Religious Response to Racism" by Hans A. Baer

These resources offer diverse perspectives and insights into the practice of Svadhyaya and the Niyamas and can offer different perspectives from which to form your own.

Conclusion: Embracing Svadhyaya for resilience, empowerment, and personal growth:

In conclusion, Svadhyaya, the practice of self-study, holds immense power for African Americans. It offers steady spiritual resilience, tools for self-empowerment, and exponential personal growth. By exploring the Niyamas of Tapas, Svadhyaya, Santosha, Saucha, and Ishvara Pranidhana, African Americans can better navigate our unique challenges and tap into our inherent mind-body strengths. Through self-reflection, self-acceptance, and surrender to the Divine, we reclaim a more complex and complete narrative. A storied relationship that helps us embrace our holistic heritage, without judgment, guilt, or scrutiny. We have already found solace in the face of adversity, now it is time to flourish with an energy of spiritual growth and maturity.  By embracing Svadhyaya, we can harness the power of self-study to cultivate self-sovereignty, in order to embark on a transformative individual journey that leads to samadhi and true emancipation.

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