The practice of self-study, or Svādhyāya, is the fourth Niyama. The Niyamas are the second limb of the 8 Limbed Path, right after the Yamas and right before Asana. The act of studying oneself is quite a tremendous feat, and a process that truly takes a lifetime.
The practice of Svādhyāya teaches us to seek a deeper understanding of our human lives, and to do so we must be willing to see things differently. Our participation in Svādhyāya involves approaching all things with an open mind and heart, which enables us to form more compassionate and responsible opinions. Patanjali defines the Niyamas as intentional observances and training, a definition which recognizes the fact that we are constantly honing in on more-ness: once we have reached a deep understanding, we then look a bit further to realize that the deepening has truly only just begun. A large element of the self-study journey involves trusting our own thoughts enough to study them: we must recognize the value inherent within our minds and then maintain a reverence as we carefully unravel the patterns we have woven within them.
An exciting aspect about Svādhyāya is that each moment is an opportunity for it, and we never truly master it as a practice. It can be a bit dizzying to think about the mind, as this is an activity that is inherently tied up within itself. Try to start small: as you eat breakfast, can you keep your mind on the activity at hand? As you inevitably drift off into an early morning reverie whilst gazing at the grain of your table, can you guide yourself back to the process of chewing each bite, of tasting each element that is present in your meal? We can also carry Svādhyāya into our Asana practice by watching where the mind goes as we experience wobbles and challenges: do we immediately jump to judgement? Or are there other times, particularly towards the end of an Asana practice, when the brain speeds up as the body slows down? Approaching these situations with the intention of Svādhyāya involves watching the immediate reaction arise, studying its usefulness, and then adjusting our process accordingly.
The real work lies within noticing, re-allocating your thoughts, and then intentionally drawing the mind back to the experience at hand. Yoga teaches us to watch ourselves, not with condemnation or criticism, but with infinite love. Through these lessons we learn to bring mindfulness, compassion, and responsibility into our daily practice.