Svadyaya: Me and My Shadow
By Linda Yelton, faculty at NewEarth University’s School of Consciousness & Spirituality
Editor’s Note: Gratitude to the author for sharing her photos for this article, reprinted from the NewEarth Blog, October, 2020.
Have you ever had to interact with someone who just drives you up the wall? Have you had to be around someone who was mean, condescending, and self-aggrandizing? How about someone who shuts you down before you have had a chance to speak? I know I have.
Recently, I had to attend meetings with a person who was so toxic to me that it took me a day to get over it. I was angry, hurt, unable to function. I felt sick and was unable to do my work or enjoy any leisure. I had to find a way to cope with my feelings, otherwise, this interaction would paralyze me. So I turned to Yoga to find the way.
Yoga gives us a set of ethical principles and practices that lead to calmness, balance and ultimately to union with the ineffable. These principles and practices are called the Yamas and Niyamas. I had faith that practicing the Niyama called Svadyaya would help me find my way.
In Yoga, Svadyaya is self-examination. It is one of the Niyamas or spiritual practices that ushers us toward meditation by giving us contentment with who we are as a person. Svadyaya guides us to look at ourselves objectively. In Sanskrit, Sva means “self” or “belonging to me”, while Adhyaya means “inquiry” or “examination.”
Yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar explains Svadyaya as reading your own book-of-life at the same time as writing and revising it. He says that by the practice of Svadyaya, one becomes aware of life as devotion. We become aware that all life is divine.
Svadyaya takes effort. It takes a close, objective, look at ourselves that includes becoming aware of those aspects of yourself that you do not like. In modern terms, the aspects of yourself that you do not like are commonly called your Shadow.
The psychologist Carl Jung coined the term Shadow to refer to one of the main archetypes residing in the personal unconscious that have the most disturbing effects on the Ego.
The Shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole Ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the Shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real.
This is not an easy task. Jung goes on to add, “This act is an essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge and it therefore, as a rule, meets with considerable resistance.”
The resistance comes from our emotional reaction to those dark aspects. To admit we have those traits makes us unlovable, and we all want love. Thus, when we see ourselves as mean, lazy, gluttonous, lecherous, greedy, aggrandizing, or envious, we fear that we are unlovable and therefore unloved and that is a difficult blow to our ego.
Yet, we see those traits in others quite easily in a mental process psychologists call “projection.” In other words, in order to protect our ego from being unloved, we project those qualities that we fear most about ourselves onto others. We project our Shadow onto others. We see the characteristics of our Shadow in other people.
The practice of Svadyaya made me look at my own Shadow relative to the person who had vexed me. When I judged that person to be toxic—mean, condescending and aggrandizing—I knew I must be projecting those traits and that they were attributes that I fear most about myself.
Was I, in fact, mean? Did I condescend to others? Was I aggrandizing and did I shut others down? I reached back into my memory to find times when I had done so. They weren’t hard to find.
I am mean. I had been mean recently. I had said some extremely mean things about another person, in fact, about that person! I’m not physically mean. I don’t kill or hurt anything. I’m one of those people who escorts spiders out of the house on a piece of paper. When it rains, I pick worms up off the sidewalk and place them on the dirt. But my thoughts can be dark and my words can cut deeply.
I have condescended to people. I condescended to my niece when she was a little girl. I aggrandize. Aggrandizing was a critique I received on a work review once. And I do shut others down, especially if I think they are less intelligent than I am.
I found, through Svadyaya, that I had all the qualities I had projected on the person who drove me up the wall. Indeed, that person is a reflection of me, of my Shadow. In that person, I confronted my own Shadow and I didn’t like it—at all.
My practice of Svadyaya reminded me that I am still a work in progress. Indeed, B.K.S. Iyengar’s idea of Svadyaya as “reading your own book-of-life at the same time as writing and revising it” fit with this experience exactly. It is time for me to do a bit of revision. It is time for me to recognize my Shadow, accept it, and recognize that when I judge someone else harshly, it is likely because I see something in that person that I don’t like in myself.