Ancient Greek maxim
The new year traditionally brings resolutions—you know, the same ones we make most years and which, in about two weeks, sort of disappear . . . ? It’s hard to avoid the idea that we “should” be doing something new when the calendar rolls over. And yet, January 1st can bring discouragement even before we start on a plan of improving our lives in some way.
Lasting change needs a good reason, one that is internally motivated and authentically embraced. We all have experienced change imposed on us by an outside source or event (pandemic, anyone?). But if you look back at your life, the positive, lasting changes came only after some self-study, connecting deeply with who you are at your core, apart from the world’s opinion, to honor your place and follow your unique path of giftedness and contribution. Real change reflects decisions that you make based on knowing yourself, not based on everyone else’s expectation of you.
In the yoga tradition, self-study is Svādhyāya, one of the inner observances or behaviors that make up the Niyamas, the second of yoga’s Eight Limbs. Nicolai Bachman (2011) describes the benefits of svādhyāya this way:
“Through svādhyāya it is possible to understand anything about ourselves. Self-observation is the key to understanding who we truly are. . . . [S]elf-observation gives us the power to convert old, harmful behavior into new, helpful action.”
Bachman, pp. 197-8
Self-study is not self-absorption, self-pity, or self-aggrandizement. It is stepping outside ourselves with the most objective eye possible (not easy) and watching what we do and when; learning what takes us off center and what loops we keep running even if we know, intellectually and emotionally, it leads us away from what we really want. Self-study helps us recognize whose opinion we value more than our own and if we stay with it long enough, to learn why that is. Self-study also helps us see what we do really well, with the most joy and least (felt) effort or to see how we might have evolved over time, which can help us redefine our goals for the future.
Svādhyāya is focused on learning about our true self, the one that is not concerned with how we look to the outer world. Until we “know thyself,” we can’t live an authentic life and will continue to make choices that don’t feel right because they aren’t, to us. In our professional life, this could show up as programming repertoire we think we “should” do, even though we don’t really connect with it as a conductor, have no interest in teaching it, or it’s not what our ensembles need or can reasonably perform right now. Or it may push us to take a job with an impressive title even if our heart and unique skill set are really most joyously suited to the middle school choir.
Knowing thyself has incredible benefits. When we stop living someone else’s life, we experience a new-found enthusiasm and energy. Life feels more fluid, even amidst challenges, because we are operating from our true source. Knowing thyself opens the pathway to finding out how we can serve and offer our gifts in the way only we can, in this time and place we find ourselves. And this can motivate us to take better care of our physical and emotional bodies, as well.
We don’t need January 1st to make change; we just need to study ourselves with a fresh pair of eyes, informed, as we choose, by inspirational or sacred writings that have stood the test of time.
“The ultimate goal is complete self-knowledge, with the realization that we are a changing outer shell surrounding a pure, unchanging, inner light of awareness.”
“Know thyself” has some merit, it turns out.
Dr. Ramona Wis is the Mimi Rolland Endowed Professor in the Fine Arts, Professor of Music, and Director of Choral Activities at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois and the author of The Conductor as Leader: Principles of Leadership Applied to Life on the Podium. Dr. Wis is a 500-hour CYT (Certified Yoga Teacher) with training in yoga history, philosophy, meditation, energetics, pranayama (breath work), anatomy, Sanskrit, and the teaching, sequencing, and adaptations of asana (posture-based) practice. Reach her at:
Nicholai Bachman, The Path of the Yoga Sutras: A Practical Guide to the Core of Yoga. Boulder, CO: Sounds True, Inc., 2011