II.44 स्वाध्यायादिष्टदेवतासम्प्रयोगः

svādhyāyād iṣṭa-devatā-samprayogaḥ
svādhyāyāt iṣṭa-devatā-samprayogaḥ
“From self-study, union with the beloved within.”

The spiritual path might be described as the journey to discover one’s self. The discipline (tapas) of walking that path includes bringing awareness and honesty to one’s tendencies, proclivities, limitations, adaptations of all kinds. It involves a willingness to observe, to test, to try new behaviors. In short, it involves study.

Svādhyāya, the fourth niyama, is self-study. It derives from sva, “self” + adhī, “to study, to go fully into” (the root verb of adhī is i, “to go”). But the English word self does not quite express the fullness of the expression sva as it is used in Sanskrit. Sva is a pronoun that means “one’s own,” and could be used to indicate anything that belongs to one. As a noun, it is often used to refer to the soul.  It is also a name of the god Viṣṇu, protector and preserver of life. So the word both refers to the individual and that that is greater than the individual–the source, the deep reality.

Mr. Iyengar writes that yoga is an inward journey, and in that journey we move through layers of our being, “from the world of appearances, or surfaces, into the subtlest heart of living matter.” There is a kind of excavation that happens as we go inward; we remove and release old ways of being and thinking; we move toward an innate self. Some describe this as coming into wholeness. In yogic terms, it is discovering the divine within.

The inward experience can happen powerfully in the seemingly “surface” practice of āsana. I may be especially aware of this because it is my tendency to separate from my body–to remove myself from felt experience and dwell on the intellectual or analytical layer of myself. To bring my awareness to the felt–to physical perceptions–acquaints me with me. I know then what I am feeling, what I am sensing around me, and I come alive, become more “sensitive,” as Rohit Mehta would say.

This awakening of the senses has brought me up against hard truths about myself. It has led me to recognize my own self-defeating behaviors. It has revealed a definite inclination toward shame. Thus, a key tool of self-study, I would say, is curiosity. Can I be interested not in the success or failure of a pose, but in the how of it? If I become disturbed by a person or event, can I sympathetically say to  myself, Huh! What is that about? Can I be curious? Can I be loving?

Christian theologian Henri Nouwen writes of the spiritual journey in personal and psychological terms in his 1992 book Life of the Beloved. This work was an attempt to describe the spiritual life to a secular friend. He specifically addresses shame, which he calls “self-rejection”:

Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection…I am constantly surprised at how quickly I give in to this temptation. As as soon as someone accuses me or criticizes me, as soon as I am rejected, left alone, or abandoned, I find myself thinking: Well, that proves once again that I am a nobody.”  (Life of the Beloved, pp. 31-32)

For Henri Nouwen, the quality of being turned against oneself, of rejecting oneself, is a trap. It delays and deflects from the spiritual path, the aim of which is belovedness.

It is not unlike what Patañjali says here. From self-study, Patañjali says, comes union with the beloved within (iṣṭa-devata). In Hinduism, the iṣṭa-devata is the representation of the divine that the devotee particularly connects with; it is the expression of the divine that one loves. In secular terms, we might understand this to be any symbol, place, or activity that connects us to what is beyond ourselves and what is within.

The key to the term iṣṭa-devata, I believe, is iṣṭa. It is the past passive participle of the verb iṣ, “to desire”–it refers to what is desired, longed for…what is beloved. The iṣṭa-devata (again, in secular terms) is the thing that excites us, brings enthusiasm, that supports us in our efforts; it is the habit or practice that holds our attention, that captures our curiosity, that draws us toward truth, toward insight, toward wholeness.

As we come to know ourselves better, we choose our individual path with more discernment. What is right for me may not be right for you. What you love, what connects you, is your guide.

B.K.S. Iyengar was known to say, “Be a learner.” I would add, Be curious. Be the Beloved.

Dear friend, being the Beloved is the origin and the fulfillment of the life of the Spirit. I say this because, as soon as we catch a glimpse of the truth, we are put on a journey in search of the fullness of that truth and we will not rest until we can rest in that truth. From the moment we claim the truth of being the Beloved, we are faced with the call to become who we are. Becoming the Beloved is the great spiritual journey we have to make. –Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved, p. 43


“Self-study refers not only to the regular, independent study and recitation of wisdom teachings but also more broadly to the way one applies them to one’s own life. It is not enough simply to arrive at an intellectual, conceptual grasp of the ideas associated with tradition. One must ‘walk the talk’ by actually taking action.” –Chip Hartranft, The Yoga-Sūtra of Patañjali, p. 36

“To a yogi … the path toward spirit  lies entirely in the domain of nature. It is the exploration of nature from the world of appearances, or surface, into the subtlest heart of living matter. Spirituality is not some external goal that one must seek but a part of the divine core of each of us, which we must reveal. For the yogi, spirit is not separate from body. Spirituality, as I have tried to make clear, is not ethereal and outside nature but accessible and palpable in our very own bodies.” –B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Life, p. 18

• Has the practice of yoga brought you greater knowledge of yourself? Has it brought you surprises about yourself? Has it affected your inner dialogue? Have you come to have compassion for yourself?
• Has knowledge of yourself helped you trust yourself more? Has it brought self-reliance? Responsibility?
• What connects you to spirit? Is there a place or an activity that centers you? What is your experience of spirit in the body?
• Is there a form of the divine that is dear to you? What is your source of inspiration?


masculine noun, 5th case singular, “from”

self-study; traditionally, study of sacred books and repetition of mantra (from sva, “self, one’s own” + adhī, “to study, to go fully into”; root verb is i, “to go”)


past passive participle in compound
beloved (from iṣ, “to desire”)

feminine noun in compound

deity (derivation uncertain, possibly from div, “to shine”)

masculine noun, 1st case singular

connection, union (from sam-, “with,” + pra-, prefix that suggests auspiciousness, + yuj, “to join”)

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