Study Sessions: Kathy Hartsell


Mindbodybrew is ultimately about providing a space for written reflection at every step along the yoga path. We hope that by sharing assignments from our Teacher Trainees, we can expand their deep investigation into community-wide dialogue. The following is an excerpt of a piece written by one of our newest, current trainees, Kathy Hartsell, regarding svadhyaya, or self-study.


For me, Svadhyaya means to swim through, sit with, and follow through with the lessons contained in the work of getting to know oneself. This intentional introspection informs the way one engages with and views the world, with shifting of samskara not the object of the work, but often a byproduct of the process. If svadhyaya could be illustrated, I imagine it would be the self sitting with a book of pages made of mirrors. I visualize these mirror pages reflecting imprinted patterns of samskara, each etched in at different depth, each one subject to the gift of neuroplasticity. The willingness to pick up these mirror pages, look at them directly and honestly, and then translate observation into functional value is what svadhyaya currently means to me.

When the concept of svadhyaya was first introduced to me, I couldn’t digest it as something distinct from critical self-analysis. For a while, well-worn patterns of negatively tinged striving, inscribed in ballet studios, academic chairs, and in the environment of my own brain, overshadowed the more subtle, substantive teachings of svadhyaya. The familiar “old” wiring took time to unravel and reorganize, but my relationship with this niyama matured over time.  Today, I have a more nourishing relationship with svadhyaya, which has become an anchor for both living and being in the world.

While Light on Yoga emphasizes dedication to sacred literature as a defining part of self-study, I find it more relevant to interpret this directive as simply a call to be resourceful and connected to what is sacred. For me, this includes reading/reflecting on yoga material, studying with senior teachers and conversing with mentors and colleagues about roadblocks and insights. Reaching out in order to more skillfully reach in has become an important part of studying myself, whether it’s with a sutra, a book, a moment in nature, continued education, or a friendship. I wonder if BKS Iyengar would disprove of this loose interpretation, but I find it useful to acknowledge our evolution in this way.

I recently took a class that centered around the idea that the teachings of yoga are found in stillness. We visited this theme in seated meditation and revisited the stillness more than we normally would. It was interesting that I found the repetitive pause somewhat agitating – it was material for self-study.

While momentum from a life of movement creates some degree of initial resistance to prolonged stillness, I have acknowledged that this is a direct route into svadhyaya. Whenever I feel my svadhyaya muddled by the craziness of life, I commit to at least 20 minutes of savasana in my practice, where there is more natural space for reflection. These prolonged savasanas reconnect me to clearer svadhyaya. While I have had this restorative approach for many years, my recent class experience asked me to consider why pausing in the middle of “designated movement time” was so difficult. It asked me look for this in other areas of my life off the mat. I appreciated that such a slight variation of a familiar theme could sketch a question into the journal of my svadhyaya and teach me more about myself.

– Kathy Hartsell

6 Responses to “Study Sessions: Kathy Hartsell”
  1. Callie ritter says:

    Whoa – I will have to ‘swim through and sit with’ this post to benefit further and be able to think past that beautiful image of texts with mirrored pages reflecting back the self. Nice job.

    • Kathy Hartsell says:

      I think it was maybe Liz or TaraMarie that matched this beautiful illustration with my writing. I loved the light beams radiating out and was glad to see a photo that captured my imagination 🙂

  2. Caitlyn Johansen says:

    So glad I read this,

    I felt pretty overwhelmed at the end of our training session today. I have a hard time trusting that the time I put into svadhyaya is meaningful. ” I couldn’t digest it as something distinct from critical self-analysis. For a while, well-worn patterns of negatively tinged striving..” This quote got me thinking about why I got so frustrated with myself earlier.

    When I feel overwhelmed, lost, or confused I tend to reproach my intelligence or capabilities. I suppose this is much like looking into the mirrored pages of the book , only to find myself covered in smudges of dirt. Disgusted by the fact that I’m dirty, I slam the book shut. This being said, svadhyaya takes a lot of bravery. I think I have to foster enough love for myself to realize that I am going to learn just as much about my weaknesses as my strengths during my yoga practice.

    Svadhyaya requires us to be brave enough to look in our mirrored books every day and be prepared to find out that we’ve been walking around with smudges of dirt on our faces. Then we have to be willing, through our daily practices, to scrub and scrub the smudges of dirt . Then we have to be happy to keep scrubbing when we find, that some those smudges we thought were dirt are actually beauty marks we never knew about.

    I have no idea if that made sense. But it made sense to me.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post Kathy.

    scrubbing on,

    • Kathy Hartsell says:

      It makes sense to me too Caitlyn. One of my mentors says that unlike the marketed “yoga is blissful” image, “yoga does not remove our discomfort – it illuminates it”
      I think this very true in the yoga of self-study too. We see the whole self – everything illuminated and sometimes distorted by own interpretations. But I really do think that it is worth it – thawing out what is numb, waking up what is asleep, soothing what is wired, and scrubbing what is smudged. It doesn’t mean we become polished or experts – I think it just exposes our humaness. That can feel sorta raw and sometimes ugly but also something kind of wonderful. Wonderfully smudged 🙂 🙂 Thanks for added to the svadhyaha “painting” Caitlyn~

  3. Molly McSherry says:

    This post was well-times for me as well. I share many of Caitlyn’s self-frustrations, and it leads to self-neglect.
    Caitlyn-the bit about discovering that what we thought were smudges are actually beauty marks was touching and pulled on my heart strings. The past year or so has been a time of extensive self developments for me–growth, regress, relapse, growth again, and on and on. My somewhat inconsistent self has led me to fear self-study in a way that only feeds further into this cycle. My mirror book is dusty….but embarking on this journey to pursue pedagogy has brought out the Windex! The fear has not subsided, but I feel equipped with the support of my sangha, and even my mind’s new knowledge, to begin to give myself the awareness and study that I need.

    • Kathy Hartsell says:

      Molly I can relate to your cycle – I also tend to label and attach value what is ultimately just movement. I think we are conditioned to regard change as growth or regress and good or bad but when we strip it down and look at it, it is all just a bunch of samskara/patterns. Some of the patterns we recognize as unhealthy/undiserable and some of them as healthy/diserable. But like one of our trainees discussed in their Om script, maybe the seed of the movement (or OM) is the same no matter which direction it moves or where it comes from. This approach has helped me feel able to look at patterns with less attachment and less aversion/repulsion. Recalling Pema, maybe we can befriend it all? I agree that being in a sangha helps me disarm my own hestitation and drop in.

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