Svadhyaya, one of the five niyamas (or observances) of yoga, literally means self-study. Revered yoga teacher TKV Desikachar offered one of my favorite comprehensive definitions of svadhyaya as "Self-inquiry; any study that helps you understand yourself; the study of sacred texts."
The idea is that by studying not just our selves and not just sacred texts (whether they be the Yoga Sutras, the Bible - whatever sacred texts means to you), but by studying them both together, we can truly come to know ourselves and edge ever closer to samadhi, that utmost state of consciousness.
As a more secular yogi, I largely focus on the self-study part of svadhyaya. This component can be explored through any activity throughout your day - the only thing you need is mindfulness. Whether it's paying attention and being mindful of your body during an asana practice, watching your busy mind during meditation or a stressful subway commute, or reflecting on the way you handled a disagreement with someone, each and every moment of our lives is a constant opportunity for self study and reflection.
My favorite way to actively observe svadhyaya is through journaling. I've been an avid journaler (which I will firmly insist to spell check is a word, because it's a word to me) since I was a kid and my mom gave my sister and I each beautiful new Lisa Frank journals to keep the summer I was 8 and she was 10. As any girl growing up in the 90's knows, Lisa Frank was the designer name in school supplies! The bright, bold colors and gorgeous artwork made the journal a really exciting present, but the knowledge that each page was mine to fill with my own private thoughts, opinions, stories, and ramblings and that no one would ever read it except for me - that made it a priceless gift that has kept giving and will continue for my whole lifetime.
There are so many benefits to writing regularly in a journal, including better writing and reading skills, but one of them has definitely been an increase in self awareness. By checking in with myself through private journaling, whether I'm on a once-a-day streak (as I currently am and hope to remain!) or writing sporadically, I can keep myself honest about where I am with my goals, my relationships, my life's direction - you name it. Because of the trust my mother established with me as a child by assuring me that this was one place I could be completely open and free, she helped me establish a truthful and open communication with myself that is invaluable.
One of my all time favorite movies is Almost Famous, starring Patrick Fugit, Kate Hudson, and the incomparable Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Lester Bangs. A key line in the film that's often repeated is a piece of advice Lester gives to young reporter William Miller: "My advice to you - and I know you think those guys are your friends - you wanna be a true friend to them? Be honest, and unmerciful."
For a journal to have true value, true benefit, and to truly be a form of svadhyaya, it most definitely requires you to be honest and unmerciful. An honest journal enables you to be your own best friend, and as a reminder that no matter how much you change and how much everything else changes throughout your life (and everything does change), the only constant is you.