"Do not think of yourself as a small, compressed, suffering thing - think of yourself as graceful and expanding, no matter how unlikely it may seem at the time." ~BKS Iyengar, excerpt from Light on Life
I have been thinking a lot about the koshas lately, about the layers of who we are that are sometimes called bodies. Certainly, as an asana practitioner, we deal a lot with the outer layer known as the the annamaya kosha or the “food body”, the physical sheath. (We eat food, it becomes our body, and so we have a “food body.” Like that.) Every year, in fact, more people turn to asana practice for exercise, to get “their sweat on,” for the fun of movement, the thrill of making shapes or some variation on the theme of physical health and fitness. More and more of us are “stretching in Sanskrit” for very physical reasons.
And it seems to me, that we teachers are obsessed with anatomy these days. We can not seem to get enough knowledge about what muscles work to create the shapes of the asanas and which muscles limit our abilities to perform the postures. I think this trend is awesome. Knowing how the physical body works is empowering knowledge to bring into practice and teaching. I know I find the body endlessly fascinating.
That being said, I believe there is more to asana than understanding and improving the outer sheath. I believe we have an opportunity to expand the knowledge of who we truly are through this practice which makes asana a very unique form of physical activity. And while we have a bodies, I believe we are more than the body only.
Take one step in from the food body and you enter the world of “energy,” of the pranic sheath, the sheath of our vital force, the pranamaya kosha. While we make the shapes of the asana with the flexion, extension, contraction and relaxation of the muscles of our physical body, there is an energetic component to the asana also. As asana practitioners, we are both artists and scientists. We are poet and engineer. We are athlete and mystic. We are, after all, both physical and energetic beings.
For instance, simply “contracting our leg muscles” is an instruction on the outer layer. We can “tone the quadriceps,” “lift the knee caps” or “squeeze the knees.” A cue such as “firm the muscles from the skin to the bone” is more energetic in nature and takes our attention more thoroughly throughout the leg. If we conceive of the contraction as a “pulling up” from the earth or as “hugging the muscles to the bone” we might experience very different energetic effects even if the knee cap is lifted and the leg muscles are firm in both cases. (Of course, we have to know what the energetic cues actually mean or else it sounds ridiculous but that is another story for another day and it comes into play a bit with the mental sheath.)
In another example, we could work to make the pelvis neutral from the back body— “draw your buttocks down, move your tailbone in, bring your pubic bone to your navel and move your navel back toward your spine.” Or you could initiate it from the front— “Draw your pubic bone to your navel, your navel to your spine, your buttocks flesh down and bring your tailbone in.” And as you trace energetic quality of the same exact cues when initated from the front or from the back you might find that the same cues yield a different energetic quality.
(And at the risk of sounding jaded and burnt out, I am going to beg that you please do not email me about “to tuck or not to tuck” or whether you agree with any or all of these cues… I am simply illustrating a point, not entering a debate about the cues themselves. Honestly, I have alignment-debate-fatigue. I have yoga-debate-fatigue, in general, truth be told. But I digress.)
So- regardless of the specificity and accuracy of the cues, all of which have endless variations outside the scope of this article, my point is that the way we apply the same biomechanics can affect our energetic experience. And the way we conceive of and describe the energetic actions has different effects. It is so cool. We are not physical beings only.
So obvious and yet, sort of not.
I think this movement from straight biomechanical execution and conception to the energetic realm is alo significant because if, as a practitioner, I only practice from muscles acting on bones, I strengthen my identification of myself as a body only. I personally think that so many modern ills have at their root, the over-identification with the body. Seems to me that so much of our fear of aging, our obsession with looks, appearances and outer achievement is all connected back to a limited sense of identity which has the body at the center of who we are.
And so we are clear, I am pro-body. I am into the sensual world. I love my body and all it can do. I am not a “renounce the body” asana practitioner. However, I am also interested in who I am in addition to my body. I am not entering a body v. spirit debate here. I am talking about how to know myself as a physical being and an energetic being. And because so many instructions in asana are energetic, not simply biomechanical, the asana practice is uniquely aimed to help us learn this important lesson if we let it.
For instance, there can be flows of energy that work within movement that are not mappable in terms of straight contraction or relaxation and yet have profound affects on our posture. Keep in mind that posture can be defined as both the outer position of the body as well as someone’s inner attitude. The definition of the word itself points us to the inner sheaths. Position of the body and attitude are linked even in the word.
How cool is that?
So, it seems like some folks are “all about the energy” and could probably use some grounding in what is actually happening in the muscles and bones. And yet, many technicians out there may be missing a transformational opportunity by reducing the asana to physical actions and outcomes alone.
I mentioned that the energetic realm is linked to the concept of how we initate actions, and also how we experience the outcomes of the actions. So we step into the realm of the mind and emotions and the mental sheath, the manomaya kosha. Some part of us has to undertand, interpret, experience, give the directions to the body and reflect on the outcomes that takes us deeper through the physical actions, through the first layer of energy and deeper into the mind.
And as we learn and experience and contemplate some part of us is also called to discern how much of any action to use and which ones to discard and which outcomes of practice are desireable, which ones are undersireable and the sheath of discernment, the vijnanamaya kosha is a player as well. If you look on the chart you see these three sheaths labeled as the Subtle Body.
The cool thing is that we are like nesting Russian dolls and so if you do the physical practice you affect the subtle and whether you want to or not, insights arise in asana practice, emotions surface and oftentimes life-decisions requiring discernment come calling. The beauty of asana is that it works on the layers of the Being whether we want it to and whether we know it.
So there is that.
But I am interested in being a concious participant in the process of what is happening in asana. I am interested in speaking to the process in teaching. I am interested in this most excellent physical practice being a transformational process. I am interested in the concept of “I am more than my body” being an abiding knowledge that sources my faith, clarifies my vision, informs my view, empowers my service and softens the lines of division within myself and in my relationships. I want more than deep back bends. I want poses like self-love, compassion, wisdom, faith and clarity. And as hard as back bends can be, inner postures referenced in the knowledge of “I am not my body only” require a unique and enduring mental focus.
And so we are clear, I am talking about asana (I am an asana teacher, after all) but I think this transformational process is aided by study, contemplation, meditation and psychotherapy, etc. I do not see asana as a stand-alone practice, I am just talking about some of the awesome aspects of its potential and the ways it can contribute to a larger unfolding and larger life of inquiry. As much as I love asana, when my marriage was in trouble we went to therapy and if I broke my leg I would go to the hospital, not chant mantra. But I digress again.
Back to enduring mental focus.
I wish I had a dollar for every person who tells me they want to do asana and “not think.” I always feel a little sad when I hear this because so much of what I feel is benefical about asana comes through the inner sheaths of intellect, mind and prana. It isn’t that I do not understand the sentiment behind “I just don’t want to think” because I do. I really do. I just don’t relate to the idea in terms of how I practice asana and in terms of what I think the practice of asana offers.
So we are clear and before anyone gets defensive, I know what it is like to live in a world of thinking that is not friendly, that is running amok and that at any given moment does not have my best interests in mind. I know what it is like to think a lot and to want a break from mental constructs, limits and ideas. I get it. I really do.
It’s just that I don’t use asana to get away from my mind. Asana does give me a break from my mind but not because I am not using my mind. I use my mind to go deeper into asana and use the asana to change the quality of what I am thinking about, focusing on and being absorbed in. I use the asana to change my relationship to my mind so that I do not have to believe everything I think all of the time. I don’t think of asana as a way to “get out of my mind” I actually think of it as a way to “get deeper in.” Generally, my experience with this process is that The Nightmare of My Mind lives more on the surface layer anyway. Several layers in, the obsession ceases, the simplicity increases and things quiet down considerably.
And I think its because as we go deeper into ourselves we are moving closer to the bliss body, the anandamaya kosha. Anyone who knows me, knows I do not talk much about bliss so I am not talking here about all the swooning blah-blah about bliss that is so prevalent in yoga-speak these days. I am talking about the bliss of being able to chose from Being, not pattened conditioning. I am talking about the bliss of a deep breath rather than an angered reaction. I am talking about the bliss of choice over addiction. I am talking about how asana can create a fertile ground inside us where we change our conditioned responses to difficulty, challenge, stress, and perception and where we can sow seeds of enlightenment for now we are in the realm of the causal.
Anyway, all of this boils down to the age-old adage that prana follows attention. So if we pay attention to the physicality only we will know that. And physical is all we want, then wonderful! However, the logic follows that if we pay attention to the subtle we will come to know ourselves in more subtle ways. We can know ourselves as more than our outer body. And we can pay attention to the places of depth where the rattlings-on of the mind give way to moments of deep-okayness, which is how I think about bliss mostly, and perhaps, just maybe we might reside there more often.
And the next rung in for fearless traveler is the atman, the soul itself.
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