STEPPING INTO THE LIGHT OF AWARENESS is like feeling the warmth of the first spring sunshine on your face. It has the power to illuminate the darkest parts of you that have long been forgotten.
When we awaken to a deeper understanding of who we are, our whole reality is transformed. We step out of the shadows of ignorance and into the light of true self-awareness. As the sun owers turn towards the sun, once we begin to know our true nature we are drawn further down the path of svadyaya (dedicated self-discovery).
We begin in life with what is tangible and touchable. We interact with the outside world through our senses, feeling our environment with the body and processing our experiences through the mind.
The continual quest for pleasure
We are charmed by that which offers pleasure for the senses and are repelled by experiences that cause us discomfort. In this way, we are shaped by our experiences, our likes and our dislikes, and we begin to identify with the impermanent such as our jobs and relationships. This moulding of the ego helps us to place ourselves in the world, however our individuality can also create the illusion of separation from people around us. As a result, we can have a tendency to cling to who and what is familiar. Deep grooves of samskara (habits/patterns) are formed through our continuous search for what is pleasurable and what validates the identity we have crafted for ourselves.
The goal of our practice and the gateway to our freedom in this life is to remember that at our core we are not the fluctuations of the mind narrating our experiences or the identification with those experiences. This world and our perspective is constantly shifting and transforming and it is through our svadyaya that we deepen our awareness to discover that our essence is beyond the movement around us or within us – we are the witness that observes it all.
The eight limbs of yoga: Not just physical
Patanjali’s eight-limbed path of classical yoga offers us practices to see ourselves from different angles. The very first two limbs (the yamas and niyamas) are focused on how we live in this world with greater awareness of how we treat ourselves and others, however most practitioners of yoga in the West begin with the physical practice of yoga asana (postures/poses). The poses create opportunities to move our annamaya kosha (food/physical body) whilst settling the drishti (focus). Inviting our concentration to settle into the present experience while we explore the asana is one of the defining characteristics of yoga compared with other physical practices. In the words of long-time yogi and philosopher Joel Kramer, “Yoga begins the moment you start to pay attention.”
How yoga practice teaches us about ourselves
The way we respond to challenges on the yoga mat begins to reveal a window into our habitual patterns. Some postures require tapas (effort) and are more physically challenging in terms of strength, exibility and balance, others invite us to surrender into stillness. Regardless of the yin or yang nature of the pose, if our attention is present as we practice we are able to notice our responses. Where do I need more sthira (stability) and where can I soften into sukha (softness)? Through pratyahara (withdrawing the attention inwards) we engage the senses away from thoughts and external distractions and begin to expand our awareness of how postures feel in our body and how the habitual way our mind responds to the experience of each pose.
The physical practice, full of dynamic movement is enticing to our energised modern nervous systems. Busy, overstimulated environments condition us into a habit of constant doing and the glori cation of being busy. This has slowly crept into our yoga practice with more vigorous modern styles being created in the last decade. Regardless of which style draws you to the practice, eventually yoga begins to make us more comfortable with stillness.
Unravelling the true self
When the body and mind are busy, it is easy to identify with the most superficial parts of ourselves. Yoga – at its core an energetic practice – creates opportunities for the subtlest parts of ourselves to be revealed. A consistent commitment to our practice expands our field of awareness across all koshas (energetic layers). As we move the physical body, we not only pay attention to the sensations we feel and the thoughts of the mind but we begin to hear the subtlest parts of ourselves start to speak.
The breath is the gateway to experiencing ner layers of self- awareness. A manifestation of prana (life force energy), when we allow the attention to settle on the quality of our breath we can experience the spanda (the pulse of the universe). With each breath in, I open and experience fullness; with each breath out, I let go and empty, creating space for infinite possibilities before the next inhale. The breath slows with our attention resting on it and, with it, the nervous system calms until the mind can settle. Within the stillness a quiet place is born and the subtle body begins to bloom like a lotus.
Practices which return us to the deep quiet within our centre begin to deepen new pathways. It isn’t that the more we practice the fewer thoughts we experience, but that letting go of the distractions within us and outside us becomes easier. Being more mindful becomes a habit and so we clear the pathway towards the deeper koshas (layers) within us.
“Samskara saksat karanat purvajati jnanam. Through sustained focus and meditation on our patterns, habits, and conditioning, we gain knowledge and understanding of our past and how we can change the patterns that aren’t serving us to live more freely and fully.” ~ Yoga Sutra III.18
A path to self-acceptance
Whilst the eight limbs are not sequential, paying attention in yoga asana and pranayama (breath control) prepare us for the practice of dyana (meditation). We train ourselves to observe our internal environment whilst controlling the body and breath so that in meditation we are able to settle the attention and maintain concentration while the body is still. With commitment to your practice you begin to journey further and further into each layer of who you are, and this greater understanding of the subtlest parts of yourself leads to greater self-acceptance.
We observe the fluctuating mind with our eyes closed and remember that we are so much more stable than the ever- changing thoughts and personality. The very core of us is a contentment and ananda (bliss) that is unshakable. We dive into this well each time we practice and, when we emerge at the surface with the eyes open, we have drunk from this bliss and can walk in the world tethered to the awareness of the deepest part of you.
Awareness is a universal concept. Paying closer attention to our tendencies provides an opportunity to elevate our experiences in our yoga and meditation practice from largely physical to more energetic; however, the greatest benefits to expanding our awareness are to be felt in our everyday lives. Greater awareness allows us to not only observe but alter the habits formed by our limited perceptions and conditioning. As the light of awareness penetrates deeper within us, it begins to untie the knots that bind us to disconnection and suffering. Through the practice of yoga we can experience greater freedom, a path towards living a more conscious and connected life.
About the author:
Irene Ais is a physiotherapist and teacher who has spent more than 15 years exploring yoga and she takes her students on a journey to discover the power yoga has to transform lives. She is the co-founder of The OM People. You can connect with Irene and the OM people at @izzyaisyoga; @ompeopleyoga; or www.ompeopleyoga.com