For most of us, yoga practice takes the form of asana (posture) practice. We roll out the mat and make the shapes and movements that we have learned from our teachers. We sweat, we breathe, we meditate, we reflect”¦. Sometimes we even have revelations or realizations during the course of our practice.
Whatever it is that we do, we are always seeking that experience of heightened happiness, that buzz of well-being which yoga is so capable of delivering. Why else would you practice? Yoga is one of our tools for making life better, more blissful, more immediate, more real; it helps us to shape our experience of life.
After the initial learning phase, (when we just try to get comfortable and familiar with the postures and practices), the yoga can go in so many directions. You can grow in literally countless ways because yoga has the tools to take you wherever you want to go. Once you get familiar with the basic ”˜tools”™ of yoga, you can work with them as you fancy, just as an artist learns her tools before she is able to properly express herself.
In order to direct our growth consciously and intelligently, it helps to understand what the practices do on a deeper level. Certainly, one should know the physical effects of the postures: Downward Dog opens the shoulders, Salabasana strengthens the back, Upward Dog opens the chest, etc, but it is vital that we know more about the other parts of our being.
The physical body is our basic foundation, it is the ”˜house”™ in which lives our life force, our personality, our mind, our emotions and our sprit. It is not enough just to improve the ”˜house”™ (by stretching and strengthening the body) we must also live in it! We want to be confortable in our bodies and also grow mentally, emotionally and spiritually. For these deeper levels of growth, we need to engage the practices in other ways than just ”˜stretching”™.
Yoga views the whole person as having 5 layers. These layers are called the ”˜koshas”™; you may have heard of them if you have studied the Yoga Sutras, or perhaps your teacher has mentioned them. The physical body is the first and most outer layer, which, as we said earlier, is the foundation for the rest of your being (the other 4 koshas). Stretching and strengthening the body affects largely this first kosha.
The second layer is the pranic, or energetic one. This is the realm of our breath and of our life force. It is the glue that cements all of our koshas together; without it we would cease to exist. Breathing is the main practice to work with this kosha. It is well known that good breathing serves to harmonize the entire being and bring us health and radiance.
Yoga maintains that true health only manifests when all of the koshas are functioning harmoniously. Since breathing is the fundamental practice for the pranic layer and since the pranic layer in in charge of maintaining harmony in the whole being, it makes sense to focus on good breathing during your practice.
In fact, originally (back in the day), Hatha Yoga practices focused mainly on breathing and much less on physical postures. No matter how much you do physical postures, it is essential that you breathe well and be very careful with the quality and consistency of your breath! Eventually, when one progresses with yoga, more and more of your attention and efforts are focused on the breath. This stage is called Pranayama.
The third kosha is the layer of the mind and the mental activity, which includes emotions to some degree as well. This is the part of us that ”˜thinks”™, reasons, figures, feels and contemplates. You can experience it easily when you sit still and try to meditate. The thoughts and feelings can come thick and fast and carry your attention away from the meditation quite easily. The mental layer is a constantly moving, active force within you. It is a useful and necessary part of your being, and can be both a help and a hindrance, depending on what you are trying to do.
Meditation is the main practice to work with the mental layer, because it forces you to come to grips with what is happening in your mind. When you understand it, you can work with it and change it, but most of us just let our minds run wild.
You have probably also experienced the power of the mental layer when you are trying to practice yoga, but the mind keeps pestering you about some problem or task which you need to take care of. That mental problem can distract you from concentrating on your practice and make yoga into more of a torture than a pleasure. The best thing to do, of course, is to go and deal with what the mind is working on so you can put your mind back into a state of peace.
Remember, yoga is not about stopping the thoughts completely (which is largely impossible until we are very advanced), but about directing the mind to work for us and not against us.
The final 2 koshas are the deepest and most powerful; they are also the most subtle and difficult to access. The fourth layer is the kosha of intuition. You know what I mean when I say intuition: those moments in life when you just know something without knowing why or how you know it. That knowledge comes from deep inside yourself, where more universal truths reside.
The trouble with intuition is that we find it hard to know when to listen and when not to. We often cannot tell the difference between intuition and some feeling that may have come from our minds (the thinking layer/ 3rd kosha). One of the important jobs of yoga practice is to activate our intuition, so that we can guide ourselves and our lives from a place of truth. When we do that, we make the right decisions and progress through life with clarity and ease.
The main practice for working with the 4th kosha is Savasana (corpse meditation) and conscious dreaming. We need to harmonize our first 3 layers and then be still, just like we do in yoga practice. We move, breathe and meditate and then lay in Savasana. This is the time we get visions, dreams and images bubbling up from the layer of intuition. Yoga is so effective because we take time to allow our intuitive being to shine through our other layers and thus gain clarity about life.
The 5th and final layer is the kosha of bliss. The yogis maintain that the source of our being, and the source of all life, is ananda. Ananda means bliss, and this ”˜well of bliss”™ is where all of our other koshas spring from. It is the source of our lives and our being. All creatures yearn to experience satisfaction and true happiness, all creatures want to return to this source of bliss.
Ultimately, the yoga practice is taking us on a trip to return to our true nature, our 5th kosha, our source of true happiness. How we each get there is a matter left up to the individual and everyone”™s path is unique but eventually we will all return to ananda.
So, as you practice and explore life and yoga, try to work with as many of your koshas as you can and create harmony in them and between them. Move, breathe, meditate and surrender. Eventually you will reach the ultimate goal. Good luck!