We all start off practicing yoga for a variety of reasons. Perhaps it was to heal an old injury, to lose weight or to become more flexible. We jump on board because others are doing so and it seems to be benefiting them.
We think that the goal is the pose. This is normal because there is so much emphasis on alignment and structure of the body that we begin to think of it as only about the health of the body. Some asanas are simple but many are very complex requiring that the participant not only has a healthy, strong and flexible body…..but that they are in tune with the subtle workings from within. Their breath. The energetics of the body. Their mindset. Their purpose for doing the pose in the first place. This art of awareness is what makes yoga such a powerful tool.
Without more fine tuned awareness, the posture crumples, the student is unable to do the pose – or worse, they find injury. In regards to injuries B.K.S. Iyengar would say that you will never get hurt in yoga if you’re paying attention. By paying attention he doesn’t just mean to the shape of the pose or the alignment cues from the instructor.
He means full body and mind awareness. Are you practicing from a place of ego (wanting to show off or scared to hold back)? Are you paying attention to the subtle intuitive yearnings of your body that say “yes this is a good option for you” or “no, its time to hold steady here.”
It takes much more than flexibility and strength to get into the poses that you may see in beautiful photographs. It takes subtle inner workings, a calm mindset, a purposeful set of actions. This is truly where we can practice full awareness. When we are able to yoke all of our parts together (body, breath, emotions, mental state and spirituality) we gain a new perspective and clarity. The asana is just a tool.
In Light on Life from B.K.S. Iyengar (one of my favourite books on yogic philosophy) summarizes the goal and purpose of asana.
The purpose or goal of asana is to align and harmonize the physical body and all the layers, or sheaths, of the subtle emotional, mental, and spiritual body. This is integration. But how does one align these layers and experience integration? How does one find such profound transformation in what from the outside may look simply like stretching or twisting the body into unusual positions? It begins with awareness.
We think of intelligence and perception as taking place exclusively in our brains, but yoga teaches us that awareness and intelligence must permeate the body. Each part of the body literally has to be engulfed by the intelligence. We must create a marriage between the awareness of the body and that of the mind.
When the two parties do not cooperate, it leads to a sense of fragmentation and “dis-ease.” For example, we should only eat when our mouth spontaneously salivates, as it is the body’s intelligence telling us that we are truly hungry. If not, we are force-feeding ourselves and “dis-ease” will surely follow.
Many moderns use their bodies so little that they lose the sensitivity of this bodily awareness. They move from bed to car to desk to car to couch to bed, but there is no awareness in their movement, no intelligence. There is no action. Action is movement with intelligence. The world is filled with movement. What the world needs is more conscious movement, more action.
The world is filled with movement. What we need is conscious action. How many things do we do on a daily basis where we are disconnected to its purpose? We do so many things that cause us pain and suffering (overeating, avoiding exercise, drugs and alcohol, fights and controlling others).
We don’t stop enough to reflect on WHY we do most of the things that we do. We don’t realize the many influences we have acting upon us at any time.
Social media and screen culture
What if we took more time to reflect on WHY we are doing things. What if we stopped to check in with our bodies and our hearts? What if we began to feel instead of think? Our thinking brain overanalyzes while our feeling spirit has more important information to share. Our thinking brain has been under the influence for a long time now. We need this very logical part of ourselves of course, but our thinking brain can give us unhelpful thoughts. Pride, anger, feelings of unworthiness or envy.
When we’re in our feeling heart, the voice behind the brain, we hear the more subtle whisperings of “you belong here” or “your body needs this right now.”
I believe if we spent more time in stillness, more time with ourselves, practicing the art of awareness we would all have more moments of peace, the collective earth would hurt less, and people would treat each other, and themselves better.
It only takes a little bit of time to stop and check in. To pause. To reflect. To FEEL.
I’m challenged daily to pull the concept of awareness into all areas of my life. Where can I become more aware? What are the feelings that are driving these actions and are they best for me? Does this feel right? If I can do this in a yoga class, but leave and forget this tool……becoming impatient with my family, neglectful of my body or negligent of the world’s needs, I haven’t learnt anything.
Does this feel like just one more thing to add to your plate? To stress you out? What Iyengar is offering is more simple than you think. It’s not the act of overthinking. We do that already. It’s not about being self-conscious in the world. It’s about becoming self-aware. And all awareness asks of you…is to FEEL.
When we ask ourselves, “What am I doing?” and “Why am I doing it?” our minds open. This is self-awareness. However, it is necessary to point out that students should be self-aware, not self-conscious. Self-consciousness is when the mind constantly worries and wonders about itself, doubting constantly and being self-absorbed. It is like having the devil and angel both sitting on your shoulders continually arguing over what you should do. When you are self-conscious, you are going to exhaust yourself. You are also going to strain the muscles unnecessarily because you are thinking about the asana and how far you want to stretch. You are not experiencing the asana and stretching according to your capacity. – BKS Iyengar
So how do we learn to feel more? To become more self-aware? A good place to start is meditation. Even 5-10 minutes a day will do you wonders. My favourite kind of meditations are called pure awareness meditations where you simply try to observe. You observe the sounds and smells around you. You observe sensations in the body. You observe the thoughts that come up for you without trying to change or force anything. You could also practice this on a walk. Observing sounds around you. Your footsteps. The length of your breath.
Your yoga practice is a wonderful tool for practicing awareness. Become less attached to the ascetics of an asana (the look and shape of it) and become more inquisitive to sensation. To feeling. Over time you’ll notice an enhancement of the physical product but you’ll also become more in tune with listening to your body without any unnecessary story or judgement.
The art of awareness asks you to FEEL. That’s it. Try sitting still right now, wherever you are. Close your eyes. Take a deep breath in and out and FEEL the wave of relief that washes over you. That’s your heart. It’s saying “thank you, for meeting me here.”
If you’re interested in yogic philosophy I highly recommend you check out B.K.S. Iyengar’s Light on Life: The Yoga Journey to Wholeness, Inner Peace, and Ultimate Freedom
Need help with discovering a meditation practice? My favourite app is Insight Timer. It’s free and there are thousands of great tools to discover here.
With Grace and Grit,