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When I first started practicing yoga around 17 years ago, I did it purely for its physical aspect.
I had been in love with dancing all of my life. But then I injured my knee and dancing was out of my reach.
Soon after, I began competitive swimming. I enjoyed the feeling of the water massaging me, the rhythmic movements and breathing, and the sound of the water. But I had to stop that too—my skin couldn’t manage all the chlorine in the water.
Then, one afternoon while taking care of my children outdoors, I saw people arriving for a yoga class—my neighbor was a yoga teacher. I said to myself, “Why not? Let me try it.” I signed up for one of her classes.
Never would I have imagined what a life-changing event that would be for me. I had no expectations. I was there for the physical aspect, and mostly, I was just curious about yoga. I really didn’t think I was going to like it. I usually craved more intense physical disciplines than what I thought yoga was.
The class was in the front room of her house. The weather was warm, the windows were open. In the distance, I could hear the telephone ringing in my own kitchen. My children were having dinner, and their voices carried through, too: shouting, and what sounded like fighting playfully with one another.
By the end of my first yoga class, I was hooked for life.
While listening to my children in the distant background, I remembered asking myself, “Where have I been? Why have I not tried this before? It’s been right in front of me all these years, and I never imagined I was going to like it so much.”
What happens when we take a good yoga class? Even if we are not looking for anything more than a physical workout, why and how does yoga start a process of transformation?
Yogic philosophy conceptualizes us as multilayered beings. It sees our human experience as happening in five layers or dimensions (koshas). These layers are interwoven and affect one another. When we change patterns in one layer, it can affect and induce changes in another layer.
They use the image of an onion to explain how we are made of these layers. The outermost being the more physical aspect of ourselves. The innermost, referring to our experience of ourselves as spirit united with the whole.
These are the layers starting from the outermost one:
Anamaya kosha: the “food body,” or our physical being.
Sometimes we live the whole day not being conscious of our body and how it feels. It is only until it is tired, aching, hurt, or sick that we start to pay attention to it.
During that first class, I was just practicing on this level—paying attention to what I was asked to do physically, practicing yoga asanas (postures).
Existing in this dimension, we feel our body, noticing which parts need elongating, strengthening, and taken care of. I started to feel parts of my body that I didn’t even know were there, as if they had been asleep.
Paying attention to our bodies carries into our everyday lives. After practicing yoga for a while, we tend to become more aware of which foods and activities make us feel well, and which ones don’t.
A friend who started practicing yoga said: “I feel like I have been living in a coma. I didn’t feel my body. Now if I stay out late at night and drink, I really feel the negative effects the next day.”
Pranayama kosha: our energy layer, or the physical circulatory and breathing system.
In its more energetic level, it refers to prana. Prana is not just the oxygen we breathe, it’s also the energy inside and around us. A lot happens within this kosha, most of the time without us being aware.
There are breathing practices that energize us, and there are others that calm us.
For example, belly breathing tranquilizes most people, and chest breathing can energize us. There are many different pranayama (breathing) exercises, and though they are subtle, they are powerful.
I realized this in the first months of practicing yoga. I arrived to a 6 p.m. class, not just exhausted, but feeling like a big knot of tightly tied up nerves. I had eaten all the junk food I could find at home, had lost my temper with my five small and very active children, was far behind in the never ending to-do list, and so on. I just didn’t feel at all good about myself.
That day, the teacher decided she was just going to teach pranayama exercises. The only pose we did was Sukasana, sitting cross-legged on the floor. I should have been bored. It was the only time during that day I had to exercise, and we were literally not moving at all.
Instead, we were moving our inner energy.
When leaving the class, I was a totally different person—I was enthralled. I felt good about myself and my life, like it was okay for me to be in my skin. I continued to feel tired, but not exhausted. I was no longer mentally overwhelmed by everything going on in my life. I remember asking myself, “How can that be…all we did was pay attention to our breath in different ways!”
But the reality was, I had moved the stuck energy inside me, and I was feeling liberated. Breathing exercises not only move the energy, they keep our mind focused on the present moment.
Manomaya kosha: the “mental sheath,” or our feelings and emotions and how they affect us.
Concentrating on our bodies and our breathing keeps our awareness in the present moment. This can easily pave the way toward being able to acknowledge and feel our emotions as well.
Being more connected to our emotions, we can feel more clearly which situations and people make us feel well, give us more energy, and which ones do the contrary.
Yogis believe that we store the emotions from past experiences in our bodies in the form of energy knots, particularly in the belly and pelvis area. When we move our physical body in so many angles and directions, they start to loosen up.
Pranayama practices also shake the energy inside us, moving with it our stored emotions, and loosening the knots.
I find that for me, yoga creates space in my body and my psyche for feelings and emotions to surface. Sometimes, tears come to my eyes, and it’s liberating most of the time.
I used to believe that I rarely felt fear, so disconnected was I from my feelings!
Now I can acknowledge the feeling.
Now, while holding poses, I give all my attention to the feeling of fear in my body. What I’m looking for is the difference between fear that signifies a real danger, and psychological fear. Feeling and facing the psychological fear during my yoga practice makes it much less difficult to face it in my everyday life, providing me with a sense of calmness to live through it. And it’s not a false sense of serenity, but more like, “Whatever happens, I’ll be able to deal with it.”
Vijnanamaya Kosha: the “intelligence sheath.”
We need to let go of all our stories to really be present.
Yoga teaches and requires us to be present: with what’s happening to our physical bodies, with our breath, with our emotions. It increases the quality of our attention in the present moment.
To be present, we need to stop thinking about whatever else might occupy our minds. We need to break mental patterns—where we’re constantly planning for the future, imagining possible scenarios, or remembering the past and thinking about what we should have said or done. To be present in yoga is to begin to change our mental habits—there is no autopilot or multitasking in yoga.
For me, my yoga practice is like a time-out from all my mind chatter. I find that this also carries out into my life—now, I can sometimes catch myself when my mind starts to space out from whatever is happening in that moment. I can then return it to the present moment, which has been of great benefit in my relationships and in what I’m doing at any given time.
Being present has also led me to be more connected to my inner self. Now, I notice when I’m doing things because of external pressure, expectations, or to please or be approved by somebody, or when I’m doing something because I consciously decided to do so. My mental patterns are changing.
Yoga is a technology of the mind in that it strives to keep our awareness in the present moment. And the only way to connect to our inner self is in the now. The stories we constantly concoct in our minds disconnect us from this self.
Anandamaya Kosha: the “bliss” layer.
Once we connect with our inner self, and immerse ourselves in the experience of the moment, what comes next is really beyond words. It is described as a state of wholeness, a state of bliss.
“At the core of Yoga is the realization of the transcendental Reality itself, however it may be conceived.” ~ Goerg Feurstein
In that first yoga class I broke patterns in several layers of my being without awareness that I was doing so.
In the physical level, I placed my body in poses that it was not used to. To do so, I needed to keep my mind present, and that broke my pattern of worrying about the future.
Moving my body in different angles and directions from what it was used to probably liberated stuck energy in several places.
We were doing Ujjayi breathing with the poses. This is a smooth, even, and deep breath that accompanies the poses in yoga practice. This broke the pattern of my uneven, sometimes choppy, shallow breathing. It probably affected my nervous system, because I remember leaving class feeling renewed.
For example, I might open my chest in several poses like backbends. Maybe my everyday posture is usually closed—while I drive, watch TV, chat on my phone, and sit in front of a computer. Opening my chest works as a physical counterpose to all of this, by stretching contracted muscles, and contracting overstretched muscles—like the ones in my upper back.
These muscles also affect my respiration. By stretching the contracted ones and strengthening the overstretched ones, my breathing will flow more smoothly.A good chest breath can energize us, affecting our energy levels. A good breath also affects the nervous system by either calming it or energizing it, depending on the type of breath. And to feel calmer or more energized will impact my thought patterns and my outlook on life.
My practice leads me into knowing myself on increasingly deeper levels—such as physical, emotional, and mental—and I find I am connecting with myself and living my life from that place.
In that first class, a process started, one that has no dogmas, only exploration. It will be a lifelong journey, and that is the way that I choose to live the rest of my life. I believe that even if a person just goes to a yoga practice for its physical aspects, they will get much more than that.
To move our body in so many angles and directions that we don’t usually do in our normal life is good for us, physically. Yoga requires us to pay attention because of the challenge of doing something new, something that’s not mechanical. And it trains our minds to be present so we can have the opportunity to connect to our inner self.
To breathe in Ujjayi—that smooth, deep, even yogic breath—will require the person to be mentally present. Paying attention to our breath is something we normally don’t do. And by doing yogic breathing exercises, we move the energy inside of us, affecting our nervous system, and changing our normal breathing patterns.
We’re removing ourselves from the daily grind and the stress of everyday life and finding a place of renewed perspective.
So, when we practice yoga, conscious or unconsciously, we are undoing patterns and habits in various ways—on the physical, the energetic, and the psychological levels.
“We learn patterns to free us from our patterns, eventually we have to let go of those too. As T.K.V Desickachar said, ‘our yoga practice has to be more intelligent than our patterns.'” ~ Leslie Kaminoff