‘You are not your thoughts.’ The first time I heard this idea I was lying in Savasana. My yoga teacher was urging the class to observe our thoughts - drifting through our awareness like clouds drifting across an open sky…without judgment…without trying to control anything…just noticing. ‘You are not your thoughts’ she said. ‘There is a you that is separate from your thoughts; that can sit back and observe yourself thinking.’ Hearing this and feeling the truth of it in that moment made me feel so … relieved.
The truth is, on the average day, I have A LOT of terrible thoughts and urges … from wanting to slam on the brakes when someone is tailgating me on the highway to wanting to throat punch anyone that makes loud slurping & chewing sounds when they eat (see misophonia)
If I was my thoughts, I would be a horrible human being.
Thankfully, we live in a world where only the thoughts we actually act on have an impact on the world (Phew! Ammiright?). It’s also fortunate that we have the ability to step outside of our thoughts and choose which ones to act on. This ability is called Witness Consciousness or Sakshi, in Sanskrit. Developing Sakshi is a key part of a yogi’s spiritual development.
BECOMING A SAKSHIN
We often equate ourselves with our thoughts. This is part of a Western philosophical idea passed down to us from a man named Descartes who famously asserted ‘I think therefore I am’. However, the yoga tradition regards the true Self as a level of consciousness that exists outside of our thoughts. Sakshi (saa-kshe) is the true Self. The root words Sa means ‘with’ and aksha means ‘senses or eyes’. A Sakshin is a person that is able to get outside of their thoughts and look at them ‘with their own eyes’. They see their thoughts as transient; just passing through their awareness. Not as the source of their identity. Like many Sanskrit words, the root word ‘aksha’ has multiple meanings and when we dig into other definitions, we get a more nuanced understanding of this concept.
Aksha can also refer to the center of a wheel. When a wheel turns its spokes revolve around a central hub, which is still. The capacity to remain steady while events are turning around us is another way of think about the meaning of Sakshi – like being the still eye at the center of a storm.
Aksha also means ‘spiritual wisdom’. Wisdom begins with the recognition that you are not your thoughts. Your internal landscape of thoughts, feelings, urges and sensations is constantly shifting and changing. The true Self is a consistent, unchanging level of awareness that is conscious of these transient experiences moving through you.
Everyone has the capacity to be a Sakshin – to observe what’s happening in our minds directly and yet remain detached.
WHY WITNESS CONSCIOUSNESS MATTERS TO YOUR EVERYDAY LIFE
You’ve gotta be able to get outside your thoughts and urges in order to evaluate which ones are worth acting on and which ones are worth letting go. This directly relates to your ability to make choices that enhance peace and well-being.
Obstacles, unexpected circumstances, and annoying people are 100% guaranteed to manifest themselves in your daily life (dammit!). When you inevitably bump up against one of these uncomfortable situations, it’s easy to get swept up into a reactive state. Trouble often starts when we simply react - without taking a pause.
A lot of the work we do in yoga relates to widening the gap between stimulus and response. So we can consciously choose our choices instead of being reflexively reactive. That’s how you successfully construct a path toward peace in your life and relationships.
HOW TO TAKE A PAUSE
In Kripalu Yoga, they use a technique called ‘BRFWA’ (pronounced burf-wuh) – a clunky acronym - and a useful technique for cultivating witness consciousness. BRFWA stands for:
BRFWA takes practice because it goes against our natural instincts when we feel threatened. For example, when someone cuts you off in traffic there’s a really strong instinct toward your fight/flight/freeze response. You can slip into reactive mode in a blink. That’s not always a bad thing. When you react to being cut off in traffic by swerving out of harm’s way your amygdala momentarily highjacks your brain so you can reflexively do what you have to for survival.
It’s a problem when your amygdala is frequently in the driver’s seat of your life. When your partner is late (again), or they cut their toenails in bed (and just leave them sitting there) or in any conflict situation, there’s the potential for your brain to get highjacked by stress chemistry. THAT cuts you off from your ability to choose your reactions and conduct yourself from a place of wisdom, freedom and compassion.
If you review your personal history of bad behaviour you’ll notice those actions were frequently the result of reflex rather than reflection.
BRFWA teaches you HOW to take a pause and observe powerful mental and emotional experiences moving through you - without reacting. Tuning into your experiences this way gives you the tools to diffuse potentially catastrophic reactions – like giving in to road rage and running other drivers off the road, drinking to numb negative thoughts/feelings and picking fights over toenail clippings on the bed … BRFWA practice trains us to navigate sticky situations with more grace and intelligence.
MORE PRACTICES TO HELP YOU TAP INTO WITNESS CONSCIOUSNESS
1) Breath Awareness
Practice being a passive observer of your breath. Can you just watch your breath come and go without anticipating or controlling anything? Give this 60-second awareness practice a try.
2) Yin Yoga
Yin yoga is quiet and still. Poses are held for long periods (like, 2 – 10 minutes). In those long periods of stillness, lots of things can come up – physical sensations, feelings of restlessness, boredom, annoyance, the urge to fidget... As you sit and observe the changing inner landscape of your thoughts and sensations, you learn how to sit with uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. You train yourself to widen the gap between stimulus and response. In the space between stimulus and response, you BRFWA. Yin yoga practice is a wonderful training ground for learning how to witness yourself.
This is one of my all-time favourite Yin poses. Pigeon at the wall. Set a timer for 2 - 4 minutes.. Once you've settled into a comfortable position, observe thoughts and sensations without moving until the time's up. Then do the other side.
This video by Headspace nicely illustrates how to detach from the thoughts and feelings moving through you and shift into witness consciousness.
One of the most useful aspects of Witness Consciousness is that it shifts the way you relate to your thoughts. It helps you recognize that indeed, you are not your thoughts. Your thoughts are fleeting - like clouds that drift across the sky. Here one minute; gone the next.
Your brain is a random thought generator. It’s going to spin stories because that’s what brains do.
When your brain is operating in its default mode, you’re subject to a near-constant stream-of-consciousness narrative that interprets and makes up stories about your experiences. Mindfulness practice develops your ability to step outside of the mental chatter, allowing you to recognize the difference between what is objectively true (present moment awareness) and what is story telling and judgment (your thoughts about what is happening). When you can recognize the difference between thoughts about reality and reality itself, you can decide which thoughts are worth paying attention to and which to ignore.
You don’t have to believe or listen to every thought your mind conjures up.
When you cease to identify with your thoughts you can identify with Sakshi, a wiser part of your consciousness that allows you to choose actions that lead to peace and well-being.
"How do I get a yoga body?" Every so often a student asks.
My short answer: If you do yoga and you have a body, you have a yoga body.
It's an honest answer, but it's also a little cheeky. I know that's not what they mean. They want to know how to change the appearance of their physical body. You're about to get my long answer, which goes like this: Your physical body is a great place to start practice, but the really exciting transformation happens when you use yoga to dig into the deeper dimensions of yourself. According to yoga tradition, you have five bodies.
Yep you read that right. Five bodies.
This concept comes from a classic yoga text called the Taittiriya Upanishad – it's called the Panchamaya Kosha model. It’s a holistic, multi-layered way of understanding who you are that goes well beyond the physical. It's very similar to the modern, western biopsychosocial spiritual model of health. (You can learn more about that here short video or here more in-depth.
Your five bodies are called koshas or ‘sheaths’, in Sanskrit. The physical layer (made of skin, bone, muscle, organs, etc) is the outermost layer - visible to the eye and easiest to feel. Maybe that’s why we’re so focused on it. Nestled inside your physical body are your energetic body (pranayama kosha), your mental body (manomaya kosha), your wisdom body (vijnanamaya kosha) and, at your core, your bliss body (anadamaya kosha). You can picture each of these five bodies nested one inside another like a set of Russian dolls.
As a holistic path to well-being, yoga practice is designed to take you on an inward journey through all the layers of your self - body, breath, mind, heart and spirit. The final destination, a state of bliss, where you feel complete, integrated and in harmony with yourself and the world.
That's how you get a yoga body. Read on to find out how to train all five of your koshas.
Your First Body
“Human beings consist of a material body built from the food they eat. Those who care for this body are nourished by the universe itself.” -Taittiriya Upanishad
This is your physical body, called annamaya kosha in yoga-speak. For most people, the yogic path to well-being begins here with Hatha yoga, the physical practices of yoga. Your physical body is a great place to begin honing the awareness and sensitivity you’ll need to tune into the deeper, subtler layers of yourself.
Developing awareness of physical sensations is the foundation of mindfulness training. When you shine your attentional spotlight on any of the senses taking place in your body right now, you are experiencing yourself in the present moment. You use your 5 senses (sight, sound, taste, touch, smell) when you feel your body in contact with the ground, consciously focus your gaze (drishti) or focus on the sound of a gong in meditation. These types of awareness practices can enrich your relationship with the world around you by enhancing your sense of connection to your environment.
What you may not know is that you have more than 5 senses!
Your 6th and 7th senses are called proprioception and interoception.
Proprioception, your 6th sense, allows you to feel your body position without any visual feedback. When you’re driving and you move your foot between the brake and gas pedals without having to look at your feet, that’s the magic of proprioception at work. When you’re in Warrior II pose, your proprioceptive sense let you know whether your arms are straight out to the sides or if your shoulders are elevated/depressed – without seeing yourself in a mirror.
Ever wonder why there aren’t mirrors in a yoga studio?
It’s to start a process of turning your attention inward – to develop your ‘in’ sight so you can sense and feel yourself on the inside - rather than looking at yourself from the outside. It helps you to move beyond a concept of self that is purely physical.
As you develop your interoceptive sense, you develop an even more subtle awareness of your inner world that includes an awareness of your heartbeat, breath rate and muscle tension. Processes that are taking place in your body all the time – mostly outside of your conscious awareness. Practice teaches you to slow down, pay attention to yourself and make deep, internal, unconscious processes conscious.
The process of observing and refining your body awareness - without thinking about your physical body in terms of ‘good’ or ‘bad’; ‘attractive’ or ‘unattractive’ - gets you to see yourself through a lens of non-judgmental self-awareness. The more you practice seeing yourself this way, the more natural it becomes to view yourself with curiosity and objectivity rather than through a lens of criticism, judgment or social comparison. As you train your deeper levels of sensory awareness, you become more coordinated, balanced and confident – and your sense of appreciation for your body grows too.
*Importantly, working with your physical body affects the health and vitality of your other bodies: your energy, mood, thoughts, and more. Though you’ll learn about each kosha separately here, they’re not actually separate from one another. In the same way that a map draws a clear boundary between one country and another, in reality there is no line that separates countries like Canada and the U.S.A. They blur into and affect one another. The same is true for your 5 bodies.
PRACTICE: Develop your interoceptive sense with heart rhythm meditation
“Inside this is another body made of life energy. It fills the physical body and takes its shape. Those who treat this vital force as divine experience excellent health and longevity because this energy is the source of physical life.” -Taittiriya Upanishad
Your Second Body
Energetic Body (Pranamaya kosha)
When you feel energized, lethargic, calm or restless, you are feeling your energetic (pranic) body. ‘Prana’ means life force energy. It’s the energetic force that permeates the universe and creates, sustains and destroys anything that has ever existed. As it relates to your yoga practice, there’s a specialized class of breathing practices called ‘pranayamas’ that are dedicated to expanding your vital energy.
Your breath is what delivers life force energy to each of the 37.2 trillion cells in your physical body. You can live for weeks without food, days without water – but just a few minutes without breath. Without prana, your physical body breaks down.
Whatsmore, breathing practices can be used to calm the mind and the emotions. There are breathing practices that affect the quality of your energy in a variety of different ways. They can be used for calming, cooling, energizing, and balancing your energies.
Experience energy, brightness and vitality with the Breath of Joy.
“Within the vital force is yet another body, this one made of thought energy. It fills the two denser bodies and has the same shape. Those who understand and control the mental body are no longer afflicted by fear.” Taittiriya Upanishad
Your Third Body
Mental Body (Manomaya kosha) or ‘body made of thought processes’
This is the part of you that makes meaning out of your experiences – thoughts, images, perceptions and daydreams are all part of the realm of your mental body. Deeply rooted beliefs, opinions and assumptions also dwell here. Mental habits (called samskaras in Sanskrit) are thought patterns that form your worldview and cause your life to run in certain patterns. There are many yoga practices dedicated to helping us see our habitual thought patterns clearly and interrupting the patterns of thought that cause us to suffer and repeat mistakes. Deep-seated beliefs like ‘I’m not good enough’ or ‘I don’t belong’ can wreak havoc on our lives and prevent us from experiencing the sense of joy and connection we deserve.
Chanting and meditation are practices that can help to interrupt dysfunctional thought patterns, giving your mind something positive and constructive to dwell on instead. Like giving a mischievous puppy a bone to play with so it doesn’t make a mess – chewing up the furniture and dragging garbage across the floor. Give your mind a bone. To grow a peaceful mind, feed it a steady diet of calm and peaceful thoughts. Chant, meditate, set intentions. Create a harmonious living environment. Give yourself interesting intellectual challenges. Nurture fun and supportive relationships.
Try Metta Meditation to cultivate peaceful and loving thoughts.
“Deeper still lies another body comprised of intellect. It permeates the three denser bodies and assumes the same form. Those who establish their a wareness here free themselves from unhealthy thoughts and actions, and develop the self-control necessary to achieve their goals.”
Your Fourth Body
Wisdom Body (Vijnanamaya kosha)
Studying wisdom teachings and studying yourself in relation to those teachings is one of the central tenets of classical yoga practice. A yogi commits to living these principles: non-violence, truthfulness, not stealing, overindulging or taking more than you need. Instead you are asked to practice being content, pure, self-disciplined, studious and to devote yourself to something bigger.
After a student learns about yoga’s wisdom teachings, they are meant to practice bringing them to life. Your wisdom body grows more vital when you practice a yogic lifestyle and engage in contemplative practices and meditation.
Wisdom allows you to see yourself with clarity and objectivity. It allows you to recognize all aspects of yourself – your body, your thoughts and your behaviours - without judgment. It allows you to step outside of your thoughts, your pre-conceived ideas and just witness your mind and your life. You need this level of awareness because it allows you to recognize your patterns and consciously choose to make changes. Wisdom illuminates the path to health and well-being and shows you whether you’re moving in the right direction. Your wisdom body is the objective, observing part of your self, also known as witness consciousness.
Here’s a beautiful explanation of how to tap into witness consciousness brought to you by headspace.
“Hidden inside it is yet a subtler body, composed of pure joy. It pervades the other bodies and shares the same shape. It is experienced as happiness, delight, and bliss.” -Taittiriya Upanishad
Your Fifth Body
Bliss Body (Anandamaya kosha)
Your bliss body is at the core of you – hidden beneath the other more superficial layers – perhaps harder to sense – but just as much part of who you are. Whenever you tap into feelings of deep peace, contentment, an ‘okay-ness’ with everything - you’re tuned into your bliss body.
Mantra, meditation and prayer are helpful practices for quieting thoughts that block access to your blissful core. While it could take years of dedicated practice for your bliss body to reveal itself, bliss can also show up unexpectedly at any time – while staring into a sky full of stars, during an evening of chanting, in deep Savasana or relaxing after a really great dinner.
Enlightenment, the final stage of yoga, is described as a state of blissful absorption in the one-ness of everything. The sound ‘Om’ represents the sound of everything in the universe vibrating together as one. When you chant ‘om’ it acts like a tuning fork that brings you into harmony with everything in the universe, opening you up to bliss.
Get in touch with your Bliss Body by chanting 'OM'
One Practice for Experiencing Your Five Sheaths
Yoga Nidra (yogic sleep) is a practice specifically designed to take you on a deep dive through all five koshic layers of being:
Yoga: A Holistic Path to Well-Being
Yoga is a holistic path to well-being that offers insight into ways of living harmoniously at every level of your being. From hatha yoga postures to breathing exercises that vitalize your life force; from meditation practices that quiet your mind to the study of spiritual teachings that inform the way you do life … A radiant, healthy ‘yoga body’, comes from dedicating yourself to practice for all five of your bodies.
I didn’t expect 2020. Or 2021. Did you?
If there’s one lesson the last two years have taught me it’s this: I have no idea what’s around the next corner.
I’ve decided to head into the new year accepting and embracing just … not knowing. In Zen Buddhism this mindset is called ‘Beginner’s Mind’ – and it’s considered a positive attribute. A Beginner’s Mind is a mindset that’s willing to see everything as though it’s the first time. It’s a way of approaching each moment with openness; free from expectations about what should happen next. You’re like an empty cup waiting to be filled.
In many ways, the new year seems a fitting time to adopt a Beginner’s Mind-set. A new year is a clean slate and a new beginning and a Beginner’s Mind is open, receptive and curious about what the next moment will bring - without preconceived ideas. When you have a Beginner’s Mind, you can respond to life’s circumstances with more creativity, flexibility and resilience in the face of challenges.
If you’ve ever met a 4-year old, you understand Beginner’s Mind. Young children are open, flexible, curious and accepting. They’re bursting with questions and curiosity. Their imaginations run wild as they grapple with how things work in the large & mysterious world in which they find themselves. They make simple observations and ask basic questions that are also strange, silly and profound. Children’s questions can force you to notice that there are a lot of miraculous everyday phenomena you take for granted.
“How do clouds float?”
“Do telephone poles hold up the sky?”
“Does the letter ‘W’ start with a ‘D’”?
And the relentless “Why?”
Kids are naturally gifted at practicing Beginners’ Mind because they’re beginners at everything. 20, 40 or 60 years of life experience can rub the glossy ‘fresh from the womb’ sparkle off of everyday living. We establish habits and routines that help us become more efficient at getting things done. That’s great in terms of staying organized and on task. However, too much habit and routine (same breakfast, same drive to work, lunch, home time, evening routine. Bed.) can make you feel like you’re trapped on a hamster wheel. Routines can leave you feeling stuck in expectations, thought loops and habit patterns. They can be useful – but they can also suck the wonder out of life and leave you stuck in the doldrums. You can easily fail to notice that *the moment you’re in is actually a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Never to be repeated again by anyone. Ever.*
I THINK WE CAN ALL USE A LITTLE MORE AWE AND WONDER IN OUR LIVES, DON’T YOU?
Jolt yourself out of autopilot by cultivating a Beginner’s Mind.
1.Set an intention
Say this: “I am open to inspiration.”
Make it your mantra. Repeat it to yourself throughout the day. When you’re open to inspiration you’re open to doing and seeing things in new ways.
2.Say ‘So Long’ to Self-Limiting Thoughts
“I’m too old … too fat … too (insert negative thought here).” Whatever your particular bugaboo might be, you have the power to stop your own growth-stunting, self-limiting thoughts. Whenever you catch yourself thinking this way, return to Step 1.
Repeat your new mantra: “I am open to inspiration.”
When you give up self-limiting thoughts, you create a possibility to transcend your ordinary experiences and limitations and to see yourself in a new, more flattering light.
3.Get Outside - Take an ‘Awe Walk’
“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.” – W.B. Yeats
Turn a walk outside into a voyage of inspiration of wonder. Awe usually occurs in places you’ve never been to before and in places that are physically vast (like the Grand Canyon or the Rocky Mountains or staring into the night sky). But you can find awe in just about any environment. No matter where you are, the key is having the right frame of mind. This practice will help you turn an ordinary walk into a series of awe-inspiring moments, filled sensory delight.
As you walk, open your senses to what you’re experiencing right now. Name:
4. Practice Mindfulness
In mindfulness meditation, you practice non-judgmentally observing the rising and passing of thoughts, breaths, emotions and sensations.
Did you know that you take more than 20,000 breaths each day?
That’s crazy, right? Most of those breaths, you’re not conscious of. Because you’re too busy – doing dishes, attending Zoom meetings and doom scrolling through social media. Stop and pay attention to your breath RIGHT NOW (click the video above for instruction). Prepare to be stunned by how interesting your breath actually is and how much there is to notice: texture, smell, sound, location, depth, asymmetries, pauses, and so much more! And it’s going on right inside your nose every moment of every day. All you have to do is stop and notice. Try this mindfulness practice and get a fresh perspective on your breath.
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
~ Marcel Proust
5. Shake Up Your Yoga Practice
Remember when you were new to yoga and the art of placing attention on your breath or your alignment was new and exhilerating? Remember the first time you felt post-Savasana bliss? If your enthusiasm for practice has fizzled over the years, shake things up. You can still approach practice with the open curious mind of a newbie. Try:
-a style of yoga you don’t usually do. Swap Vinyasa for Yoga Nidra!
-a different yoga instructor.
-reversing the way you normally inhale/exhale in a Sun Salutation.
-if your practice is mostly physical, integrate more pranayama, meditation or philosophy
-Bring more yoga into your everyday life. Mindfulness can be practiced in any context: in your garden, your relationships, and in your job.
The possibilities are limitless! Yoga is everywhere. Get curious and experiment.
6. Do An Everyday Activity in a New Way
Open your mind to the possibility that there are other ways to do things.
-take a different route to work
-brush your teeth or eat your breakfast with your non-dominant hand.
-have a stir-fry for breakfast
-next time you go grocery shopping, start at the opposite end of the store than you normally do.
Notice how small changes alter the quality of your experience and your attention.
7. .Try Something New
When you have a new experience, it’s impossible not to have the mindset of a beginner. Learn how to yodel, do an oil change or how to do an African gumboot dance. Youtube has a ‘How To’ video for everything! Notice what it feels like to try something without any preconceived ideas. Just be present as a complete beginner – and absorb.
“We begin with beginner’s mind, and then, if we’re lucky, we deepen it, or return to it.”
~ Joseph Goldstein
A Beginner’s Mind is an opportunity to see the world around you with fresh eyes. You experience life with more awe and wonder. You’re more open to possibilities, you connect with people more intimately, and it makes life so much more fun and interesting. Beginner’s Mind frees you from expectations about the future based on what you experienced in the past.
What does 2022 have in store for us? No idea.
Stay open, receptive and ready to roll with the changes. That’s Beginner’s Mind.