Life, Yoga

Who turned out the light?

February 17, 2015

I’ve spent much of my life living in fear; fear of judgement, of failing, and even deeper down a fear of even trying. I can attest to the fact that it is so easy to allow fear to hold you back, to use it as an excuse to hide from yourself and from life.

I was painfully shy for much of high school and college (and, to be honest, even now). Social situations would find me standing in a corner trying to blend into the wall. When I went off to college and left the comfort of the friends I had made as a child, I completely fell apart. My freshman year, I exclusively spent my time with two friends I had from high school. If they were busy, I stayed alone. My friends and family would say I just needed to “get out there”, say hello to whoever I met. I would get so upset, thinking they didn’t understand, that it simply wasn’t possible.

It’s a spiraling path that is hard to escape. The more you avoid life, the harder it is to get back out there. Starting this blog, the hardest part by far is putting my life out there, sharing myself and opening up to the ‘judgement’ I so fear from my peers. A fear of being measured and found to be inadequate.

I absolutely love this quote as a source of inspiration. It helps drive me to power through the fear when it starts to overwhelm.:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.  -Marianne Williamson

Even during my weakest moments, I have always felt that I have this inner light. I have just struggled with the shade that hovers on top of it. Struggled with why I worry so much about the parts of life I can not control (like the thoughts of other people, the events of day to day life). This is a big reason why I am so enamored with the notion of the Atman.

Atman Explained: Looking Through the Koshas

What exactly, IS an Atman, you ask? I was first introduced to the concept of the koshas, and ultimately the Atman, in my 200 hour yoga teacher training. Koshas are a way of viewing the different layers of a human being. You can think of them like layers of shades over a light bulb. The light at the very center never changes; it is always shining brightly, doing its damndest to brighten up the room; this is the Atman. Each lampshade covering the light is subject to change, so moment to moment the light has a different effect on the world around it. The koshas describe five shades or layers surrounding the Atman,  the eternal light inside of us all.

The first and outermost shade is the annamaya kosha, or the food body. This layer is literally the food we put in the body, and the physical cells the food creates and helps to maintain. Yoga aids here through the physical asana practice. Nutrition is another huge part as well. You can notice changes in your physical body with an asana practice as well as with different food options given to the body. How your body feels and functions has a huge effect on the way you move through your day.

The second shade is the pranamaya kosha, or energy body. This includes our breath, the beating of our heart, the flow of blood in our veins. In yoga, we work to affect change in this layer through conscious breathing. If you pay attention to your breath, you can see that it can not only change your body (one layer up), but can also change your thoughts and slow your emotions (one layer deeper) through meditation. This is why when anger arises, people recommend taking a few deep breaths before responding.

The third layer is the manamaya kosha, or mental body. These are the thoughts that flit through the mind, the reaction and interpretation of the mind to events in life, and the emotions we experience as a result.

Fourth is the vijnanamaya body, or wisdom body, often referred to as the intellect. This layer of the mind is what allows us to discern why we are really experiencing an emotion. This allows us to take a step back from the heat of the moment and view our environment without judgement. The wisdom body also encompasses our ego, or feeling of “I am”.

The fifth and deepest layer, right over the Atman, is the anandamaya kosha, or the bliss body. Being so close to the center, beyond the intellect, this is a state that is harder to put into words. If you are trying to experience it, it will continue to elude. Reaching a state of complete bliss, unattached to any event or situation going on in the world around you, is experiencing your anandamaya kosha.

Finally, buried deep within, we have the ATMAN! This inextinguishable light, soft and bright, inside of us all. The Atman is a key concept within the Upanishads, an ancient Vedic text. The Atman as presented in the Upanishads also ended up influencing many ideas of the Self in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. “In all persons, in all creatures, the Self is the innermost essence. And it is identical with Brahman; our real Self is not different from the ultimate Reality called God.1″ This Self is not subject to change; it is only the world around the Atman that fluctuates.

My highs in life have been so high, my lows so low. With the koshas,  I had a new way of understanding how this could be possible! Some days I allowed my Atman to shine so brightly! Other days I allowed it to get bogged down by my thoughts and deeply ingrained fears. 

An interesting exercise to try during your day is to sit and contemplate these different aspects of being. Notice in the moment what does your physical body feel like? What is it telling you? Are your shoulders hunching forward, arms crossed over your chest? How about your energy? Is your breath deep and smooth? Short and harried? How does it feel to slow down the breath? Is your heart racing or steady? Notice any thoughts and emotions drifting or running through the mind.  See if you can select a specific thought or emotion and go beyond it to discover what is REALLY causing the experience. Can you catch even a glimpse of bliss and inner light under all that is going on in your body and brain? Can you even believe it is possible this bliss exists? Try this exercise at different points in your day and life. Notice the differences between moments of joy and moments of stress or fear. Maybe you can find a way to start shifting your perspective during harder times.

I believe deep down that the possibilities available in life are infinite. We are limited only by how hard we try and how fully we believe in ourselves. I have come to believe that it may not be failure I fear, but how great my life could be. This is not to say that my fears have drifted off into the wind, but I have a new perspective on viewing them.  Like a turtle hiding in his shell, I spent many of my formative years ignoring the conflict brewing within until it boiled over again and again. By sharing my process of unleashing my Atman, I hope to help others uncover their own as well!

1. Eknath Easwaran, The Upanishads (Tomales: Nilgiri Press, 2007), pp. 38.

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  • Reply Kathleen May 18, 2015 at 3:17 PM

    What a wonderful way to express something that is so difficult to put into words. You were one of my first friends in life and I am beaming with pride as I see so clearly why you are still one of my dearest. Having been lucky enough to practice yoga under your calm guidance I know with certainty unleashing your Atman has been a very empowering and life changing experience. It’s really rad and inspiring that you have the courage to share all of this!

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