When I first started practicing yoga, I was 16, and I had no really understanding as to why I had started... I just kept getting drawn back to the mat - it made me feel good. As my practice developed and I got the yoga bug I wanted to learn more. At that time in my life I was an avid book reader, so I bought all sorts of books and started searching in the pages for the deeper answers to life I was so desperately searching for. I read and I read from the more heavy ancient texts to the more recent texts penned by the modern spirituality gurus.
It is probably only a relatively recent understanding of mine that real learning only comes from the study of the self. It doesn’t matter how many books you have read - the answers aren’t buried deep in the pages. The real learning comes from personal experience and the ability to walk side-by-side with yourself, creating a relationship with your thoughts and emotions that enables you to process pain and fear. This objective self study assists you to become aware of your reactions and responses rather than getting caught up in them.
But how do you start creating this sort of awareness in your life?
What even is awareness?
When you look in the Oxford English Dictionary awareness is described as; knowing something or knowing that something exists and is important. Self-awareness is the experience of one’s own personality. I am not really sure either of these definitions does this word the justice it deserves, or if it is even possible to describe the nuance and freedom that comes with creating awareness.
When I started working with awareness I was definitely off target way more than I was on target, as most of us are when we start practicing something new. But I had, by this point in my journey, had ‘the realisation’. The realisation had come when I begun to understand that there is nothing more important to true growth than understanding that I was not the voice inside my head. That I was the only one who hears that voice - its a dialogue that only I am aware of. Then I realised how influential that voice (that wasn’t me) influenced my behaviour, how it affected how I showed up in the world and how it affected my relationships with other people.
Many of us go through so many changes as humans in the name of “trying to find ourselves”. We want to discover which of the voices in our head, which of these ‘parts’ of our personality, are really us.
The answer is none.
If you watch it, the voice. If you really watch it. If you watch it with objective commitment you will notice that so much of what is said up there is meaningless. Those voices, they don’t really affect anyone, except you, and most of that is making you either feel better or worse. When you take time to objectively watch your thoughts and realise. The more you stand back and watch, the more you get out of your own way, the more you realise, the more aware you become. The more aware you become, the less attached you become, the less attached you become the more freedom you can sense as you realise that most ‘problems’ in your world are actually a commotion in your mind, that the mind is the real cause of most problems.
So when the problems come again, when the fear comes again, begin again.
When you notice yourself react or over react to a stimulus…
Take time to slow down, to pause, to observe.
What has stimulated you? How did it make you feel? Where did you experience that in your body? What did your mind have to say about it?
Slow down. Pause. Observe.
Then wait for something else to come into your life that stimulates a ‘reaction’ in you - and notice what that reaction is.
When you slow down, pause and observe you are able to see that everything in life stimulates you in some way and that actually you have a choice as to how you respond.
There is wonderful quote by an Austrian neurologist that I love. Victor Frankl says “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Creating that space for yourself to pause and process gives you this time. Time when you are able to hone your awareness. Time for you to decide what you response will be.
One way I like to introduce this idea of sharpening your self-awareness in my yoga classes is through the concept of stories. I believe, like the Jyotisha astrologers do, that life is made up of stories. Those stories are made up of smaller stories, and those smaller stories are made up of even smaller stories, and so on until you break down the moments of your life into the smallest stories of all, single breaths. Each breath itself also has its own story. Each breath has its own beginning, middle and end.
Let's think of it in terms of a yoga class. A yoga class (should be) a story of its own, a well written, balanced class should have a beginning, a middle and an end. Within each of those sections there are lots of different stories, different sequences, that add up to create part of the whole. Within those sequences there are smaller stories - the asana themselves. Each individual pose (asana) has a story, it has a beginning (how you get into it), a middle (being in the pose - how many breaths) and an end (how we exit the pose). Within the pose there are smaller stories those being each individual breath.
So how does this help with honing our awareness? When you become aware of these individual mini stories in your life you can begin to see the nuance of each moment. You can slow down and become aware of the story of each breath you take. You can notice the process, the beginning, the middle and the end. The stimulus, the space in the middle - the ‘before you respond’ moment, and the response.
When we try and rush our story or any part of our process, when we try and skip the beginning (e.g. a warm up in a yoga class) or the end (the crucial Savasana) - we miss some part of the story. We are short changing ourselves. We aren’t allowing ourselves to ‘process’ or to live out our story. I believe the same is true when working with honing awareness.
First you have to notice. You have to notice the stimulus (the beginning) and you then notice how you respond and move immediately (most likely) into action (the end) - most likely you will skip the middle or rush through it. The more you objectively watch this process in your body mind - the more you see how your mind and your responses to stimulus are identifications with concepts or wandering small parts of the mind that don’t connect to your whole.
We are ‘narrow’ minded - most of us seeing things from only a small part of our mind, and our responses are urgent, wishes, temptations, reactions and then we try and ‘solve’ these problems through resolutions and vows. Resolving unconscious reactions is tricky as we haven’t realised that we are not separate from these reactions. The reaction qualifies who we 'think' we are. We needn’t have reacted like that in the first place - its just we were unaware of ourselves and our reaction just happened in conscious verbal thinking doing - we reacted too quickly, we didn’t let the middle of the story play out, we tried to skip it.
Once you begin to see this, once you stand back and watch and get out of your way, and allow yourself to see the whole story, engage in the process of fully living out the beginning, the middle and the end of each moment, each breath. Things get easier…
Take the reins, being again. With the next breath. Remember you are the rider.
We are reminded about this in the ancient texts of the Katha Upanishad (these texts for the last portion of the Vedas) - there is the parable of the chariot. This parable highlights how body, mind and senses relate to a human being.
Know that the Atman is the rider in the chariot,
and the body is the chariot,
Know that the Buddhi (intelligence, ability to reason) is the charioteer,
and Manas (mind) is the reins.
The senses are called the horses,
the objects of the senses are their paths,
Formed out of the union of the Atman, the senses and the mind,
him they call the "enjoyer".
- Katha Upanishad, 1.3.3-1.3.4 -
So the Upanishad’s remind us that we are the rider. The body is the chariot, the driver is the faculty of discernment, the reins the mind, the horses the sense and the path is what the senses come into contact with. The rider is our innermost self. When somebody knows how to reign in the senses and can learn how to interiorise their awareness, without always searching outside they can have a smooth journey on their path.
This metaphor of the chariot and its rider is central to the teachings of yoga, as the word yoga itself means 'to yoke' and this word yoga first appeared in the ancient texts with the meaning 'to yoke horses' - it was later that the word yoga was used to describe the system of psycho-physical practice that utilises the mind-body connection that we know of it as today.
It might all sounds simple when it is broken down like this. It might begin to clarify things for you. It might not. But putting it into practice can be more challenging.
A few tips on how to start to hone your awareness…
Slow down - take time to stop, to pause. Practice slow yoga (restorative or yin), take time to meditate, let yourself be alone to process.
Give yourself a ticket to begin again - know that every step on the path is a step, sometimes changes aren’t immediately obvious.
Practice patience - human thinking depends on metaphor. We understand new or complex things in relation to things we already know. Learning is a process - it has its own story, its own beginning, middle and end.
Remember it’s a practice - so ‘If Passion drives, let Reason hold the Reins’ - slow down, pause, observe. Then repeat.
Step back - get out of your way. Don't try and drive the chariot - you are the rider!
Forgive yourself for getting in the way - when you notice you have been unaware of you story and the process thank yourself for being misaligned and celebrate your desire to shift.
Live out each story - try not to skip any steps of the process. And when you have lived out one story…
‘That within us which seeks to know and to progress is not the mind but something behind it which makes use of it.’
- Sri Aurobindo or the Adventures of Consciousness -