When students first begin to attend a yoga class, they concentrate a lot on alignment of the physical postures. They learn breath while in all the poses and start to feel, maybe for the first time in their lives, every part of their body. If the teacher says “breathe into your back body”, newbies begin to understand what that means and what it feels like. “Lift your heart” and “soften” and “reach” take on as much of a physical expression as they do an energetic one. Slowly, as the student becomes more aware of their thoughts, they recognize where self-judgement and comparison with others might arise. With the breath and learning how to let go of these thoughts, beginners move into a second stage in their practice.
Now that the poses can be performed without concentration on getting arms and legs in the right position, the student can focus on the thoughts in the mind. Preferences, criticism, and discomforts are more easily recognized and released. The practitioner moves towards witness consciousness. This is where students begin to hold all objects in their awareness, yet not be disturbed by any of them. They practice regularly with the yamas and niyamas. Prana awakens in the body, heart and mind are coming into alignment, and the student no longer sees the line between on the mat and off the mat.
In the final stage of yoga practice, all the nuances of the small self no longer keep the student from residing in the True self. Higher levels of consciousness are reached, and prana has all of the chakras operating optimally.
How many students actually reach the final stage? Does it matter? Part of the practice is to let go of comparisons and agendas. It doesn’t mean that we quit living, as we do need to function in society, but it isn’t a race. There is no top rung of the ladder to get to. All along the way, there are physical, mental, and emotional benefits. I explain to my students that yoga is a way to live more artfully. And who wouldn’t want less anxiety and frustration in their lives?
The first step is onto the mat in a basics class. Giving the instruction time to sink in, to understand the poses so when the teacher says downward facing dog, it is understood and the body parts move into that shape. Later, the breath is there, but the thoughts are let go of instead of being judged, and they don’t stir up emotions. If we step onto the mat for the exercise, that’s as good a place as any to begin the transformation towards the true purpose of yoga.