Each month in 2018 I’ll be posting some suggestions to align outlook, inner work and yoga practice with the turning year.
Inner strength. Self-protection. Boundaries.
During the recent cold snap, I spent quite a bit of time this week wrapping up myself and my family in scarves, hats and long underwear as we negotiated the sub-zero temperatures, and it got me thinking about protection and safety. There’s nothing like a temperature of minus ten with wind chill to bring home the inherent vulnerability of the ‘naked ape’. What’s more, the cold snap that ushered in the month of March came just as the natural world was putting forth its first tentative buds, eggs, tiny rabbit pups.
In the esoteric anatomy of the yoga tradition, the body is conceived as a series of layers, or kosha. According to this system, each one of us is really made up of five selves, nestled within each other like the layers of an onion. The only one made of a substance we can actually see is the physical body – annamaya kosha, the ‘food body’. Within it lie the subtle layers of pranamaya kosha, the ‘energy body’; manomaya kosha, the ‘mental body’; and vijnamaya kosha, the ‘wisdom body’.The deepest layer of all is anandamaya kosha, the ‘bliss body’.
It’s a rich and supple metaphor for human experience, which I don’t have the time and space to explore in any detail today (there’s an excellent introduction here if you’re interested in reading more). But I want to highlight one way in which the doctrine of the five bodies is meaningful to me.
When life feels hostile, and the self perceives itself to be in danger, it can feel as through the body lacks essential layers of protection. For me, when I’m dealing with grief or anxiety on a pervasive scale, it feels a bit like going out in the freezing cold in just a vest. I reach frantically for anything that will put more barriers between me and the world. Hiding away, zoning out, distracting myself – these are my emotional equivalent of thermal long johns and three pairs of socks. But they don’t really work.
What does – sometimes – work for me is reconnecting with the deeper layers of self. Finding practices that penetrate the surface to sink down into the infinite safety – the bliss – that resides in the temple of the heart. It’s a way to flip the telescope: instead of feeling like a naked and vulnerable body at the mercy of the world’s weather, I am able (if only for a moment) to look out at the world from the far more pleasant perspective of an unextinguishable flame of bliss cocooned in layer upon layer of self-protection.
Try a visualisation this month that helps to change your perspective. It comes from my teacher, Tara Fraser. She offers two contrasting ways to experience any yoga posture: mango, and coconut.
To give a posture a coconut flavour, become aware of the outer surface of the body: the outline, the shape you are making. Imagine you are a coconut, which wears all its structure on the outside, and is soft and liquid within. Let your core soften a little; try to imagine the soft marrow in the centre of every bone.
Then, become a mango: soft and juicy on the outside, but supported by a strong central ‘stone’. Feel the solid reassurance of your skeleton, resting confidently on the ground, each bone stacked neatly on the one below. And soften your exterior, allowing the muscles to wrap lovingly around the bones, the face soft, the eyes and tongue soft.
Notice how the posture changes for you when you move your awareness out, and in again.
I’ve also recorded a yoga nidra track for you that works to move awareness and strength in towards the core of your being. It has something to offer several of the different koshas: an affirmation, “I am safe”, that operates at the mental level; a full-body awareness exercise to relax the physical body; and a visualisation that works at the energetic level to create and internalise a feeling of protection. It may be particularly useful in the run-up to an event or obligation that fills you with dread, or any time you get that ‘stark naked in a blizzard’ feeling.