This post is a continuation of my last, so if you are interested I would encourage you to go back and read it before diving into this one. I am continuing through the Koshas (layers) that cover the Self and how we can make sense of them through the lens of modern yoga.
On the surface yoga looks like asana, but most of us know that there is much more to it than that, however just how much more is often less known, even less so how we access those deeper layers. The last Kosha covered in my last post was that of Manomaya Kosha, literally 'mental illusion sheath', which is the lower mind and the place in which we reckon with the ego. One layer in from this is Vijnanamaya Kosha or 'wisdom' sheath. You would be forgiven for thinking that mental and wisdom sheaths could be grouped together, but they are intentionally separated.
According to tradition, wisdom and discernment are only reached once the lower mind and ego have been harnessed, so you could think of it like levels of a game. You need to free yourself from the attachments that arise in Manomaya to get to enjoy the peace and presence of Vijnanamaya. Vijnanamaya Kosha is often called the 'witness mind', meaning that the practitioner can simply be aware of what they are doing without thinking about it. Being here is being in a state when sustained gaps between thoughts and distractions occur. The gaps are fleeting but with practice they can be stretched out.
So, how do we get to this state? Whilst meditation is always going to be the practice most closely related to deeper layers of consciousness, there is certainly a way to bring asana into the picture. To access Vijnanamaya Kosha in an asana practice, the pose you are in needs to be one where you are engaged, whether that is one in which you feel so structurally sound that you can find a meditative state, or one that you have to work so hard to be in that your ego will be melted away and only total presence remains in its place. Either way the pose probably needs to be held for some time, so that a state of pure witnessing can be established. I spend up to ten minutes in one pose when I want to create resonance with the wisdom sheath; the pose usually being Tadasana (mountain pose) or Virabhadrasana 2 (warrior 2), both of which bring me necessary stillness but also provide challenge enough that I have to be present. You may need something different. I would encourage you to try this witness state in a pose that you know you can hold with ease (not to a point of switching off and dissociating) and you can also time the duration spent in it if you wish. As your practice progresses you can take it into poses that perhaps present more challenges. You will know when it is time to progress because the Manomaya kosha (lower mind/ego) will start to get noisy and distracting out of boredom!
Anandamaya Kosha is the innermost layer and this is literally the 'bliss' sheath (ananda means bliss) that covers the Supreme Self or 'Atman', according to Vedantic wisdom. Other ancient schools of thought have suggested that Anandamaya Kosha is itself the soul; the body of light that is the repository of worldly karma. Whether a layer or an entity, this is the place where one might experience the elusive 'Samadhi', which we understand as a state of enlightenment; not only the feeling of pure bliss, but the experiencing of it.
How on earth do we get here?! Well, it might have nothing to do with earth at all. If you follow the initial idea that it is a sheath covering your soul, one could argue that you will only really know it when you leave this earthly existence. To bring the concept of Anandamaya Kosha back down to earth, you may be interested to know that you could have already experienced it fleetingly, in those moments when you are so immersed in what you are doing, you forget that you are separate from that thing which you are doing. This is the true meaning of Yoga - union.
Trying to reach this state as an end goal will be futile, because you'll be so preoccupied with trying to feel bliss that you won't experience it, but don't let that put you off. Instead, work on constantly aligning with yourself and your higher purpose, and I promise you, once you're on that path things that detract from it will naturally fall away. So whether it's working on a personal project, a dream job, writing, music, cooking, a relationship etc. you will notice that yoga runs through all of it.
You can of course stay practicing just asana, and many do, but there is so much more you can receive from this ancient practice. A practice that is still alive and well thousands of years on, and yet, in the grand scheme of things, we are so lucky to be alive in a time when yoga exists. In a time when we are geared to want everything, you could stick with asana alone and stretch your hamstrings, or you could practice YOGA and stretch your consciousness as well.