"The Self cannot be pierced by weapons or burned by fire; water cannot wet it, nor can the wind dry it. The Self cannot be pierced or burned, made wet or dry. It is everlasting and infinite, standing on the motionless foundations of eternity." —Bhagavad Gita 2.23-24
Snow was still piled up on the sidewalk outside the studio as I sat down to teach my Friday class. It was February in Quebec, which means temperatures barely reached minus 3 Celsius (26.6 degrees Fahrenheit) on a good day. The students, like me, were all bundled up. Though the coats, hats, scarves, and gloves came off in the reception area, the layers remained: thick socks, leggings covered by leg warmers, tank tops covered by long-sleeved shirts, and those in turn covered by cardigans. We felt safe and cozy beneath the layers that protected us from the elements. As we started to move and build heat, the layers slowly came off.
On another level, of course, we all bring layers of different sorts with us to the practice: the various roles we play in our lives; the other people and things we are responsible for; and indeed full spectrum of our experiences past and present. In some form, all these come to the mat with us as well.
But yoga brings us back to an essential sense of who we are, free from the superimposed layers of outer life, and even our individual identity. From this perspective, transformation in yoga can be viewed as a process of un-layering. It is a journey we embark on again and again, each time returning to who we are beneath the cloaks that we wear to navigate our way in the world.
How yoga connects us with our true essence
The idea that there is a place within us—a core essence that is beyond time and space, pleasure and pain, happiness and sadness, even beyond creation or destruction—is probably the most important concept in yoga. If we get it, if we really understand and experience it, then we’ve gotten all there is to know in yoga. We don’t need to learn anything more. For most of us, however, it’s a process, a lifelong journey of exploration, inquiry, and of course, practice.
The core, the underlying, ever-present ground of our own being, is revered as supremely intelligent, sacred, eternally aware, and, therefore, conscious. Yoga recognizes that this ineffable consciousness is our most essential sense of Self (therefore the capital S). Yoga teaches that this Self is the most basic reality of our existence, and that it is actually possible for us to know and experience it. To realize the place within us, which exists beyond everything that defines us as an individual, is the ultimate goal of all paths and practices of yoga; it is the highest and most precious attainment of human life.
Like moving to the center point of a nautilus shell, practice leads us toward this core from the outside in. It does this by directing our awareness and our senses—which usually move outward to interact with the world around us—inside to progressively more subtle layers of our being through a kinesthetic sense of ourselves, the awareness of our breathing, our energy, and the movements of our mind.
Diving into this inner terrain, we get to know and abide in that deepest, most sublime part of ourselves that is independent of the roles and identity we have in the outer world, the place that is peaceful and calm, unaffected from the concerns of our day. This timeless, expanded space of freedom is our center, our true Self.
This is the principle of connecting to your steady center. This sense of the center, for me, feels like the most reliable part of myself. It is the core place that doesn’t change, shift, or waiver, no matter what is going on outside.
As I’ve gotten to know this center within myself, it has become one of my most valued allies in life. I’ve identified what it feels like to be connected to it, and also what it feels like when my awareness is far away from it. I’ve learned what brings me back to that center. Amidst the ups and downs of both my inner and outer life, in times of transition, in times of uncertainty, it is a state I can access when fear, anxiety, or any difficult emotions and moods arise. When this state arises, I often feel a shift. I go from being fully identified with the feeling I’m experiencing, to being released from its grip. It’s as if I can watch my emotions from outside myself. I’m less affected while still allowing the energy of whatever it is to play out its natural course, and inevitably it begins to lose its grip on me.
Connecting my center, I find that a calm, steady energy naturally infuses itself into my way of being more and more. I’m able to bring a sense of grounding to bear in conversations, in work, in my personal interactions, in tackling my to-do list.
You already know it well. It is the deep-seated feeling of safety that you can release into and trust. It’s the strength you feel when you sense your midline, the vertical axis of your body, and centered calm you enjoy after a focused practice. It’s the quiet sense of contentment and well-being you experience when your mind settles. It’s the energy you feel in your spinal column. It’s the release of the breath in your belly.
Indeed, yoga is about returning to oneself in the deepest sense, returning to our steady center. Most of the time, our awareness and attention is likely (and necessarily) focused outward on actions, tasks, conversations. In yoga, we turn our awareness back into ourselves. The first thing we do in class is sit, close our eyes, and become aware of our breathing. We start to turn our attention inside.
Through breath, attention, kinesthetic, and energetic awareness, the practice brings us home to ourselves. As we forge the pathway of return, we might recognize how far we’ve allowed ourselves to depart. Our relationship with ourselves might feel neglected and long forgotten. Our inner being might seem distant and far away since we last took the time to connect within.
In those moments, it can be helpful to remind yourself to be present for the reunion that is taking place once again, right here and now. Acknowledge yourself for making the time and space for practice. Be grateful for the practice itself as the technology that offers as a passageway toward reunification with the part of you that lies beyond time and space, name and form, the ever-present space of your truest Self.
Homecoming: A Standing and Seated Spinal Twist Practice to Find Your Center
Practicing asana with an awareness of the spinal column and the midline of the body is a way of physically connecting to your center. The midline of the body delineates the vertical axis that lies in the center between the front, back, right, and left sides of the body.
Keep 3 technical points in focus:
- Draw energy into and expand away from the midline of the body in all poses.
- Be aware of the movement and rotation of your spinal column and initiate the movement in all poses from the center.
- In all twists, follow these guidelines:
- Stabilize your foundation as you twist, especially on the side you are turning away from.
- Work in two phases coordinated with your breathing: create space and length on the inhalation; move on the exhalation.
Centering and breathwork practice (3-5 minutes)
Begin in Easy pose (Sukhasana). Center your weight on your sitting bones and allow your spine to gently elongate upwards. Release anywhere you don’t need to be holding. Take a moment to acknowledge your practice as an opportunity to release the layers of body and mind that hold you limited and separate, and to come back to your most essential sense of self. Dedicate your practice to that homecoming.
You’ll practice focusing on the spaces between the breaths as an entry point into experiencing the steady center. As you do this practice, the pauses between the breaths may naturally begin to lengthen and expand. When this happens, the mind becomes quiet and rests in its true nature.
- You may gently close your eyes.
- Turn your attention on the natural rhythm of your breathing.
- Feel your inhalation, your exhalation and the space in between the two.
- Become aware of pause at the top of your inhale and the bottom of your exhale, where the breath pauses before moving in the other direction.
- Feel the end of the in-breath inside.
- Feel the end of the out-breath outside.
- The end of the in-breath inside.
- The end of the out-breath outside.
- The end of the in-breath inside.
- The end of the out-breath outside.
- Continue to focus your attention on these spaces between breaths, and see if you can capture the timeless quality and stillness contained within them.
- When you’re ready, you can slowly open your eyes and note the effects of this exercise.
This piece was adapted from Evolving Your Yoga: Ten Principles for Enlightened Practice by Barrie Risman with foreword by Sophie Gregoire Trudeau. Available on Amazon. Learn more at evolvingyouryoga.com
About Our Expert
Barrie Risman is a best-selling author and creator of The Skillful Yogi, a thriving online practice and learning community of sincere students and inspired teachers from around the world. Check out her intriguing new webinar, “Rescue Your Practice from the Clutches of the Commercial Yoga World,” and learn more at barrierisman.com, on Instagram @barrierisman, and on Facebook at barrierismanyoga.