Layers of Self

In order to fully understand ourselves, we need an understanding of the layers that comprise our existence. And true understanding comes not from theorizing or thinking, but from direct experiential inquiry.  Without this kind of inquiry we can have some ideas about who we are, but they will be based on flimsy assumptions and mental models, rather than a solid and tested foundation. Many have trod this path before us, and we can use their gleanings and discoveries as a basis, or even a kind of map to guide our own exploration, as long as we don’t confuse the map with the terrain and lose ourselves in the abstract. The Upanishads offer such a map, and the Taittiriya in particular paints a fascinating picture of the layers of self.

The Taiitiriya Upanishad describes the layers of our being as sheaths, each successive sheath contained within the others. It speaks of life as the inner being or soul of matter, mind as the soul of life, and wisdom (or gnosis) as the soul of mind. And the Upanishad also describes the most fundamental layer of manifestation, the soul of wisdom and therefor the soul of mind, life, and matter as well, as Ananda: bliss, comfort, delight.

So as we seek to understand ourselves, we can inquire into the nature and qualities of these layers, seeking direct, experiential understanding. The Upanishad gives us a clue in its articulation of the sheaths, and then we need to track down the prize through a deep, persistent inquiry. We can stand back from our habitual self-identification with mind, and stare into the frantic pulsing mental web, watching its workings and limitations, noting how it takes in sensory information, filters it through a sieve of past experience and rigid models, and feeds it to our faculty of discernment, which sorts and dissects and deduces. The mind is an incredible tool, allowing us to make sense of our environment, plan for the future, build beautiful and terrible devices for engaging with and controlling the world around us.  But remains only a tool, a faculty, a limiting power of division that be its very nature removes us from our environment and places us outside of it, alone encased within our skin. If we take the mind for who we are completely, then we commit ourselves to a cage with impenetrable bars.  But if we take it as a faculty, a layer of ourself, then we can benefit from its gifts but transcend them.

From our customary perch within the mind itself, we can look above and notice the downward pour of intuition that illuminates the mental cave with flashes, and then watch the mind grasp and grapple and reduce the flashes into a substance it can manipulate. Climbing up we can enter directly into a more expansive way of knowing, a wisdom that exceeds the mind’s escapades, vast and fluid, where a subjective knowing of the world around us becomes possible. What was ‘other’ becomes known as ‘self’, division becomes simply differentiation, our aloneness dissolves into an empathic experience of unity. Or we can peek up further still, squinting in the light of pure, unobstructed Delight of being. Being infused and inseparable with consciousness/force and joy – Satchitananda.

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Yoga Nidra—The Art of Blissful Relaxation

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What is Yoga Nidra?


Yoga Nidra is a direct window into the very deepest layers of our being. It is a technique for diving into the most healing levels of personal consciousness. Through Yoga Nidra practice we are able to sink into the deepest levels of relaxation available to us as human beings. We contact the finest layers of our structure and awareness. We rest in a healing mist of bliss and saturate in the deepest kind of healing. It is a simple technique of resting, feeling, and following the prompts of the teacher as she leads your through placing your awareness systematically in different parts of your body.

Yoga Nidra is a practice that derives from the Tantric tradition. Tantric philosophy offers a unified vision of creation and speaks to the weave – or the matrix – of consciousness and form that expresses as the entire manifest universe. Tantric practices include and celebrate each person’s individual body-mind-awareness system. It teaches that our personal body-mind system is a microcosm of the universal reality and that by understanding and fully inhabiting all the layers of ourselves we can experience directly, and for ourselves, the vision of the unity of all life.
The practices of Tantra are directed toward realizing, and noticing without a doubt, that Pure Being is inextricably woven through all of nature. Tantra invites us into a breathing and moving experience of Pure Being and nature as a fully embodied-experiential reality. In Tantric practice there is complete inhabitation of the body, mind, and spirit and a celebration of the individual as the microcosm of the universal whole. According to Tantra, if anything is Divine, then everything is Divine.

Cycles of Deep Rest and Activity


All of nature nurtures and expresses itself in cycles of rest and activity. We have exhale and inhale as an uninterrupted rising and falling of restfulness and alertness that is continuous through day and night. We have sleeping and waking, the cycles of the seasons, and life and death. These cycles are apparent everywhere we look in nature. Yoga points to these rhythms as well in the Yoga Sutra of Patanjal through its incorporation of being active in the world through the yamas, niyamas, and asana and the internal practices, the resting and going inward, of shavasana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi. The resting phase in yoga is extremely important. It is often overlooked probably because our society values action over rest. The resting phase is where we learn and incorporate. It is where we dive the most deeply within and receive so much healing. In common life we are not often taught the tools for increasing our restfulness beyond sleep. It is critical for the development of a deeper range of awareness to allow our perceiving faculties to soften and expand. Sleep is not enough to balance our subtle nervous system and increase the range of consciousness.

Yoga teaches techniques for refining our nervous systems by cultivating appropriate healing cycles of deep rest to balance our engagement in an active life. In order to refine our awareness – deepen consciousness – we need to balance out these cycles and make the resting phase more effective. When life is lived in a way that does not provide deep rest for the nervous system on a regular basis, we accumulate stress. The accumulation of stress builds within when we do not have appropriate and deep means of releasing it. Yoga Nidra is the perfect technique for gaining the deepest rest of all. Normal sleep and dreaming is helpful, but it is not nearly enough to progressively cleanse and balance the human nervous system and facilitate the evolution of consciousness. By ‘nervous system’ we are referring to both the nervous system that can be recognized in its physical structure and the subtle nervous system that is experienced by yogis. The subtle nervous system balances the flow of prana in the body. Prana doesn’t only flow through the nerves but rather through every tissue, and its flow helps to determine the awareness level of the tissues as well. The experience that we often speak of in Embodyoga®: that every cell is awake, alive, and self aware, can only be supported by a clear mind and a clear nervous system. Clear means open to the full range of awareness and experience. Clear does not mean devoid of thought or absent of sensation. It does mean an ongoing experience of the full depth of the field of body-mind-awareness as an inseparable continuum of all of life, including ones personal existence, no matter what is presenting in the momentary movement within the field of relationship; knowing the human and the divine aspects of self as a tangible reality that doesn’t go away when there is pleasure or pain, happiness or sadness, or any of the other poles of opposite experiences. This awareness – embodiment of the entire field of our personal perceptual vehicle, our body-mind-awareness system – is what is necessary to recognize Unity.

Four States of Consciousness: Waking, Dreaming, Deep Sleep, and Turya–the
Fourth State


Yogis recognize a fourth state of consciousness called turya, which means fourth state. Turya is the deepest level of consciousness. It is the foundation of all the others. It is the unmanifest, or transcendent level of awareness that is the core awareness inside us all. The unmanifest is the Absolute, the pure and formless ground of being from which creation and manifestation arise. Yoga teaches us clearly that we have access to this level of our being. Accessing it, especially on a regular basis, is profoundly healing and comforting to all levels of our body-mind system including our perceptual abilities and how we make sense of what we perceive. Accessing this layer of existence provides us with the deepest healing. It spontaneously saturates our entire body-mind with Pure Being and provides a quality of restfulness that is above and beyond anything we can achieve in normal sleep or dreaming. It is the most profound level of calming, relaxing, and rejuvenating clarity and peacefulness that we have available to us.

While deep sleep is a dull state, Yoga Nidra takes us to the level of awareness that is awake and self-aware. We are drawn into the field of unmanifest creative intelligence that supports our active existence and everything else. Yoga Nidra brings us to the ultimate experience of restfulness. In terms of the gunas it is satvic, while deep sleep is tamasic, and dreaming is rajasic. In terms of the koshas, Yoga Nidra is a diving through the sheaths of awareness from the grossest to the subtlest. Yoga Nidra allows this to occur naturally due to the compelling healing and relaxing sensations of the deepest layers of our form and awareness. As we go deeper we are more comfortable, more at home. As we dive deeply we enter the realm of the spacious experience of bliss, or ananda. From there we slip quite effortlessly into the field of Pure Being.

An Elegant and Simple Practice


By keeping the Yoga Nidra practice simple and clear we get out of our own way, so that the natural tendency of life to take us deeper can have full sway over us. Everyone wants to feel good. Everyone wants to be more comfortable, happier, and more relaxed. This picture of yoga, through a Tantric perspective, trusts that there is profound comfort available to all of us deep inside. Our thinking mind often gets so preoccupied with itself that it impedes our recognition of the space in which the mind itself is functioning. Mind is extremely adept at forming obstacles to the recognition of the full field of awareness. A spinning mind effectively keeps our awareness right on the surface. In Yoga Nidra we give the mind a simple task. It has something to do – it follows the prompts. Our body awareness has something to do as well – it unites with mind to feel what we are doing. With our body-mind easily engaged in feeling and following the prompts we are under cutting the mind’s tendency to get caught on the surface layers of consciousness. By offering the mind something to do that is simple and doesn’t require effort we effectively get it out of the way of the natural pull of the subtle layers. With the mind gently occupied, the field of blissful awareness that is underneath it and supporting it can effectively pull us in. We are effortlessly drawn in to experience the gifts of our deep inner self directly. We harness the natural tendency of mind to think, and let it do so. It’s a trick in a certain kind of way, and a good one at that. Yoga Nidra is an elegant and perfect model for going within and touching our deepest comfort. It is light, refreshing, and leaves us feeling full of Pure Awareness. It is a birthright of every human to be able to contact this. It is not dependent upon situation. It is already present, but its healing energy is often blocked by the deep stresses that we have accumulated over our lifetime, or lifetimes. It doesn’t matter whether the stress was accumulated in this life or another. It doesn’t matter whether you believe in reincarnation or not. The stress is the same and it has the same remedy: deep and profound rest. The restfulness provides the necessary support for the human nervous system to release its stored patterns.

In Yoga Nidra, as we traverse through the layers of consciousness, we are naturally pulled into the comfort of the deepest levels of existence. Because we have a place to rest the thinking mind – the voice and directions of the teacher in this case – we are able to float on the pull of Pure Being and the blissful sheath of anandamaya kosha. Because of the comfort and the natural inner desire to feel better we are completely effortlessly pulled by these deeply restful and comfortable inner sensations. As we rest so deeply, the accumulated stresses of the nervous system begin to unwind. In their release they express as thoughts, dreams, sensations. The stress release process may take us on a wild journey through thinking and feeling that is very dream like. Sometimes it goes on for quite a while. The time is determined by the amount of stress being released. Just as in a meditation technique, when we realize that we have been off on a tangent of sorts, we just effortlessly come back to the technique, which in the case of Yoga Nidra, is following the teacher’s voice. Or if you are practicing from memory, you pick up where you left off. It is not necessary, and not at all advisable to concentrate on trying to figure out the nature of the releasing stresses. We just simply go back to the technique. That’s all.

With regular practice the conscious access to this deep level of awareness increases. We begin to feel it as the basis – the very underpinnings – of all the other manifestations of consciousness. Once fully established, this restful quality permeates the other three states of consciousness. We have only to learn the tools for accessing this place on a regular basis. Yoga Nidra is one of the very best techniques that yoga offers for establishing this restfulness in our nervous systems.
The result of Yoga Nidra practice is a quality of restful-alertness that is constant in our lives. We spontaneously begin to experience directly that this underlying level of bliss – the anandamaya kosha – is always there. With unrestricted access to this reality our perceptions in our daily lives are completely changed. We progressively release more and more of the deep-seated nervous system stress. This provides us with increasing clarity. We become more joyful and also more productive when we are not so encumbered by the fluctuations of mood and mind. All fluctuations are seen to be part of this vast sea of awareness that has as its very texture and weave Pure Awareness and even bliss. This is the result of all yoga practices that include contacting directly the field of Pure Being. Yoga Nidra is definitely one of the jewels of yoga and can be practiced by everybody.