Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Waking the Witness for Guidance in these Challenging Times: Core Qualities of Yoga, Part 9

This post is part of a series that explores a variety of core qualities and suggested practices to consider for inclusion in your classes and private sessions (whether on a mat, in a chair, or a combination of both).

by Beth Gibbs

The koshas are a multi-dimensional model of the human organism found in Indian texts composed around the 6th century BCE. They are described as five interrelated, interdependent layers, bodies, or sheaths that are common to each of us. They are:

  • PhysicalAnnamayakosha; the body
  • Breath/EnergyPranamayakosha; breath and energy in all of its forms (nadis, chakras, etc.)
  • Psycho/EmotionalManomayakosha; the everyday mind with its thoughts and emotions
  • WitnessVijnanamayakosha; witnessing, wisdom consciousness
  • Bliss BodyAnandamayakosha; the natural state of all humans. 

Bliss is what brings us the most joy. Bliss has the power to take us out of ourselves and deliver us to a place of deep contentment, and wholeness. It may be through religion, spirituality, a passionate hobby, joy in nature, or a deep connection to what gives our lives meaning.

The first known mention of the koshas is found in the Taittiriya Upanishad, a Vedanta text that predates Patanjali's Yoga Sutras by about 1,000 years. The source referenced here is, The Upanishads, a translation by Eknath Easwaran, pages 251–256.

Each one of the five layers plays an important role in helping us live our best lives. However, I’ve chosen to focus on the quality of witnessing because the Witness (Vijnanamayakosha) is the lamp that illuminates all aspects and all five layersof ourselves; personality and shadow, the good, the bad, the beautiful, and the ugly, for understanding, acceptance, and integration. When we are able to witness our physical sensations, thoughts, emotions, habits, and behaviors without judgment, we can consciously choose to make changes, keep the status quo with full knowledge of the consequences, or find acceptance if change is not possible. In his professional Yoga Therapist Training Manual, Joseph Le Page says:

“At the level of the everyday mind, the actor is caught inside their own drama and often cannot see beyond it. At the wisdom level, we are able to step out of that personal conditioning and look beyond the roles we play to see the larger picture of who we truly are.”

Waking the Witness becomes especially important to anyone who has ever dealt with difficulty - and who hasn’t! This is important because no matter who we are, where we live, or what our current condition or situation is, our ability to witness enables us to respond in a wise and balanced manner to the ups and downs of our human experience. This is true whether it’s a situation with our physical body, our energy, or our mind and emotions.

The thinking mind tends to judge, compare, and contrast what it observes. The Witness, however, will observe and accept what it finds without judgment. Witnessing is the key to finding clarity, contentment, and resilience in our complicated world. For example, I once held the belief that asking for help is a sign of weakness. In my life this belief often co-existed with feeling angry, stressed, and overwhelmed with responsibility. When I reached my breaking point and engaged the quality of witnessing, I was able to trace that belief to its source‑to watching my mom, my Aunt Lucy, and my favorite cousin Ella, seemingly do it all. I watched them take on responsibility for family life, work outside the home, community involvement, and church projects.

The key word here, as you may have guessed, is "seemingly." I am sure they could have used help, but I never heard or saw them ask for it. Why? I can guess. It might be that strong Black woman stereotype, or the line from the Helen Reddy song, “I am woman, hear me roar,” independent streak that many of us carry. I’ll never know for sure. My mom, aunt and cousin have all passed, and I can’t ask them. I was left dealing with a lingering and possibly unhealthy aversion to being dependent upon or obligated to others. 

The witnessing process helped me understand where that belief came from and how it was manifesting in mental and physical discomfort. I was able to take mindful steps to transform it. I learned to think clearly about asking for help, and can now ask for and accept help with gratitude. I no longer believe that asking for help is a sign of weakness (well, most of the time‑it’s a process for me).

Here is a practice for waking the Witness. Try it for yourself first and then with students in your classes.

Practice: Awareness of Sensation

Sensation can be defined as an impression, perception, or feeling in the body such as tingling, pulsing, heaviness, firmness, tightness, ease, stretch, a change of temperature, or connection with a surface. Because the body speaks with sensation and is accessible through our five senses, awareness of sensation is an effective starting point to engage the quality of witnessing.

1. Beginning. Take a posture you can comfortably hold for three to five minutes. Consider Mountain Pose (Tadasana) standing or seated, Simple Seated Pose (Sukhasana), or Relaxation Pose (Savasana)—as long as you remain awake. As you move awareness through the body, notice sense, and feel any sensations that are present. If you catch yourself judging what you find, witness that.

2. Lower Body. Take a moment to experience the toes, the bottoms of the feet, tops of the feet, the ankles, and the heels. 
Begin to draw your awareness into the lower legs, noticing the shins, and the calves.
Explore the knees, the area above and below the kneecaps and the backs of the knees.
Draw awareness to the thighs, tops of the thighs, the sides, and backs of the thighs.
Bring awareness to the pelvis. Explore the place where the legs meet the hips.

3. Torso. Bring awareness to the lower abdomen, the area below the navel. Sense this area from the pubic bone to the sacrum. 
Explore the low back.
Move awareness to the solar plexus, the area where the ribs meet in front of the body. Become aware of your middle torso from the solar plexus to the mid-back.
Explore the entire area of the chest, heart, and lungs. Explore the upper back and the area between the shoulder blades.

4. Upper Body. Sense the shoulders and collarbones.
Become aware of the arms relaxing along the sides of the body or in the lap.
Take a moment to pay focused attention to the palms of the hands.
Allow awareness to travel up the arms, through the shoulders, and into the neck and throat.
Begin to explore the head, the back of the head, the top of the head, the forehead, the area around the eyes, the ears, jaw, the inside of the mouth, and the chin.

5. Finish. Allow awareness to become global, encompassing the whole of the lower body, torso, and upper body.
As you witness the whole of the body, notice any sensations that stand out to you in this moment.
Witness, and explore your experience without judgment.
When you feel a sense of completion, begin to slowly move the fingers and toes. Stretch in any way that is comfortable as you return to full awareness.
Feel free to journal or draw picture of your experience.

With practice we can engage the quality of witnessing, bring clear, focused attention to what we find to accept and integrate all aspects of ourselves, pleasant and not so pleasant. Working with the Witness helps us move through our lives with clarity, contentment, and resilience.

Elizabeth (Beth) Gibbs, MA, C-IAYT, is a certified yoga therapist through the International Association of Yoga Therapists and is a guest faculty member of the Kripalu School of Integrative Yoga Therapy. Her masters’ degree in Yoga Therapy and Mind/Body Health is from Lesley University in Cambridge, MA. She is the author of Ogi Bogi, The Elephant Yogi, a therapeutic yoga book for children. For more information please visit her website at:

This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, Managing Editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.

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1 comment:

  1. Informative. Very nicely written. I will add one more to this discussion. The Buddhi (loosely translated as INTELLECT) is a SANDHI (Bridge) that connects the Manomaya and the Vijnanamaya. Buddhi gets all the lower impressions (from the materialistic world) from the Manomaya kosha and receives all the higher order impressions from Vijnanamaya for suitable actions to be taken. Actions from the impressions drawn from Manomaya fetches Karma, but not from Vijnanamaya.