How does one become “present”?

BKS Iyengar once said that the study of asana is not about mastering a pose, rather using the pose to understand and transform yourself. What makes this possible is the ability to become present to what is happening on your little piece of plastic — at home or in class.

The practice of Iyengar yoga asana and pranayama requires a “presence” such that when you are in a class you can see the teacher’s actions and hear their words and your body and brain responds, often with a simultaneity across students that creates a shared experience of working separately and together – all in the present moment.

What happens when the mind wanders?

You latch onto:

  • your knee injury from when you fell off your bicycle;
  • the possibilities of shopping after class – Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods?
  • Complete confusion because your brain is still processing instruction #3 when the teacher is at #7 or is it 8?
  • what the teacher demonstrates, and inwardly sigh: “that pose is NOT for me”.

How does the mind work?

It helps to understand how the mind works. According to yoga philosophy, there are three aspects:

  1. Manas (perceiving mind) – records and processes the impressions from the senses and sorts out the pleasurable from the painful. Manas is clever and can manage the checkbook but can also obscure the what is factual by exaggeration and avoidance. 
  2. Ahamkara (the sense of I-ness) forms and maintains identity from physical attributes, social and career pursuits, hobbies, favorite colors and animals. These are all the “bits” that make you “you”. 
  3. Buddhi (intelligence) provides the capacity for discernment of the present moment, and opens the door to volition (tapas), so that one is free to choose to be present and act authentically.

What can you practice?

When on the mat, observe what aspect you are absorbing your practice through: 

  1. Are you going through the motions, doing the “movements”, thinking about when you’ll be done? Are you cleverly working just enough, so the teacher doesn’t harass you? This is practicing from manas
  2. Are you berating yourself about your progress? Do you receive the teacher’s instructions with over-confidence? Do you feel disappointed with the teacher does not acknowledge your efforts? This is practicing with ahamkara
  3. Are you listening through all your senses, so that with each action you can move deeper into the pose, be present to each experience, discerning what needs effort and what needs restraint? This is buddhi

Even in the simplest of asanas, you can play with what if feels to practice through each of these aspects. 

When off the mat, observe what aspect you are using to experience your world. Ask yourself:

  • Am I going through the motions? Am I trying to be clever? Evasive? Am I living for the moment, willing to pick up the pieces sometime in the future?
  • Am I dwelling in self-pity? Resting on the laurels of my past successes? Creating a persona for each venue I engage? Wondering who am I supposed to be today?
  • Am I willing to transcend my habits, to let go of what is familiar? Can I discern what is so – the truth of the moment – act in alignment with what is discerned, and move into a state of being? 

“Yoga does not just change the way we see things,
it transforms the person who sees.”

BKS Iyengar