Retreating Into Bliss
I wrote this article the day before teaching on a yoga retreat in the dreamlike gardens of Tilton House, nestled at the base of the South Downs in Sussex. Alistair, my partner, treated us to the beautiful sounds of the gongs and singing bowls as we gently moved, breathed and relaxed. I love the bubble we create together on retreat. We step out of our ordinary lives to be in nature, to go within, to experience life with fewer demands upon us so that we can truly restore.
The theme of the retreat was bliss. An exploration of the most heavenly part of our earthly nature: anandamayakosha – the bliss body.
This is the innermost kosha, it is closely connected to our true Self. It is the part we find more difficult to access in times of stress and adversity. However, it is precisely when we are facing difficulty and challenge that we most need to activate our connection with this kosha. Sadly, I see this time and time again, students who start to experience more stress in their lives often stop coming to class. They forget their practice and direct all their energies to firefighting the stressful situation. This leads to a vicious cycle of stress, and if prolonged, burnout.
Touching Peace – Finding Home
As Thich Nhat Hanh explains in his talk Touching Peace, by connecting to the peace and joy that lies within, we can nourish ourselves to better deal with the difficulties in our inner and outer lives. Mindfulness practices help to find our “home” in the present moment, in the here and now. In this way, we can regulate our nervous systems so whatever we’re dealing with we can attend to it with more presence, calmness and grace. This helps us to preserve our energy and to nourish ourselves. By taking care of ourselves in this way, we become more able to support others.
That feeling of coming home is available to us wherever we are. Our home is within us, it is the light of our true Self (brahman), that part of us that is unchanging eternal and connected to the whole unmanifest blueprint of reality (purusha). The bliss layer anandamayakosha (part of manifest reality – prakriti) is said to shroud the innermost Self like the shade of a lamp. The covering allows the glow of the Self to permeate gently from the unmanifest purusha to our manifest reality (prakriti).
Remembering the Peace Within
To get a sense of the anandamayakosha, think of a baby sleeping in the arms of her mother, completely trusting and at peace. Many children and adults have forgotten how to fully let go and relax in this way. Due to prolonged stress, traumatic incidences, anxiety and other disturbances, we may find it hard to totally “disarm” ourselves. We might even see it as a weakness to drop our guard, to rest and just be, to allow ourselves to be supported. However, it is so necessary to do just this. A gentle yoga class offers a safe space where we may attend to the arguments within our koshas and find some settlement and peace.
The War Within
Our koshas, particularly the outer layers – the physical, energetic and mental bodies can be akin to a battleground. Our physical layer (annamayakosha) is busy tensing muscles to “guard” against barely perceived threats. On the level of pranamayakosha, our breath can be disordered, which keeps us in the “fight, flight or freeze” mode. Our energy can become blocked, and when we lack this flow it becomes a struggle to “push through” life.
Our mental layer (manomayakosha) can be a “virtual battleground” of inner argument, criticism, fear and regret, fuelled by memes on social media and dire pronouncements on the news. Even our wisdom layer (vijnanamayakosha) can hold limiting beliefs that “sabotage” our ability to find joy, connection and peace.
The Sunshine Behind the Clouds
Yet the bliss layer is there, underneath all of this stormy weather within us. It is like the sunshine behind the clouds of all the other layers. To access these feelings of peace, bliss, contentment and joy, we do need to be relatively settled in the outer koshas. This is what yoga is for!! Yoga settles not only the fluctuations of the mind but the fluctuations in all our other koshas as well.
If a battle is raging in your body, your mind, or in your outer world, then it can be so helpful to take some time out. To drop into that part of you that can experience peace. We do this by tending to the koshas in our yoga practice. We move the body mindfully so that we learn where it is holding tension and what parts of us are ready to release that tension.
Dispersing the Clouds
We deepen our breath, making sure we’re using the diaphragm so that we send a message of calm and safety to our nervous systems. We settle the mind by using our focussed attention, to become more aware of the present moment. By focussing on our breath, we find our way home. To bring peace to our wisdom layer we can contemplate poetry, read spiritual texts or find inspiration in people whose values we resonate with. In this way, we clear the clouds and uncover the light of the Self shining through our very own layer of bliss.
That feeling of joy, loving-kindness, happiness, peace and well-being is available to all of us. No matter what circumstance we are in, behind the inner and outer storms and clouds, present in the deeper layers of our being, there is the light of the anandamayakosha. Sometimes, even if we are unable to access it, it can be helpful to simply know it is there. It is just as real as our mind, our breath or our physical body.
Our bliss body is not only nourishing and supportive, it could be the key to our survival on this planet. The outer wars we see in our world rage on because of turmoil within the collective human psyche. If we can consciously connect to the peace that exists deep within us, we contribute greatly to our own well-being. Yet we also gently radiate that peace to those around us, in our families and workplaces, in our friendship circles and communities. Demonstrating peace, being peace, is one of the best ways to counteract the war, both within and without.