Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Stephen Cope. Stephen is a psychotherapist who studies the relationship between Western psychology and the Eastern contemplative traditions. He’s the founder and director of the Kripalu Institute for Extraordinary Living, the largest yoga research institute in the West. With Sounds True, Stephen has created an audio program called Yoga for Emotional Flow: Free Your Emotions Through Yoga Breathing, Body Awareness, and Energetic Release, where he details the psychology behind the difficult circumstances we create for ourselves through improper handling of our feelings, and he shares a prescription for effectively relating to anger, fear, grief, joy, and other challenging emotions from a yogic point of view.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Stephen and I spoke about a process called “riding the wave,” which allows us to lean in and experience completely any emotion we might be feeling. We also talked about how yoga helps us undo core patterns in the body of aggression, and craving. We also talked about one’s true calling, or dharma, and how we can find this calling by investigating what lights us up on the inside. Here’s my conversation on some of the deeper dimensions of yoga with Stephen Cope.
Stephen, it’s great to be in touch with you and in contact. We haven’t talked in a long time and so I’m very grateful for this opportunity. I wanted to begin by asking you a pretty big question which is, how yoga, the physical discipline of yoga can actually help us with psychological and emotional healing? So I realize this is quite a large question, but take your time and give me a sense of how you view this—how the physical practice of yoga can help us with psychological and emotional healing.
Stephen Cope: It’s a great question Tami, and you know, it’s really a question that we, at the Institute for Extraordinary Living, which I’ve been directing for about eight years now, are really focused on. One of the things we’ve really come to believe is that a central effect of yoga is something Western psychologists call self-regulation, which simply means the capacity [or] skillfulness to manage thoughts feelings, behaviors, with discernment. Of course, most of America thinks of yoga as a physical practice but we’ve actually found that when you dig down into the classical texts, there’s a tremendous amount of not just physical practice, but also emotional and mental training that leads to a capacity to self-regulate.
Yoga as a strategy is quite brilliant. It actually has what I call both a “bottom-up” and a “top-down” strategy. The bottom-up strategy is the direct intervention into the body. So this is what we usually think of as yoga: it’s postures and pranayam, and as we begin to get a little more sophisticated about our understanding of the effects of yoga, we’ve learned that yoga intervenes in the body and lowers blood pressure, increases heart rate variability, lowers cortisol rates—cortisol of course being the stress hormone, increases all those great neurotransmitters that we want to have flooding the brain, serotonin and GABA, and inhibits glutamate, which is a different kind of brain chemical that actually increases agitation. It lengthens brainwaves. This whole series of physiological interventions that actually happen very quickly.
However what most people don’t fully understand is that a lot of that is really in service of the other side of yoga—which what I call a top-down strategy. So the top-down strategy is really primarily attentional training—training the attention to gather itself, to aim and focus. And the way this works together is, with the bottom up strategy, you begin to calm these kind of hyper-aroused states that so many of us live in and find a lot of suffering in. And as the body and mind really are calmed by these direct physiological interventions, we begin to be able to, maybe for the first time for many of us, focus on internal states. So internal states like feelings, sensations, thoughts—what falls in the realm of the subtle world in yoga parlance. Being able now to focus on these internal states, we can have moments when we experience our world inside the whole ebb and flow of sensations and feelings with less and less reactivity. So the capacity to experience the present moment just the way it is, with that whole light, smell, sound, touch, feeling show that’s going on inside, the capacity to experience that without reactivity is really the definition of mindfulness.
So what we find is that these direct physiological interventions actually help to calm, soothe, gather, and for many of us for the first time, we have direct access to the inner world, the inner world of sensations and feelings without reactivity, and we can begin to investigate and actually know these states. It turns out that knowing them is extremely powerful. In the Institute, we have a kind of catchphrase, which is that awareness itself is self-regulating. That is to say, simply touching these feelings, sensation, thoughts, this flow inside, actually helps us to learn in a fairly automatic and direct way to begin to regulate them.
It’s a very interesting principle that we’ve bumped into. It’s something, for example, that breathing therapists, noticed [a] long time ago that for people with breathing difficulties and of course all kinds of agitated emotional states show up in the breath and show up in breathing. Breathing therapists began to notice that if you just allowed an individual to become very aware and attuned to the way he or she was breathing, the breathing itself would even out and self-regulate. So there’s the principle in action in a very concrete way that we verified scientifically.
It’s the same thing with feelings. It’s counterintuitive because in the West, a lot of emotional self-regulation is seen as ways of avoiding intense sensations. So we use distraction and dissociation and reframing and redirection. There are all kinds of techniques that cognitive therapists use to help us really avoid going into the feeling. So again it’s counterintuitive.
One of the images that I like to use in teaching people about going into the feelings is the first time I learned to snow ski. You’re at the top of the mountain, and you’re looking down the mountain, and really all you want to do is fall back on your butt. But the ski instructor is saying “Look, the only way that this is going to work out is if you lean into the mountain and down the mountain.” This is exactly what I teach people to do with feelings: lean into them, go into them, because touching them with awareness and learning to be with them actually allows these especially difficult mind states, difficult feeling states, to move—to move through the body, to move through the mind.
These states, I like to liken them to weather patterns, that when we get caught in them, can feel like extremely dense weather patterns. But when you begin to bring awareness, when you touch them, when you actually know them, it allows them to move through, because their nature is movement. So they do move more readily. They do break up. You know? We all get stuck in what we sometimes call in psychology “refractory states,” which are very dense emotional states of fear. When that happens, we adopt a kind of tunnel vision—the processing of the experience goes into the primitive brain, the limbic system and we get really stuck. In those kinds of situations, in refractory states, no new information comes in. So we get frozen. We get paralyzed.
This very counterintuitive strategy of actually beginning to touch the feelings, to know the feelings, to be with them, and increasingly without reactivity, is a very powerful strategy that I think we’re only just beginning to catch onto in America and certainly in American psychology. It’s largely through the wisdom of the contemplative traditions, so both yoga and Buddhism are well acquainted with this strategy. Awareness itself is self-regulating.
So again, the bottom-up strategy that allows us to calm down, to calm hyper-aroused states, that actually begins to move the locus of activity in the brain from the primitive reptilian limbic brain to the prefrontal cortex, and then we bring in the attentional training which allows us to gather and focus and direct our awareness into the feeling, into the affect, into the flow, into the impermanent weather pattern. And it seems extremely simple, but it’s actually enormously powerful.
And that’s really what, that very simple technique that I teach on the Sounds True flow tape —breathe, relax, feel, watch, allow—really involves every single step along the way of the breathing and relaxing, really as the bottom up strategy and then the rest of it is more of a cognitive strategy in reframing. So even in that very simple strategy, which by the way I use all the time, we find those two components.
TS: Now let’s talk about it and give people a real sense of this. Stephen, you teach this practice on Yoga for Emotional Flow that you’re referring to, called “riding the wave” and these five steps that you are referring to. I’m wondering if you could talk us through them one by one—breathe, relax, feel, watch, allow—these five steps and how we might ride the wave when we’re feeling some intense emotion of some kind.
SC: Absolutely. So, at any given point in any given day, one is occasionally hijacked by a feeling that feels difficult to bear, difficult to be with. And so we’ve developed, I think, a very yogic strategy called, the acronym is BRFWA, breath, relax, feel, watch, allow.
TS: BRFWA, I can’t say it. It doesn’t really exactly…
TS: Oh that’s good, BRFWA!
SC: It does not flow off the tongue. It’s an unfortunate acronym but there it is. BRFWA. It’s good to remember because what we’re gonna do here, is one is going to coach oneself through this process. So you bump up against the feeling that feels difficult, that feels hard to integrate, and what I do is I remember, “Oh, I’ve this little tool my tool box called BRFWA: breath, relax, feel, watch, allow. So the first step is to breathe deeply and fully. That kind of fully deep belly breathing—we might call it diaphragmatic breathing—is remarkably in breaking through obsessive thought loops, the kind of obsessive thought loops that we get into when we’re stuck with a feeling that scares or feels overwhelming.
So the very first step is breathe. And that interrupts that refractory state that I talked about in the mind and the body and allows things to kind of begin to soften, just a little bit. Now it’s important to know with any kind of breathing technique or pranayam as we call it in yoga. It’s not just the technique itself, but bringing awareness fully to the technique, bringing awareness fully to the breath. So step one, simply begin to a little slow, full, deep breathing.
Step two, relax. Maybe sit down, find a little quiet spot, where you can actually, consciously relax the musculature, which, in a state of hyper-arousal, it gets tight. Mentally you get that tunnel vision; less of the brain is actually online when you’re in that state. So the combination of breathing and relaxing actually allows everything to settle down. It attenuates that hyper-aroused state that usually goes with the difficult emotional state and sets the stage now for that second aspect that I talked about earlier, which is knowing the feeling. I’m not talking about an intellectual knowing, I’m talking about a very visceral knowing of the feeling in the body.
So when I talked earlier about the power of awareness, awareness is self-regulatory. I’m talking about a very visceral investigation of the state in the body. Some have called this the “felt sense.” Gendlin, in his brilliant book called Focusing, calls it “the felt sense.”
So, third step: breathe, relax, feel. This feeling is a very active investigation of the felt sense. The feeling in the body, as it were. Where is the feeling in your body? Stop, breathe and investigate precisely where that feeling is. I like to encourage people to think very concretely here. How does it feel in your gut? Is your jaw tight? Where do you feel muscular tension? And go there, and investigate it in a very precise way, investigate it with your awareness. Touch it, breathe, relax, feel, watch.
Now, with “watch,” we’re going to trigger something called “the witness.” The witness is the part of the mind, the part of the self, if you will, that is capable of being present without reactivity even in the midst of a kind of a firestorm of sensation in the body, and affect, and feelings. Western psychology will call this “the observant ego.” In yoga we call it the witness because there’s a considerably more expanded sense of the power of this observing ego in the East than there is in the West. So in that step four, “watch,” essentially what we’re doing is adopting the witness. And again, this is moving the locus of activity in the brain from the limbic system to the prefrontal cortex, which is the seat of awareness, of discernment, of planning. It’s kind of the executive functioning area of the brain. But it moves it away from the built-in reactivity of the primitive brain.
Breathe. Relax. Feel—actively feel. Watch. Shift as if you were to witness, and be careful not to understand witness as something outside of the body. This is an internal witness. This is a witness that is very present deep in the interceses of the body.
And then finally—and I love this one—Allow. So let the feelings move through. This is about trusting the feelings and allowing them to rise. Along with this technique of BRFWA, we have a diagram that looks like a big wave. And so if you want to just draw, kind of like a bell curve, that rises in the center, and what we notice is that if you stay with the feelings, allow them even to build as much as they will. Let’s say we’re in the middle of a feeling of grief: at a certain point, if you don’t resist, and if you stay present in the witness, those feelings—we’ve all experienced this—break open.
They crash open, they peak, and then as soon as they’ve peaked, there’s very often at that moment, an experience of insight into—an aha! moment into what it is exactly we’re feeling. “Oh, that’s a sadness around an experience that I just had” or “That’s a wave of grief around a loss that I had recently.” Or “That’s a spike of anger about something that was said earlier that I kind of bracketed and didn’t deal with.” And as it peaks and opens to the inside, it then integrates on the other side and you’ve got the other side of the bell curve.
Now, there are a number of ways of prematurely getting off the wave, if you will—getting off the bell curve. You can attempt to shut down the feeling. You can resist it. You can distract yourself. You can try to change the topic. And honestly, those are some strategies that some cognitive behavioral therapists may use. But in this particular strategy, you practice actually staying with it and staying on it and letting it break, and then letting it integrate on the other side. What happens as you begin to learn to use this is you develop a faith, a faith and a trust in the wisdom of the body, the wisdom of feelings, the experience that these feelings aren’t dangerous. Yes, they do arise and pass away. They do move through the mind and body like a weather system.
And you know, when I arrived at Kripalu 23 years ago, I was kind of a fully trained Western therapist and very prone to using expensive, psychoanalytic technique to understand my experience. When I first heard this technique, I kind of poo-pooed it a little bit. I thought, “I’m more sophisticated than that.” But honestly Tami, once I learned it, I’ve used it almost every day since. It’s very effective and you can master it. That mastery brings a real sense of trust in the unconscious, in the way the unconscious will draw feelings to the surface that you weren’t expecting and you ride those waves. So at Kripalu, it’s kind of a well-known experience. Of course we joke about it, you know? “I’m riding a wave right now, don’t bother me.” So that’s what riding a wave is.
TS: One point of clarification—and I’m sure this is a question you get asked. You seemed like you tried to clarify it in the description but I’m not clear on it, which is, I’m with you on the “breathe, relax, feel”—completely there. And then when you say, watch, but do this without disconnecting, that’s where I get a little confused because there’s the feeling itself, and then there’s me watching the feeling. So how do I do it without getting disconnected?
SC: Really, that’s such a really good question. In the old days at Kripalu, Tami, we’d often have Indian swamis that would come in and they’d be teaching and they’d talk about the witness, and I think even without thinking out it, they would reach their hands up over the head, as if locating this witness that’s out [audio cuts out] somewhere.
TS: I’m sorry, you were getting a phone call or something, can you repeat that?
SC: Yeah, I’m sorry.
TS: No it’s OK. Just the part they would reach their hand up as if...
SC: So I was talking about the swamis. It’s just demonstrative of how easy it is...
TS: Can you say that line, “They’d reach their hands up…”
SC: Sure. So the swamis would reach the hands up over their heads as if trying to locate the witness outside them, above them, in some kind of extension of the crown chakra. And that was always really off-putting to me because it does lead to kind of a dissociated state. So through practice, one can actually learn to identify the seer, which is dhristi in Sanskrit—the seer, the knower, the witness, as inside the experience. So it turns out to not have to be a dissociative experience at all. So you don’t have to go outside the body. We don’t want you to go outside the body.
The seer is actually part of the self that’s always present. I love to tell this great Ram Dass story about the witness and its tenacity and its always-present-ness. For those of you who don’t know, Ram Dass, Richard Alpert, was and is a very famous early teacher of yoga and yoga traditions, and also somewhat of Buddhism. In his heyday, he was extremely famous and well-connected with lots of students and even maybe disciples. He tells this great story about one evening, he’s in California, and he gets a call in the middle of the night from a young woman in New York who’s very distressed, and apparently psychotic—completely, seemingly, disconnected from reality And she talks on and on and he can’t really get her grounded. So he says to her, “I’d like to speak to the person who dialed the number.”
That is, I’d like to speak to the person who remembered an 11-digit number to dial and remembered that they wanted to talk to Ram Dass. There it is. There’s the witness. There’s the seer, the knower, present even in the state of psychosis. And apparently it worked, according to his story.
So that witness, that seer, is internal. It’s not external. You discover that through practice primarily—probably nothing I say is going to compare with the opportunity to actually practice. So breathe, relax, feel, watch, and if one has trouble with that and begins to dissociate with that, and split off, I would just combine that stage with the “feel,” because it’s a very active, precise, investigative kind of feeling that we’re talking about. And that kind of investigation or inquiry, the Tibetans would call it familiarization, creates in itself, over time, an awareness that there’s this aspect of knowing—the knower, the seer—in there at all times. Did that help?
TS: It helped a lot. It helped a lot when you talked about combining it with the feeling, that it’s a sort of aware feelingness. Now, I want to go a little bit further here, Stephen, because I understand how the practices of breathing and yoga can help with self-regulation in terms of emotional states that might come over somebody and how a technique like BRFWA can be very helpful. But here you are, you’re a psychotherapist and you’re working with people, with clients, who have deep issues from their early childhood, and how does yoga help us, working with the body help us, unravel some of this deep material that we’ve been carrying with us our whole lives? How do you see that?
SC: In a number of ways. I think, Tami. The first thing that comes to mind is it helps us to identify patterns while at the same time getting us out of the story. So many of us in psychotherapy get really stuck in our stories about our own suffering. But the brilliant thing about the contemplative traditions, and again this is both yoga and Buddhism, is that they locate the locus of suffering in patterns in the body that are organized around grasping, around delusion. And you can actually experience these patterns in a very concrete, visceral, direct way through investigating the body. The Buddha himself said, within this fathom, one body, one finds both suffering and happiness and freedom from the bondage of karma. So we’re all, in the yogic view, the human mind is basically a pattern-making entity. Some of these patterns lead to enormous suffering and create suffering for ourselves and others, and pretty much that’s what karma is. But rather than locating it in ideas we have about it, the contemplative traditions want us to investigate the patterns directly in the body. The experience of suffering in the body, the experience of raga, or dvesa, which are grasping and aversion which one can experience directly in the body.
So I’m a huge fan of psychotherapy, needless to say, but what yoga brings to the table is basically entering through a different doorway to investigate the way in which we are caught or trapped by our limited view of reality. I’ve found it to be an extremely useful adjunct and addition to a lifestyle of personal growth and spiritual growth. I know for me, I will go through long phases of time where I’m doing my practice, I’m doing my meditation and yoga, and not doing psychotherapy, but pretty regularly throughout my life, I’ve come upon moments when I really needed a guide through particularly difficult emotional or mental territory.
That guide—you know Freud famously said that he loaned his patients his ego. We might say that he also loaned his patients his witness consciousness. There he sat at the head of the couch where the analytic patient is reclined, and what does he do but create a holding environment in order to hold difficult states that the patient, him or herself is having trouble holding. So there are moments when our own witness, our own observing ego, isn’t actually quite enough, isn’t actually big enough to hold the amount of suffering. At those moments, a really skilled psychotherapist is, I think, something else one should have in one’s experience and tool bag if necessary.
TS: Can you help me understand a little bit more about what you mean by patterns and how they’re held in the body, and then how yoga helps us undo these patterns?
SC: Sure. So anyone of us, early on in life, has certain ways of managing and regulating the self. These become habitual. These become second nature. These become default. And in the yoga technology, they tend to be organized around two things, two ways of creating suffering: grasping and aversion. Now, one can see—I sometimes like to use the example of my dog Timmy. So I have an adorable little West Highland terrier. If one watches Timmy all day long, one will notice that he’s driven by two things: most of his behavior is driven by threat and opportunity.
So threat, —the mailman who he drives away everyday successfully. And opportunity—his master is wont to drop food on the floor occasionally. So if one watches Timmy who’s working for the most part, from a primitive brain because dogs don’t have much of a prefrontal cortex—discernment, planning, perspective and so forth. So what one sees in Timmy is the extent to which he’s captive by his breed, by the patterns and default mechanisms that are inbred. They’re very precise to his particular breed. I also have a poodle who has totally different patterns, and you know exactly what to expect from both of them. And they’re very different and they’re very hard-wired into the brain.
It turns out that human beings have this whole, much more sophisticated part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, which is capable not of being hardwired into these default mechanisms and patterns, but of actually making discerning choices about behaviors in the moment that would lead to less suffering or that would lead to happiness and that we can through practice actually cultivate that part of the brain. We can free ourselves from the kind of bondage that Timmy and my other dog experience just as [a matter of] course and we can be free. We’re not stuck in our breed; we’re not stuck by those kinds of hardwired patterns. We can look at a situation and ponder it or even make decisions very quickly that are guided by wisdom and not by reactivity.
It turns out that yoga practices actually, systematically promote those kinds of discerning choices. We’ve been doing a lot of brain studies in the Institute, and one of the things—it’s really striking how you see when you take pictures of the brain—we’ve done a big study of comparison of adept yogis, that is, yogis who have been practicing for 20 years or more, adept meditators who have been practicing vipassana for 20 years or more, and a group of matched controls. We see a number of things, but one of the things you see is that the parts of the brain that become much more active and highly structuralized, because yoga practice and meditation practices change both the function and the structure of the brain. Most of us understand now about neuroplasticity, which is that the brain is much more plastic that we used to think, and the parts of the brain that you are actually practicing become not just stronger and more connected with more synapses, but actually bigger.
And the parts of the brain that we are seeing that are affected are the—something called the temporal parietal juncture which manages perspective-taking—that’s the capacity to get out of the reactivity of the moment and have some perspective on your behavior, also the capacity to take the perspective of another human being. It’s the capacity for empathy. We see in addition to that, that yogis practicing over long periods of time systematically acquire more fluid intelligence. Fluid intelligence is the capacity for creativity, the capacity to put together interesting complex challenges and respond to them in new ways. It’s the kind of intelligence, not what we think of as knowledge, but it’s the capacity to respond creatively, in the moment.
We’re beginning to see that both yoga and meditation seem to systematically promote that in the brain. Also, it’s clear that with adept yogis and meditators, more of the brain is online more of the time so that you have kind of a parallel processing going on when you’re confronting a complex situation or a complex emotional and mental situation. There’s more of the brain online to actually process it and come up with strategies to resolve it.
So this is a rather long digression around the question but the point is that yoga and meditation both helped to move the locus of activity in the brain from the primitive reptilian limbic system, which is prone to go on default and straight in the pattern, to the more sophisticated parts of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, where we can actually make discerning choices; where we can use perspective and planning and thinking through to make choices in the moment, even in the midst of difficult emotional or mental states. And we’re now beginning to have evidence—real, beautiful science that shows that that’s one of the mechanisms of yoga.
TS: Now you mentioned this very interesting phrase, “fluid intelligence,” that caught my ear. I know you’ve written a new book, The Great Work of Your Life: A Guide for the Journey to Your True Calling, and you write about the process of finding one’s own true calling and people from history who have done this, and what you’ve learned from studying their lives. And I wonder how the practice of yoga and the insights from yoga relate to this whole possibility, which is that we can find our true calling in life.
SC: Yes. Tami, for the last four years, I’ve been very involved in looking at the questions of dharma, so I’ve examined the Bhagavad Gita, which is of course the great conversation between Krishna and Arjuna in which Arjuna poses the question to Krishna, who of course is an avatar of Vishnu, an avatar of God. Krishna is stuck and doesn’t understand what exactly his calling is in the moment. How should he act? What’s he called to do? What’s his vocation? And this is probably the world’s greatest dialogue and teaching on dharma, which of course is one of those beautiful, many-layered Sanskrit words that often means—it can mean “truth,” it can mean “path,” it can mean “law,” but in the case of the particular scripture that I studied, it means “sacred duty” or “sacred calling.”
An interesting thing arises at the beginning of that scripture which is that Arjuna—the scripture was written somewhere between the 3rd century BCE and the first or second century of the common era. And in that era, dharma or sacred duty was actually prescribed at birth. You were a warrior or you were a shopkeeper, or you were a priest, or you were an Untouchable. And there were many subcategories of those castes, but nowadays, we aren’t born into our dharma. We have a huge bandwidth of opportunities.
So for many, many of the folks who come to Kripalu, I find that the question of “What am I called to do in this life? Who am I? And how am I going to be fulfilled in this lifetime?” These are really pressing questions. How does one discern one’s dharma?
Yoga, of course, has a whole toolbox of great skills that help one to discern one’s dharma. I like to think of dharma as a possibility that’s present at any moment. It’s very easy to get sidelined into thinking of dharma as one’s job or one’s career but actually it’s more interesting than that. It’s an ineffable possibility that’s present, present at every moment of life and that only if we discern that possibility and work toward it and its full flowering are we going to feel completely fulfilled in this life. You can find dharma in the context of a difficult external situation, a trauma, an illness. You can find it in the midst of great gifts.
I work with a lot of young musicians and they feel a profound duty to the giftedness that they have been given around music. You can find it in a developmental stage. There are enormous, ineffable possibilities present at every stage of life: in adolescence, in young adulthood, in old age, in the moment of death. So dharma is really that ineffable possibility that we can turn toward and investigate and allow it to come into full flower.
It’s a very complex and lifelong task, learning how to identify and I like to say, name and claim, a lot of the—I’ve really been looking hard at this issue, as I said, and what I find is that most people have already blundered into their dharma at some level. That is, most of us are already more or less in the domain of our dharma. We have these romantic ideas about dharma which are that, “I should leave my job selling insurance and go to Paris and paint,” but actually, if you look carefully at your life, it’s more than likely that you don’t have to leave your job selling insurance and go to Paris to paint but that you need to refine and refine your aim about precisely what it is within the life that you’ve already got that is calling to you, that is lighting you up. That’s your current dharma.
Actually I just used the term, “lighting you up.” I use that a lot because one of the things that yoga does is it attunes us to our energy, and truly—and this is a real mystery—but truly, when people are on the trail of their dharma, they have to tune into what is lighting you up. I very often give people a kind of projective test to help them notice what is it in life that is actually lighting you up. What TV program is it that you’re watching and why? What books are you reading? What are you noticing in the environment that’s turning you on? Are you suddenly and completely enthralled with Beethoven? Investigate that. So you can actually use the world as a kind of Rorschach test, as a kind of projective test to find out what it is that is lighting you up inside. That’s a very thin thread to hold onto to begin to investigate what you’re actually called to.
TS: It’s interesting that you have brought up this image of what’s lighting you up, because one of the topics I was hoping that would get a chance to talk about is the idea that through the practice of yoga we can discover, develop something that could be called a “body of light.” I wonder if you see some connection here? First of all, what is this body of light that we can potentially discover in yoga practice, and what’s its relationship with how we’re lit up inside when we’re following our dharma?
SC: Such a great question! So the body of light is—within classic yoga technology and understanding, there are increasingly subtle levels of experience. And these are actually extremely well-articulated in the science of yoga. It starts of course with the physical body, which is called the annamaya kosha, which literally means “the sheath of food”—these increasingly subtle levels are called sheaths. And then there’s the pranamaya kosha, which underlies the physical body, and there are increasingly subtle levels of experience, from the gross body all the way to the most subtle body of light. And this is the subtle body that underlies the physical body and from which we get remarkably dissociated. Yogis routinely have experiences of apprehending or knowing these subtle sheaths as they go deeply into their practice. Meditators have the same thing.
I remember Sylvia Boorstein, a good friend of mine, a Buddhist meditator who talks about sitting in meditation and feeling her subtle body light up, and she talks about seeing the wall chart on the wall of her acupuncturist, and when she’s in touch with the subtle body, she can feel all of those lines of energy that are actually depicted on the wall chart in her acupuncturist’s office because acupuncture too, a great Chinese science, works with the same subtle kinds of aspects of the body. Yogis in deep stages of meditation and hatha yoga, discovered a whole subtle nervous system that underlies our so-called gross nervous system.
The process of yoga, the practice of yoga leads to increasing attunement to these subtle states. As you attune to the subtle states, interestingly, you get less and less comfortable with anything that’s blocking them, with any area in the body that’s actually shut down. And again, those can be patterns from the past, places where we’re holding energy in a tightly bound pattern, and it’s simply the process of knowing those at deeper and deeper levels that allows them to release and free up.
These subtle states, this body of light, is well known to yoga practitioners. It’s an outward, invisible sign that we’re beginning to develop attunement to different layers of reality than we ordinarily perceive. What actually happens is, the perceptual bandwidth begins to widen and we begin to be capable of perceiving aspects of our subtle experience that were not previously accessible to us.
And those experiences are often experienced as experiences of rapture and bliss and profound well-being, as we begin to feel free of the bounds of the physical body, the bondage of the physical body, and feel our connectedness with space and with this light body. And in those moments, we also feel profoundly connected to all beings because at the end of the yoga path is something called samapatti which literally means “coalescence.” What it means, in the Bhagavad Gita it’s called the experience of sameness, the vision of sameness, the experience that all beings are, in the words of that treatise, made of the same stuff.
So these experiences of the light body are very much part of the yoga tradition and also most meditative traditions, because in the practice of deep contemplative states, we simply attune to that subtle energy, which has always been there.
TS: I think implicit in my question is that there might be some connection between the discovery of that body of light and what you’re calling the great work of one’s life, that there might be some relationship there. I think that’s what I sense a hint of, and I’m curious what you think about that.
SC: Yes. Here’s a story from my own childhood, which is that I was only five or six when I first discovered the piano. And part of this was because I was sitting on the lap of my grandfather, who was a fairly good pianist, and I would put hands on his hands and he’d play the piano, and it was a lovely, warm, connected moment. But my energy leapt up toward that music and toward the piano itself as an instrument and I became utterly fascinated with its possibilities.
That was an energy experience. Now it’s an energy experience that lots of parents and adults would want to shut down. In fact, my own family did want to shut it down. Being a pianist was not seen as the kind of career that anybody in my family would have. So I didn’t get that reflected back to me. I didn’t get it acknowledged. I didn’t get it seen or supported.
At the same time, my brother—my brother is two years older than I—had a whole different experience of what his energy was leaping up toward. In his case, he was completely fascinated by engines and machines, and before you knew it, he was building his own go-cart in the garage out of spare parts that he found God knows where. One doesn’t even know where this even came from because nobody in my family even knows what side of a wrench to hold, but there it was—this very ineffable rising up of this energy toward some aspect of the created world. And once again, with Randy, with my brother, it got shut down. Nobody in my family was going to be a mechanic or it wasn’t seen as a proper career.
These connections with our particular gifts are extremely ineffable and they can definitely be shut down, but at the same time, they are very tenacious. So my brother did not become a mechanic, but now late into life—well, he’s in his 60’s—he’s still utterly fascinated. He’s got a truck, two motorcycles, [and] a whole cadre of other machines. I’m still fascinated by the piano. I didn’t become a pianist, but I have a piano in my home and play and I play moderately well.
And so, what I’ve found is that practicing yoga really attunes us to this subtle, ineffable kind of energy—the body of light, if you will—where these connections to our dharma, which again is a huge mystery—why was Randy attracted to machines? Why was I attracted to the piano?—it can’t be answered, but it can be attended to. And if you’re lucky enough to attend to it, and to build a life around it, it’s an amazing life, because it’s a life that’s squarely, deeply connected into this mysterious, ineffable thing called dharma.
In the book that I’ve just written, I examined how that went for 11 well-known lives—people like Beethoven, Gandhi, and Harriet Tubman, Jane Goodall, Robert Frost, Whitman, Thoreau, Camille Corot, who was one of the world’s great landscape artists, my great teacher Marion Woodman who is one of the great Jungian analysts. I really examine the way in which they did attend to and finally embrace these ineffable connections to dharma and tried to identify some of the patterns, and some of the guidelines that might be helpful to the general public in naming and claiming and identifying and realizing these ineffable connections to dharma.
You know, it’s funny, because these stories—people like Keats. I tell the story of John Keats. Many of these people weren’t outwardly successful during their lifetimes, but their connection to this ineffable thing called dharma was so filled with energy and prana and life force, that universally the 11 people that I studied changed the world in some way because they risked—they had enough courage to stay connected to dharma.
I think that yoga, in connecting us to subtle energy, really gives us a big gift and big leg up in terms of staying connected to the energies of dharma.
TS: Wonderful. I’ve been talking with Stephen Cope and with Sounds True, Stephen has created a two-session audio program on Yoga For Emotional Flow. There’s both a lecture and then three guided practices on freeing your emotions through yoga breathing, body awareness, and energetic release.
Stephen, it’s great to talk to you, great to hear your deep, loving, intelligent voice. Thanks so much!
SC: Thanks Tami. A delight to be with you as always. Be well!
TS: From SoundsTrue.com. Many voices. One Journey. Thanks for listening.