How yoga therapy works: Part 3—Increasing awareness

A foundational principle of yoga is that by becoming more self-aware we will heal, realize our essential wholeness, and live in ways that support that wholeness. Yoga therapy is a process for this transformation, and it starts with learning to pay attention in specific and subtle ways.

Under normal circumstances, our attention is often scattered and haphazard. Our untrained perceptions are biased by our conditioning—past experiences, values, attitudes, beliefs, goals, and more. We also naturally direct our attention to the world outside of ourselves, leading us away from self-realization and causing suffering. 

A meditative path

Increasing awareness through yoga starts with paying attention. For most people in the West this begins with asana, the physical postures, where we start to notice more about our bodies through the movements. Pranayama, breathing practices, require our attention to focus on the breath and to find moments of stillness and quiet. Both the physical and breathing practices prepare us for meditation. 

The first stage of meditation in yoga is pratyahara, usually translated as the withdrawal of the senses. A yoga therapist might help you to move toward this state by asking you to focus only on sound or to observe your breath without changing it. As we direct attention away from the outside world and narrow its scope our awareness becomes more subtle. 

Dharana, the next step, is focusing on one object with steadiness. The “object” can be the breath, a candle flame, a mantra—something simple but with significance. You will have to repeatedly refocus your attention on the object as your mind drifts, and this work keeps you aware of yourself, the object, and the focusing of your attention. As you practice dharana, you become aware of something about yourself that is constant and unchanging—in yoga we often call this aspect of ourselves the inner witness.

In the next stage, dhyana, frequently translated as absorption, the distinction between yourself and the act of meditating merges. Eventually there is only you—the meditator or witness—and the object of meditation. This stage is marked by a shift in the sense of time. Tuning in to the eternal present moment dissolves fear and anxiety, both of which require a sense of past and future. Becoming aware in this way has profound effects, yet as with any subjective experience, words are insufficient and experience is necessary for understanding. The final stage of meditation in yoga is called samadhi, or integration. 

Whole-person benefits

The benefits of meditation—and the increased self-awareness that goes with it—are wide-ranging and well-documented and include:

  • Supporting stress reduction and activation of the parasympathetic, or rest-and-digest, system
  • Promoting self-regulation of emotions, thoughts, and behaviors
  • Cultivating prosocial behaviors such as compassion, empathy, and happiness
  • Supporting shifts to healthier lifestyle choices through insight
  • Improving mood and mental-emotional health 
  • Supporting executive functioning through developing focus and distraction-management skills

You can find IAYT-certified yoga therapists to guide you in learning any stage of meditation and experience the support of deeply knowing yourself. This knowledge can be more than just new information; it can provide a new perspective that promotes profound shifts toward balance and wholeness. This is one of the ways yoga works. Read about some of the other ways yoga supports health and well-being in part 1 and part 2 of this series.