In high school and college I was fascinated with earth sciences. I took a number of courses in geography, oceanography, astronomy, weather, and even anthropology. One of the many amazing facts about the earth and its place in the universe is that when the earth is closest to the sun, it is actually colder—our winter—in the Northern Hemisphere. And when the earth is farthest from the sun, it is actually hotter—our summer—in the Northern Hemisphere. But it is not the distance between the sun and the earth that is important in creating this effect. Rather, what is important, and what creates the seasons, is the earth’s axial tilt of 23.5 degrees as it rotates around the sun.
This means that in the summer, when the North Pole is tilted toward the sun, the Northern Hemisphere receives more of the sun’s direct rays; and in the winter, when the North Pole is tilted away from the sun, the Northern Hemisphere receives the sun’s rays at a slant, which makes them weaker. It’s the way the earth receives the sun’s rays—from a slanted position or a more direct position—that makes us perceive more or less light radiating from the sun. In actuality, the sun is always shining the same amount of light.
This understanding is helpful in yoga. If we look at the often-used kosha model, we can see that at our very core is the light of pure consciousness. This inner light, which is always shining, is covered by five sheaths. These five sheaths are often called the panchamaya kosha: pancha means “five,” maya means “consisting of,” and kosha means “sheaths.” These five layers, starting from the innermost one, are the anandamaya kosha (inner bliss), vijnanamaya kosha (discernment), manomaya kosha (lower mind), pranamaya kosha (vital energy), and annamaya kosha (food). The outermost sheath consists of the food we take in to build and nourish our physical body. The body interacts with the world through its sense organs. These are normally and habitually turned outward to the world around us. We often forget that we have an entire world inside us.
In both models, the earth and our body, the light we experience is dependent not on how close the light is, but on how we observe it. If we are turned away, as in the tilt of the earth’s axis, or our preoccupation with the world, we don’t get to feel the warmth of the sun or see the brilliance inside. Though there is not much we can do about the tilt of the earth, we can work to keep the air quality clean, so that the sun’s light is useful rather than harmful. Similarly, inside ourselves, we also need to keep the air quality—the five layers—clear, so that the inner light can be perceived in its true reality. We also have to train our senses and mind to turn inward.
The light of consciousness is tangible, but we are often tilted away, not knowing that light. We surround ourselves with dark thoughts, negative emotions, and shallow breathing. Our mind is scattered. Our intelligence and joy are missing in action. But there’s hope! And practice can bring us back. Swami Rama of the Himalayas said, “I have found that in the heart of disappointment there is always seated a limitless joy that can emancipate one from sorrow.” This is the inner light surrounded by the dark. The dark is when our mind focuses outward through the senses, slanted away from the inner light. Yoga reminds us that the mind is filled with inner brilliance that has become dusty and veiled due to our habits of thought and action.
The good news is that we can find that joy, that inner light, and emancipate ourselves from sorrow. We can turn toward the light within and live in this beautiful, challenging world guided by that light. This inherent luminosity has the ability to radiate through every cell of our body, infuse our mind with intelligence and joy, and be the foundation for all our actions in the world. The philosophy and practice of yoga follow simple scientific laws that can lead us to this deep fulfillment of life.