Our society has perverted this act of self-consciousness by attaching to it the immediate reactive act of judgement. How quickly we are encouraged to point the finger at ourselves and others, comparing to some external idea of what is "ideal." And how quickly we fall short of that ideal because of peer pressure, whether it's in the hallway at Middle School, the office, the mall, magazines, TV, etc. And so the beauty of asana practice is that it allows us to set aside some time for ourselves, to bring full consciousness to that small "s" self, coloured by all those beliefs about how flexible we are, how strong we are, how good our balance is, how well we can endure, and we get to test all that out on the mat. The postures themselves are interesting, and have all kinds of physical and mental benefits in both the short term and over time. But the real magic happens when we are able to just get out of our own way long enough to fully experience our big "S" Self that is uncoloured by any conditions, and simply can't be pointed to. And that Self is only accessible through awareness - that ever-present witness behind the waterfall of thoughts, and most of all behind the judgements.
Judgements put an immediate stop to the process of uncovering the true nature within. They are inevitably a manifestation of one or all of the three poisons of the mind that the Buddha described: greed, anger, and ignorance. By clinging to any idea of ourselves or others, and holding that up as a basis of comparison, we are greedily robbing ourselves of the true experience of Being, and withholding that experience from ourselves or others, in the form of loving kindness, compassion, joy, or equanimity. It's only by dropping judgement from self-consciousness that we enter into true self-awareness, which is always infinitely spacious. In deliberately and consistently creating that spaciousness in the physical body, we become sensitive to what thoughts and actions lead to more or less space, more or less vibrancy and health. That sensitivity is what can ultimately lead us to uncovering the more subtle aspects of our Being.
Creating that spaciousness in the mind and body is where the second of the twin pillars of Yoga comes in: calm abiding. When my daughter said she felt self-conscious when doing asana, she added that this self-consciousness made her feel uncomfortable. Once again, the Yogi in me says "Hooray!" We are obsessed with comfort in our culture, and I'm certainly no exception. But change does not happen in the comfort zone. It can only happen when something shifts from where it is resting. If you're like me, I'm not entirely happy with where I'm resting. I would like to realize more vibrant health, thrive more financially, be part of a healthier community, contribute more to the greater good, etc. All these things require a continual shift away from the status quo, which more often than not is accompanied by some sort of discomfort. We can choose to allow that discomfort to be an obstacle, or we can simply view it as a sign that transformation is occurring. As long as we know that what we are holding as an intention for that transformation is sincere and virtuous, we can easily withstand a little temporary discomfort to achieve our goal. And again, this is the beauty of asana. We get to apply this principle on the mat, and test it out on the physical plane, often seeing immediate results. Within any given posture, by scanning through the body for those areas of discomfort and holding them with equanimity alongside those areas that are comfortable, we find that the line we imagine between those two states is far less defined than we think. Often it's just a matter of waiting for 3 or 4 breaths to make their way through the body, and we find that discomfort either more tolerable or dissolving altogether. By calmly abiding and dropping the judgements, attachment (raga) to pleasure and aversion (dvesha) to discomfort drop away, leaving us clearly seeing the only thing that's real - the pure experience. With practice, persistence, and a little faith, this becomes a tangible doorway to the pure Self.