There are either 4 main states of consciousness, or 3 main states of consciousness and one of superconsciousness, depending on how one decides to draw the line*. These states correspond to the physical symbol of AUM, as well as the vibrational chanted AUM.
Jagrat (the “3” part the symbol) (the A part of the chant)
This is our waking state. The state where time and space prevail and we identify with our sense of “I” (ahamkara). This is an outwardly directed state, based around an external world. This is the state where we are entrenched in the illusion of maya.
Often in yogic philosophy and commentary this state is referred to as the “mundane” “gross” or “bodily” level. There is a tendency to write-off this level, negate its importance or validity as a state in favor of “higher” states of transcendence. I prefer Michael Stone’s concept of “horizontal” transcendence which does not create a hierarchy, but instead urges the yogi to encompass multiple states simultaneously, and bring that awareness to our relationships in the Jagrat state. It’s an expansion to include, as opposed to a moving up to cast off.
Swapna (the “handle” part of the symbol) (the U part of the chant) (waning citta)
This is our dream state, or REM state. Time and space also prevail here, but often in a warped sense not possible in the waking state. This is an inwardly directed state, but also based around impressions from the external world experienced during Jagrat.
Yoga’s penchant for interesting dualities and paradoxes can be found in looking at Jagrat and Swapna. We are asked to see these not as separate states, but much the same as likes & dislikes, attachment & aversion, as opposing perspectives of the same reality. Accordingly, our faculty of awareness that we cultivate so assiduously in our waking life, would well serve the dreaming state as well. This is not to say yoga philosophy is an advocate of lucid dreaming (although shamanic beliefs are not incongruous).
I was given a simple yet powerful sadhana during my teacher training. We were instructed to be very aware of the last thought we had before sleeping, in order to encourage this thought in our other states, as well as to be very aware and write down our first thought upon waking. In lieu of describing my personal experience, I encourage yogis to try this themselves. Every night and day for a month. Yoga is based on shraddha (faith) built on personal experience. This exercise is a simple way of building shraddha in relation to these states of consciousness.
Sushupti (the “swoosh” part of the symbol) (the M part of the chant)
This is the deep sleep state. There is no time or space. We are unconscious, and can only be aware of having been in this state by the results afterward of feeling refreshed and nourished. Accessing this state is essential for physical, mental and spiritual well-being.
In describing this state, the Mandukya Upanishad says, “there is no separateness, but the sleeper is not conscious of this. Let him become conscious in this state and it will open the door to that state of abiding joy.”
Turiya (the dot part of the symbol) (the silent beat after the vibrational chant has ended, but before taking an inhale)
This is the superconscious state. There is no time or space. We identify with the oneness of being (hence the singular dot). This state lacks the duality of either wakefulness or sleeping, conscious or unconscious, inward or outward, aware or unaware, and is all of it and none of it at the same time. Oneness of being.
In the Mandukya Upanishad this state is represented as the entire mantra of AUM, or thinking of it another way, as all of the previous 3 states combined. Without this combination of awareness and unconsciousness, Turiya is not possible, or rather, this is what defines Turiya.
“We enter this state regularly, if only we could be aware of it: every night we are ‘like someone unknowingly walking back and forth over a buried treasure’” – Michael Nagler (commentator on Eknath Easwaran’s The Upanishad’s)
The key then, is to discover the treasure. Every asana class affords the opportunity to do just that with savasana. If you think back to the beginning of your practice and your first savasanas, you might recall either feeling very sleepy, or experiencing very “deep” savasanas, where you slipped into another space completely. It is interesting to contrast those memories with the savasana experiences you have now, which might involve more of a struggle to access such relaxed deep states. This is actually a good sign. It shows progress. Initially it was easy to slip away because savasana sets us up to experience Turiya, however, without the skills of awareness that come with consistent yoga practice, Shushupti is what happened. As we gain greater awareness on multiple levels, our savasana begins to incorporate that awareness, and thus begin the shift to a state of Turiya. Instead of looking at savasana as a chance to relax after a physical practice, allow it to be a place to slip into deeper states of consciousness, while maintaining a light touch of Jagrat awareness around it.
This is also a practice than can be done in meditation. During meditation, we either choose to actively “work” on a certain practice (such as a meta meditation) or part of ourselves (staying with our arising conditions), or we approach it like savasana, a place that is designed to allow us access to Turiya, if we are able to bring that special combination of awareness and unconsciousness.
Understanding these states of consciousness, and their correspondence to AUM, infuses our opening and closing chant with a fullness and potential that enhances the meaning of the experience for us. Understanding these states also gives us encouragement. All of this already lies with us, we touch on it every night, and every class.
“So the Upanishad first gives us an inspiring picture of “that which is”, reassuring us that reality is not limited to the world of changing phenomena, and then hints at an everyday, doable way to reascend the orders of being and regain our spiritual home in the changeless” Michael N. Nagler
Sharon Ganon & David Life ~ Teacher Training 2007
Mandukya Upanishad ~ This is the briefest of the Upanishad’s. If you were to study only one of the Upanishads, Shankara recommends it be this one. Rama (incarnation of Vishnu in the Ramayama) offers similar advice to one of his students. ~Eknath Easwaran’s translation
*Sharon & David teach the latter, and the Mandukya Upanishad the former. I have used the terminology for the states as taught by Sharon & David. The Mandukya states are termed as follows: Vaishvanara, Taijasa, Prajna, and Turiya. Iyengar looks at the states in a slightly different way, viewing them as movements of the mind (citta), and names them udaya citta (rising), santa citta (calm), ksaya citta (waning) and turya. It is interesting that in all three naming systems the fourth state is Turiya (which literally means ‘the fourth’).