Subtle Body Hatha Yoga: Deepening Asana Practice
My yoga practice is more than just physical. I don’t mean that, in addition to hatha yoga asana, I practice “non-physical” yoga like pranayama and meditation. I mean my asana practice is more than just physical. It is, by all means, a physical practice. I do it with my body, after all. But these hatha yoga asana practices I do with my body are not entirely localized in the physical body.
It is not possible to practice asanas in a way that is purely physical. A physical body requires an actor, a catalyst, in order to animate it. We have to decide what we are going to practice. We have to choose how and when to move our bodies through space. This is a practice that takes place not in the physical body but in the subtle body. The subtle body is the motivating force behind the physical body.
A friend recently gave me a book called “introduction to Kashmir shaivism” that attempts to map the process of creation using the 36 tattvas (elements or principles). The tattvas all emerge from a singularity in a creative process of expansion called spanda. The physical body, as it expands, contracts, and moves through space in asana practice, moves in accordance with the emergence of these tattvas. The capacity for movement arises from the karma indriyas or “organs of action.” There are 5 karma indriyas:
- Vac – speech or expression
- Pani – prehension or grasping
- Pada – locomotion or movement
- Payu – excretion
- Upastha – procreation
The karma indriyas often take place in a physical body. For example, expression very often occurs with the vocal chords and manifests as our voice. However if we should lose our voice, the organ of action (karma indriya) known as vac would find an alternative mode of expression. When you travel abroad and are unfamiliar with the local language you will take full advantage of facial expressions and hand gestures in our to communicate. This is evidence that the location of the action (karma) was not in the physical body but in the subtle body.
Now if I simply say, “its not the physical body, it’s the subtle body” without ever stretching to understand what I mean by that term “subtle” then I might as well just use the word spiritual or ethereal – all words that essentially mean “I cannot explain it”. I will leave exploring the subtle body more fully in a later blog post, but for now…
When we speak of yoga not being “merely physical” but also something deeper, or even something spiritual, we are attempting to point at that experience of ourselves taking place in the subtle body. The subtle body is not above or beyond the physical body. It is prior to it. The physical body is the means by which the mind (an aspect of the subtle body) is able to express itself. In the absence of a physical body, the mind is not absent so much as it is dematerialized. This dematerialized mind-stuff, which I just clumsily called “the mind,” is what we call the subtle body.
So the karma indriyas are located in the subtle body and are expressed through the physical body. So what is being expressed during hatha yoga asana practice? What awareness is there during that expression? What quality of consciousness is present through the expression and awareness of movement? The exploration of these questions forms the basis of the subtle practice of hatha yoga asanas.
To divide yoga into practices that are physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual might make sense for the purposes of furthering our understanding of those practices. But the reality is that all practices are taking place in the unique mindbody matrix of the individual practitioner. The matrix is comprised of a mutli-layered and multi-faceted self-conscious entity known as the self. Hatha yoga asana practice occurs within the subtle body of the yogi as a conscious physical expression of the self.
Check back later for some discussion on the subtle body. For now, leave a commnent if you want to chat about anything. I'm not writing this stuff because I think you, the reader, absolutely need it. I'm writing it because I am interested in a conversation about it.