As we practice, we develop new movement patterns, range of motion, flexibility and muscular strength and if we are fortunate we are guided how best to think of our body in terms of bones, joints, muscles, orientation, shape, weight, muscular contraction and release. In turn we’re guided to push down, draw up, engage, tighten, to stack our bones, balance effort and ease, look for physical alignment and to feel and work with the force of gravity. These cues encourage the presence of tension, often to support release elsewhere or to help stabilize joints, and this tension in turn helps us sense our body’s position (proprioception) and to directly experience the biomechanical forces within our body.
Awareness of this sensing and our breath brings focus and concentration to the practice which then can calm our mind.
Developing and training our physical body in this way brings significant benefits, it allows the release of some gross and superficial tension, opens up our joints and helps rebalance the muscular skeletal system. It develops a somatic awareness that is often absent and gives us a language and lexicon of the physical body. For many of us the increase in wellbeing, vitality and mental clarity is more than enough justification to practice.
In this respect, a physical approach to yoga delivers tangible benefits, but what I hope to show is that this is not the full the potential of a physical yoga practice and in fact may make it more difficult to access that potential.
Yoga is not primarily a physical practice
The primary purpose of yoga is not to develop the physicality of the body. This is a wonderful by-product and there are texts describing the health benefits of individual postures. Its primary role is a different process of development bringing together varying levels of body, energy and mind into a comprehensive, integrated system for affecting real inner change. Yoga is certainly a practice expressed through the physical body but the path of development described in various traditions invites us to transcend not augment physicality. Without that, development can stall.
How do we move beyond the physical body by using the physical body?
In many Eastern traditions progress on the path of transformation towards a wholesome body and a wholesome mind moves from the physical, to the energetic then to the mental and finally to an understanding of the nature of consciousness. The transition from a physical to an energetic practice is an important step in this progression.
How we perceive our body changes our experience of our body
The challenge here is that thinking of and using our body from a physical / mechanical perspective cultivates a particular ‘bodyset and mindset’, a way of perceiving our body and using our mind. There’s nothing new about this. We know this just from daily life. Our mind is very powerful. If we believe a task is going to be difficult or unpleasant it invariably is. If we’re invited to think of ourselves as heavy and tired the experience often follows. This also applies to the way we invite our mind to think about our body in Yoga asana practice.
As a result we are continually inviting ourselves to relate to our body in these physical terms. It keeps us referencing the body and invites a holding onto the physical sensation and experience as the primary awareness of importance. If we are to move towards an energetic practice this will need to change.
Cultivating our energetic system
Within the teaching of yoga, working with the energetic system can start with the cultivation of the physical Bandhas and the Ujjayi breath. Both Moola Bandha and Ujjayi stimulate the PSNS and a relaxation response whilst also providing structural integrity and postural stability. The combination is effective at stimulating our energetic system and provide the gateway towards an energetic based practice.
As we tune into this different source of structural integrity and postural stability that’s not based on tension, our mind recognises that we can begin to release the muscular tension we previously used for support. With this release the energetic system becomes more effective and efficient encouraging further release.
Rather than think of our body from a mechanical perspective we start to think of it from an energetic perspective. Support comes from an energetic connection with the earth, movement with water, the breath with air, energy with fire and the release of tension with space. The classical elements are helpful here because they help us reconnect energetically.
As this process continues we begin to re-frame the way we view ourselves from a purely physical to a mixture of physical and energetic. We become aware that deliberate contraction of our muscles reduces the effectiveness of our energetic system and so we begin to move away from bio-mechanical inspired actions and cueing, and with this our language, lexicon and direct experience of the practice begins to change. Increasingly our practice feels lighter, more flowing and effortless.
As we release more tension in this way our body becomes more sensitive to what our mind is doing and the importance of where we place our minds attention in order to keep our joints, muscles and mind more fluid and mobile.
Gradually the balance between the physical and energetic changes, and the source of movement comes more from an energetic intention rather than a deliberate physical force. The practice becomes softer and more deeply relaxed supported by an inner energetic toning. Movement becomes the natural consequence of transitioning from a state of greater to lesser tension. Balance is the expression of minimal tension.
Integration of body, energy system and mind
For our energetic body to express itself fully we must integrate the mind and the body, bringing together our intention, attention and awareness of tension. When we do this it supports the deeper expression of our energetic system that comes when we fully relax to a degree that not available from a physical / mechanical perspective in many postures. This integration of body, energy system and mind signal the transition from a physical and mechanical to an energetic “mindset and bodyset”. It takes time and patience not only to find this energetic system but also building the confidence that it can provide the structure, support, stability and integrity we need to take the first step in the transformation from a practice focused on the physical, to the energetic, then mental. When we finally allow this to happen it feels like we have stepped out of the way, we no longer do the yoga and the yoga starts to do us. The integration of body, energy system and the mind now become a gateway for a deepening exploration of the subtle nature of consciousness.