For many people, yoga is about stretching and strengthening the body, exploring challenging postures, or managing the stress of daily life. Or it may be "just" about the great sense of well-being one feels after a yoga practice.
But yoga is also about reaching deeper. It's about reaching beyond the capabilities of the body, certainly. But even more so, yoga is about tuning in to the more subtle levels of our extended mind-body.
One of the U.S. teachers who particularly focuses on this in his teaching is Santa Fe-based Tias Little, founder of Prajna Yoga and one of the leading yoga teachers in the U.S. In this interview, he shares his insights into how to enrich and deepen your yoga practice.
Q. We usually think of yoga as the practice of physical postures, or yoga asanas. But we know yoga is a lot more than the physical postures. In your experience, what do you view as the most important component of your practice?
Tias Little: Well, yoga really is about enlivening prana, the life force in the body. We could think of the whole process of yoga asana training as a process of distilling the life force and making it more and more refined over time.
That's a process that goes from gross to subtle, from outer to inner. I think that in the practice of yoga asana, one of our goals is to develop our sensitivity to the vital essence that sustains us all.
Q. In your own practice and teaching, how do you approach this?
Tias Little: A key to connect with the subtle body as part of our yoga practice is to link your awareness to sensation during your practice. Sensation is the ground source in which those in the internal arts work with the subtle body. It is the medium through which we can connect with the subtle part of the body-mind.
Now, sensation can be experienced on a gross level -- like pain or a strong contraction. But one can also develop sensitivity for really minute, exquisitely-refined sensations in the mind-body. Working with sensation on that level is really the art of yoga asana training.
Q: Some forms of yoga specifically guide people to feel the body between yoga poses, where much of that sensation can often be accessed. But not all yoga styles include that; most styles go from pose to pose. What has been your experience?
Tias Little: Some kind of pause between poses is invaluable to becoming more absorptive in the experience of yoga. The key is to reconnect to the listening. I think one of the faults of the fast track yoga styles today is that there's not enough time spent in the pause.
When the pause becomes really significant, that is, physiologically, when it really pervades the body, it's called the still point, to use a term from cranio-sacral theory. The still point is a place at which the whole body can reset its own clock and reorient. That place of re-calibration is so important, so the pause or the stillness has great importance.
Q: How would someone incorporate this into their yoga practice?
There are many ways to pause between poses. You can do a brief Savasana (resting posture) between postures. Or in a Vinyasa style yoga, where you flow between postures, you can come to Samasthiti or Tadasana (standing mountain posture) between poses, or do downward dog or child's pose as a resting pose between postures.
Eventually, you will be able to take that sense of stillness and allow it to permeate movement, and that can be done even when one's in motion; there's a connection to stillness. But it's better to train first in stillness; then the stillness can really accompany a lot of the movement-type practices.
One of my favorite passages from one of my Chinese Ch'an teachers reminds us of this principle:
"Be soft in your practice. Think of the method as a fine silvery stream, not a raging waterfall. Follow the stream. Have faith in its course ... It will take you there."
This idea of being soft in your practice and thinking of the method as a fine silvery stream, this relates to the capacity to be soft in the subtle body. The way I encourage people to get to this is by really watching their pushier side that comes forward. It often rears its big head in our yoga practice, so we end up pushing to make progress. It's really valuable to work carefully with our inner "striver" or "pusher" and then underneath that can surface this more refined practice that involves non-effort, or at least non-pushing.
Q: That's something that speaks very well to our culture today, because we tend to come from a doing, busy work day into a yoga class. But it's not necessarily always that easy to turn off.
Tias Little: Yes, off the mat, when it comes to daily life, the subtle body gets triggered by stress of various kinds. But stress is not only harmful to our physical body, it is also one of the ways in which the subtle body deteriorates.
One of the ways that we can reduce stress is by carefully noticing the stress response that starts when we're driving to work, when we forget something, or when we get into a tussle with our 16-year-old. It's at that point where it's truly important to be skillful in reducing the arousal.
The other important thing we can do is to engage in what in the Buddhist tradition is referred to as metta practices. These are basically ways that we awaken the heart-mind and bring about greater states of equanimity and receptivity.
For instance, when in a quiet moment, whenever someone comes to mind -- be it your spouse, a parent, or somebody at work -- extend a heartfelt wish: "May this person be free from physical pain, may this person be free from psychic holding or psychological constriction, may this person be free from agitation, and may this person be spiritually awake."
This extension of metta, or goodwill, toward other people is a really good way to animate the dynamics within the subtle body relating to the heart.
Also, it's good to envelope oneself in a sort of gauze of loving kindness, because we all suffer from various crises of self, including lack of self-worth and so on. So bathing in the attitude of loving kindness toward ourselves is a great way to connect to the subtle body.
Q: So this isn't really just about the practice of yoga?
No, these are important practices not just of yoga, but of daily living as well. What we're calling the subtle body really is the most intrinsic life force, or prana, which animates all things. But it can't be gotten to by a force of will or intention. There has to be a bypassing of the voluntary side of ourselves, and we need to skirt off of the radar of willful activity. It's there that one can experience real spaciousness and vast quietude.
So I encourage people to spend some time in their personal practice in a place that's just outside of our attempt to consciously control. There's this other fourth dimension, where we have to step outside of our capacity to grasp. It can't be engineered or manipulated.
Download the full interview here: Tias Little: Finding the Still Point in Yoga Asana
Join Tias Little for an online course on YogaUOnline.com:
"Pratyahara and Yoga Asana -- The Significance of the Fifth Limb of Yoga."
Tias Little is one of the leading yoga teachers in the U.S. He has studied with B.K.S. Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. His teaching is also deeply influenced by his study with somatic luminaries like Ida Rolf, Marsha Feldenkrais, and Thomas Hanna.
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