Hatha Yoga Sadhana: The Subtle Dance

Physical movement with the goal of cultivating energy is one of the most dynamic and creative types of liberation practice. It has been part of both Buddhist and Hindu-lineage contemplative work since the earliest centuries of Yoga and asceticism as formal paths in South Asian spiritual life.

Resources for this practice:

For an online intro to this framework, see the short course I created with Yoga International, as part of their 2019 Movement Summit.

To listen to guided Haṭha Yoga Sadhana practices, please visit our Meditations & Yoga page.

Here is a visual tool (PDF), outlining the structure and basic flow.

The Sanskrit word sadhana traditionally refers to a formal sequence of practices, like the liturgy of prayers, visualizations, and mantra associated with a certain deity or concept, like Green Tara or Prajñapārāmitā, the Goddess of the Perfection of Wisdom. I use the term here because the practice sequence feels both consistent and distinct from other approaches I know, enough to be its own thing.

Haṭha Yoga Sadhana (HYS) is a structure for the study and practice of energetic cultivation through movement, breath, and attention training. It is self-directed rather than teacher-led because inner energy opens in different ways, at different speeds, and through different pathways in different bodies and heart-minds. It is open-source, improvisational, and unfixed. Like all remixes (and everything is a remix) it combines elements of several distinct traditions, none of which are new. Because this form works with intuitive movement as energy cultivation, I call it “The Subtle Dance.” It can be both blissful and uncomfortable, profoundly easeful and deeply challenging. This page includes a broad overview of the practice framework, and below that some writing on the origins and ideas behind this form.

Blessings in your practice.

A note on tradition & lineage

Haṭha Yoga Sādhana integrates modern yoga āsana with the energy work of prāṇāyāma, culminating in a group movement and witnessing structure called Open Circle that cultivates open awareness, embodiment, and internally-sourced movement. It is based on my work in several lineages, including Ashtanga Yoga, open form vinyasa/yogāsana, Theravāda and Vajrayāna Buddhisms, somatic movement and dance, Authentic Movement, Butoh, and body-based live art.

The postural and movement work, though many practitioners draw on modern yoga postures they’ve learned elsewhere, in a way is the least “traditional” part of the sequence, and the prāṇāyāma the most. Because what we now call prāṇāyāma is the heart of the practices collected in the early Haṭha Yoga texts (from the Amṛṭasiddhi to the Gheranda Saṃhita and Haṭha Yoga Pradipika among others), I consider that part of this sequence to be the “Haṭha Yoga” part, and the other sections either warm-up for that, or creative exploration of its implications.

This is not a new style of yoga or a set sequence of exercises, but a sequential process-oriented exploration of the body as the heart of contemplative practice.

I: Intuition & Impulse

In the opening sections of the practice, we focus on warming up the body, especially working toward joint mobility and ease of movement through the range of motion of each joint. This focus has its traditional roots in series’ of movements known in some yoga traditions as pavanamuktāsana, “Wind-releasing.” Wind as a cardinal element in both the Buddhist and Hindu systems refers to the quality of movement itself, not the material substance called air.

After opening with joint mobilization, the sequence opens into intuitive movement (āsana) and building the foundations for prāṇāyāma and bandha as subtle breath work. Sometimes I call this opening section “Wake it up.”

Unbind the Winds

Move all joints through their Ranges of Motion, either systematically through the body, or shaking.

Spectra (dynamic qualities) to explore: extension-flexion, control-release, slow-fast

6 Directions

Move the spine through 3 planes, with breath.
The 3 planes are: coronal (frontal), sagittal (sides), transverse (twisting)

Inquiry: Activation & Deactivation.

Path Factor: Wise Effort

The exploration in this section is around how we can uplift and settle our energies. In the Buddhist Eightfold Path, this is part of what’s called “Wise Effort,” which refers to the skill of working with energetic states, which can be bodily, emotional, and mental. The practice is to amplify healthy or wholesome states, and diminish unhealthy or unwholesome states. That means there are 4 primary activities:

Unhealthy low energy: uplift it
Unhealthy high energy: settle it
Healthy low energy: deepen it
Healthy high energy: sustain it

Healing Āsana

As we move into a full Yoga postural practice, we start with postures and movement that has the aim to address discomfort and challenges in the body. So I call this part “Healing Āsana” or “Work it out.”

Hold or flow through postures that unbind felt constriction in the body, relieve discomfort wherever possible, & bring energy to numb or frozen places.

Spectra: volition (active-passive)

Inquiry: Intervention & Acceptance

Shift what can be shifted now, and notice what cannot be shifted now, with an orientation toward acceptance. Bring the whole body into awareness, and complete the incomplete, if you can. Listen for the settling of “I need,” that feeling of not being ok unless something is addressed. This doesn’t mean in the big picture of your whole life, but just in the immediate bodily sense.

Path Factors: Wise View & Action

Joyful Āsana

The transition at the end of Healing Āsana comes when we have done enough fixing! Only when fixing our experience settles can a different kind of activity come through. When “I need” settles, it can open into “I enjoy,” and so many other unbound expressions of aliveness. Freed from the contraction of only responding to discomfort and imperfection, now movement can manifest joy and other forms of pleasure, and move energy in new ways. This is also where kindness and compassion for others, and more spacious states of the heart can really blossom, once we’re no longer absorbed only in our own suffering. I call this “Joyful Āsana” or “Love it all.” In Joyful Āsana, we hold or flow through postures that brighten energy, express wholesome states, & amplify feelings of vitality, intimacy, & ease.

Spectra: pleasure-pain, kind-unkind, known-unknown, outward-inward

Inquiry: Expression & Entertainment

Feel the shift from “I need” to “I enjoy.” Stay awake to present impulse when habit arises. Mindfulness of habit becomes important here because it’s easy for impulse and natural expression of energy to get caught up in the repetition of externally-sourced cultural images, or for movement to default to “entertainment” over exploration. In the discipline of staying focused on energy and internalization of the senses, it can help to foreground sensation and feeling, while backgrounding image and sound, sustaining awareness of the whole body breathing. The Path Factors here are Wise Intention & Immersion.

II: Riding the Breath

The energy cultivation process at the heart of classical Haṭha Yoga is expressed through the practices of prāṇāyāmabandha, and mudrā. Learning to expand, direct, and release constriction through the breath can be inspiring (literally!), healthy, and supportive of meditation and embodied mindfulness.

In this module we build on a foundation of posture work to explore the classical breath and energy practices (prāṇāyāma) associated with the awakening of kuṇḍalinī (“Coiled Force”) and the expansion of prāṇā (subtle energy or vitality) through the body. We explore bandha and mudrā as both physical and energetic gestures, and engage with the mysterious alchemy of holding and circulating the breath through the whole body.

Because here we turn toward the energetic unbinding and psychological releases in meditation practice, we can think of this traditional part of the practice as oriented toward letting go of that which no longer serves us, energetically and emotionally.

Open the breath (prāṇāyāma foundations)

This set of traditional breathwork exercises from the classical Haṭha Yoga tradition should be learned from a teacher. (You can find text sources for these practices on this reading list.)

Circulating: nāḍi śodhana, śakti calana

Amplifying: kapālabhati, ujjayi, bhastrikā

Containing: mūlabandha, uddiyānabandha, jālandharabandha

Channeling: mahāmudrā, khecarīmudrā, śambhavimudrā

Steady the mind (samādhi)

Active breathwork can open here simply into meditation in stillness. The Path Factors are Wise Mindfulness & Immersion. For basic instructions in meditation, see this set of guided meditations.

Aware of the whole body, let go into stillness.
Aware of the heart-mind, let go into stillness.
Invite all disturbance to dissolve into stillness.
Trust the path of letting go. Sustain focus.

Spectra: focus (continuous-dispersed)

III: The Open Circle

Energy moves in mysterious and deeply individual ways, and its expression and liberation can look very different from person to person. To create a space in which individual energetic process can flower, I use a form from the modern therapeutic discipline called Authentic Movement. As we move in the Open Circle form, we shift between the roles of Mover and Witness, bringing together the intuitive energetic process and the cultivation of meditative awareness we have been studying.

In this third module, we use yoga and breath work as foundations for extended work in open movement, cultivating the inner guidance of subtle impulse, mindful awareness in the form of the inner and external witness, and the speaking practices that are at the heart of community and spiritual friendship.

In solo practice, this is a place where I suggest letting go of forms altogether, and just spending time in open contemplative inquiry, which can take any form whatsoever. You might keep moving, keep sitting in stillness, or bring the wholesome states and inquiry processes cultivated in the practice out into the next parts of your day.

More about the Authentic Movement form here.

Background on the practice: personal

At the heart of both Buddhist and Hindu visions of liberation are practices that prepare the body, heart, and mind for powerful and fundamental shifts in perspective. These practices, called “yoga” in both lineages, support us to investigate and eventually understand our place in the world and our relationship with changing experience, including gain and loss, pleasure and pain, birth and death. These practices are physical, emotional, intellectual, and energetic, and work to both heal the deep traumas of attachment and developmental distress we call “psychological,” and the subtle traumas of existential despair and ignorance of our role in the world we call “spiritual.”

Haṭha Yoga as I use the term refers to a body of practices descended from Śaiva and Buddhist breath and energy work developed between the 10th and 18th centuries in the Himalayan region of what is now India and Tibet. The texts that have survived from this period describe powerful practices of energy cultivation that leads to states of bliss, clarity, and inner power, and support a tantric path of both Subtle Power (siddhi) and Liberation (mokṣa) from the round of birth and death (saṁsāra).

The most prominent modern forms of these practices are the prāṇāyāma, bandha, and mudrā taught in the lineage of Tirumalai Krishnamacharya of Mysore (1888-1989), teacher of B.K.S. Iyengar and Śri K. Pattabhi Jois, the founder of the Ashtanga Yoga system. They are also taught in the lineages descended from Swami Śivānanda of Rishikesh (Shivananda, Integral, and Bihar).

As the flowing postural style of Aṣtānga gained popularity, teachers began to create their own sequences of postures, improvising and choreographing new practice sequences from the vocabulary of poses (āsana) formalized by Iyengar and Jois. The new style, called Vinyasa from a term used by Krishnamacharya for movement pathways in and out of poses, became the most prominent style of public class in San Francisco, where I was living when I began dedicated practice.

I began my yoga study in 1996 doing Ashtanga with Larry Schultz at It’s Yoga in San Francisco, but learned the Haṭha practices later, studying with teachers from various lineages, including Jivamukti and Bihar. I taught Vinyasa classes for many years, bringing in aspects of the postmodern dance technique I was also studying. My classes focused on cultivating embodied presence through graceful, non-effortful movement, continuous breath focus, and mindfulness of the body in both movement and stillness. At the same time as I was doing intensive vinyasa, I was also dancing, performing, and practicing a powerful group discipline calledAuthentic Movement (AM). Developed by dancers and Jungian therapists in the 1970s, AM ritualizes the archetypal spiritual roles of Mover and Witness in a simple relational format. It was a transformative part of my spiritual and relational practice, and offers to yoga practitioners a way to develop both the internal, energetic aspect of self-guided practice, and the powerful wisdom practice of witness awareness, central to all forms of liberation practice. HYS uses a structure from AM called The Open Circle as the culminating step in our practice of intuitive, energy-focused yoga practice. For a philosophical exploration of some of the implications of the Authentic Movement form, see “Authentic Movement as Tandava.”

So I loved the vinyasa class format, but eventually came to feel that because it emphasizes unison movement and externally-directed sequences, it lacked the subtlety and flexibility necessary to invite each yogi to work at the growing edge of their practice. After years of teaching in yoga studios, I’ve turned away from the guided class structure for teaching, practicing, and deepening in yoga as a contemplative practice. I am increasingly convinced that awakening internal clarity and energy — the goal at the heart of classical Haṭha Yoga, the Buddhist meditative paths, and many other South Asian contemplative traditions — is poorly accomplished through unison movement in group settings, at least for many communities I practice in.

This shift in my own sense of the utility of the form, along with participation in growing conversations about the biomechanics and psychological, religious, and cultural implications of Modern Postural Yoga, led to my abandoning the mainstream yoga class format in favor of supporting students in individualized practice, especially including somatic movement material from the dance and trauma healing worlds.

This shift in approach I’m describing doesn’t mean I’m completely rejecting the yoga class as pedagogy, nor especially as a social form. I find it valuable for beginners as a pathway into basic somatic presence, for exercise, and as a way to learn a vocabulary of postures. Yoga class can be a refuge from the stresses of contemporary life that is largely wholesome: communal, embodied, mindful, ethical, and invoking of the deeper truths of spiritual inquiry. And the ritual of group practice is a deeply supportive and needed structure for most of us in individualistic consumer cultures, even when the ritual itself is commodified and immersed in that same culture. Yoga class can be radical when directed toward the creation of radical community, and provides sustenance on the spiritual path not available in solitary practice.

But that doesn’t mean that it’s working as a structure for practitioners to engage in subtle energetic unwinding and healing, contemplative inquiry, or the cultivation of inner heat in the service of liberation — the central aims of both Buddhist and Hindu yogic practice for the 2500 years before modern athletic yogāsana was developed in the 20th century. I believe a new approach is necessary, especially for intermediate students who have stabilized initial levels of physical capability, mindfulness, and embodied awareness, but who lack the resources or social structures to deepen in practice. The pedagogies I am drawn to generally combine a flexible and responsive approach to individual practice with generous frameworks for communal interaction and mutual support on the path. Haṭha Yoga Sadhana is a proposal for this kind of pedagogy in modern yoga.

Background on the practice: historical

There is a common observation in many yoga lineages that movement work and energetic awakening are supportive and necessary preparations for meditation, and that meditation in stillness is the heart of the path. The 15th century Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā (HYP) opens with this claim:

Homage to Śrī Ādinātha, who taught the knowledge of haṭha [“forceful”] yogawhich leads stepwise to the heights of rāja [“kingly”] yoga.

(Svātmārāma, HYP 1.1)

Rāja Yoga refers here to states of deep meditative immersion (samādhi) central to both Hindu and Buddhist practice, and to the path of ethical action, renunciation of sensory addictions, and highly-focused attention that makes them possible. Deep meditative immersion is the core practice in Patañjali’s 4th century Yoga Sūtra (Pātañjalayogaśāstra), which is the paradigmatic description of Yoga (capitalized when referring to this specific lineage) as a contemplative path to awakening, for Svātmārāma as for many people in contemporary yoga. But this kind of meditation is difficult and subtle, and requires very specific conditions if it is to become available to most practitioners, so Svātmārāma suggests Haṭha Yoga as a way to build up those conditions.

Classical Haṭha Yoga as codified in the HYP is a set of physical practices for the clearing of both physical and energetic blockages in the body (and in these traditions the two are not seen as separate). It includes physical postures (āsana), cleansing practices (ṣatkarma), breathwork (prāṇāyāma, kumbhaka), energy work (mudrā, bandha, kuṇḍalinī), and several kinds of meditations including visualization and concentration on subtle sound (nāda). All of these lead to the awakening of “coiled energy” (kuṇḍalinī), and states of perceptual dissolution (lāya).

The principle here is that for most practitioners, physical stabilization precedes emotional and mental stabilization. Grosser practices precede subtler ones, like a sculptor hewing a rough form with large tools then refining the shape using increasingly detail-oriented tools. The more refined the shape gets, the finer the tools, but also the more diverse the set of tools needed. Where one chainsaw or hatchet can cut a rough shape from a log, at the finishing stages sets of saws, chisels, and sandpapers of increasingly finer gradations may be used. This old principle remains useful, and the history of yoga can partly be seen as a progression from finer to rougher tools as subsequent generations find the old tools inaccessible or too difficult to master.

Now even classical Haṭha Yoga, with its emphasis on long breath holds and the sublimation of sexual energy, is too refined a tool for many of us. So modern yoga, with its overtly athletic approach and focus on strength and flexibility, can be seen as an appropriate if blunt instrument to be used in preparation for prāṇāyāma and meditation. Then we realize that it’s not so easy itself, so even more supportive foundations are being developed (trauma-sensitive yoga and accessibility-oriented yoga as examples). This progression may be understood not as meaning that each generation is worse off, spiritually, than their ancestors (though that is an ancient and venerable South Asian idea, and may be true by some measures), but that new skillful means (upāya) are appropriate to develop as conditions change.

We can thus assemble a basic sequence of practice by starting at the goal we have faith in and working backward through the available methods toward something more of us can actually do. Here is my version of this, which might be also a roughly chronological history of yoga, with each step supported by the next

Goal: Full Awakening.

This goal is then trained for by the disciplines of:
Inquiry (Buddhist & Classical Yoga), supported by
Meditation (Buddhist & Classical Yoga), supported by
Breathwork (Haṭha Yoga), supported by
Exercise (Modern Postural Yoga), supported by
Warmups (whatever works, but I use relaxation, shaking, and somatic movement exploration), supported by
Intention (worldview and purpose, including the goal of Awakening), supported by
Discomfort (without which why would anyone generate the goal?)!

To this as a formal practice structure that one might move through in a single session, we can add the necessary supports of psychological, emotional, and physical health, so diet, sleep, exercise, social life, sexual life, therapeutic support, health care, sufficient meaningful work, education.

Bodies that can’t sit still without pain, hearts disorganized by trauma and relational rupture, and minds that are overwhelmed, scared, angry, and confused can’t meditate, can’t move energy in wholesome ways, can’t come out of self-protective nervous system activation. Physical pain and stress, combined with the hindrances of distraction, depression, anxiety, and trauma must be at least somewhat resolved before meditation in stillness can progress. The first assessment to make as practitioners, then, is where our contemplative work should focus.

To do this, we need to know what our goal is, which takes us back to the beginning of the sequence. It’s impossible to design a path of practice without having a sense of where you’re trying to get to. And there is somewhere to get to! Even traditions that maintain an absolutely non-dual (advaita) approach to liberation, and teach that beings are already liberated because they were never imprisoned to begin with, still admit that there are practices that make realizing this profound truth easier.

Hearts, minds, & bodies move themselves.
The path to liberation can be described,
but is experienced differently by every body.
All practices are relative, condition-dependent, optional,
exploratory, suggestive,
good for some & not for others.
Do what feels good.
Don’t do anything that hurts yourself or others.
Don’t give up.

sabba-pāpassa akaranam
etam buddhāna-sāsanam

Do no harm
Do what helps
Clarify the mind
This is the way of the Buddhas

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