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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.

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. I use it here because the practice sequence feels consistent enough, and distinct from other approaches I know enough, to be its own thing.

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.

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. I think of it in three overlapping sections that train the practitioner in intuitive movement, breath, and awareness practices.

I: Intuition & Impulse

Sequencing comes from within.

In the opening sections of the practice, we focus on intuitive movement (āsana) and building the foundations for prāṇāyāma and bandha as subtle breath work.

Work with postures and movement can be thought of in three aspects: Arrive, Assess, and Awaken.

***in process…

Arrive

In lives that so often feel chaotic, arrhythmic, and disembodied,

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.

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’ll 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.

More about the Authentic Movement form here.


Background on the practice

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.

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. 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.

At the same time as I was doing intensive Vinyasa, I was also dancing, performing, and practicing a powerful group discipline called Authentic 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. The Sadhana 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.”

I no longer teach drop-in āsana classes, but work with practitioners individually to refine their practice. I find that working in this way allows practitioners to address more directly the issues that arise as their path unfolds, and integrate physical work with their broader spiritual or inner growth path.

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