In general terms the subtle body is the energy in a living being that differentiates them from a corpse. Someone who has just died has the exact same number of protons, neutrons, and electrons, but something is missing. Even if we try to put electricity back into a dead body, we are as of yet unable to force a body to live again. Some organizing energy pervades us as a living being, and it is perhaps the most important part of a yoga practice. So why have so few people heard of it, and why do so few teachers seem to know much about it? This is because yoga, as it exists in most of the contemporary world, has been strongly affected by the West, and the West’s obsession with the purely physical. Yoga never had, as its purpose, the tonification of muscles or the loss of body fat. While those were always understood to be side effects, the subtle body was meant to be the focus of practice.
The subtle body is a structure of energetic rivers that permeate the body, and perhaps even a short distance beyond the physical body. They run alongside our thoughts and emotions, and function to a certain degree as the bridge between the mental and physical. It is also the simple fact that we can listen to our bodies, feel a wide ocean of sensations, and then make use of it all.
How do we use it?
We must know the various dimensions of a living body (see below).
We must understand the layers that make up a living human. The outermost layer is the simple physical body. It is the thing we can eventually take apart; it has the anatomy most of the yoga world is obsessing over. Underneath that is the layer of breath. This is the simple breath: the gas that we must continuously inhale and exhale to keep the body functioning. Underneath this is the main component of the subtle body: prana. This energy is said to be physical, but more subtle than sunlight. It runs in channels that can not be found with a scalpel and microscope; tens of thousands of rivers of energy permeating the body. Even more subtle, the layer underneath prana, is the realm of the mind. A layer that is not physical, and that encompasses all our various modes of thought. Emotions, conceptions, discrimination between things… All of this is at this fourth level of the body. One layer deeper and we come to our karmic seeds: the very patterns that form our world and the way we experience it.
Because we are made of all these levels, and they affect each other, yoga functions. Yoga brings us peace and sometimes pleasure because, through the purposeful movement of the gross body, we change all the levels underneath. Yet the transformation is slow: the physical body improves slowly, but almost all the mental benefits of the practice disappear as soon as we leave the studio. The secret to making a yoga practice function most powerfully, the way it was intended, is to work at both the inner and outer levels simultaneously. By using the physical body in the asanas, and then making sure to keep the mental layer focused and active, we put the full power of our being behind the practice of yoga.
Why is it important?
There are an ever increasing number of emergency room visits per year that are caused by a yoga class. Knowing that a contemporary yoga class focuses almost exclusively on the physical, this should not come as a surprise. Many yoga classes have now become a competitive environment, often pushing too hard for superficial results rather than cultivating a compassionate inner voice. This is not just a missed opportunity, but dangerous. Yoga asana was designed around the Eastern subtle body system, not the Western musculoskeletal system. As Yoga has been popularized in the west, the Western anatomical approach has pushed out the original logic of the subtle body that underlies the entire structure of this ancient practice. This is like removing all the electrical wiring, plumbing, and internal systems of a complicated building and wondering why it breaks down. If you don’t want your body to break, you MUST study the subtle body. It is the foundation of yoga as a healing and therapeutic practice.
When we consciously work with the subtle body, we are able to access the place where our subtlest energies ride directly alongside our thoughts and emotions. This allows us to heal ourselves in a dramatic way. To change the mind through the use of the body is the miracle of yoga. Yoga is designed to liberate the mind from pain, and allow us to become completely free. If you put the extra effort of focusing on the subtle body in your yoga class, you will emerge transformed from the outside in and the inside out.
Many aspects of subtle anatomy
In the following weeks we will share with you many different ways to approach the subtle body, study its anatomy, and start using it in your daily practice. We will take the time to introduce you to the classic texts that mention the subtle body, as well as give you details on the shape and function of its various parts. We also will give you some meditations and practices that you can do to get more familiar with your own subtle body, as well as ways to work with it in asana or other movement based practices. We hope to kindle in you a fire of keen interest in this generally overlooked, yet ultimately central, aspect of the practice of yoga.