The practice is not to remain here, silent and stunned, but to follow the gentle pulsations of the creative principle back up, to feel them moving from the edgeless interior of our awareness, pushing up through the stencils of our memories, forming the inner scaffolding of our minds, condensing into bones and tissues, then spreading themselves out as the phenomenal world. Through this movement, we trace the subtle formation of thought, feeling and sensation, together with everything that we touch with our senses, including our bodies themselves, and we experience it all as the unfoldment of something sublime, something that breathes from the innermost depths of our being, with the blissful force of life.
This is Hatha Yoga—the experience of the creative force, unfolding spontaneously from the depths of our being, and giving shape to the whole of phenomenal reality. As we immerse ourselves in this experience, we begin to realize our role in the sublime play of the natural world, by which consciousness condenses into the world of name and form, for no other reason than to revel in its own creative power. In the cosmological philosophy that stands behind Hatha Yoga, this revelry is the highest and most refined reality, and pervades every other. The Hatha methods are designed to awaken us to this reality, and to stabilize our minds within it, so that we can feel the primitive bliss of consciousness pouring through our senses with each breath.
To this same end, Hatha practices encourage us to balance the opposing forces that shape our experience. The idea is that, when such forces are balanced, the spheres of conscious experience are better aligned, and our attention can then move more easily through them. Since there are uncountably many forces that shape our experience, there are uncountably many forms of alignment. But Hatha Yoga is premised on the thought that we can access them all by working with the subtle breath.
In the practices of Hatha Yoga, we learn to feel the breath as an immediate and visceral reflection of the primitive pulse of consciousness itself. And when we balance the internal movements of the breath, we can feel our awareness sliding toward the center, to become aware of itself as the primitive source of our being. When awareness touches the center, we experience the most exalted form of alignment—the alignment of awareness to the sublime and blissful unfoldment of reality, from the most primitive and prenatal source to the most elaborate and articulated reality. It is precisely to encourage this expansive form of alignment that Hatha Yoga works with alignment in cruder forms.
In contemporary yoga, which often revolves around the practice of postures, the term “alignment” is commonly used to evoke standards of postural integrity, which is to say, standards having to do with the balance of physiological forces by which we move our bones and tissues and hold them in particular postural shapes. This kind of alignment is superficial in an obvious sense. And unless we practice it with a larger purpose, it can hold our attention on the outermost sphere of the body, and prevent us from drawing our attention inward upon the journey of yoga.
But this superficial form of alignment is nonetheless crucial to the potency of postural practice. As the founders of the modern postural yoga movement understood, the way that we hold our bodies can have the most profound impact on our minds. And if we work intelligently with postural alignment, we can open ourselves to new dimensions of experience.
To be certain, the way that we hold our bodies is an immediate reflection of the dynamic relationship between the expansive and contractive forces of the breath. And different bodily positions and movements can stimulate these forces in turn. These forces have an immediate impact on the alternating movements of creation and dissolution that underlie our thoughts and perceptions. And this is why movement and posture can be such a potent means of balancing the internal breath, and inducing shifts of attention toward more subtle forms of experience.
The force of expansion is called prana. It underlies our inspiration, our imagination, and our ability to see things from multiple points of view. The opposing force of dissolution is called apana. It underlies our ability to let things go, to make up our minds, and to reinforce our own psychical boundaries. The signature movement of prana is an expansion from the plane of the heart, which reaches out indefinitely in every direction. This pattern is associated with inhalation. We can amplify this pattern by lifting our center of gravity, arching our spines, or reaching up and out from the center of the body with out limbs. The signature movement of apana, on the other hand, is a contraction that spirals inward and downward toward the center of the pelvis. This pattern is associated with exhalation. We can amplify this pattern by lowering our center of gravity, rounding our spines, folding forward, and by drawing our limbs into various binds.
In the practice of Ashtanga Vinyasa, we alternate steadily and rhythmically between postural variations of these patterns, threading them together into a continuous flow. We express the expansive pattern of the inhalation with upward and outward movements of the spine and limbs. And we express the contractive pattern of the exhalation with movements that draw downward and pull toward the midline of the body. As we learn to move gracefully and smoothly through these patterns, we begin to experience their wondrous interpenetration. That is, we begin to feel the way that each unfolds and dissolves organically into the other.
This can be an exhilarating but also truly profound experience. For the oscillation of prana and apana sustain our inner monologue, the narrative stream by which we make sense of what is happening to us from one moment to the next. It does so by creating and dissolving various patterns of thought to organize them into discrete and mostly coherent lines, which are relevant to our subjective needs and concerns. When these forces are held in balance, however, that narrative is suddenly suspended, and our attention is no longer confined to any particular narrative line. It can move down into another sphere of consciousness, where the etheric forms that underlie our thoughts and perceptions are suddenly allowed to appear.
These are the forms so provocatively symbolized by the common imagery of many Tantric and Hatha traditions, in which we find luminous figures with crowning spires, serpentine hoods, majestic wings, lotus hearts and thousands of agile limbs. This imagery represents the visceral patterns of creative force that we experience in the sphere of the subtle breath. In this sphere, psychical forces swell and condense before crystallizing into the objects of ordinary thought and perception, including the objects that we identify as our physical bodies. So when our attention rests in this sphere, we feel our usual boundaries dissolve, and our bodies seem to take on more wondrous and etheric forms.
These forms are fascinating in themselves, and the practice of Hatha Yoga invites us simply to feel them, and be present with them, and to revel in their experience. But it also invites us to work them into more refinement, and so to bring an even deeper level of balance to our minds. The practices of pranayama and visualization find their purpose here. These practices are designed to balance the etheric movements of the internal breath, and to unlock their deeper synergistic effects, so that even more subtle forms—such as those that we call mudras—might spontaneously appear, drawing our attention even further into the body, and gracing us with higher moments of insight.
It is through the practices of pranayama and visualization, for example, that we learn to balance the more elaborate patterns of the ascending current with their descending opposites. Then, as the ascending forces reach from the plane of the heart and spread over the crown of the head, we widen the soft palette, release the respiratory diaphragm, and open the pelvic floor, inviting that current to turn back, spontaneously, and fall bak into the body, but now with the sweet ambrosial nectar of compassion, which can saturate the mind and senses with the most lucid awareness. This rare and exalted experience, which is the natural perfection of mula bandha, is called yoni mudra—the joining of awareness to the primitive source of our being.
This mudra is beyond technique. It is not something we do, but something that happens to us, when the movements of prana and apana come into a sustained but improbably delicate balance within the deeper spheres of our consciousness. This mudra draws us into a sphere of consciousness that is prior to the ego, and sphere in which there is no one to make any practical effort. In this sphere, there is only a lucid and reflective awareness, overflowing with the bliss, and reveling quietly in the spontaneous unfoldment of its own creative power.
The Hatha Yoga techniques are designed to help us return to this sphere, to immerse ourselves in this sphere, so that it becomes the very touchstone of our animating sense of the real. The more we immerse ourselves in this sphere, the more the ecstatic bliss of yoni mudra resounds, and reverberates through the levels of our experience, to color even the most ordinary perceptions of our phenomenal world. As we steep ourselves in this sphere, its light begins to pervade every other, such that all object and beings that we encounter in the world begin to appear absolutely sublime.
The secret pathway to this experience, according to Hatha Yoga, is alignment—first the physical alignment of our bones and tissues, then the subtle alignment of the internal breath, then the psychical alignment of our attention to what is actually unfolding in the inner space of our bodies. And that opens naturally and organically toward alignment of the highest form—alignment of our awareness to the blissful and ecstatic unfoldment of our primitive creative powers, not in one subtle sphere, but across the entire spectrum of our experience, from the innermost depths of consciousness, where the creative principle pulses in its prenatal form, up through the formulation of the conceptual categories of our minds, around the visceral contours of our bodies, and outward further into the confusing and fractal wonder of the phenomenal world. To align our awareness with this sublime and creative effusion, this blissful outpouring of the feminine principle, is to experience Hatha Yoga, as the awakening of our awareness to the supreme wonder of being alive.
Ty has been an Ashtanga practitioner since 2005. He was introduced to the method by Jennifer Elliott at Ashtanga Yoga Charlottesville, where he practiced for seven years. In 2012, after completing a doctoral degree in Philosophy from the University of Virginia, Ty moved to Boulder to study with Mary and Richard. Since then, under their guidance, he has learned some unspeakably wonderful things about the art of yoga.
In 2015, Mary and Richard asked Ty and his wife Shayan to assume ownership of their studio and to teach the Ashtanga method as they have taught it for so many years. Ty and Shayan are honored to continue the thread of the Ashtanga tradition at the Yoga Workshop, and to share the brilliance of yoga with anyone who wants to learn.