Energetics of the Yoga Body
Updated: Dec 18, 2020
The human body-mind is a dynamic expression of a singular life, evolving moment to moment, through daily decisions and wide-sweeping cultural changes. With eyes narrowed to survival and daily duties, we forget the enormous potential living within each of us— but with eyes open, conscious and curious of how life can be lived, the human body-mind is an an embodied art in form as well as function.
Initially, we see the body as skin deep, looking for muscular definition, body proportion, and posture, automatically assessing persona and attractiveness. With training, we learn the art of seeing a body as form as well as function, as indivisible from the life it lives. The grace of a dancer, the power of a sprinter, the dynamic movements of martial artists are written into the body. The form and function of the mind are less apparent to the eye, but still: written into the clarity of speech, action, and countenance of every individual.
These qualities are trainable; the mind-body link is like a canvas for artistic discipline. The most enduring method of shaping physical form with mental function is yoga. Created in ancient India thousands of years ago, and guiding human body-minds ever since, yoga has gone global and given us two classic forms of the yoga body-mind: the ascetic, and the athletic.
The ascetic submits body to mind, denying daily pleasures and drying out the physique to better channel energy towards meditative pursuits of the mind. The bare boned beauty of human anatomy is apparent: the body is light, the skin is radiant and pulls tightly over jaw lines, ribs, pelvis. This was the “yoga body” of ancient spiritualists, and modern monasteries, where the body is seen as just another obstacle to nirvana.
Today, the athletic yoga body is celebrated. The last few hundred years have developed physical techniques for toning and empowering the body for high functionality within society. In form, this is more athletic look, though far leaner and more limber than the stacked-muscle stiffness of body builders. The athletic yogi trains body and mind in tandem, seeing physical discipline as an entrance to higher consciousness. In function, the balance in mind and body are clear, with a more active energy than that of the ascetics.
Energy is the substance of the mind-body link. Honing mind-body function and form to the level of artistry requires abundant, positive energy. Without this liberal flow of energy, or conscious direction of it, the body-mind rests at low levels of self-expression, dwelling ini dullness and unconscious habits. To liberate the energy required for our highest potential, we need to consider 1) devotion to a lifestyle that enhances and sustains the mind-body in function and form, and 2) the greatest influence on the human body: the force of gravity.
Ideally, each of us would always enjoy a free flow of abundant energy. How do we do that?
We learn to harness, rather than resist or succumb to, the forces of life.
By intentionally meeting gravity through conscious body habits and posture, we create an economical use of our current energy.
And through lifestyle habits and daily decisions, we increase the abundance of energy available for our use.
The troubles of a sedentary lifestyle are not only the mind-body indulgences of over eating and under moving— when the body does not have the strength and suppleness to lift up from the earth’s pull downwards, the entire body-mind becomes lax, loose, unsupported from its own structure. A stiff or strained body is wasting excess energy ineffectively resisting the pull of gravity down. Both are unable to sustain optimal mental function. Learning to balance the body with respect to the vertical lines of gravity is like organizing the building blocks of a Jenga tower, creating stability and height. When the body is empowered with healthy structure, circulation, and opportunity to express natural movement, then the mind is able to act with a parallel high functionality.
Much of the inner, invisible work of yoga effectively tones the physique to meet gravity with equipoise, rooting and rebounding in embodiment of Newtons principles. Pranayama, the willful direction of breath, not only brings the mind, and its energy of attention, into the body, but also works the musculature that supports a straight spine: the pelvic floor, the transverse abdominals, the diaphragm, and the muscles of the neck. Breathing good tone into these muscles ensures optimal circulation of blood, lymph, and oxygen. This keeps the inner organs toned, well supplied with nutrition, rather than stressed or fatigued from the unconscious compression of gravity pulling on a misaligned spine.
The ascetic traditions emphasize straightness of spine for long hours of meditative stillness. When the spine is straight, it aligns with gravity: no energy is lost in maintaining a position with shear or torque with respect to the vertical. Compare that to the habitual posture you see on the average human, whose head is hung forward (the neck is subject to stress of shear), pelvis angled (stress of torque), with a unique signature of effects running throughout the rest of the body.
The physical postures, asana, of yoga, are designed to open and strengthen the athletic body, opening the mind to new relationships between the body and the gravitational field. Inversions are especially healthy for redirecting the default pull of gravity towards the feet so that the spine can elongate and the legs can enjoy passive circulatory flow. In all poses, the practitioner learns to root into the mat/floor, and harness the rebound energy in a dynamic experience of Newton’s classic principles of action and reaction.
Practicing bandhas enhances the energetic effects of asana and pranayama by strengthening postural muscles, empowering breath, and directing energy flow along the spine and the several autonomic nerve centers (solar plexus; lumbar plexus; etc). With the bony vertebra secure and the nervous system engaged, the yogi experiences noticeable effects such as mental focus, heightened awareness, and bliss— the yoga high.
The yoga high quickly becomes an addiction to practice unless lifestyle supports a continuation of positive, abundant energy flow.
Patanjali outlined an eightfold path of yoga that includes all of the principles covered above: asana and pranayama; Pratyahara (drawing the senses in towards the body/breath/bandhas); dharana (mental focus), dhyana (meditative state), and samadhi (yoga bliss). But the first two stages of the path are lifestyle: an inversion of today’s yoga scene where the athletics often set the stage for resulting life changes.
The ten Yamas and Niyamas are guiding points that, like the various faces of Hindu deities, are all facets of the one truth.
In spirituality, the one truth is that of indivisible unity. In yoga lifestyle, the one truth is purity.
A powerful concept: purity. It implies that the practitioner is separate, distinct, detached from what is impure. The ways of society are kept at a distance and the yogi consciously cultivates the wisdom, and clarity, of innocence.
These are the five Yamas and five Niyamas of Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga, as I interpret them: in light of purity and energy flow.
ahimsa: the literal translation is to “not harm”; which is also the literal translation from Latin for the word “innocent”. This broadens the concept past the common yoga-culture-concepts of veganism and nonviolence to an unlimited interpretation of what it means to be innocent, unharmed, unharming, unharmable.
aparigraha: not grasping; detachment, detachment from desires and cravings
bhramacharya: literally to be as a student, which means chaste, purely focused on studies. we can also interpret this principle as being energetically conscious, aware of our inner vitality and how our outward actions affect our inner state
saucha: cleanliness; purity from the dirty/impure
tapas: the discipline required to cleanse and maintain the state of purity
svadhyaya: studying oneself; keen awareness allows the practitioner to undo dull, habitual actions (in body and in mind) to liberate energy for conscious action (thought; speech; behavior)
satya: truth; purity in thought, word, and action
asteya: to not steal or take more than what is necessary; purity of motive/intention as well as sustainable living
santosha: contentment; purity from desire; the result of living a pure life
Ishvara pranidhana: devotion to the higher truth; purity of motive/intention away from societal values and outwards to a broader vision
When we live a life that does not drain our energy, we flow with a naturally elevated energy.
The body-mind can be rescued from the current cultural default: forgotten in pursuit of practicalities. Each of us can see ourselves, our individual lives as a high potential for conscious creativity, the sculpting of a body-mind that honors a unique artistic vision. Perhaps you are inspired by the spiritual, cognitive vision of the yoga ascetic, engaged in mental disciplines and living with high-minded focus and physical austerity. Perhaps you are inspired by the body as an entrance to the present moment, engaging in dynamic, invigorating practices of asana and pranayama that result in positive perspective.
Which ever you choose is good: the point, and the power, lies in making the choice. The sustained energy required to transform an idea into daily reality will flow naturally with the will to consciously engage in a heightened lifestyle. And when each of us chooses to leave behind the past, and its unconscious habits, we will guide our cultural evolution to uplift a future of happy, healthy, humans.