Excerpted from From Teaching Yoga, Chapter 4, "Subtle Energy"
In Chapter One we saw how the rise and spread of tantra eventually gave rise to Hatha yoga as a practice of conscious embodiment. Rather than starting with meditation or other practices, the original Hatha yogis worked with the immediate experience of their physical bodies to move through the layers of being that seemed to separate their sense of individual being, including body and mind, from connection with all of nature or the divine. Drawing from the deep well of ancient wisdom found in the Upanishads and a wide variety of esoteric traditions handed down through ritual, songs, and stories, they undertook this exploration with an expanding map of consciousness and being that today still gives us the primary concepts of anatomy and physiology from a traditional yogic perspective.
For many these concepts are treated literally, while others view and use them in practice and teaching as symbolic ideas that help chart the pathway of self-transformation through Hatha yoga practice.
The earliest motivation of yoga, expressed by Krishna in his conversation with
Arjuna on the edge of the battlefield in ancient India, was to move beyond the illusion of the self and unite with the real Self, or atman. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali gives a more refined explanation of the nature of this self-illusion—kleshas—that traps us in a confused state of alienated being. This ignorance—or avidya—keeps us trapped in a sense of self that is identified with our mind and material existence. Across centuries of trial and error, yogis “discovered they could unwind the painful misidentification, retracing the steps of the human self back through the layers of reality, from the most gross, physical plane with which we now identify, to the most refined planes of pure consciousness” (Cope 1999, 67). In this process of discovery, the ancient yogis described in vast detail a system of energetic being that could be consciously cultivated, elaborating a complex system of scientific medicine with theories of anatomy and physiology that are at once mystical, symbolic, and practical.
Here we will look at the major elements of this system and how they are interrelated. In this overview of koshas, prana, nadis, bandhas, chakras, gunas, and doshas, we will pause along the way to consider how to bring these concepts alive in our teaching.