Tantra yoga and asana

When I teach a class in tantra yoga, people are always startled by the fact that tantra yoga has no rules. There is no asana. There is no sequence. The focus, you see, is on aware exploration of the body, not some sort of physical sequence that magically opens you up.

Most people in class are startled because their past hatha yoga classes have taught them that asana and sequences are kinda sacred. They are named after famous yogis and reputed to be handed down through millennia of practice. And if you do 108 of anything, you are sure to acquire karma points!

There is a physical and energetic opening that occurs during any conscientious hatha yoga practice, but that is because you are changing physical tensions as you move and moving energy around your body. But all too often, the high you get is the same high as running or bicycling or any other vigorous activity.

It’s refreshing, then, to find out in Mark Singleton’s book Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice that most of what we know today as Hatha yoga was invented in the nineteenth century and based on Swedish gymnastics, with a touch of Indian cultural nationalism and a gloss of yogic awareness.

singleton-yoga-bodyMark Singleton

Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice

This is a must read for all yogis. Singleton explores the roots of modern hatha practice and discovers a pre-1920’s scorn of hatha yoga, Swedish gymnastics in the Mysore Palace, and a need to build strong Indian bodies and a strong Indian nation state using something that looked authentically Indian. Even the sun salutation is probably Swedish in origin!

Modern hatha yoga is often credited to T. Krishnamacharya, who taught T. K. V. Desikachar, Pattabhi Jois and B. K. S.  Iyengar. Perhaps the most revealing comment about Krishnamacharya’s connection of yoga to asana is given by Iyengar, who dryly noted of the asana practice given to him by Krishnamacharya, “If my brother-in-law also had an eye to my deeper spiritual or personal development, he did not say so at the time.”

This book is filled with excellent scholarship. The points it makes should help many yogis avoid the ill effects of repetitive physical stress. And hopefully help shift the emphasis in Western yoga from physical accomplishment to the cultivation of body awareness.

In the end, physical exercise does not increase your awareness, though it loosens locked-up energy that can be used to increase your awareness. Physical exercise is good! But if you want to live a better life, your focus should be on increasing your awareness…


  1. rick carlstrom says:

    Nice little article. You nailed the whole thing in the last paragraph. It is so ironic how the modern day physical “yoga” mostly ends up investing the practitioner even more deeply in their identification ‘as’ the body.

    • It’s a tricky business! Modern hatha yoga is enamored of the idea that, through repetition, one can merge the awareness of bodily movements into awareness of pure flow. It’s not all that dissimilar from the Buddhist practice of sitting long enough to calm down enough for your awareness to expand. It does work, as many yogis and meditators will attest. But it’s a long road, since no one really knows what it is that they are doing, or what they are trying to accomplish. “Just keep doing yoga” or “Just keep meditating” is sound advice, but there is always a tone to the advice which says “When you get to the exalted place I am, you will understand.”

      If you look at both practices as ways to increase your awareness and harmonize your energy flow, it provides a better moment-to-moment perspective on what you are doing. It allows you to make choices in exploring the tight places in your body, your mind, your emotions. The gold is not at the end of the rainbow after decades of practice, it is in this very moment when you have initiated a new movement, recognized that movement as being related to a childhood emotion, and breathed out the tension from both your body and your emotional pattern. The gold is in the immediate enrichment of your sense of place in the world. Repeat only if necessary!

      Mahalo for your provocative comment. – paul

  2. Just Another Being says:

    What if all the “awareness” increasing practices are all about increasing the “Low Latent Inhibition” effects.


    Most people are able to ignore the constant stream of incoming stimuli, but this capability is reduced in those with low latent inhibition. Low latent inhibition (that may resemble hyper-activity in early decades of the individual life) seems to often correlate with distracted behaviors.[9] This distractedness can manifest itself as general inattentiveness, a tendency to switch subjects without warning in conversation, and other absentminded habits. This is not to say that all distractedness can be explained by low latent inhibition, nor does it necessarily follow that people with low LI will have a hard time paying attention. It does mean, however, that the higher quantity of incoming information requires a mind capable of handling it. These individuals tend to sense other’s pain and suffering as they are very sensitive persons.[citation needed]
    Those of above average intelligence are thought to be capable of processing this stream effectively, enabling their creativity and increasing their awareness of their surroundings. Those with less than average intelligence, on the other hand, are less able to cope, and as a result are more likely to suffer from mental illness and sensory overload.[10] It is hypothesized that a low level of latent inhibition can cause either psychosis or a high level of creative achievement[11] or both, which is usually dependent on the individual’s intelligence.[12] When they cannot develop the creative ideas, they become frustrated and/or depressive.

    • Forgive me for taking so long to respond. I’ve been distracted, and your comment raises questions I wanted to think about for a while. I found the following comment on latent inhibition on Quora at http://www.quora.com/Psychology/What-is-latent-inhibition# that I think is useful:

      Latent inhibition is a learning phenomenon that was researched in the 1970s and 1980s, but is not now discussed very much.

      The basic idea of latent inhibition is that it is often easier to learn something new than to unlearn something familiar.

      In particular, once you have learned to recognize something or associate it with something else, it is difficult to unlearn it if its meaning changes. It is often easier to make associations to something new than to reassign associations that have already been made to something familiar. The prior learning produces an interference effect.

      Examples of latent inhibition would include getting stuck in a rut, repeating known errors, or using an injured limb out of habit.

      The term “latent inhibition” is confusing and somewhat archaic. It has its origins in behaviorism and the “classical conditioning” experiments done on animals in the 1950s – 1970s. The idea is that the learning interference (“inhibited learning”) is a delayed effect (“latent”) after the initial learning.

      A book called Latent Inhibition published in 2010 says

      Latent inhibition is a phenomenon by which exposure to an irrelevant stimulus impedes the acquisition or expression of conditioned associations with that stimulus. Latent inhibition, an integral part of the learning process, is observed in many species.

      So, it appears that there are patterns to mental associations across species, and one of the patterns is that it is easier to create associations from a new experience than it is to change associations from a previous experience. I’m not sure I’m willing to take it much farther than that. One of the problems I have encountered in researching topics is that research done with an eye to disease/disorder frequently mistakes the trees for the forest. While it is very useful to examine issues that fall outside the norm (schizophrenia, OCD, or anything else you care to name), it does not always provide clear indications as to what the rest of humans are doing.

      In this case, I think it is easy to over-extrapolate from learning theory to the question of how humans perceive. I don’t think that learning and perception are the same thing at all, though they are certainly intertwined. Of course, the words themselves are challenging here in that the words perception and learning may mean different things to different people.

      I am very uncomfortable with some of the language in the wikipedia entry, in particular the language around sensitivity and intelligence. These are very unsupported speculations. I prefer to think that standard human wiring works pretty well, through a large range of variation. I’ve seen plenty of awareness from people of both high intelligence and low (relatively speaking) intelligence, and have observed a lack of awareness in people of all levels of intelligence. Again, here, intelligence is a difficult word, since it is generally culturally defined.

      So, to sum up, I do not think that awareness-increasing exercises and latent inhibition have much to do with each other. I suspect that awareness-increasing exercises enhance learning because increased awareness loosens up pre-programmed patterns, but to pin increased awareness to low latent inhibition effects is, I think, to put the cart before the horse.

      I’m not sure if I answered exactly what you had in mind. If not, let me know and we can explore it further. cheers! paul

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