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The Physical And The Subtle

Six Respected Teachers Ponder The Relationship

On Wednesday, September 25th six yoga teachers and scholars, Alan Finger, Alison West, Amy Matthews, Jason Ray Brown, Swami Sadasivananda and James Bae, gathered at Yoga Union to discuss how the physical and subtle anatomy interrelate and contribute to a serious yoga practice.

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Sponsored by YogaCity NYC, the free event marked the third in the Deeper Learning Series. Publisher and founder of YogaCity NYC, Brette Popper, moderated the discussion.

Host Alison West began leading the crowd in one beautiful Om. Brette then started the discussion by asking Swami Sadasivananda how much students really need to know about the physical and subtle bodies to enrich their practice.

He responded that teachers must give their students information that reflects their stage of development. In the beginning, “the biggest obstacle to teaching is to get students to relax, there are very few people who are self confident and feel good in their bodies.” In time the information becomes more detailed and the teacher’s role more prominent. The Swami added that the subtle body is more complicated to teach. It is more esoteric and requires a process of purification with the guidance of a guru.

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Alan Finger agreed, saying that it is impossible to know the subtle body - the power behind the physical anatomy-unless you have a basic anatomical understanding to do the poses correctly. Teaching the subtle body is a question of degree.

Brette went on to ask two panelists who ‘teach teachers’ - James Bae and Jason Ray Brown - how these concepts can be explained to students. James Bae’s approaches have an underlying emphasis on the energetic, which are hard to convey, and require a lot of foundation. He preferences body mechanics as the most important teaching tool, “there is so much implicit in how we use the body.”


Jason Ray Brown, on the other hand, focuses his courses on biomechanics and Western anatomy and does not specifically address the subtle body. Instead, he talks about cultivating consciousness, "If you can educate someone about the pain in their knee, they can tune in more into their knee. It starts in the subtle and manifests in the physical, but we have more access to the physical so that’s a good place to start."

The moderator brought the discussion to the ancient texts pointing out that there is extensive discussion of the subtle body, but they only say to “sit up straight” in regard to the physical.

Alison West explained the shift away from the subtle and to the physical in modern yoga is a result of the Western (or medicalized) view of the body, which preferences information that is easily measured. This view can disqualify valuable subjective knowledge.

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Although Swami Sadasivananda says the texts do speak of the physical body he does believes there has been a decline in what people can perceive. Knowledge of the astral body knowledge comes from high meditative states, which he points out can take “lifetimes” to experience.

Brette then looked to Amy Matthews for more specifics on how she uses landmarks of the physical body to access the subtle. Matthews felt it was an impossible question to answer because each student is completely different. She feels it is important to disconnect from the medical language as it privileges the physical anatomy as being real. “The language we use to name is just a map, and that map is not the territory.”

The topic shifted towards teaching therapeutically in the context of physical and subtle anatomy. In Matthews’ teaching, she asks “How do students experience themselves? How do they name things?” She says there’s no distinction between therapy and

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education, “education is therapeutic and therapy is educational.”

Alison West asks her students what they want to accomplish with the session. Most of them have back pain, but meditation and pranayama can change their relationship to pain. She puts the student in a place of understanding about their condition and encourages the use of other modalities.

James Bae also underscored the value of an interdisciplinary approach. Sometimes the language of yoga doesn’t connect enough, so he switches between the Ayurvedic, Chinese, and medical.

The evening ended with questions from the audience. “How do you teach with grace and beauty and say please align your knee over your ankle?” Matthews believes the body holds its own harmony so the experience of aligning the knee will add to the experience of seeking grace.

Another audience member asked how have teacher trainings changed and what is expected of a modern yoga teacher? West jumped in to answer, “a 200-hour training does not a yoga teacher make, but it puts the foot to the stirrup.” She is considering shifting to a 500-hour program only. This wil ensure a more thorough foundation, given the diverse populations stydying Yoga and the need to approach the varied practices safely.

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The final question related to ways the practice can be modified for a changed body, for example, after a mastectomy. Bae says it is important to address the sense of self that is attached to the body, citing pregnancy as an example. He says, “these types of experiences open us up, are humbling, and mind-blowing and that’s a beautiful journey.”

To get an audio recording of the panel discussion on Jason Ray Brown's Anatomy for Yoga Teachers Blog, click here.

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