In this week's installment of Yoga Living Project, Austin continues the discussion on shakti, exploring the energy in the physical matter with additional practices to put into effect. Read below to dive deeper into your search for shakti and let us know how it unfolds in your life. Would you like to write for Yoga Living Project? Email
A Pathway To Personal Power Pt. 2
The Search For Shakti With Hatha Yoga
Three Types of Shakti
“It can help to think of shakti as the field and prana as an agent that works within that field” this was the brief answer I received from my teacher that fateful afternoon when the students were looking for an answer as to the difference between prana and shakti. Though it did help it also prompted me to unpack the nuance of characteristics within that field that holds all the aforementioned, apparent contradictions (see A Pathway to Personal Power Pt. 1). To organize the complexities of shakti it can be useful to divide this abstract idea into 3 categories. The model I will be presenting is by no means exhaustive concerning the subtle body and there are other divergent models that are just as valid, this is just one I like as it organizes the body, mind, and spirit in a cohesive way that makes sense to me. And really that's what matters isn’t it, finding a modality that inspires us to practice as all of this is a grand experiment and one of the biggest themes that will come up over and over again in our own practice is finding one that works for you (or as one of my friends put it, “taking my shakti to dog training school.”)
Maya is the material world, it includes all that we can see, touch, and taste, it is everything around us, it is the outside world. Maya means “magic” or “illusion” and for the intents and purposes of understanding it in the realm of shakti it is the ways and means by which we can transform the outside world in the most predictable way. For instance, if you want to build muscle you work it out and over time when done in a proper way, voila, presto change-o, transformation occurs. Easier said than done to be sure but we would also be wise to not judge a book by it’s cover! When we want six pack abs, a fancy car, fine clothes, or any vanity we are desiring power within the world of maya shakti. This desire must be measured by the ways in which we intend to manage and or relate to these physical things.
In hatha yoga, asana is designed to strengthen the body for specific purposes (as is stated in the Gheranda Samhita, a seminal text on hatha yoga), though a serious asana practice can have many other benefits. It is in creating a particular kind of strength that the yogi begins to prepare the body to become a vessel to contain and support the deeper, inner workings of yoga. Another way to say this is that the original purposes of asana as specified in hatha yoga is not concerned with making sure you look good naked but rather so that when we cultivate and harness the other aspects of shakti, we develop ourselves naturally and safely. When we do not measure this desire to master the power of the maya shakti with pure intention and specific purposes, it leads to attachment. Attachment leads to suffering as every student of Eastern philosophy knows. It is not that we shouldn’t appreciate nice things or want to look good, it is the way we become preoccupied with these things that begin to cause problems, specifically problems advancing our mental focus and concentration on things of nobler pursuit.
Maya shakti, when concerned with hatha yoga, is all about bringing the physical body into balance: strengthening what is weak and freeing up range of motion where there is rigidity. Any movement that brings a greater sense of strength, flexibility, and balance will be of service in this aspect and it can be helpful to work with a yoga teacher in a private setting to focus in on what specific areas needs attention and how to address them. In general a balanced and mindful asana practice best serves this aspect of ourselves and success in this arena isn’t necessarily measured by inches and pounds but rather quite a different metric of health.
That is not to say that those common ways in which we gauge our health are to be thrown out of the window but it should be considered that the scale is not the tell all of our health. So how then do we measure if our practice is serving us or not? The answer is sweetness. If your practice is making you kinder, gentler, and ultimately more compassionate than one can be assured that they are beginning to achieve success in their practice. There is an intrinsic link between the way our physical health supports our ability to increase and mature our emotional and psychic capacity. True strength is not something we can gauge by what we see on the outside but true strength is what lies within.
People often ask, “what type of yoga is the best?” and I can hear my wife’s words ring in my ears, “The best type of yoga is the type you will do”. With that in mind, let your yoga practice support what you need rather than what you want. If you are particularly stressed out experiencing extreme levels of exhaustion and fatigue it is easy to skip yoga altogether. Rather than forego a yoga practice consider what type of practice may serve you best, sometimes a particularly rigorous practice can be a surprising and invigorating antidote to feelings of tiredness. Other times gentler more restorative practices can really be a generous and refreshingly easy way to deal with burnout. One thing that can be of guidance in times of overwhelm is asking the question: what is going on with me? This question gets at the heart of where we are and requires us to not only get present but also requires full embodiment, we can’t answer this question truthfully without stopping and taking the time to get in our bodies. You will get better at answering the call of your greatest needs by continually checking into where you are, how you are doing and choosing practices that cultivate true sweetness, not the saccharine sweetness but the one that takes true strength to engender kindness and compassionate.
At Home Practice: Paschimottanasana (seated forward fold)
In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika it states that: “paschimottanasana is the foremost among asanas. It reverses the breath’s flow, kindles the fire in the stomach, flattens the belly, and brings good health to men.” Let’s break this down as these ancient texts were meant for those already initiated in the practice:
Balancing Mind, Body & Spirit
Reversing the breath refers to linking the two opposing forces of prana within the body, prana and apana, this is a key concept to the purposes of hatha yoga, which is exemplified by it’s nomenclature meaning willful union of opposing forces. Without getting too into the complexities of prana’s subsets, known as the vayus, understand that prana vayu is the upward moving current in the body and apana vayu the downward current. When we unify the two opposing vayus we have created the opportunity (but not guarantee) for:
- Balancing the energy in the body (meaning if you are over excited the effects will be calming; if you are lethargic it will be invigorating, meeting you where you are)
- Controlling the energy of the mind (more on that in Pathway to Personal Power Part 3)
- Realizing the potential of our own personal power and ability to resource your own energy reserves (more on that in Pathway to Personal Power Part 4)
Kindling the fire in the stomach refers to converting pitta to agni and increasing this metabolic fire. In yogic philosophy there a three doshas (humours) which describe the qualities of matter (pitta, vata, and kapha). Those familiar with the sister science of yoga, ayurveda (the study of life; learn more from our podcast with Ayurvedic Practitioner Leslie McWilliams) are well versed in these as one of the main purposes of ayurveda is to balance these three characteristics. In yoga, specifically hatha yoga, the purpose of the practice is not to balance the doshas but to transcend them; turning the fire element of pitta to agni is akin to harnessing the unruly power of fire to be used for intelligent metabolism of all the input that comes in through the system of the body. So when Swatmarama, the author of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, states this he is talking about harnessing our ability to metabolize not only the food we eat but this fire in the belly, believe it or not, is also tended to and cultivated in hatha yoga to help metabolize the things going on in our head as well. Those familiar with the powerful upswing in popularity of microbiome in the current cultural zeitgeist and how it affects our cravings might be the choir Swatmarama was singing to centuries ago. Proper metabolism of maya shakti is key for keeping the yogi in balance with the elements and is the stepping stone for not just physical health but also mental and emotional health.
When he states that it flattens the belly he is also speaking of the gross and subtle aspects of the human system. Paschimottanasana helps balance out the dosha of vata which is described by the element of wind. Often times when vata dosha is out of balance it can lead to bloating and gas, so on a physical level paschimottanasana can help alleviate this in a direct way. Compression of the abdomen stimulates digestion and can aid in relieving bloating or gas pains. On the mental level vatta can lead to all kinds of mental disturbance especially distraction and disturbance. Just as a windy day can impede one’s ability to enjoy the outdoors, unruly wind in the mind makes focus, concentration, and peace of mind unattainable. The way in which the eyes are closed and the head is tucked in this pose fosters a natural state of deep inner reflection, this gesture all by itself can be useful in allowing one to take respite from all the sensation distraction of external stimuli and just be calmly centered in on one concentric point.
Lastly, he states it brings good health to men. My interpretation of this may be less traditional than others you will find, so be forewarned that I’m asking you to be open. His use of gender specificity in the text is sparse and seems to only pop up when the practice itself has a direct effect on sexual function so this sentence to me reads, paschimottanasana brings good health to the function of one’s reproductive organs. We also know that Swatmarama is not just speaking about the physical function but also the emotional and psychic aspects of sexuality too. In yoga history, sincere yogi’s generally took one of two paths in terms of sex, either repressing it to transmute it altogether toward spiritual energy, or in some schools of Tantra transmuting it through the experience of whatever the fantasy or obsession might be to get it out of the system. Both approaches had varying degrees of success, sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t, and sometimes it made matters worse. Using paschimottanasana as a way to “bring good health” is a way of working with the kapha dosha, which is ruled by water and earth. Water is also the element that rules our second chakra, the chakra of sexuality; paschimottanasana gives ground to that force like a shore to the sea which can help stabilize the fluidity of the water element that unchecked can all but sweep us away. This practice is a unique and special middle path that hatha yoga offers us up as a way to deal with our own sexual force without denying or amplifying it with adverse risks. Good sexual health is a subjective thing but a strong argument can be made for the benefit of transcending sexual urges and proclivities so that they don’t have power over us but rather we have control over that power.
The next time you are feeling any symptoms mentioned above: bloating, gas, distraction, sexual frustration, inability to process certain thoughts, emotions or experiences, try practicing paschimottanasana in the following way:
- Sit with legs outstretched but knees slightly bent (you may want to elevate the hips on a blanket or block if the low back or legs are especially tight)
- Lift torso to pull the belly in and begin to fold forward with an elongated back, strong core and supported neck hinging at the hip joint.
- Hands rest wherever they fall, tuck the chin only if relatively comfortable (it is not important how deep you go but that you are performing the posture without over straining any one part of the body).
- Breathe deeply in and out, smoothly and evenly; to experience relief from the more subtle aspects that the pose can benefit work to hold the pose for longer periods of time. Start with aiming for one minute, if it hurts lessen the duration to 3-5 breaths. Eventually work your way up to four to ten minutes and just see how one single, simple pose can have profound and unexpected effects when truly dwelled in- such is the state of surrender and self reflection that it offers.
Finally, don’t take my word for it (or Swatmarama’s for that matter), as in all things within the world of yoga, you are the one responsible for verifying it via the practice. So do yourself a favor and go find out for yourself if this easy practice of paschimottanasana can help you in your own search for mastery in the realm of maya shakti.
Still have questions about the difference between maya shakti? Please don’t hesitate to send me your thoughts on this topic as this is really only the tip of the iceberg.. Keep an eye out for next week’s article where we will begin to learn about prana shakti the energy of the mind and a simple easy-to-do hatha yoga practice for increasing the power of one of your mind’s greatest tools: concentration!