We are all familiar with the guidance by teachers from various traditions to “go within.” Many have followed this guidance, but how many have paused to ponder what exactly we are going into? The tendency of the senses is to go outward away from the body. By practicing pratyahara, and taking the time to feel our inner experience, however, awareness turns in the opposite direction. This article is about the dimension of experience that opens up when feeling the body from within becomes the focus of your Hatha Yoga practice. This article asks you, the reader, for your participation. If there is value in the approach suggested, it can only be demonstrated by your capacity to feel your own body from within.
With that request in mind, I realize that for many, feeling the body from within may seem a bit nebulous, pointless, or be outside the range of your actual experience. It is probably fair to say that the tendency, more so than not, is to relate to your body externally, not much differently than how you relate to other external objects such as the car you drive or the clothes you wear. This may not seem entirely negative, particularly if you are fond of your outward appearance; however, the question arises as to whether the true Self taught by Yoga is obscured as long as your relation to your body is predominately an external one.
Hatha Yoga is a potent means to cultivating an inner sensitivity of the body. As many who are reading this article have experienced, Hatha Yoga awakens or enlivens inner life. The body is infused with life and we feel this aliveness from the inside. Feeling life from the inside offers a totally different qualitative experience of our bodies, and is counter to the prevailing externally oriented view of the body found in our culture (represented by science’s exclusively objective view of the body, advertiser’s relentless focus on external beauty, and supported by religion’s often antagonistic relation to the body as an impediment to spirituality).
Viewed externally, the body is more or less fixed in shape and form, and lends itself to being visually represented and concisely defined. The numerous illustrations of the human body in science texts with precise definitions of muscles, bones, tendons, ligaments, and internal organs are examples. The external representation of the body, although valuable on many levels, is essentially non-living and therefore abstract; plastic models or cadavers work just as well.
Viewed internally, the body is experienced as a rich dance of energy. Unlike the external body, the experience of inner life cannot be precisely described, defined, or modeled. While feeling the body from the inside has a substantial feel, it is difficult to put into words. Within the more elusive experience of inner life, however, two fundamental and seemingly irreducible features stand out— Awareness coupled with Aliveness. Vividly real, Awareness and Aliveness are experiential realities, and cannot be objectified and described easily by language, such as the external body and its parts. In the Hatha Yoga texts, such as the Hatha Pradipika, the relationship between Awareness with Aliveness, therefore, is described in symbolic or mythological language as the marriage of Siva (Awareness) and Shakti (Aliveness). Or, when Yoga masters describe the inner body experience of the rising of Kundalini, the image of a serpent is used—a profound and poetic image symbolic of the process of expanding Awareness coupled with a deepening of Aliveness.
From the point of view of practice, what is most exciting about feeling the body from within is its seemingly infinite potential. There is no limit to the depth in which one can deepen inner sensitivity; one can always go deeper, which means the Joy that results from expanding Awareness and deepening Aliveness is limitless. Hatha Yoga practiced inwardly in this way never grows dull.
You might want to consider at this point the relation between this inner sense of the body, and the external body of flesh, blood, and bone that someday certainly will die. Is the Awareness and Aliveness of the inner body dependent on the external? We know that Yoga claims it is not. Yoga teaches that Awareness and Life (or Aliveness) are eternal and have merely taken on finite shape and form. So much so that just as gold is the essential substance of various pieces of gold jewelry, Awareness and Aliveness are the essential nature of all existing shapes and forms including your body. With the Eternal so inexplicably tied to the body, feeling the body from within becomes a direct doorway to directly experiencing Life, Awareness, and Joy without limit (or Existence, Knowledge and Bliss as is more commonly used). So practicing Hatha Yoga, or meditation for that matter, is not an attempt to extricate ourselves from the body, but rather to fully inhabit the body by feeling it more and more deeply. Of course, Hatha Yoga is not the only way to cultivate inner sensitivity, but as all paths leading to a direct taste of the Divine, Hatha Yoga specializes in attuning a practitioner over time to feeling the body from within at deeper and deeper levels.
How to Feel the Body from Within Through the Practice of Hatha Yoga
The greatest hindrance to feeling the body from within is the habit of putting emphasis on thinking. Hatha Yoga is not a thinking practice. If the growth and sensitivity to the inner life of the body is to be appreciated, it must be through feeling. What I mean by feeling is not emotion but rather directing the outward senses inward in order to directly make contact and feel the inner life of the body. It is not just a metaphor when images such as an Inner Light are used to describe inner experience. When the seeing function naturally operating through the eyes is turned into the body there is a literal experience akin to that of external light; an illumination occurs and we are able to “see” inner subtleties previously unnoticed. Or, when the sense of touch is turned inward a literal contact is made, a very substantial and tangible reality is “touched” within. It is not by accident that we use phrases such as “getting in touch” as a way of contacting and knowing something in a direct experiential way. Or take listening. As we direct listening inward we become sensitive to subtler and subtler aspects of the body felt from the inside.
But again, words are not very useful here. The indefiniteness of feeling the body from within makes it difficult, if not impossible, to put the inward experience of the body into language. But rather than deterring a seeking spirit, the inner life is so pregnant with meaning and significance that we are urged on to explore through means other than language. Hatha Yoga is a way of exploring and elucidating inner experience non-verbally. Take, for example, Tadasana or Mountain Pose. Have you ever stood atop a mountain? Not only is “seeing” expanded, but there is stillness pervading mountaintops, a stillness that allows us to “listen” more deeply, and, in response, experience more profoundly.
The kind of inward “seeing” and “hearing” elicited by literally experiencing a mountaintop is very much like the inward sensitivity evoked when standing in Tadasana. If we sink into the experience of Tadasana, the consciousness of our bodies expands beyond the dimensions of our physical frame and we gain a wider perspective. The stillness experienced by standing steadily in Tadasana also allows for a deeper inward “listening” which, like standing on a mountaintop, opens our hearts and minds to receive that which is beyond and bigger than ourselves.
Finally, a mention about curiosity—without curiosity, feeling the body from within will seem pointless. Curiosity directs focus, and attentive focus is necessary if feeling the body within has a chance to grow. Feeling the body from within is a skill, or an art that grows more and more penetrating as practice deepens. But we must start from somewhere. It might take just a spark of inspiration elicited by a taste of feeling the inner body to wake up your practice and give it direction. Then, as the inner dimension grows wider and deeper, curiosity will slowly transform itself into a deep-seated passion for experiencing the Truth.