Advanced Tantric Hatha for Beginners
One thing you realize when you teach Tantric Hatha Yoga to students from the west is that nobody really wants to be a 'beginner.' Students in the west want 'advanced Yoga sessions.'
They approach all styles of Yoga with the same kind of prerogative in mind: if they're able to withstand the physical challenge, then, they're clearly ready for an 'advanced' Yoga class. The body, it seems, is the primary object of interest for most western students and this includes also those joining so-called 'advanced sessions.' And since most modern-day forms of yoga cater primarily to what students want and not to what they need, they cater mainly to the body, so that all of the other subtler and more refined aspects of this millennial practice get lost in translation.
Advanced Yoga for Beginners
We don't say this out of the blue. There's been multiple occasions where, after a class labelled as 'advanced Tantric Hatha Yoga' where we place a strong focus on introspection and on heightening awareness to sensation, a student comes up to us and says something like: "It was lovely but.. it wasn't as challenging as I was expecting." What they mean, of course, is that it wasn't 'as physically challenging' as they were expecting; and that's precisely where the misconception lies.
The truth is that we in the west have not been doing Yoga for that long, and so, we approach this discipline much like one would approach any other type of workout. We want to feel that rush of positive self-reinforcement we get when we try something physically challenging and that makes us sweat ––something that makes us doubt we'll conquer, but where we still come out successful. We want to feel the effort somewhere in our bodies, and so, many of us equate physical effort (in fact, even physical pain) with a successful Yoga session. This prompts many students of Yoga to skip beginner and intermediate classes altogether. No sooner have we joined a couple of beginner Yoga sessions and we're signing up for the next 'advanced' class on the schedule. As said at the beginning, nobody wants to be a beginner at anything anymore.
However, this type of approach only works for those styles of Yoga where the physical component of the practice comprises 95% of a session. Styles like Vinyasa, for example, or Power Flow, or Ashtanga, or Iyengar, where external movement is the heart of the practice. This does not hold for traditional styles like Tantric Hatha Yoga, for example, and there are multiple reasons why it doesn't. Perhaps the most evident and important of all is that Tantric Hatha Yoga does not have the physical body as its main point of concert or orientation. Instead, it focuses on correct energy management for us to achieve self-realization. And this is the reason why, in a typical 'advanced Tantric Hatha yoga' practice one could sit for 90 minutes straight doing only mantra or meditation. Now, go and ask any average western student of Yoga today to join such a session. They would leave after the first 20 minutes unable to sit in Padmasana or Siddhasana.
When Less Gives You More
Think of it. Most of the standing poses we western students enjoy so much were invented only about 100 years ago. Though Yoga spans more than 4000 years of history already, we had to wait for Tirumalai Krishnamacharya in the twentieth century to create the standing poses that now conform more than 50% of all asanas in any physical Yoga class. Krishanamacharya created those poses as a way to train the military in India, but soon realised that his western students couldn't really practice any of the usual seated stuff characteristic of classical Yoga. Which is how standing poses soon became a staple of Yoga practice for us in the west as a means to prepare the body ––mainly our backs and legs–– for the seated poses one needs to master in order to practice meditation.
Then came all the hype about 'Indian Yogis' in those black and white videos shot at the turn of the century. Westerners would watch those videos (us included) and observe those men and women perform physical routines simply unthinkable for any western person. We'd see yogis practicing shirshasana, mayurasana, visvamitrasana, kapotasana, eka pada koundiyanasana and be mesmerised by the physical prowess necessary to perform such elaborate contortion feats.
Still, in those videos, there was no way to observe what happened deep within. What were they thinking of ––at all? How were they breathing and what was the ratio? Were they doing any bandha work or internal kriyas of some sort? We missed a great deal of incredibly relevant information. The same happens with yogic content posted on social media providers such Instagram, where many take the picture of a person's performing some body-bending asana to represent the bulk of what Yoga is actually good for.
The Subtle Art of Advanced Tantric Hatha
As noted above, in an advanced Tantric Hatha Yoga class not a lot happens on the outside. Though there may be more or less challenging physical poses during the dynamic or asana-based part of the session, all physical postures in Tantra function as energy containers. There is a careful transition from pose to pose, a carefully observed breathing ratio, a careful progression. And this is so because traditional styles like Tantric Hatha Yoga work primarily to evolve or transform the part of us that cannot be seen in physical expression. They work on the inside part of our body-minds and with elements and energies that transcend the body 90% of the time.
Tantric Hatha Yoga as a method wants students to realize that we are more than our body, so that we may first transcend our attachment to the physical plane and its many delusions. This is the goal of any true beginner Tantric Hatha Yoga session. Similarly, it wants us to realize that we are more than our thoughts in order to transcend the mind and its monotonous circular churning and self-entered obsession. This is the goal of an intermediate Tantric Hatha Yoga session. And it wants us to realize that we are ultimately more than any of the constructs shaping our world and our idea of 'reality,' so that we may transcend the world of ego-based materiality and separation. This is the goal of an advanced Tantric Hatha Yoga session.
Ultimately, from the perspective of traditional Yoga, as long as our orientation and main motivation remains anchored to the physical level ––and this goes for any beginner, intermediate, or advanced type of class–– we'll never truly 'progress' from beginner to advanced student of Yoga in the classical sense. We'll become physically stronger, perhaps more psychologically grounded, maybe more flexible, yet miss out entirely on the actual potential of traditional Yoga for actual self-realization.