When Sri Swami Satchidananda designed the Integral Yoga Hatha class, he formulated a clear methodology for his system. In this article, we learn about the underlying foundation and principles behind the methodology.
As Integral Yoga teachers, when we enter the room to teach a class, we approach the altar and connect with it, in whatever way we feel. We have the opportunity to express gratitude for the teacher and the teachings, look at the All Faiths Yantra, light a candle and make an affirmation. We invoke the Divine, the Guru and ask to be a vehicle of the teachings. By doing this, we sanctify the space and bring ourselves into alignment with the teachings.
After welcoming the students, we begin with a chant. We chant to raise the energy and create a peaceful feeling. On the physiological level, we are stimulating the energy with the Hari OM chant. Hari, is the Remover, OM is the eternal vibration of the universe. We chant so that all obstacles to our sadhana, that all obstacles to our connection with the eternal, will be removed. As we chant, the energy rises up from the solar plexus, through the throat, up into the head and beyond, which stimulates the pituitary or master gland. This sends messages to the thyroid and releases hormones throughout the body. We are using sound to awaken ourselves, to begin our sadhana.
Once we have done that, we begin with eye movements, because the eyes take in so much information. They are the only physical part of the brain we can see. By toning the eye muscles and the optic nerves, we strengthen them and relax the brain, which, in turn, relaxes the nervous system. We soothe the eyes by rubbing the palms together, stimulating minor chakras or energy points in the palms. Then we cover the eyes with the palms, allowing the warm energy to relax the eyes further, softening the brain and calming the nervous system. We have begun our class with an approach that causes the brain to relax, which then sends that message to the whole body. Next is surya namaskar, the sun salutation, which warms and limbers the entire body and prepares it for the poses that follow. For Integral Yoga teachers, the three repetitions of surya namaskar, allows us the time and opportunity to observe each student in the class and assess what needs to be addressed.
After surya namaskar, students lie on their backs for savasana. This allows the body to relax and to feel the energy moving through the whole system. As the students’ bodies are calming, this is a good time for the teacher to give the class intention: that the class is to be noncompetitive, that we move through the class as a meditation in motion, that we honor where we are and rest whenever we feel the need. Next, students lie on their stomachs to begin the backward bending poses. These poses stimulate the sympathetic nervous system—responsible for the fight or flight response—and this also stimulates the release of toxins. The backward-bending asanas directly affect the spine. We address the upper, the lower and then the entire back in that order. This awakens and stimulates the sympathetic nervous system and enables the spine to release anything extraneous. After each asana, there is a moment of savasana.
After the last backward bend, students turn over onto their backs for a slightly longer savasana, prior to the forward-bending asanas. The forward bends calm the system and stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. Yoga means the union of opposites. We are stimulating and awakening the system with the backward bending postures, then calming and turning awareness inward with the forward-bending poses. Once we’ve calmed the system, we can now do an inversion. This is the arc of the asana section of the class. Sarvangasana, the shoulder stand, known as the “all points pose,” because it affects all the major systems of the body. We directly massage the thyroid gland, allowing increased venous blood flow and full circulation of the blood throughout the entire system, as well as drainage of the lymph system. By squeezing the thyroid, the hormone thyroxin is released, greatly benefiting the entire system.
After a brief savasana, sarvangasana, the shoulder stand is followed with a counter pose, matsyasana, the fish pose. This is done by expanding the chest and with the inversion of the head and neck. The benefit is that the thyroxin you have released, which may have pooled, now is able to flow throughout the body. By placing the crown of the head on the floor, we stimulate the pituitary gland which works in concert with the thyroid and parathyroid, and then the thyroxin flows throughout the body. After we complete these inversions, we rest in savasana and after, we do the spinal twist, ardha matsyendrasana. This pose removes toxins and stagnant blood from the root nerves and brings them a fresh blood supply. It also gives a beneficial massage to the kidneys and abdominal organs and tones the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. It’s almost like a last flush of the body before we proceed to Yoga mudra. We finish the asana section with Yoga mudra, the yogic seal, which, as the name implies, seals all the energy we have awoken and released during the asanas. It also balances both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
The next portion of the class is Yoga Nidra, a progressive deep relaxation. On one level, it’s a stress-reduction technique, but it’s much more than that. We physically tense and release every part of the body, and then we mentally scan through the body, using our consciousness to relax each part. We subsequently observe the body with mindfulness. Next, we focus on the breath, bringing awareness to the inhalation and exhalation, as we observe it. After doing this for a period of time, we move our awareness to the mind and just observe the mind without engaging in any thoughts that may arise. Finally, we bring our awareness to the peace within and allow ourselves to rest in that peace. Yoga nidra, takes us through a trans-koshal experience. This enables you to teach the mind how to relax the body. We learn that by directing our awareness to specific regions of the body, we can relax completely and have a profound experience of peace.
As this process unfolds, very deep levels of teaching unfold. We learn that by looking at the body and observing it, we are not the body. When we move our awareness to the breath and observe it, we become a witness to it, and then we experience that we are not the breath. When we bring the awareness to the mind and begin to witness that, we see we are not the mind either. By becoming the witness, we are using the higher intellect—that part of the mind that discriminates and discerns as a silent observer—to realize we are not the body, breath nor mind. Once we have made this distinction, what is left? Peace, which is our true Self. Beyond that, we become silent.
We leave the students in silence for a period of time and allow all the effects of the class up to that time to settle in the system. Then we slowly bring the awareness back to the breath and the body, and ask students to come to a seated position to begin the next part of the class. In our system, we move from the gross to the subtle levels. We began with the physical body and we will move to subtler aspects of the system. Now, we turn our attention to regulating the prana, or vital energy, through the regulation of the breath. Integral Yoga pranayama practice uses three types of breathing to further purify, clear and calm the system.
The first breathing practice is deergha swaasam, three-part deep breathing. This deep breathing reestablishes the natural flow of the breath and centers and calms the body. Next is kapalabhaati, or the bellows breath, which clears the lungs and the nadis, or subtle nerves. It expands the prana in the physical system. Kapalabhaati is a cleansing, as well as a breathing, practice. Lastly, there is nadi suddhi, which is alternate nostril breathing that calms the system. It purifies the subtle nerves and balances the hemispheres of the brain. It also focuses the mind in preparation for meditation.
The nadis correspond with the nerves of the physical body, but they are in the energetic body. Every time two or more nadis cross, there is a chakra. When prana enters the body through the breath, it permeates every cell of the body and also the sublte bodies. There are three main nadis: ida, pingala and the main channel, the sushumna. All the asanas and the breathing practices help purify and cleanse the nadis and the subtle nervous system. As they become clear, the energy is able to move freely through the system. When ida and pingala become purified and the nadis become clear, the flow of energy through ida and pingala becomes balanced, activating sushumna nadi, and thus stimulating kundalini. When the latent kundalini at the base of the sushumna awakens, it rises, piercing and awakening each chakra, and the dawning of higher consciousness naturally occurs.
We then chant OM Shanti to vibrate with that peaceful vibration, which focuses the mind and will lead into meditation. All of the preceding practices (asana, pranayama, Yoga Nidra) have been a preparation for meditation. It is during meditation that one has an opportunity to experience and rest in one’s own true nature, which is united with the source of all.
The class ends with closing chants. These chants instruct us that we now share with the universe everything we have arrived at and attained through our Yoga practice. We offer the fruits of our practice in service to the universe. The practice is beneficial for ourselves, but also for the entire universe. So, as Yoga teachers, it is this energy and this practice we are sharing with our students. And it’s what we take into life with us.