The body, both subtle and gross, is a storehouse of unconscious and semiconscious tensions, retractions, expansions, and discrete movements of Prana. All these movements are based on past and current thinking—a form of misunderstood imagination that picks out objects, constructs self-images, makes goals, and charts out theories soaked in the emotions of attachment and repulsion. Through the integration of Prana and citta, intelligent movement effortlessly manifests within this maze of conditions that arise, and we are slowly freed from preconditioned patterns that keep us both mentally and physically entangled.
For yoga asanas to be a truly useful aspect of this unraveling, they must be grounded and properly aligned. Then the imagination is used intelligently so poses have an open, pleasant quality that allows meditative states of mind to arise easily and so that strong, balanced, delightful currents of Prana flow effortlessly. A healthy asana practice is liberating. It ultimately supports insight that frees us from a misunderstood imagination and its habitual patterns and suffering. However, it is essential to use the imagination with boundless creativity to understand and free ourselves from it!
In the yoga traditions, imagination has been used extensively to embody idealized forms and functions among gods, goddesses, and heroes as a way of breaking our habitual patterns of perceiving our own body and feeling required movements, attitudes, and characteristics within yoga poses. Embodiment practices have contributed to the evolution of yoga, uniting subtle and esoteric teachings within the everyday physical realities of having a body. Profound and deep insights we might access through our imagination can be gateways for understanding how to live on the practical plane—a merging of practice, tradition, lineage, and mythology into “real” life.
The viability of yoga as a living art rests in the fact that even in the imagination, it never becomes stagnant. Although we use preconceptions and formulaic thinking in vinyasa practice, the practice is not based on them; rather, it balances, exposes, and contextualizes preconceptions. Herein lies the value of visualizing whole-body patterns that can prove more insightful than attempting to understand movement from a dry, analytical approach. Whole-body patterns of alignment are associated with deep feelings, emotions, and sensations that we perceive directly rather than patterns fragmented by conceptual ideas. Whole-body patterns unite subtle-body patterns to support and inform movements. Of course, they typically do not describe a local anatomical structure in detail, so it is important to embrace scientific forms of study along with visualization; both approaches need each other to evolve.
Mindful use of the imagination in yoga reveals that impressions and stories that come into our awareness depend on context and are therefore not absolute and exclusive of other impressions and stories. This means there are potentially unlimited brilliant metaphors and images that can be used to describe or imply a yogic state in the body. On the other hand, it does not mean that we should fall into a relativistic mind-set in which any metaphor or myth is an adequate (or even decent) description of alignment or yogic states. Limitless stories, forms, and metaphors correspond to deluded states of mind and can induce those unhappy states. Good metaphors are rare, like brilliant art and insight. Metaphors must be precise, expandable, visceral, and clear to really do the trick. All of them are only metaphors and must eventually be released and allowed to dissolve so they can do their job. The importance of lineage in image making is tantamount. All effective imagery shares a similar flavor, though the forms it takes may be radically diverse. Tradition is like a flame of intelligence passed on and shared by countless practitioners over centuries, using many versions of metaphor, philosophy, and technique.
Visualizations can be helpful with alignment in specific poses too, such as imagining the heart “floating,” which can stimulate a full feeling of expansiveness in a pose. But where subtle anatomy is most useful is in shedding light on levels of alignment and form that govern obscure aspects of the practice, such as Mulabandha, and whole-body patterns that connect us from top to bottom. By practicing asana with some of these patterns in the nervous system, the poses are enhanced, and perhaps more important, the affected parts of the nervous system are primed for meditation.