Subtle Yoga: Opening to the Wordless Experience of the Extended Body-Mind
In this interview, Kristine Kaoverii Weber explains how subtle experiences and practices in yoga, which focus on the wordless, micro-sensory experiences of the extended body-mind, are finding parallels in the descriptions of enteroceptive and interroceptive awareness of modern neuroscience. Accessing these modes of awareness, in turn, offers us a unique and powerful tool for cultivating parasympathetic health and vagal tone. She also offers a broader perspective on the term ‘chakras’ than the popular one we’re all familiar with.
YogaUOnline: You use the term “subtle yoga” to describe what you teach. What is subtle yoga and how does it differ from the types of yoga we’re used to working with?
Kristine Kaoverii Weber: I coined the term back in 2004 because I wanted to differentiate what I was doing from what the rest of the yoga world was doing, which was a lot of focus on maximizing physical aspects of the practice. I was interested in working with the subtle body. Not as a mystical thing, necessarily, although there are mystical qualities to it, but I understood that there were things happening in yoga beyond just stretching hamstring muscles, and I felt there was a need for that to be more emphasized, and for us to be more intentional with it.
Over the years, as my interests have evolved, I recognize that that name has other implications: that the way we approach the practice could itself be subtle, as opposed to a pushing, strenuous practice. Additionally, with new advances in neurobiology, we’re starting to understand the need for activating the parasympathetic nervous system, optimizing its function and optimizing vagal tone. And all of that is affected through more subtle practices.
So I like to say, “We have fitness over here, and yoga can be used for fitness and that’s wonderful, but we have a new understanding of resiliency that is also essential for each human being, and developing resiliency skills is done through a subtle approach to yoga practice.” And that subtle approach is different: it values proprioception, interroceptive awareness and neuroceptive awareness. And when we value those perceptions of where our body is in space and how our body feels, we start to benefit an aspect of the nervous system that we can’t necessarily reach through the more fitness-oriented yoga practices.
YogaUOnline: You used the terms “proprioception,” “interroception,” and “neuroceptive awareness.” These are some of the new big phrases to come from neurobiology in the past few years.
Kristine Kaoverii Weber: Yes, It’s exciting for me because now I have a language for what I do.
The language of neuroscience is helping us describe these valuable practices and ascribe western scientific value to them. Previously people’s understanding of yoga’s value fell under “aerobics” or “fitness.” Now we have a language. I remember learning about vagal tone. That’s what I’ve been teaching for years, but the value wasn’t ascribed until now. So really, we have these two objectives: fitness, and parasympathetic health, or resiliency or as I like to call it. Resiliency of the physical body and resiliency of the mind, since those two mirror each other. And this resiliency is critical for mental health as well.
YogaUOnline: How would you define resiliency?
Kristine Kaoverii Weber: Resiliency is our ability to switch into parasympathetic functioning and return to homeostasis. Really, being able to come back to a “chill” state where you are able to attend to whatever is coming at you. Your heart rate and breathing rate can raise as you need them to in order to respond, but resiliency is your ability to go back. And that is a skill, and a process that’s affected by the whole physiology: not just the mind, but hormones, time of life, etc. And yoga (asanas, meditation, pranayama) gives us a way to cultivate that.
YogaUOnline: I know you do work with the chakras. How do the chakras come into these ideas of “subtle yoga” and resiliency?
Kristine Kaoverii Weber: When I coined the term “subtle yoga,” I wanted to use the word “chakras,” but that language was a little to out there in the minds of people due to all the things written about chakras in pop psychology. I remember walking into Barnes & Noble and seeing a chakra balancing kit for $12.95. “For $12.95, you can balance your chakras!” As a yoga teacher, I was interested in the system from the perspective of the traditional Indian texts.
The chakras are an incredibly complex system, and there’s so much depth there. Neuroscience speaks about it by showing us how the mind is in the body, and not just in the brain. And that’s really what the yogis are saying: they gave us a map of the mind—and this is what I’ll be talking about more in my course — Journey Through the Chakras Working with the Subtle Body In Yoga — and they also gave us a developmental map of human psychology. I have a very different perspective on the chakra system that what’s out there: it’s not about the rainbow or essential oils and things you buy at Barnes & Noble, but more about how you work on yourself.
YogaUOnline.com: Can you give us an example of you how your understanding of the chakras is different?
Kristine Kaoverii Weber: It’s not totally different, just a more expanded understanding of the system. Here’s an example. In the west, we think of our chakras as being in our bodies. The way I like to describe it is that our bodies are in our chakras. The Chakra system is an energetic template, perhaps connected to DNA in some way, of your own body. So it’s as if the cells of your body develop around that energetic template.
Here’s an example: The cells in the physical body change regularly, the cells in the digestive system, or of the heart. These are changing constantly. Why aren’t we constantly changing? If our cells are changing constantly, why does our body stay the same? That’s a fascinating question! And you could answer that by saying well, it’s in our DNA. And the way the yogis would describe it, is “Your subtle body is the scaffolding for your physical body.” So it’s the subtle body that creates the physical structure. So that’s one way in which the understanding is different. And that’s not my way, it’s just reconceptualizing based on what’s in the text, as opposed to the western worldview that produced all the chakra books of the 80s, which relate a lot more to theosophy and the medieval alchemists. I’ll talk about this more in the course.
YogaUOnline: You talk about the chakras as a map of mental emotional landscape. Could you talk a little about what this means?
Kristine Kaoverii Weber: Yogis intuited an energy structure of these different energy centers in the body. There have been different conceptualizations of this, of course, but there are similarities across the texts. For example, the yogis understood these energy centers as having petals around them, or vritis. There are 50 main vritis in the chakra system, and each of these petals has a different quality to it. These qualities are tendencies of the mind. And that’s why we can say these chakras provide a map of the mind.