This is a bit on yoga class sequencing I wrote for a yoga manual today.

Most people know that the Tao symbol of Ultimate Power (the Tai Ji Tu, seen here) represents the duality of Yin and Yang.  Indian culture has a similar concept called the Gunas, but it has three vibrational patterns.

It uses two to start with. The first is Rajas (i.e. active, male, and bright), and it is similar to Yang.  The second is Tamas (receptive, female, and dark) and is similar to Yin.

The Indian tradition understands that when Tamas and Rajas are balanced, it results in a third state called Sattva. Sattva is a heightened, unitary condition that is greater than the sum of its parts.

In a yoga class we work with Rajas and Tamas to create Sattva. One of the many ways in which physical yoga is unlike other exercise systems is that it works pointedly with both stretching and strengthening— and it works with active and passive modes that work together like Yin and Yang.

If we step back a moment and consider the name given to the yoga of the body, it gives clues on how to work with different vibrations. Physical yoga is called “Ha-Tha Yoga,” i.e. “Sun-Moon” yoga.  We use the complimentary energies of  “sun” (Rajas) and “moon” (Tamas) to achieve the highest in the practice.

Hatha also means “force” or “action.”

Hatha Yoga is a science of force and action. It is a science of karma (which means “action”)– in the mechanical, vibrational, and transcendent sense.

The Bhagavad Gita (4:18) gives us the simple statement, “when you see action in inaction, and inaction in action, then you are wise.”

Force is not a one-way street. To use force skillfully, we must also use “not-force” or “non-action.”  Rajas (force) often comes reflexively to us in our busy, modern culture.  It can make us over-reach.  When Tamas (not-force) is used, it is usually applied unconsciously, and this can make enhance it’s negative affects.  (Both Rajas and Tamas have potentially negative effects.)  Mis-use of either can debilitate our flow of energy and make us unaware.

In yoga we learn to use both Rajas and Tamas with skill.

In sequencing a yoga class we explore balance–not just in poses, but in the big picture of our lives. Putting poses together correctly in yoga enhances what is called tapas (“heat” at the psychic level).   A proper yoga workout can help us burn through lower desires to achieve higher ones.

If a pose is difficult, we may desire to come out of it to reclaim lost comfort. But if we stay in it, the desire for a familiar feeling of comfort burns away, and we glow in the midst of the pose (and after it).  It is a radiant feeling.  It is a feeling of heat.  It results in a feeling of power and freedom.

This is tapas.

After such “burnings”—after intense poses or pose-series (vinyasas)—a yoga teacher must allow their students to integrate their effort psychologically and energetically.  Hence, we strategically punctuate active yoga sequences with passive poses or sequences (e.g. Child’s Pose, Tadasana, Forward Fold, the Moon Salutation, etc.) to create integration.

Done right, this approach builds psychic intensity–which is something more other than mere physical intensity. Typically, a sequence of poses leads to increasing levels of release and energization.  Just as a baseball pitcher rears back before throwing the ball forward, or a batter relaxes before he swings, we repeatedly drop into energy wells so that we can ride higher energy crests.

We get receptive so that we can be more active. (And we get more active so we can be more receptive!) In yoga, we put together Tamasic poses (wells) with Rajasic poses (crests) to attain the balanced and powerful state called Sattva.

This care in applying force is what the Buddhist’s call “Skillful means.” In the Bhagavad Gita (2:50), Krishna uses it as the very definition of yoga.  He says, Yogah karmasu kaushalam. “Yoga is skill in action.”

If our aim is self-transformation, not just a sweat and better muscles, skillful action is used in a yoga workout by pairing effort and relaxation, pose after pose. An intense backbend may be followed by a quiet forward bend. An intense Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation) section may be followed by a quiet, closed-eyes Chandra Namaskar. (A Moon Salutation–which emphasizes circular movement patterns and side-bending). 

Sequencing according to Tamas, Rajas and Sattva uses the wave-rhythm of effort and rest.

Rajas can be complex. It uses strength, concentration, and cardio-vascular effort.

Tamas can be very simple. We can return to just a few resting poses throughout a yoga sequence—say, Child’s Pose, Tadasana and Down Dog (but Tamas can get complex, too, as in a Yin, Relaxation or Recovery Yoga class or with special vinyasas).

The main rhythm of most yoga classes is Rajasic, and a Rajasic climax comes at about three-quarters of the way along.  A Tamasic period follows (as a  warm-down).  Tamasic poses are generally floor-based, passive, and stretch-oriented.  The  Tamasic climax comes with Savasana—the ultimate integrative pose.

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Prana (life force) moves in waves, and we can use wave action to stimulate more and more precise states of release and energization.  Using these states in skillful oscillation, they enhance one another.  As Tamas informs Rajas and Rajas informs Tapas, the yogi’s consciousness and energy become more integrated.

By the time of Savasana, the Rajasic work of the class has usually established a fire inside us, though it may have settled to an ember. We are using strong Tamas at this point (with Savasana) to give the last turn to a sequence that refines, expands and re-patterns our life force, our prana.

The practitioner becomes more enlivened in both wakefulness and rest when we intelligently apply the Gunas–yoga’s topology of vibration.

Using Rajas and Tamas wisely, a yogi gets anchored in poised states of Sattvic-Rajas and Sattvic-Tamas during the last resting pose.

An important goal of Hatha Yoga is realizing Sattvic state. Wise use of the Gunas manifests Sattva, allowing yogis to walk away from a class energized, happy, and calm.


TAGS: Eric Shaw Yoga, Yoga Philosophy, History of Yoga, Modern Yoga, Yoga Teaching, Gunas, Tamas, Rajas, Sattva, Yin Yang, Tao, Yoga Sequencing