At the Yoga Journal Conference last month in Estes Park, CO, our marketing coordinator Emma Sartwell caught Tias Little, a master teacher who synthesizes years of study in classical yoga, Sanskrit, Buddhist studies, anatomy, massage, and trauma healing, on the lawn to discuss chaturanga, Zen, yoga butts, the sacrum, and more.
Emma: So I thought I’d start with a little context about you—how did you first find out about yoga and start this journey?
Tias: Really I started through my mother, who did yoga when we lived in London back in the ’70s. She’s really my first influence and I’ve also always been an academic because my father taught at the university level—he taught comparative religion for thirty years. So I’ve always had an interest in the spiritual path.
Then when I came into the yogic practice, it was this kind of magic alchemy of the wisdom teachings and the sadhana, the practice. I’ve always been a contemplative type, and so my interest has naturally been toward to meditative side of the practice.
As an undergraduate, I studied with Bob Thurman, Robert Thurman. I studied Buddhist psychology, so I think that the dharma has always been part of my growth and my path. While I’ve done a lot of really physical yoga, more callisthenic-like yoga, I’ve always had the wisdom seeds planted along the route of my path. And so that’s how I’ve really come into this path of yoga.
E: We love Robert Thurman, too.
T: Yes. So now my trajectory is to marry the wisdom teachings of the dharma with the practices of asana so that people can revive the contemplative side of yoga. It’s kind of shocking that the contemplative side has basically dropped off, and yoga’s what I sometimes call “spiritual calisthenics,” and it becomes very aerobic. That side of us that’s really able to listen and to inquire is something I try to bring forward in all of my classes, and inspire and reinspire in that way.
Yesterday I did a day-long intensive here, The Alchemy of Silence, to invite people in the midst of their overburdened lives to find that still, quiet place inside.
E: Do you find that people are resistant to that? Or hungry for it?
T: Well, I think it’s about education. I think in many ways it’s just unfamiliar and people have a lot of identifications around what yoga is—it’s chaturanga, it’s doing sun salutations, and listening to loud music.
E: Getting the yoga butt.
T: Getting yoga fit, yeah. So as it’s said in Zen, that “turning of the lantern back inside” is unfamiliar to people. But I feel like it’s really the dharma door, the gateway into the subtle body, which of course the book is about. Doing communion—inner communion—can be really unfamiliar for people, especially in the era of the screen. Easy for the mind to jump out.
E: You’re talking about Buddhist philosophy, Hindu philosophy and practice, religion in America, American culture . . . do you have a way that you identify or a way that you bring those together?
T: I suppose so. You know, one of my teachers always said, “Dare to be simple.” And in some ways the practice is very simple because it just involves that slow practice—careful practice—of listening. I think whatever supports that practice, especially metta or loving-kindness practices, because I think a lot of yoga students are used to being in their body by pushing, sprinting, forcing, and propelling their body through space. So by what I call soaking practices of listening in and starting to move really slowly . . .
E: “Soaking” you said?
E: Like soaking in yourself?
T: Soaking inward, yeah. I think that’s where a lot of the healing can occur. I bring in a lot of teachings from the osteopathic tradition, craniosacral work, where it’s very, very supportive and internal toward the original matrix or the deep fluids in the body, the deep tides, the deep biorhythms. And for me, that’s the subtle body.
I’m teaching a whole course on the nadis tomorrow. It takes a while to really connect to the subtle vibratory pulses inside, but I think any kind of spirit practice is moving in the direction. But it takes a while to develop the ear—or I call it in the book, “the third ear,” the mystical ear—to even develop that listening capacity. So a lot of my guidance is around that.
E: I’ve been loving the book. I want to read something Richard Freeman says in the forward: “The subtle body in yoga is not only the secret to the optimal functioning and alignment of the body; it is the key to delight, love, understanding, and good relationships.” So I was curious: what is the subtle body? How is it different from the physical body? And how did you decide to write this beautiful book?
T: Well, I think the yoga tradition celebrates the subtle body as the chakras, nadis, bindus. The gross body, the coarse body, is really the exterior. There are lots of ways that we get caught up in the exterior, especially with all the identifications we make, and this is really endemic of the yoga practice.
E: What do you mean “identification”?
T: Like, “Oh, am I thin enough? Oh, I’m not good at yoga; I don’t have a yoga body. I’m too fat. I’m too stiff. I can’t bend, so thus I’m not good at yoga.” Those identifications are really real, I think especially in studios where there are mirrors—it amplifies that—like Orange County, Scottsdale, South Miami Beach. There’s all of that outer preoccupation, and I think the models on the runway, some of whom are yoginis, don’t necessarily help, especially for women. So that’s kind of all this outer identifications that we make. And so the pathway into the subtle body is the yoga marga, it’s the path inward toward the spirit-whisperer.
E: Yoga marga?
T: It means “yoga path.” Marga means path—it’s really that pilgrimage inward. When I think about a communion, where there has been deep joy and there’s bliss or the ananda or satchitananda in the Sankrit. That joy is really in the deepest pulse.
E: Satchitananda is like “truth-mind-bliss”?
T: Yeah—sat means “being,” chit means like “awareness,” ananda is “joy.” So that joy of being, you know?
E: So is that the communion you have been talking about? What is coming together in the communion?
T: I think it’s that original matrix or that deep pulse, our deep biorhythms, with our awareness, with our celebration, our appreciation, our gratitude for that—our deepest prana, our deepest life force. I think when we can turn our lantern of awareness inward, as it’s said in Zen, we can really feel and sense and see, and that’s really healing. The craniosacral work, for example, is very healing and allows for deep rest or that “soaking” I was mentioning earlier, which is kind of a translation of samadhi.
E: It makes me think that the healing is coming through communion because the opposite of communion would be feeling fragmented or dissociated, separated, and that causes a lot of suffering.
T: It does, and I think that lies at the heart of so much of the dharma—that the practice is about healing that suffering. I think about in the era of the screen, how I put little pieces of myself out there, little soundbites, little fourteen-word bits. We all do that, and so I think there’s a way in which we get fragmented or we get split or splintered or disassociated. And the coalescing, the communion, is that really inward practice. Retreat time helps. To graduate from my advanced training course, my 500-hour, you have to do eight days of silent retreat, which I think is unusual in the yoga world. It’s through that retreat time that people can come up against their identifications and their hopes and their fears. It’s silence, what I was calling yesterday in the class here the “alchemy of silence,” where we can have that communing, where we could feel those connections. That in turn allows us to feel the kind of continuity of connection to the wind and the aspen trees . . .
E: That’s helpful for me to hear because a lot of my reality is screentime, and trying to keep my center and keep some silence amongst all the sensory input and output.
T: Yeah, well, I think so much of time we’re just downloading and uploading. We’re sending and receiving and we can get caught in a pinwheel—what the tradition calls samsara, to go round and round. So to get caught in the pinwheel is to get caught in all of that, and not that it’s a bad thing because that’s the way we do it now. Not that we’re wrong to do it that way, but it’s very healing and powerful to be able to drop underneath all of that, all of that sending and receiving. Silence, space, and time are really the greatest healers and allow us to drop in.
E: So how did your idea of Yoga of the Subtle Body come to you?
T: Well, I’ve been teaching and researching and reflecting on these kinds of themes for many, many years—for twenty eight years in my own personal journey, and there was a lot of ripening that has happened over those years. So really it was just a matter of getting my ideas down on paper, and the subtle is really where the juice is for me, or the rasa.
E: What’s rasa?
T: Rasa’s like nectar or essence or the taste, the richness. For me, my own practice today is in the rasa, or that movement of the inner fluids, the subtle movement of the breath, the slight shift of the bone, and then what blocks me or what blocks anyone from being able to touch that? There are segments in the book on trauma and how we get so fragmented or away from that very thing.
E: Away from . . .?
T: That connection to our deep pulses. Some of those places of disassociation or fragmentation or disconnect that started in maybe third grade or younger. So when it comes to subtle body work, there are a lot of ways to heal the subtle body. It’s not just a physical thing, but working with the emotions and our psychological state. Our state of mind is so important.
E: It makes me wonder: for people with trauma, do you think yoga is a complete path or some people need psychotherapy or other modalities?
T: I consider myself, for instance, really in the contemporary healing arts. And while I draw from a lot of the traditional language around yoga, a lot of it tends to be kind of cryptic and veiled in secretive language, and it’s a little bit hard to decipher. So I think there are really good contemporary modalities in the healing arts, whether it’s osteopathic medicine or counseling work or transpersonal counseling work or dreamwork.
There are really great insights into working with the states of holding and fear—layers and layers or substrata of holding that may have been in our body for many, many years. So fortunately, I think there are really great tools available today, and I’m always knocking elbows with people who do dreamwork and counseling work, and I very much draw ideas, share information, with contemporary work that’s happening. It’s an exciting time to be in the field. It really is.
E: There are many different paradigms coming together.
T: I think there is. The mindfulness movement is obviously an expression of all of that, and so my mission is very much that way—I think generally because people identify yoga as fitness, in that there’s a sense that yoga is aerobic. I definitely don’t consider myself a fitness instructor, but that’s I think often people’s relationship, and that’s I think how yoga’s been able to boom. You know, the tsunami of yoga has ridden that wave, but you know after five, ten, or fifteen years of being on the mat, I think people are ready for more subtle practice, and those are typically the students I draw.
E: What would you recommend if someone is just going to a yoga class at their gym, but they want to go a little deeper—where would you start?
T: Well, I think there’s a lot of important language around how to talk about getting connected, getting hooked up to the deeper strata of our being—what’s called kosha in Sanskrit, different layers or sheathings. There’s a whole language around that and it requires a little skill to be able to actually put some of this into language. I’m an English major, very much a language guy. I use a lot of metaphor when I teach, and so a lot of my training work is about how to do just that.
I think it’s a process to be able to learn how to impart that to an incoming student, like, “Hm, how do I make these connections? How do I begin this process of listening?” It begins really with self-practice, being able to listen in far enough so that one is able to contact, to do that communion internally—that becomes the resource for us teachers for how we share with others. So it takes time; it really takes time.
E: I am wondering specifically about chakras and nadis. Do you think there are misconceptions about those concepts, or how would you give an accessible framework for them?
T: Yeah, I think there probably are misconceptions. Some of the interpretations around the chakras becomes quite trite and sort of the Special K cereal box version, the teabag version, of what it might be. But you know, as an anatomist, I certainly think along these lines of like dendrites and neurotransmitters . . .
E: I don’t know what dendrites are.
T: Nerve endings—you know, glandular secretions, pulsations through the fascia, the movement of the craniosacral rhythm, the parasympathetic nervous system, the brainstem, the brain itself. There are a lot of exciting discoveries being made in research about the brain now—more and more every day. I think yogis were basically taking EKG scans in dharana, in dhyana, in samadhi. Through meditative states, they’re basically scanning and then they describe what they saw as birds and fish and wind and rivers and trees.
It’s an exciting time to work off of some of the cryptic language of the tradition and be exposed to a lot of exciting discoveries made in neuroscience today. I think subtle body chakras and nadis are related to the neurological system, the immune system, the cardiovascular system—really exciting.
E: The other thing that was helpful to me reading this was particularly about savasana and the feet and moving downward. I think so often in yoga classes you hear about moving upward, getting tall—there was something so nice and grounding to hear it’s important to move downward too and start there.
T: It’s a very Taoist notion, which I also follow closely—that settling, soaking, dropping. In our time today of the rush and the high-speed connectivity, I think that gets trapped in the body. All that rush gets trapped in the tissues, leading to a kind of upward, upper winds, or a lot of excitation, a lot of stimulation. The grounding practices are so important, and a lot of the Taoist masters knew this—settling into the lower belly, settling into the tan t’ien.
E: Would upward winds be worry, anxiety, and distraction?
T: Yeah—worry, anxiety, restlessness, intolerance, impatience, speed, all of that, sleeplessness. So as we soak, as we settle, particularly toward the base of the spine, it’s very healing, and really savasana is integral to that. I did a dharma talk recently at the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe on why savasana’s the most important pose.
E: That’s appropriate because Upaya’s so much about death and dying.
T: Exactly. You know, there’s a notion these days . . . beginners sometimes are like, “Oh, class is over, savsana’s here—I’m gonna hit the road.” Developing an appreciation for stillness and deep calm takes a long time. So I do a lot of savasana training, which is very similar to yoga nidra, the yogic sleep, and that’s where a lot of the subtle body training comes in. Right now, I’m developing a course called Yoga Nidra, Savasana, and the Dream Body. We do a lot of dreamwork.
E: Is that one of the koshas—the dream body?
T: It could be—it’s kind of related to some of the inner koshas. There’s a lot in the Upanishad, the original yogic teachings, on dreamstates. That’s definitely a way to connect to the subtle body.
E: One more detailed question: What do you think about the base of the spine?
T: Well, it’s really the root, it’s the source, it’s the origin for, we could really say, for the deep life force. So kundalini has a lot to do with that, but you know the base of the spine is really paired with the occipital region in the brainstem. The craniosacral system maps this out very carefully: the motion of the occiput and the sacrum are paired. So you can’t really talk about the sacrum without talking about the base of the skull. And so then we’re tying right into the limbic system, we’re tying into the deep life force, we’re tying right into the reptilian brain. There’s so much power celebrated in the yoga tradition of that connection—especially in hatha yoga, it’s really celebrated.
E: I can tell how infinite this path is. You can start with one point in the body and it just can spread and spread and spread . . .
T: It’s true. It’s a really, really rich practice and study. I consider myself kind of a beginner, just learning, always new learning, new pathways in, and learning new connections. That’s the beauty of being on the mat is to just keep discovering.
E: Is there anything else you want people to know about your book?
T: I think that really it can be picked up and one can start in and read at any place. It’s kind of designed that way, so people can read or just do some of the guided meditations or some of the guided practices or read the sidebars, which are inspirational visions that I’ve had. I hope it will be an inspiration for people at any point in the path.
E: It seems like it would be useful to people who are just starting and people who have practiced for years, because we all have a body. And a subtle body.
T: So true.
E: Thank you so much. This was such a fun conversation.
T: Oh good!