Monthly Archives: September 2011

The Five Levels of Yoga Practice



My yoga teacher often jokes about what he calls the “reductionism of yoga in America.”  Basically, he says that in India, yoga is a system of complete physical, mental and spiritual health.  When yoga was brought to America, however, practitioners latched on to asana, or the physical postures of yoga.  Then as time went on, they focused on the stretching aspects of asana, instead of the full energetic, stretching, balancing, and strengthening effects.  Then, he continues, with the common focus on form, it became about locking the knees and focusing on the hamstrings.  So, he jokes, yoga in America has been reduced to stretching your hamstrings.

Like most jokes, this is likely an oversimplification.  But he has a very valid point.  Look at any article on yoga and you will see people performing postures, as if those postures were the only component of yoga.  In reality, yoga is comprised of many tools, only one of which is asana.

The Pancamaya Model describes the full breadth of yoga practices and how they can impact every level of the human system.  The model progresses from the most gross, or tangible level, to the most subtle, or intangible one.  Work on one level may show up in another, but the tool associated with that level is the one most likely to have direct impact on that level.

The Pancamaya Model

Anamaya:  This level comprises the “food” body, or the muscles, bones, ligaments, etc. of our bodies.  Not surprisingly, the yoga tool we use to impact this level is asana.  So when I teach my yoga for healthy backs class, for example, we primarily focus on yoga movements that can help heal the students’ structural issues.

Pranamaya:  This level comprises the “Energy” body.  It includes physiological systems, such as the respiratory system, as well as the energy of emotions.  The tool most targeted for this level is pranayama or breath work.  That’s why I use the breath practice “Tracy’s sleeping pill” personally and with my clients who have insomnia.  Although asana can help, breath is the more powerful and targeted tool for these issues.

Manomaya:  This level is the level of intellect.  This may be a stretch for some Westerners, but the tool used to increase intellect in the traditional teachings is sound, or chant.  In the West we tend to use reading and lecture. When these models were developed, there were no printing presses, so knowledge was passed down in orally from generation to generation.   In India, however, they still use chant to help improve cognitive function in many populations, including the aging and children with learning issues.

Vijnanamaya: This is the level of personality, or character.   The yoga tool we use to impact character is meditation. I personally believe all meditation techniques are valid, and I will share some simple techniques with you in later blog articles.  But in this lineage we also do self exploratory mediations that help us learn more about ourselves and how we react to the things that happen to and around us.  Meditation is a key part of my yoga classes for anxiety and depression.

Anandamaya:  This is the level of joy or spirit.  It is impacted via ritual.  I have a hard time describing ritual, except that it is a combination of other practices done in a symbolic way.  We use ritual in the West as well.  Think, for example, of weddings, graduations, etc.  At Whole Life I personally use ritual to mark the beginning and end of every class by ringing chimes and saying namaste.  I do this to help connect to my students in a symbolic way.

So, the next time someone asks you about yoga, remember that the postures that come to mind are really only the tip of the iceberg.   This wonderful tradition offers so much more!


Tracy Weber

          A Killer Retreat

Come visit Whole Life Yoga in Seattle, and check out Tracy Weber’s author page for information about the Downward Dog Mysteries series.  A KILLER RETREAT is available for preorder now from Whole Life Yoga. MURDER STRIKES A POSE is available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble,  and book sellers everywhere! 


Yoga Poses for Better Posture–Response to a Student Question

I look forward to answering your questions in this blog.  Please feel free to leave a comment or e-mail your questions to

A yoga student asks:  “What are the best yoga poses to counter rounded shoulders and slouching?”

This posture issue is all too common in our world with computers, gardening, driving, knitting, and all of those activities that keep us in a forward folded position.   Every person’s structure is different, so I’d need to see your specific body to answer you most fully, but there are a few guidelines I can give.

Most people in America (about 75% according to my teacher, Gary Kraftsow) have excessive kyphosis (or rounding of the upper back.)   Additionally, most of us spend the majority of our time with our arms in front of us typing, holding babies, cooking, etc.  As a result, many people are tight in the front of the torso and weak and overstretched in the upper back.    Therefore postures that strengthen the low and upper back muscles  are very important.   Those that stretch the front of the torso, specifically the shoulders, ribs and hips can also be very helpful.  It’s best to do this, at least in the beginning, with focused, targeted poses and movements versus stronger, more complex ones.

Since in Viniyoga there’s no one “right” way to do a posture, giving you the posture name is less helpful than talking about specific variations that address this.  But let me try to do both.  The photos show Whole Life Yoga students doing the poses and variations I’m talking about.

To strengthen the low back try the following:

  • Cobra:
  • Locust:

Specific variations of the above can also nicely strengthen the muscles between the shoulder blades (the arms are the relevant adaptation in this case, not the legs):

Variations in which you lift one leg and arm at a time are nice for bringing balance to an asymmetrical body and posture:

Warrior 1 is another great posture.  It stretches the front of the body while building some strength in the back.

  • Warrior with “Goal post arms” opens the front of the shoulders and strengthens the muscles between the shoulder blades:
  • Warrior done one arm at a time stretches the front of the ribs as well as a bit of the psoas and quad:
  • A kneeling variation of warrior targets the psoas and quad in a nice way that counteracts the effects of sitting, but can be hard on the knees:

These are the places I would start.  And remember, work with a qualified yoga teacher who can assess your specific body and give you much more targeted advice than this!


Tracy Weber

Come visit Whole Life Yoga in Seattle!

Yoga for Men

This week’s blog entry is written by guest author Rene De los Santos.  Rene is a graduate of Whole Life Yoga’s teacher training program and a teacher at Whole Life Yoga.    He teaches yoga for men as well as mixed gender classes.   He  can be contacted at

There’s an old saying that we do not choose yoga; that yoga chooses us… perhaps from a previous life?

I first became curious about yoga in 2001 after observing yoga participants leave a class more tranquil and at ease than when I observed them going in. My first thought about yoga was “Someday I’ll do yoga- when I am old”.  But yoga had called me and I quite couldn’t get that ringing out of my ear. My second thought about yoga was that I would only take classes for my own benefit but not teach it.

My misconceptions about yoga were mostly that it was for women and those either really flexible or really weird; rarely did I notice men leading a yoga class but when I did, and got to know them better, I realized that they were not particularly flexible and not at all weird. They were just like me. Normal.

This yoga journey lead me to teacher training at Whole Life Yoga, various workshops in Portland OR, San Francisco CA, Long Island NY and India to study (briefly) with TKV Desikachar, son and student of T Krishnamacharya and his son Kausthub Desikachar. Traveling to India was a life changing experience that continues to this day. It was a revelation to see that the senior teachers at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram were equally divided between men and women and that a great deal of respect was shown to each.

In India I learned that those who learn about yoga but do not share its teachings are like thieves.

My experience has shown me that most men (not ALL men) in our society have misconceptions concerning yoga; most of the men that I’ve spoken to do think yoga is for women, men with special powers or weird people. Most men new to yoga feel awkward walking into a room filled with women on the floor who they presume to be fit and flexible. Men tend to feel out of their league

Female yoga instructors can help ease the anxiety with new male students by not only welcoming them but also by asking if they have any questions or special concerns. Show them where everything is in the studio even if they are there with a friend who is a regular student.

When my women friends ask me how they can get their man into a yoga class, my response is simple: “Work on your own practice.” I believe strongly that yoga is ultimately about relationships- it ultimately transforms the practitioner, usually and hopefully for the better.

Yoga classes specifically for men only are gaining popularity. It gives men a chance to come together in a non-competitive environment and there’s something special about “man time” (sometimes knows as “me” time).

Men new to yoga tend to like “stronger” postures because of their natural strength; left to their own devices, my guess is that they would work more towards strength and less towards flexibility while women usually do the opposite! This can present a challenge for instructors wanting to create a challenging class with both men and women practicing together.

When my men friends ask me why I “do” yoga, my response is simple: “It makes me a better man.” The journey continues…


Rene De los Santos

Come visit Whole Life Yoga in Seattle!

Bringing Yoga Teachings to the Mountain….

This week’s blog entry is written by Lauren Lake, a graduate of Whole Life Yoga’s 200 hour yoga teacher training program.  Lauren can be contacted at

A year ago, just as I was finishing my yoga teacher training with Tracy Weber at Whole Life Yoga, I decided to climb Mt. Rainier with my best friend, Mariza Esteban.  Mariza and I had talked about climbing Mt. Rainier multiple times over the years, but there was always some excuse – lack of time, money or life getting in the way. We finally decided last summer to hold ourselves accountable by paying for a guide service to ensure a safe climb. We grabbed the last two spots on a full moon weekend in August, and then started to panic about what the heck we were getting ourselves into!

To my surprise, yoga teachings kept surfacing over the year during the training and again during the actual climb.  One of the recommendations on the RMI website for training emphasized the need to stretch, improve balance, and work on core strength.  These skills are particularly important during the summit climb, in order to safely navigate tricky terrain.  Thanks to the training at Whole Life Yoga, I was able to create a home yoga practice focusing on balance, core strengthening, and leg stretches.  Mariza and I also created a mantra for our climb.  This climb with the guides is described as running a marathon, and then taking a nap, and running another marathon, which is a fairly accurate description.  I spent many hikes with a heavy pack on Mt. Si feeling out different mantras, and finally discovered that repeating to myself, “It will get better” was my mantra to use on Mt. Rainier.  It reminded me that the pain was temporary, that a break would come eventually, and that I could survive the situation.

One benefit of using the guide service, was receiving a mountaineering class the day prior to the climb.  At the very start of the class, one of the first skills we learned was pressure or pursed lip breathing.  When we reached altitude, and the fatigue was creeping in, our lead guide, Dave Hahn, taught that we should use a rest step (a quick pause to allow your muscles to relax) along with a pressured breath to increase the amount of oxygen we received while climbing.  This breathing technique is similar to some of the techniques we practiced in our yoga teacher’s training course.  Sure enough, at around 8,000 feet, with fatigue, altitude and low oxygen levels settling, I had to rely on my mantra and my breath to continue moving up the mountain.  At 11,000 feet, during our summit climb, my knees were screaming at me, and causing unsteady footing.  To ensure a safe descent, I turned back to base camp arriving just in time to enjoy a beautiful sunrise with the beautiful full moon overhead!

Surprising or not, yoga complements mountaineering very well, as it felt like a physical meditation to be climbing the mountain so slowly, with such intention, and focus on the breath.  Attempting to climb Mt. Rainier has been one of the most difficult adventures I have pursued in a long time, but I am grateful for the journey with my best friend and happy to be safely back at sea level in Seattle!

Lauren Lake

More information about Whole Life Yoga’s teacher training program can be found at our web site:  Yoga Teacher Training at Whole Life Yoga.