Yoga and Qigong practice is traditionally spoken of as occurring on three levels: the outer, the inner & the secret. These three levels of practice have similarities to what in Taoist practice are known as the Three Treasures (Jing, Qi & Shen); and also to what in Buddhist practice are known as the Three Bodies (Tri-Kaya) of the Buddha/Awakened Mind (Nirmanakaya, Sambhogokaya & Dharmakaya). [They also have a less precise but still resonant relationship to the Hindu yogic system of the “five sheathes.”]
The outer level of practice is the most superficial (or densely vibrating) level. In qigong, it is called the level of the “tendons” and is associated ~ in terms of the Three Treasures ~ with Jing/essence (which, among its physical substances, includes cerebral-spinal fluid, marrow & sexual fluids). In terms of an asana practice, this is the level at which one focuses on physical alignment: on creating a structure (of bones, muscles, organs, tendons) conducive to entrance into the deeper levels of the practice. This is the level at which one learns a “form” which (like a mandala, a yantra, or good feng shui) can then serve as a portal through which the energies/insights of the inner levels of the practice can more easily flow. So as practitioners, this means learning the particular form(s) associated with our chosen tradition.
As teachers, this means offering instruction (written, verbal and/or “hands-on”) in these forms. In terms of our relationship to the world, we’re operating primarily within a Newtonian cause-and-effect sort of paradigm. In terms of Buddhist practice, this is the level of the Nirmanakaya: the body of form (which is likened to the warmth we experience from the rays of the sun); the body that is visible to (and which appears in response to the aspirations of) “ordinary” human beings, i.e. beings still operating primarily on this “outer” level.
The inner level of practice is the level of light, sound & color: of vibration that is actually experienced as moving/fluid (vs. the experience of solidity that is characteristic of the outer level). In qigong practice, this is the level of the meridians and is associated ~ in terms of the Three Treasures ~ with qi/life-force (the “substance” that flows through the meridians). In an asana practice, this is the level of the pranic body/bodies. It is at this level that one begins to work with the “internal forms” or energetic structures of bodymind. It is the terrain of what in Taoist practice is called Inner Alchemy.
As practitioners, we begin to pay attention to the relationship between particular (outer or inner) forms and the flows of energy/awareness that they create or allow. As teachers, we have added to our repertoire of verbal & physical adjustments/instructions, the capacity also to work with our students energetically ~ to use the energy of mind/intention to offer “corrections” directly into the subtle bodies of students. It is also skillful, at this point, to allow our verbal instructions to become less literal, and more metaphoric: to use language to create flow between what previously were more rigidly-held conceptual categories.
In terms of our relationship to the world, we’re operating now in the realm of what the Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh calls Inter-Being: a web of relationship, of interdependency. And things are becoming more & more Einsteinian: the principles of relativity (as well as quantum mechanics) becoming more & more operative. Co-incidence, simultaneity, and a sense of “magic” become more prominent features of our lived experience. We begin to intuit: there’s more going on here than I had previously suspected … how wonderful! In terms of Buddhist practice, this is the level of the Sambhogakaya: the body of enjoyment; of light/color/sound as vibration (likened to the rays of the sun); the manifestation of awakened mind that is perceivable only to beings who have a certain level of attainment in their practice.
The secret level of practice is the level of nonconceptuality, and hence is, in its essence, un-knowable & un-speakable. (Yes, writing about it is paradoxical, and at best can be the proverbial “finger pointing to the moon”!) In terms of the Three Treasures, this is the level of shen/spirit. As practitioners, this is the level at which we are “stunned,” or “in awe;” the level at which we have direct (nonconceptual) experiences of a vastness, a brightness, a bliss which shatters all of our previous notions of what this level (reality!) might be like. As teachers, this is the level at which we offer what in Buddhist practice is known as “pointing out” instructions (and more specifically: pointing out the Nature of Mind). Instruction, here, takes the form of “mind to mind” transmission (something of a misnomer, since at this point in our practice, body, mind & breath are so finely braided as to be almost indistinguishable).
Even metaphor, at this level, becomes inadequate: for this terrain, though it is the essence of everything we’ve previously experienced, is not “like” anything else. (It inhabits a category all its own; It is the set that includes all other sets, and ~ in the moment of “including” them ~ transforms them completely.) Ultimately, this is the level at which teacher & student are no longer two, but rather ~ at least in certain “alchemical” moments ~ inhabit a single shared “space” (which might be called Truth & might be called Love). And in this shared space there is the felt sensation (indescribable!) of a “union” or “wholeness” which in its sweetness & intensity matches (and then far surpasses) the bliss of sexual union, of the complete dissolution of ego (and hence: in Buddhist, Taoist & Hindu traditions images of sexual union are often used as gateways, as skillful means, to access this level of practice).
In terms of our relationship to the world, this is the level at which we understand directly that we (and all other beings) are part of a single luminous emptiness, and ~ simultaneously ~ the whole of it. In fact the term “relationship” ceases to have meaning, because ideas & perceptions of “self” and “other” (“me” and “world”) have dissolved completely. The “body” of the practitioner has become the “universe.” In terms of Buddhist practice, this is the level of Dharmakaya: the body of truth ~ the radiant core of the sun.
[If you haven’t already discovered Alex Grey’s collection of paintings, Sacred Mirrors, I recommend it highly. He does a wonderful job, in this book, of portraying visually these three levels of practice, as they manifest through the human body.]
Buddhist practice also offers a fourth “body” ~ the Svabavikakaya, which points to the ultimate unity of the other three bodies. It points to the fact that once we’ve made our way through these levels, walking the path of our chosen tradition, we realize that all along all three levels were “here” ~ but just not (consciously) available to us, in their fullness. But now, having completed the journey, we are consciously aware of all three levels, and are able to “slide” between them, much as one would tune a radio dial. We’re able to project our awareness into whatever spectrum, whatever frequency-band, we wish to. Our existence as human beings at this point is, truly, a dance: a kaleidoscopic play of light & color; a perpetual love-making.