Yoga and the Imagination: A Q&A with Randal Williams
by Tresca Weinstein
Randal Williams, MA, E-RYT, has served at Kripalu Center as director of Yoga Teacher Training and Professor of Yoga Philosophy. His vision for teaching yoga is to keep it simple and cultivate kind, mindful awareness of authentic natural rhythms. His graduate studies focused on Jungian Depth Psychology with the use of imagery as a healing modality. Yoga Bulletin Editor Tresca Weinstein spoke with Randal recently about the ways in which imagery and narrative affect the practice of yoga.
Yoga Bulletin In one of your yoga classes, you gave us the image of hanging over a rack like a limp towel while we were in Forward Bend. That image has really stayed with me and I think of it every time I’m in Forward Bend.
Randal Yes—I love that image. It works profoundly well for me also in releasing my back muscles along the hips and shoulders. My sense is that currently the use of imagery in yoga is untapped in terms of its potential. People can and do have these amazing experiences with imagery and yet there is very little curriculum available to expand the skillful usage for yoga teachers. For example, there is a yoga language where we keep using the same images over and over—Downward Dog, or Cat and Dog, or Mountain. Notice that these are images that spark up the right brain for comprehending physical postures that we’re using in order to launch folks into their bodily experience. The posture name is a platform or, better yet, a very bouncy springboard from which the practitioner can generate a fuller, deeper experience. And yet our use of imagery is generally unamplified—the Mountain posture is usually just that, it never changes—and as a result, the teacher and students are left subtly and powerfully frustrated in the facilitation of a deeper transforming narrative.
In Kripalu Yoga, we have the benefit of Stage II, which is a kind of playground, a creative space in which we’re encouraged to engage, not only in our body but also in our subtler mind. There’s a shifting of gears where we move from the physical to incorporate emotions, thoughts, and the breath, getting into the subtler aspects of the person, which is really a way to get better access into the soul. And there it’s a completely different atmosphere, almost akin to someone walking on land and then discovering they’re also a bird and they can fly. We have an opportunity to rub up against and befriend the subtle qualities. This requires a whole new language and a whole new release and flexibility in the mind—and this is where imagery comes in tremendously handy for deepening the practice. The imagination itself is a subtle energy body and if we’re stuck in our imagination as to what’s possible, then it’s akin to having a blockage of energy or tension in a muscle. If we can address that and deal with it, then the person practicing, as well as the teacher, has the possibility to bring prana and life force where it may be needed most.
YB So the image becomes almost like a physical assist or a press point?
Randal That’s right. You’re using the image as a way of leveraging the physical body to encourage change—a change of space and, along with that, a change of mindset and a release of prana into the soul. The image in the mind delivers the data or the instruction—the picture, the vision—and if one subscribes to that vision, the physical body is supported to go further. An interesting principle here is that the subtler we go into the person’s experience, moving from the physical to the emotional, from the emotional to the breath body, from breathing to mental, from mental to intuitive, the subtler and subtler we go, the more powerful we become. It’s a principle similar to homeopathy, where the subtler you mix the medicine, the more potent it becomes. In the same way, the subtler we take in experience, the more powerful we become. The endgame here is that the most subtle substance around is the universe, or some folks prefer the term “God,” and this is so subtle that it pervades everything and dictates the rhythms of everything, and each of us has this inside us—it is what provides mystery of life in the first place.
The question or inquiry then becomes, How do I begin to play with that or breathe into that part of me to make space? And space comes through the vision and the image. What is my picture of reality and how can I adjust the posture to that picture of reality? There’s a quote attributed to Einstein-he said the most important question we can ask ourselves is, “Is the universe I live in a friendly place—is it benevolent, or is it malevolent?” In other words, “Do you feel your vision of the cosmos is one that is nurturing and supportive, that you belong here, or do you feel you don’t belong here, that somehow you were a mistake?” This is all imagery and narrative, and at the same time it has a profound effect on the way people feel and breathe and hold themselves in their physical body. So if I teach a yoga class and, in the guided relaxation, I introduce someone to an image of the universe that is nurturing and supportive and welcoming, that they live in a place where there are no accidents, this completely changes how they hold themselves viscerally and in their tissue, and the breath changes as a result. We get this awesome, powerful leverage as yoga teachers by using images that serve as tools to activate the prana flow in the subtle body. And then the next question or inquiry is about creativity, for each teacher to be creative and to feel that they have the license to use the imagination as another tool in their toolkit.
YB So, in a sense, it’s a practice of visualization, like the idea of mirror neurons, where if you picture yourself doing something physical, the neurons will fire as if you were actually doing that thing.
Randal Yes. This technique of visualization is well established in other traditions—professional dancers will envision their body being able to do certain things, and this begins to open up possibilities in their tissue. It’s also used in movement therapies, like Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen’s Body-Mind Centering or Feldenkrais.
YB The title of your workshop is Imagine That: Using Imagery and Narrative to Deepen Yoga. You’ve described the image; what is the narrative?
Randal The narrative is how the teacher consciously engages and transforms the image. In order to transform it, there needs to be some storyline, some journey. Like the towel rack image you mentioned-you start with the image of the body hanging over the towel rack, and the narrative would be what happens to the fabric of the towel as you release. As soon as you create that space of change, or open-endedness, that’s where we come into narrative. I get very excited about that, because not only does it provide the teacher with a trajectory, but it also provides the exchange between teacher and student with a platform where you can speak directly into the student’s experience.
YB You are particularly inspired by the natural world. Is nature a source for you of the kind of imagery and narrative you might use in a yoga class?
Randal Nature presents an environment that is alive. First of all, it’s a garden. And it contains the opposites or polarities of life and death. The life force is being expressed as creation, sustain, and decay or release—which just happens to also be the mythically imagined trinity of Hinduism namely Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva. You can look at anything in nature—for example, look at what happens to a tree over time. It sprouts, roots, grows, blossoms, bears fruit, and then eventually decays and releases back into the substrate of existence. Nature is the ultimate window on life, just bursting with narrative, demonstrating the experience and the cycle of life.
When we step out of our routine and step into nature, it’s sort of shocking. We come from indoors or our jobs, and we have our own particular context we’ve adapted and become habituated to—we’re encouraged and rewarded for holding it together. When I go into nature, it’s like going to see a teacher, being able to go from the ruts or stuckness into an atmosphere that is full of wisdom. There’s very little for me to do other than be open to the prana and the modeling that’s available in nature, watching the clouds pass through the sky, feeling the wind against my skin, being reminded of sensation. These are all pranic expressions that remind me or encourage me to remember that my stuckness and my contraction will also pass. For me, it’s like the ultimate yoga studio to be in the woods and watch nature unfold. Nature is a reservoir of wisdom in terms of modeling how the life force flows, and providing us the opportunity to watch and reflect that, reminding us that things rise but they also pass away. I sense that the folks that codified yoga knew this and left the seeds of the teachings in the images of nature—once you truly comprehend the tree, you also understand depth teaching of life cycle as a reminder to the ego of pranic reality.
Nature is actually a term used in yoga for thousands of years. Nature is interchangeable with states of matter, and the Sanskrit for this is prakriti. We have purusha, the self, and prakriti, the object or phenomena. In the context of yoga, everything outside the essential self, or the witness, is a natural phenomena. Everything you can experience, whether it’s a dream, a feeling, a sensation, a thought, or a garden, is all nature, and the investigation of this relationship—between observer and observed—is really what yoga is all about. Ultimately one is investigating rhythm, vibrations, pulsations, and the creativity that is energized by life force. So when someone takes a walk in the woods and is inspired by something in nature, whether by leaning against the sturdy, rough trunk of a tree, smelling the fragrance of composting soil, or seeing a bird fly through the sky, it is very much in the same domain as someone going away for a retreat and sitting on their yoga mat on a block to observe the flow of breath sensation. Being with nature helps us to see things more clearly, to revive the consciousness of how we’re habitually feeling in our bodies so that we can breathe deep into our soul and appreciate the pervasive creativity of our personal experience.
Visit Randal online at www.randalwilliams.com.