The following is an excerpt from my recently published book Yoga of the Subtle Body. Exactly what the subtle body refers to is a mystery. While there are many references for it in yoga, like chakras or nadis and it is activated by bandhas and mudras, the subtle body escapes definition. It is beyond any language, thought or scientific formulation. Perhaps the most important thing of all is the direct experience of its movement and flow inside our skin, tissues and glands.
What is the subtle body? Is it something material like connective tissue, hormonal secretion or neuronal pulse? Or is it formless, like space, pure energy, or consciousness? Is it tied to emotions such as fear or passion? In the tradition of yoga, the subtle body suggests that which is fine, delicate, and infinitesimally small such as an atomic particle. It also speaks to the all-pervading spirit and is one of the names of Siva.
When imagining the subtle body, the mystics and yogis of India and Tibet designed elaborate systems for navigating the body’s interior, akin to the network circuitry of a computer. These systems map the flow of breath called pr?na whose dynamic potency pumps, flows and trickles through myriad channels called nadis. The exact nature of these pathways is difficult to articulate in any one biological system; its potency suggests a physio-spiritual force that transcends scientific rationale.
The language and imagery used to articulate the subtle body, in collections such as the Upani?ads that date back as far as the 5th century BC and the Ha?ha Yoga Pradipika in the 15th century CE, are metaphorical and cryptic. This is due in part to the fact that the landscape of the inner body, long before the era of the microscope or magnetic resonant imaging (MRI), was visualized during states of profound meditation. Also descriptions of the subtle body were shrouded in metaphor and obscure so as not to be readily understood by the uninitiated, but reserved for those who trained with a qualified master. Ironically, today we have the opposite scenario where yoga teachings are ubiquitous, launched on the world wide web and made available to everyone at any time.