Trinity: The Three Levels of a Yoga or Qigong Practice – part 1

By Elizabeth Reninger

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.

— click here for part 2 of this article.