The arch-yogi, Shiva, was known to practice his asanas and meditate atop mountains in the Himalayas. This is among the first points Tias Little, who runs Santa Fe-based Prajna Yoga with his wife, Surya, makes when we start talking about why yogis benefit from heading to places outside the quiet sanctuary of studios and, perhaps, into the mountains. In the practice itself, Little points to the mountains represented in tadasana, a root for many of the poses.
"Mountain pose is the sort of quintessential yoga pose; it's the first pose of all of the practice," he says.
The mountains and yoga are intertwined, clearly. That's sometimes tough to remember in an era when so many people practice in closed rooms, with music pumping through speakers.
Little takes his practice, and his teaching, to Telluride this month for the 10th annual Telluride Yoga Festival. He's been attending for years, and the tradition that's built up is that he and his 12-year-old son go a few days early to mountain bike or backpack through Colorado's peaks before the festival. They'll load mountain bikes on the gondola to ride up the slopes at Telluride and then bomb the downhill trails, or take the dog and backpack through the nearby wilderness areas.
"It's great to be doing a lot of outdoor activity, and fitness kind of training in the summertime in the mountains," Little says. "Just being able to be in nature, and experience the prana [essential life force]. Yoga is all about moving prana. … And the more outdoor time we get, the happier and healthier we can be."
At the festival, Little's work moves more within, to indoor spaces where he teaches classes on the fascia, the body's connective tissue; meditation; moving the blood, lymph and cerebral spinal fluid. His teaching focuses on the so-called subtle body, the more subtle energy systems yoga is meant to fine-tune. There's also a healthy dose of doing sun salutations from a vantage with a view of the valley, and meditating amid the aspen trees.
It sounds luxurious, but it's also how yoga was practiced for millennia. Little says it taps into the root goal of this 5,000-year-old tradition, which has more to do with training your mind than toning your abs.
In three and a half decades of practice, and two teaching, he sees that people start with the fitness and physical elements, and then begin to delve into the more intangible effects. In 2015, he published a manual on those approaches, Yoga of the Subtle Body: A Guide to the Physical and Energetic Anatomy of Yoga.
"All my life's work is really guiding people toward the contemplative side of yoga, to really work in the interior and in the subtle body," Little says. "So we can start on the outside with the outer forms and as we peel away the onion and work more and more toward the interior, and en route to that, one has to work with their own fears and hopes and judgments and shame and traumas and dreams. So we kind of lay out all these different layers of progression in the mind-body connection. … You go far enough, the practice gets more and more subtle, really, and that's really where the juice is."
His students, whether they find him here in Santa Fe, during his annual appearance at the Telluride Yoga Festival, or at other courses he teaches around the country, are less the "flow and glow" type. They're ones who want to come to sit still and meditate. His courses at Prajna Yoga are often weeks long, and some culminate in eight-day silent meditation retreats.
"It's really helping people dig a deep well," he says.
And that, somehow, circles back to the mountains, and this notion of a mind that resembles the view from the top of a peak.
"The tradition of meditation and yoga have always been linked to spacious awareness or boundless awareness, so that experience of vastness or spaciousness is really so palpable up there," he says. "Tibetans notice that experience of the mind like space, uncluttered and without a lot of distractions. … In the classic Buddhist literature, the mind is described as empty. People equate that with vacuousness, but it's just the opposite; it's boundless, that boundless awareness identified to be space, or sky."
Tias Little teaches courses on yoga and fascia, vital fluids, meditation and alignment during the Telluride Yoga Festival (July 20-23 in Telluride, Colorado). Surya Little will teach classes on arm balances and backbends. More details and registration at tellurideyogafestival.com.