Why does Yoga give you a “high”?

Many methods of Yoga have been developed in the Upanishads and other scriptures – Raja Yoga, Hatha Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Mantra Yoga and what not.  Why do they work?  What is the physiological basis for the “high” you get through meditation?   This is a brief exploration of this topic.

Transformation (2006). Painting by Hufreesh Dumasia@Auroville. Click image for artist homepage

There exist three subtle channels (Nadis) in the spine (Meru Danda) through which the breath(Prana) can flow – the Ida(left), the Pingala(right) and the Sushumna(central channel).  Normally, the breath flows through only the left and right channels.   As long as the breath moves erratically in this fashion, the mind continues to feed on the objective world and Man lives in Ignorance of his/her true nature.

The beneficial effect of meditation, irrespective of the method you follow, begins to be experienced when the breath begins moving up through the central channel (Sushumna).   In this condition, the rest of the body tends to become stiff and devitalized.   This is what most people experience in the initial short phases of meditation – a concentration of consciousness near the spine and the brain, a transient awareness of peace and well-being followed by a return to the commotion of the world.   In this passage, Sri Anirvan elucidates on the reason our experience of delight is tied physiologically to the spinal channel.

…every thought and movement gives rise in the nervous current in the spinal channel to a vibration which is subtle and deep, yet full of ecstatic power. At present the spinal channel in us is insensitive and unfelt, and as a rule human beings are seldom ever aware of it except at the climax of the sexual experience; the spinal channel opens briefly at that time, which is why the sexual hunger in human beings is so strong. When the spinal channel is open and awake, our inner consciousness is flooded with samarasya (an equal delight in all things). (1)

With regular meditation, the movement of the breath in the central channel becomes strengthened while its (formerly) natural course along the left and right channels is weakened.   The first effect of regular Yoga practice is a certain agility and steadiness of mind.  With further progress, the movement of the breath arouses the Kundalini which activates the various spinal centers (Chakras) leading eventually to the state of Samadhi (enlightenment).

The various methods of Yoga are all effectively working towards this same end – to coax the breath into that central channel – although they differ on the ease and suitability to any given individual. Hatha Yoga uses various breathing techniques (Kumbhaka) to guide the breath into the central channel while Raja Yoga employs the suspension of the thought process to  indirectly moderate the breath and redirect it into the central channel.  As Arthur Avalon writes, the various stages of Raja Yoga correspond to progressions in the practice of Pranayama in Hatha Yoga. If the breath is retained for a particular time it corresponds to Pratyahara, if for a longer time it is called Dharana, and so on until Samadhi is attained, which is equivalent to breath retention for the longest period(2).   The path of devotion (Bhakti Yoga) through the chanting of hymns and adoration of the Divine subtly opens the the heart center and delicately leads the breath inwards bringing about a state of blissful rapture.  In this short excerpt, Ramana Maharshi explains how the method of self-inquiry fulfills the same purpose.

Question: How can one direct the prana (life-force) into the sushumna nadi [the central psychic nerve in the spine] so that the chit-jada-granthi can be severed in the manner stated in Sri Ramana Gita?

Ramana Maharshi: By enquiring `Who am I?’ The yogi may be definitely aiming at rousing the kundalini and sending it up the sushumna. The jnani may not be having this as his object. But both achieve the same results, that of sending the life-force up the sushumna and severing the chit-jada-granthi. Kundalini is only another name for Atma or Self or Shakti.  We talk of it as being inside the body, because we conceive ourselves as limited by this body. But it is in reality both inside and outside, being not different from Self or the shakti of Self.  (3)

The Chid-Jada-Granthi (Chit=Consciousness, Jada=inertness/body, Granthi=knot) mentioned by Ramana Maharshi is the knot which ties the spirit to the body.  This is what gives us our ego-sense (Ahankara).

See Also

  1. The Triple Cord which ties the soul to the objective world.
  2. The subtle sounds which indicate progress in Yoga
  3. Explaining the Ascent-Descent in Integral Yoga

References

  1. Sri Anirvan. Inner Yoga, p 15 (amazon)
  2. Arthur Avalon. Serpent Power, Chap VI Practice Laya-Krama.
  3. David Godman. Be as you are, p 214 (online)
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17 thoughts on “Why does Yoga give you a “high”?

  1. kalpana

    Yes, the good news is that Yoga and meditation done in the right way is conducive to happiness and living joyfully. Here are some links with regards to Buddhist practices

    1] http://www.pnas.org/content/101/46/16369.full
    Is a link on previous studies related to physiological effects, including ‘highs’.
    2] In the context of ‘recollection’ meditation:
    [1] “There is the case where you recollect the Tathagata: ‘Indeed, the Blessed One is pure and rightly self-awakened, consummate in knowledge & conduct, well-gone, an expert with regard to the world, unexcelled as a trainer for those people fit to be tamed, the Teacher of divine & human beings, awakened, blessed.’ At any time when a disciple of the noble ones is recollecting the Tathagata, his mind is not overcome with passion, not overcome with aversion, not overcome with delusion. His mind heads straight, based on the Tathagata. And when the mind is headed straight, the disciple of the noble ones gains a sense of the goal, gains a sense of the Dhamma, gains joy connected with the Dhamma. In one who is joyful, rapture arises. In one who is rapturous, the body grows calm. One whose body is calmed senses pleasure. In one sensing pleasure, the mind becomes concentrated.

    “Mahanama, you should develop this recollection of the Buddha while you are walking, while you are standing, while you are sitting, while you are lying down, while you are busy at work, while you are resting in your home crowded with children.”

    Thus one can self-administer such a wonderful high even in daily life, through skilful Buddhist practices, as also Mother’s suggestion to ‘Laugh with the Lord’.

    Reply
  2. kalpana

    The hatha yogis …requires very long and determined practice which becomes his second nature and the yogi remains perfectly unagitated… practises the six preliminary exercises and then controls the breath (Pranayama) until he can make the air enter the Sushumna nadi. Since the earlier effort is considerable owing to control of breath, there is a heavy strain which is suddenly relieved by the entry of air in Sushumna. The resulting happiness is comparable to that of a man suddenly relieved of a pressing load on his back. His mind is similar to that of man in a swoon or a state of intoxication. Both classes of hatha yogis experience a happiness similar to that of deep slumber.”Tripura Rahsya

    Reply
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  4. Sandeep Post author

    The various methods of Yoga are all effectively working towards this same end – to coax the breath into that central channel – although they differ on the ease and suitability to any given individual

    In this short excerpt from the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, Ramakrishna emphasizes the same point made above. He elucidates that both bhakti yoga and jnana yoga are working towards the same end – towards kumbhaka (i.e. cessation of breath)

    The fact is that unless your mind is steady, there can be no yoga, whatever path you may take. The mind of a yogi is under his control. The yogi is not controlled by the mind.

    When the mind becomes steady, breathing stops and one experiences kumbhaka. The same kumbhaka is experienced in Bhakti Yoga (path of devotion). The breath becomes suspended by following the path of devotion, too. As one repeats, ‘My Nitai is like a mad elephant,’ one is filled with a deep spiritual mood. Then one cannot complete the whole line. One says, ‘Elephant, elephant!’ and after that one is only able to say, ‘Ele!’

    “In the state of bhava, breathing is suspended and one experiences kumbhaka.
    Source: http://www.kathamrita.org/kathamrita2/k2sec08.htm

    Reply
  5. Sandeep Post author

    Another reference on this topic is the Trisikhi Brahmanopanishad which is part of the Shukla Yajur Veda. It clearly states below that the path through the sushumna opens for yogins, while the rest of the humanity breathes through the left and right nadis.

    This translation is by N.S. Subrahmanian:

    Prana courses through the two nostrils in turns. Here the three nadis, the ida, pingala and the sushumna which are in the pathway of the prana convey the vital air throughout the body having as their presiding deity soma, surya and agni. Of these, the course through the sushumna is possible only in the case of the yogins. In the case of all others it courses always through the right nostril (yamya) of the nasal orifice for as long a duration as it does through the left nostril (saumya).

    (Source: N.S. Subrahmanian. Encyclopaedia of the Upaniṣads, New Delhi : Sterling, 1985, p 397)

    Reply
    1. Sandeep Post author

      Prana(life-force) flowing through the Sushumna is a precursor to the flow of Kundalini – be it ascending or descending. Both utilize the same central channel.

      Reply
  6. Sandeep Post author

    There are four stages(bhumikas), according to the Varaha Upanishad verses 5.71-76.

    Arambha: Giving up all external functions a novice begins to function internally.
    Ghata: The ghata stage is that in which the vital air firmly takes its stand after piercing the three knots. (This is equivalent to the Prana moving through the central Sushumna channel as discussed above)
    Paricaya: The paricaya stage is where the vital air stands motionless and firm in the sahasrara (chakra) of the body. The vital air is said to be alive because of its vitality, and dead because of just its absence of functioning.
    Nispatti : In nispatti the yogin reaches the state of a jivanmukta (liberated) in the natural course and experiences the ecstasy of the state of asamprajnata-samadhi.

    (N.S. Subrahmanian. Encyclopaedia of the Upanishads, New Delhi : Sterling, 1985, pp 445-446)

    An alternate translation is available at http://www.celextel.org/108upanishads/varaha.html?page=3

    Reply
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  8. Sandeep Post author

    The Buddhist texts also concur on the central message of this post : the vital airs flowing through the two side channels have to be redirected to the central channel called Sushumna(the Buddhists call it avadhuti).

    The following text is from Glenn Mullin’s book “The six yogas of Naropa: Tsongkhapa’s commentary“, Ithaca:Snow Lion, 2005, p 139.

    “In general, all systems of highest yoga tantras’s completion stage involve the preliminary process of controlling the vital energies flowing through the two side channels, rasana and lalana, and redirecting them into the central channel, avadhuti. This is indispensable.

    There are numerous ways of accomplishing this, based on the traditions of the Indian mahasiddhas, who drew from the various tantric systems….When these energies enter the central channel the four blisses are induced, and one cultivates meditation on the basis of these in such a way as to give rise to the innate wisdom of mahamudra”

    Reply
  9. Sandeep Post author

    In Hatha Yoga, the Khechari Mudra produces the same effect : it redirects the vital airs flowing through the two side channels into the central channel.

    Disciple : In Khechari Mudra the lower connecting line of the tongue is to be cut.

    Sri Aurobindo : I think Keshavananda at Chandod also had his tongue freed by cutting it for Khechari.

    Disciple : What is, after all, the result of Khechari Mudra?

    Sri Aurobindo : I believe it leads to a kind of trance which may give a certain Ananda.

    Disciple : The idea seems to be to invert the freed tongue so as to close the passage of breathing. The two nostrils are called the Ida and Pingala currents of Prana. The third is Sushumna on the crown of the head. When these two are stopped, by inverting the tongue and blocking the passage of breathing, then Sushumna begins to function. The theory is that Nectar – Amrita – is dropping from the Sushumna even now but as the tongue does not taste it, man does not enjoy the nectar. There is also a tradition that in Khechari Mudra one is able to fly.

    Sri Aurobindo : It only gives a kind of trance and a conse­quent Ananda(bliss) : I do not know what else it does.

    (A.B. Purani, Evening Talks With Sri Aurobindo, First series, p 51)

    Reply
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  13. Al

    Very nice article and comments.

    An interesting definition of yoga was given by one of the greatest Indian yogis and philosophers of the 20th century: Swami Krishnananda of Divine Life Society fame. He arrived at Shivananda’s ashram at a very early age (early 20s), and only left when his body was deposited in the Ganga in Muni-Ki-Reti in front of the ashram inside a wicker basket in November, 2001. I was fortunate to have an epistolary relationship with Swamiji. He wrote that yoga is summarized by:

    1.The restraint of the mind by eliminating its desires one by one gradually, adopting as many ways as would be necessary in accordance with the nature of the desires, known as Mano Nigraha.
    2.The restraint of the Prana by the well-known method of Pranayama, called Prana Nirodha.
    3.The affirmation of the universality of Brahman in one’s own consciousness, thinking only of That, speaking only about That, discussing among one another only on That, and depending on That alone, known as Brahma-Abhyasa. This is basically the practice of the presence of Brahman.

    The most potent of the 3, Swamiji affirmed, was Brahma-Abhyasa, which, when properly practiced, restrains both the mind and the Prana simultaneously. This becomes the main method of meditation. Brahma-Abhyasa is defined in Swami Vidyaranya’s “Panchadasi” as:

    “The practice of meditation on Brahman, the wise cognizer, means reflection on It, talking about It, mutually producing logical arguments about It – thus to be fully occupied with It alone.”
    Panchadasi VII-106

    Brahma-Abhyasa is a Vedantic, Jnana Yoga, practice par excellence.

    As per Kechari Mudra, The Hatha Yoga Pradipika is one of the texts that defines Kechari Mudra (Chapter III, 6-7). This mudra was incorporated into the Kriya Yoga of Lahiri Baba of Benares, as such it was part of my initiation through Swami Hariharananda Giri. The practice of cutting the lingual frenulum to elongate the tongue is in disuse, but was common among yogis in the past. The idea was to be able to plug
    the entrance to the nasal cavity.

    As per Ramana Maharshi assertion, quoted above that: “Kundalini is only another name for Atma or Self or Shakti”. This is not my experience through Kundalini Yoga, precisely. Kundalini being at times, as the life force, in direct opposition to the aspirations of the spiritual life, that’s why a kundalini yoga had to be invented to canalize it and use it for that purpose.

    Reply
  14. 01

    So interesting. I did some random pranayama from Hatha Yoga Pradipika and beauty problems I’m having with my face just disappeared, I had great complexion, my sinusitis stopped, I started to breathe through the nose all the time and had really restful sleep. It didn’t last, so I tried it again the next day, but got overexcited and did it all wrong and had negative side effects.

    In taoism, there are exercises, breathing exercises and meditation. At later stages, but you can only do this if you’re very healthy already, there is that super-long breath retention, till you eventually stop breathing at all. Well, sounds deadly, lol. But it’s supposed to give physical immortality, or whatever. So, by above, taoists are trying to force permanent samadhi with pranayama (well, it’s not called pranayama)?

    Reply

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