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.
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).
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