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a kind of magic?

26th June 2007 permanent link

What is yoga asana practice for anyway? Part Four of a sporadic ongoing essay. (Part One, Part Two, Part Three)

This part originally began as Part Two of the series, but somehow it dragged as I was writing it and so ended up being last. This must tell us something. Most probably that I don’t personally find this part of the subject particularly interesting or relevant to my life and practice, even though plenty of other people seemingly do. Hatha Yoga as a way of raising kundalini, aligning chakras and so and so forth.

There is a certain tendency among gullible western yoga students of New Age tendencies to note and remember little bits of Patanjali and lots of the stuff about kundalini, chakras and the subtle body in mediaeval tantric yoga texts like the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, and not notice or care that those two bodies of learning represent quite different and to some degree contradictory perspectives. It is in the mediaeval tantric stuff that we find discussion of esoteric concepts like chakras and kundalini.

Patanjali is all about quite systematically analysing and learning to control one’s mental processes in order to learn that they are not Who You Are. Tantric hatha yoga was first documented much later – the Hatha Yoga Pradipika dates from about two thousand years after Patanjali. Those later texts may be documenting oral traditions that were already ancient when they were first written down, that go back to Patanjali’s time or even before. Or not. We may never know. And no matter how old, they are from a quite different tradition that is about quite different things than Patanjali.

Patanjali may have been aware of some of that stuff, but doesn’t appear to have regarded it as very interesting or important. In fact, he goes out of his way to warn us, at considerable length by his standards, that siddhis – supernatural powers or unusual abilities derived from the practice of yoga – are not what it’s all about at all. I have the impression that the authors of the mediaeval tantric texts seem to have somewhat overlooked that part. I’m not an expert, but I’ve heard Pattabhi Jois, who is, talk pretty dismissively about the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.

I don’t take it literally at all. That is, I don’t doubt that real, repeatable phenomena are being described by these texts; there are too many consistent descriptions of them, from too many independent sources, for that not to be the case. But I tend towards a sceptical/scientific/materialist view of them – not with a closed mind, I hope, but one that applies Occam’s razor and says: show me conclusively that these things can’t be satisfactorily explained as ordinary physical, physiological, neurological phenomena, then I’ll be ready to consider other hypotheses. I thought for a long time the standard explanations in old yogic texts of how and why these phenomena work were metaphorical or just downright wrong. Kundalini as the phlogiston of metaphysics.

While the original writers probably had a first person experience of what they were talking about that conformed to the basic laws of physics, all the baggage that has been attached because of misunderstanding has obscured the real knowledge to the point of fantasy.
Mushtaq Ali

Then I had some experiences, then I read a book.

Last summer I was working quite intensively on my backbending. I have a very stiff upper back, caused by … whatever. Rock climbing, desk job, unresolved emotional issues … it doesn’t matter. I have it. And when I started seriously trying to stop having it, one of the things that happened after a few weeks was that I started to feel little sharp tingles, like tiny electric shocks, between my shoulder blades. I put this down to nerve endings starting to get signals in places where nothing had moved for years, or something like that. Until one warm summer afternoon when I had just finished working on my backbends on the hill in my local park, and I got a huge jolt right in the mula bandha.

That was surprising.

Paul Grilley, about some of whose ideas I am sceptical, nevertheless has an interesting book entitled Yin Yoga. In it he cites the work of Japanese researcher Dr. Hiroshi Motoyama, who believes he has identified electrical currents flowing in the body’s connective tissue, corresponding to the chi meridians of acupuncture. Grilley describes and recommends a slow, relaxed yoga practice with long static holds in postures, that is designed to stretch and realign connective tissue rather than muscle fibres, in order to facilitate the free flow of these currents. (*)

Something else I learned in the last year, starting in some classes I took with Mark Whitwell: how, by chanting or doing breathing exercises whilst directing attention to the seven main chakras in turn, working up from the root chakra at the base of the spine to the crown of the head, to quite quickly get into states of deep inward focus – pratyahara – in which I feel a sense of great calm and contentment. This is nice. But does it mean I’m tapping into some kind of specal energy via my chakras, or are they just serving as a convenient focus for meditation in the same way that yoga asanas (see Part Three) also can? Different focus points can quite obviously have different effects – even for me with my limited experience, chakra-plus-breath meditation is different from breath alone, and very different indeed from heartbeat.

These techniques are real and powerful. But does learning to generate weird electrical impulses in your body or pleasant mental states have anything to do with actually becoming enlightened? Not as such directly, if we want to take Patanjali’s opinions on the matter seriously. At most we can take as a sign that we’ve learned enough mental and physical control to be able to direct and focus our attention in a certain way for a certain amount of time. Directed and focused attention is the useful skill that’s actually being learned here, not the coincidental and arbitrary things that we choose to use as the objects of our attention and focus when we’re practicing.

That was the state of my thinking/experience/understanding up to a few weeks ago, when I discovered the blog of science fiction writer, martial artist and all-round interesting thinker Steven Barnes. He has an interesting idea about the chakras corresponding to aspects of human psychology, similar to Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs - the root chakra to physical survival etc. Also worth thinking about.

(*) I note here, without necessarily expressing a conclusion either way, that this would appear to go against a general medical/physiological consensus that stretching connective tissue is unhealthy and dangerous as it can lead to over-flexibility and unstable joints. Something some very flexible yoga practitioners would do well to think about. The ashtanga vinyasa series are good here, since you can’t get by without being both adequately flexible and strong. I’ve seen very flexible students cruise through primary series and the beginning of intermediate, only to falter in a big way towards the end of intermediate where serious strength starts to be required.

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