The ultimate purpose of yoga is to change the quality of experience and to change the quality of the mind and its perception.
Kundalini Tantra, p. 100
[Y]ou are not the body and its sensations, you are not your emotions, you are not your intellect, you are not your mind in any way.
Meditations from the Tantras, p. 58
It has been said before: yoga is one of the oldest methods for the physical, spiritual, and psychological development of individuals there is. With thousands of years of history spanning multiple continents, and millions of people regularly practising it, there’s no denying that there’s something to yoga that makes it relevant for contemporary individuals across cultures and walks of life.
Still, the language used in this practice, what yoga purports to do, and how it goes about doing it can sometimes sound like a bit of a hoax to the everyday person. Which is why, this entry today will explain what the language of yoga really stands for and how to make sense of this practice’s keywords from a western, and thus, predominantly rational point of view.
Ideas of the body-mind
No discussion can be had without assuming certain variations with regards to the way in which different cultural traditions interpret the notions of ‘body’ and ‘mind.’ Granted, for us westerners, one of the main issues when thinking ‘yogic’ has to do precisely with what we normally understand as being ‘the body’ or ‘the mind.’ We are extreme materialists –or as philosopher Rosi Braidotti likes to put it ‘matter-realists.’ And so, we generally consider ‘the mind’ to reside in the brain and ‘the body’ to end exactly with the skin. The skin is thus the final frontier, the end-line marking the place where our body-minds end and the rest of the world begins.
Ironically, however, we gain experiences from the world beyond the limits of our skin on a regular basis. Our eyes see well beyond the confines of our eye sockets, our skin feels sensations beyond what direct contact permits, our sense of smell catches whiffs of something long before we establish direct physical contact with a given object, and so on and so forth. Similarly, though we cannot perceive many elements at the macro- or micro-level, we choose to believe in their existence nevertheless: from the air, to the atmosphere, energy fields, atoms, subatomic particles, or sound waves, the world above and below us is nothing short of real science fiction!
Hence, if we were able to contemplate the possibility of our body-minds not ending where our skin does, it would be possible as well to believe that they extend beyond this visible organic frontier. This is precisely yoga’s take.
How they extend can then be represented in different ways: as ethereal layers wrapped onto our bodies much like onion peels –the way in which the yogic ‘koshas’ are normally represented; as alternative planes of existence or other dimensions; or as aspects of our bodies that are just not visible to the human eye. The world is our oyster! Regardless of the representational method, elements like chakras, nadis, vayus, even karma, would then reside in one of these; connected to the visible portion of our body-minds, yet extending beyond what visible physicality permits.
The goal of yoga
Once the notions of body and mind are thus corrected it becomes much easier to understand ‘yogic.’ Indeed, yoga is a profoundly spiritual, yet empirically-based, set of ethical and practical guidelines –nicely summarized by Patanjali's 8 limbs of yoga: Yamas, Niyamas, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, Samadhi– aimed at promoting self-enquiry, peace of mind, and health.
Standing for ‘to yoke’ or ‘to unite,’ the whole purpose of yoga is to bring into harmonious balance a series of energies or polar opposites existing (or ‘vibrating’) around and within us. The intention is to allow individuals to transcend the current state of division they are in and help them attain self-realization. I’m speaking here of things like the dualities of mind and body, day and night, right and left, or male and female, for example, which in yoga can frequently translate to metaphors of sun and moon, Shakti and Shiva, yin and yang, fire and water…
These opposites are nothing but a way of speaking about the world, how it is made and how it operates, and exist in a permanent relation of push-and-pull: they attract and yet repel each other much like magnetically-charged elements. And this, in fact, is one of yoga’s key ideas; because, for yogis, the entire universe is built around an understanding of thought and matter as expressions of energy in vibration –more on this below.
Interpreting the human body as a miniaturized version of the entire universe, and the human spine as the axis or antenna catching all the signals of this ecosystem, yoga’s physical, spiritual, and meditative practices enable practitioners to progressively increase control over their body-minds to eventually bring together (or ‘into collision’) the polarized forces and energies mentioned above. The objective: to trigger the so-called ‘awakening of Kundalini-Shakti.’
Kundalini, normally depicted as a feminized deity, or as a coiled serpent resting at the base of the spine, is nothing but the name given to a reservoir of inner energy (or ‘prana’) lying dormant until it’s not. Often described with highly symbolic language, the energy of the kundalini is not unlike the type of electric charge circulating our bodies during moments of sexual climax. Ever thought were all that pent-up energy released during orgasm comes from? It runs through our entire body eventually exploding into the brain. Kundalini-Shakti operates in a similar way. All it takes for us for it to awaken is to progressively attune ourselves to the more subtle frequencies around us, and slowly withdraw from the world of mundane sound and experience and into that of inner stillness.
Kundalini, then, pertains to the world of subtle, yet present energy. It is one of the manifestations of prana (physical energy) and chitta (mental energy). Working much like an ethereal engine, once it is jump started or awakened, this form of condensed vital energy is fired upwards through our spine and into the upper chakras (‘anahata,’ ‘vishuddhi,’ ‘ajna,’ and ‘sahasrara’), eventually leading to spiritual transformation and, if fortunate, permanent illumination. This, my friends, is the real goal of yoga. Instagrammable pictures with tight clothing while performing hyperflexible poses are just an extra!
Traditional yoga, then, is a method, a user’s guide or how to manual for the proper storage of vital energy, the elimination of possible roadblocks to its free circulation in our extended body-minds and pathways (‘nadis’), and its eventual release.
The role of nadis and chakras
For energy to circulate freely into any system, good pathways must exist. Nadis are that. They are the highways of our extended energetic body-minds. With some manuals listing up to 72.000 nadis in the entirety of the human body, these pathways are in charge of conducting vital energy from one part of the body to another. Three of them, in particular, seem to play a more relevant role because of their proximity to our antenna, the spine, and thus to the main 7 chakras. These three nadis –Ida (left), Pingala (right), and Sushumna (center)– are, in fact, key for awakened Kundalini energy to be properly expressed. And so, most manuals refer almost exclusively to them. During the practice of yoga, for example, we activate these channels most effectively through the practice of pranayama.
Chakras, from the Sanskrit word for ‘wheel,’ are commonly described as “vortices of energy” moving in circular fashion “at particular rates of vibration” (Meditations, p. 22). As discussed earlier, matter is energy, or energy in low states of vibration. According to physics, the universe, planets, humans, even thoughts, and all matter in general is nothing but myriad frequencies or, put differently, different types of vibration vibrating at different frequencies (or rates) depending on the energy fields they are in.
Colors, for example, vary because they have different frequencies; sounds do too. And so do chakras, which are thus associated with particular colors and sounds depending on the frequency they vibrate in. This, in turn, is affected by their location.
Most manuals refer only to the main 7 chakras along our spine, though there are chakras both below and above that. Mooladhara, the root chakra, is the first one; Swadhisthana, in the low abdomen, the 2nd; Manipura, on the navel region, the 3rd; Anahata, in our chest area, the 4th; Vishuddhi, at throat level, the 5th; Ajna, the between-eyebrows spot, the 6th; and Sahasrara, at the crown of the head, the 7th. While each of these chakras has specific characteristics, roles, colors, sounds, and purposes, we can summarize the function of chakras by saying that they are doors to different degrees of perception; for they control and affect particular extended body-mind regions depending on their location, determining the amount of energy that passes through, or is released, into the upper chakras. The higher the position of the chakra along the spine, the more refined its rate of vibration, and thus, the more subtle its nature, effects, and energetic load.
Both chakras and nadis, then, are tightly connected. Chakras functioning as areas of energetic concentration and stimulation, and nadis allowing for said energy to move (or not) from one chakra to the next whether Kundalini-Shakti has been awakened or not.
Bringing it all home
In essence, all of these elements can be manipulated and transformed through awareness of posture (asana), breath (pranayama), and mind (meditation). This is why these three blocks constitute the focus of most traditional forms of yoga, with Hatha yoga being perhaps the most structured example.
There are, nevertheless, a number of other elements or yogic keywords worthy of explanation, such as vayus, vritis, granthis, or samadhi, for example, but going over all of them would make this entry redundant! So let's just bring it all home by saying that the whole point of the language of yoga is to give expression to you: to the reality of your body-mind ecosystem, emotions, and thoughts, thus portraying the relation of your ecosystem with the world around and within it.
Metaphorical, realistic, esoteric, or not, the truth is that, all it takes for you to understand 'yogic' is for you to open your mind enough to contemplate the possibility of subtle elements existing beyond what your eyes can see, what your brain can rationally understand, and what your skin can feel. There is a vast world of unknown possibility, if only you can learn to accept 'socratic living' and embrace "knowing that you know nothing" as the first step to understanding it all.