The Principles Underlying Kundalini Yoga

The Chakras are subtle energy centers found in the subtle body, also known as the psychic body, but there are correspondences for their action in the gross physical body. For most people the corresponding physical centres of energy are closed and they do not have immediate, complete and direct access to the force that is available to them when the chakras open. Yogic practices, however, can open these chakras, move the energy from the lowest center to the highest and awaken the practitioner into a state of superconscious awareness in Samadhi.

Sri Aurobindo describes this process briefly: “These Chakras or lotuses, however, are in physical man closed or only partly open, with the consequence that only such powers and only so much of them are active in him as are sufficient for his ordinary physical life, and so much mind and soul only is at play as will accord with its needs….The whole energy of the soul is not at play in the physical body and life, the secret powers of mind are not awake in it, the bodily and nervous energies predominate. But all the while the supreme energy is there, asleep; it is said to be coiled up and slumbering like a snake,–therefore it is called the kundalini sakti,–in the lowest of the Chakras, in the muladhara. When by Pranayama the division between the upper and lower Prana currents in the body is dissolved, this Kundalini is struck and awakened, it uncoils itself and begins to rise upward like a fiery serpent breaking open each lotus as it ascents until the Shakti meets the Purusha in the brahmarandhra in a deep Samadhi if union.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 28, Rajayoga, pp. 515-516

The Action of Prana at the Level of the Subtle Body

The Yogis of ancient India took a somewhat different approach toward understanding the physical world than we have seen in the West. Western scientists have generally started from the most external physical forms and from there, systematically moved inward toward more and more subtle understanding. The Yogis quickly recognized that the physical form is the outer, grossest expression and could not possibly be the ultimate cause, and that therefore, something else must be building, creating and operating the outer world and all its forms. The Taittiriya Upanishad, indeed, started from the outer physical and moved toward the vital, mental, knowledge and ultimately the spiritual levels of existence, with each one more subtle than the prior, and having a causative action on the former level.

These Yogis, when they looked at the interaction between the subtle inner levels and the gross physical forms, developed a detailed understanding of the principles of action of the vital force, which they called Prana. Sri Aurobindo describes briefly this view: “This mental or psychical body, which the soul keeps even after death, has also a subtle pranic force in it corresponding to its own subtle nature and substance,–for wherever there is life of any kind, there must be the pranic energy and a substance in which it can work,–and this force is directed through a system of numerous channels, called nadi,–the subtle nervous organisation of the psychic body,–which are gathered up into six (or really seven) centres called technically lotuses or circles, cakra, and which rise in an ascending scale to the summit where there is the thousand-petalled lotus from which all the mental and vital energy flows. Each of these lotuses is the centre and the storing-house of its own particular system of psychological powers, energies and operations,–each system corresponding to a plane of our psychological existence,–and these flow out and return in the stream of the pranic energies as they course through the Nadis.”

With this understanding, the practitioners of Yoga are able to understand how they can open to and utilize the energies flowing through or focused within any of these chakras and apply that energy to spiritual growth and realization, inner mental, emotional and vital development, interactions and relations with the outer world, and physical strength and well-being of the physical body.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 28, Rajayoga, pp. 514-515

Introduction to the Concept Behind the Science of Raja Yoga

The science of Raja Yoga utilizes Asana and Pranayama, but simplifies both of these down from the complexity and intensity practiced in Hatha Yoga. The goal of Raja Yoga is to gain control over the mind and what is called the “mind-stuff” (chitta) to bring it to a state of unmoving tranquil calm, such that the mind is totally detached from the physical body and the material world and is thereby able to achieve spiritual realization. Just as the practitioner of Hatha Yoga works to bring the power of immobility to the body, the practitioner of Raja Yoga wants to do the same for the Mind. The practitioner of Raja Yoga recognizes that there is a link, a continuity and a relationship between the mind and the body, and thus, utilizes Asana and Pranayama to ensure the body and nervous system are under control. Other elements of Raja Yoga are then added to focus, train and concentrate the mental power, and then exercise mastery over the nervous sheath and the physical sheath.

Historically, Western scientists have had difficulty accepting the reality of the mind or the soul. Sri Aurobindo observes: “Modern Science and psychology have … tried to establish that there is no separate entity as mind or soul and that all mental operations are in reality physical functionings.” More recently, with the rise of disciplines such as Quantum Physics, there has been a serious change in the standpoint of Western researchers, who now are not only willing to recognize a link between mind and body, but are even ready to declare that it is consciousness that is the reality that creates energy, which then creates physical being. Thus, we are beginning to see a convergence between modern day scientists in the West and the ancient seers and sages who practiced Yoga, and in particular Raja Yoga. Of course, for the vast majority of people, the dependence of the mind on the body is the “reality” and there are few who experience the separateness and dominance of the mind over the body. To the extent that people ordinarily do this, they in many cases talk about the power of suggestion, the power of prayer, the power of positive thought and emotion to make things happen both on the individual level and in the world. In the abstract there is truth in these assertions, but for most people, who have not undertaken the discipline to actually focus and concentrate the mental or spiritual power, the actual impact remains small.

The practice of Raja Yoga provides a scientific methodology to achieve this real power and exercise mastery over the body, life and mental processes, such that spiritual realisations can occur.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 28, Rajayoga, pg. 514

Prana, Chakras and Mastery of the Body and Life-Energy

The scientists of Hatha Yoga developed an understanding of the body and its interaction with the life-energy that relies on the subtle energy centers rather than solely on physical organ systems. The physical organ systems are part of the physical body’s structural mechanism, yet without the movement of the life-force, they are dead and unable to do anything. Everything relies on this life-force, which the ancient practitioners called “prana”. In their view, there is a universal life-force which permeates all existence and carries out activity. In the physical body, it is this force that makes the difference between “life” and “death” of the body. This is a subtle force, however, and not directly perceptible by the physical senses. The practitioners of Hatha Yoga felt that by gaining mastery over the most accessible manifestation of the life-force, the breathing process, they would be able to gain control over the entire range of subtle energy actions within the body.

Sri Aurobindo provides an overview of this understanding: “The Prana has according to Yogic science a fivefold movement pervading all the nervous system and the whole material body and determining all its functionings. The Hathayogin seizes on the outward movement of respiration as a sort of key which opens to him the control of all these five powers of the Prana. He becomes sensibly aware of their inner operations, mentally conscious of his whole physical life and action. he is able to direct the Prana through all the Nadis or nerve-channels of his system. He becomes aware of its action in the six Chakras or ganglionic centres of the nervous system, and is able to open it up in each beyond its present limited, habitual and mechanical workings. He gets, in short, a perfect control of the life in the body in its most subtle nervous as well as in its grossest physical aspects, even over that in it which is at present involuntary and out of the reach of our observing consciousness and will.”

Western scientists have done research on various claims of the Hathayogins and found that in fact, control over heartbeat, blood pressure, stress reduction and breathing could be effected by those who were proficient in the practices. Some of these are the “involuntary” functions that cannot normally be controlled by most people consciously.

This basis is a preparation for the higher aims sought by the Hathayogins, namely, the achievement of various psychic and spiritual realisations. Sri Aurobindo comments that at this point the action of Hatha Yoga begins to correspond more with the practices known as Raja Yoga, and thus, a review of Raja Yoga will be in order.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 27, Hathayoga, pp. 512-513

Combining Pranayama With Asana Enhances the Results of Hatha Yoga

The power of Asana to bring about stability and foundation to the physical body is only the beginning of the action of Hatha Yoga. In order to achieve the higher results of the practice, the use of Pranayama, the controlling of the vital force and its flow in the body, is essential. Pranayama is frequently associated with control of the breathing, but this is just the most visible, and thus easiest to grab hold of, aspect of the control of the Prana, or vital life-force. Starting from a stable Asana, the practitioner will develop control over the breathing apparatus to first bring about a calm, alert control, and later to begin to direct and focus the flow of the vital force into different organ systems and for a variety of purposes.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “Pranayama, starting from the physical immobility and self-holding which is secured by Asana, deals more directly with the subtler vital parts, the nervous system. This is done by various regulations of the breathing, starting from equality of respiration and inspiration and extending to the most diverse rhythmic regulations of both with an interval of inholding of the breath. In the end the keeping in of the breath, which has first to be done with some effort, and even its cessation become as easy and seem as natural as the constant taking in and throwing out which is its normal action.”

It should be noted in passing that practicing Pranayama without guidance can be disruptive, as the practitioner is changing the automatic breathing function that is natural to the body. Without clear and precise guidelines the basic balance between mind, nervous system and physical frame can be disrupted and health issues can ensue. This may include physical health disruptions and mental balance issues.

That said, there can be real benefits to the proper implementation of the practices of Pranayama: “But the first objects of the Pranayama are to purify the nervous system, to circulate the life-energy through all the nerves without obstruction, disorder or regularity, and to acquire a complete control of its functionings, so that the mind and will of the soul inhabiting the body may be no longer subject to the body or life or their combined limitations. The power of these exercises of breathing to bring about a purified and unobstructed state of the nervous system is a known and well established fact of our physiology. it helps also to clear the physical system, but is not entirely effective at first on all its canals and openings; therefore the Hathayogin uses supplementary physical methods for clearing them out regularly of their accumulations. The combination of these with Asana,–particular Asanas have even an effect in destroying particular diseases,–and with Pranayama maintains perfectly the health of the body. But the principle gain is that by this purification the vital energy can be directed anywhere, to any part of the body and in any way or with any rhythm of its movement.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 27, Hathayoga, pg. 512

The Body as a Perfected Instrument

The practitioner of Hatha Yoga looks at the body as the basis for further spiritual realization and thus, the intensive effort to make it stable, strong and energetic is intended to provide a true platform for spiritual development. A body that is weak, sick, tired or worn out is unable to sustain the concentration of conscious force (tapasya) needed to attain any kind of realization of a consciousness beyond the normal boundaries.

Sri Aurobindo explores the science of Hatha Yoga from this view: “The body, thus liberated from itself, purified from many of its disorders and irregularities, becomes, partly by Asana, completely by combined Asana and Pranayama, a perfected instrument. It is freed from its ready liability to fatigue; it acquires an immense power of health; its tendencies of decay, age and death are arrested.”

Youthful energy, extended life span and vigour are a few of the additional qualities that can ensue from the intensive practice of Hatha Yoga. The Hatha Yogin recognizes that the process of spiritual perfection requires long and patient effort, and the process of dying, and being once again born, and having to re-create the effort after a long period of growth and development of the instrument, is truly a burdensome effort–far better, therefore, if it were to become possible to lengthen the life and health sufficiently to allow far more progress, or even a full realization in the present lifetime!

Sri Aurobindo observes that the wide variety of Asanas, in many cases, quite complex and difficult to master, are able to re-route and regulate the energy flow within the physical system and “…it serves also to alter the relation of the physical energy in the body to the earth energy with which it is related.” Through these means the outer gross body becomes more refined and takes on more qualities of the subtle body, and physical effects, including the possibility of levitation may ensue. This is the basis by which certain special powers begin to manifest for the dedicated Hathayogin. “Moreover, the life ceases to be entirely dependent on the action of the physical organs and functionings, such as the heart-beats and the breathing. These can in the end be suspended without cessation of or lesion to the life.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 27, Hathayoga, pg. 511

The Perfection of Asana

For those who look upon the practice of Hatha Yoga as some kind of exercise program, the focus tends to be placed on the correct execution and form of the pose being adopted, and there is an ever-greater emphasis on taking on the next advanced pose. Sri Aurobindo reminds us however that the actual purpose of Asana, and thus, the perfection of Asana lies not in achieving new poses or forms, but in using Asana to bring a strong and unwavering power of holding greater energy without spilling it out either in nervous movements or in some kind of mental, vital or physical signs, such as a trembling of the body, which are indications of more energy moving through the system than it can easily hold.

“The body, accustomed to work off superfluous energy by movement, is at first ill able to bear this increase and this retained inner action and betrays it by violent tremblings; afterwards it habituates itself and, when the Asana is conquered, then it finds as much ease in the posture, however originally difficult or unusual to it, as in its easiest attitudes sedentary or recumbent. It becomes increasingly capable of holding whatever amount of increased vital energy is brought to bear upon it without needing to spill it out in movement, and this increase is so enormous as to seem illimitable, so that the body of the perfected Hathayogin is capable of feats of endurance, force, unfatigued expenditure of energy of which the normal physical powers of man at their highest would be incapable. For it is not only able to hold and retain this energy, but to bear its possession of the physical system and its more complete movement through it. The life-energy, thus occupying and operating in a powerful, unified movement on the tranquil and passive body, freed from the restless balancing between the continent power and the contained, becomes a much greater and more effective force.”

The power of bringing the body under complete control, able to hold whatever is brought to bear upon it, represents the perfection of Asana. In this case, it is not even really relevant which particular pose is adopted. The Hatha Yoga practitioner uses Asana as the first step in achieving capacities far beyond what we consider to be the normal human capacity, yet this is not the goal but just a first step in the process of liberating the consciousness from control by the physical body.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 27, Hathayoga, pp.. 510-511