In Part 1 of this article I will explain the importance of extending ones inversions, headstand and shoulder stand. I will show how for meditation to succeed what yogis call prana or amrita (nectar) needs to be accumulated or preserved. The process to do so is called pratyahara, the fifth limb of yoga. There are three main approaches to pratyahara, i.e. Patanjali’s mental approach, Rishi Yajnavalkya’s pranic approach and Siddha Gorakhnath’s physical approach. In my own practice I found out that for swift success it is best to combine all three. Part 2 of the article will explain the practical aspects of extending inversions. Both parts are modified excerpts of my book Yoga Meditation.
Body, breath and mind are closely linked and, while it is possible to master one without the other, you are stacking the odds in your favour if you work on all three simultaneously. Part 2 of this book teaches the technique of how to master the mind, the Raja Yoga. How fast you will progress depends of course on how much time you invest – and even more on how sophisticated your efforts are during this time. However, the velocity of your success also largely depends on whether your breath and body support and accelerate your efforts or if they weigh down your mind by holding it in the past.
This chapter talks about a set of yogic techniques that bring your breath and body to a state where they will support your mental efforts. These techniques are the inversions, and they bring about a state called Amrita Siddhi. While the inversions – chiefly shoulder stand and headstand – are known to every yogi, few practise them seriously enough to bring about Amrita Siddhi. Here Amrita Siddhi is explained along with how inversions can achieve it.
AMRITA SIDDHI: HATHA YOGA’S APPROACH TO PRATYAHARA
Directly translated, Amrita Siddhi means deathless achievement. While some have taken this to refer to physical immortality, what it really means is that you attain to that which is deathless, that is the pure consciousness or sacred self. Having said that, it appears that some of the ancient siddhas and rishis did in fact become immortal, but whether this was primarily caused by inversions is anyone’s guess.
There is some confusion around the habit of yogis using different terms to describe the same thing. When the ancient treatises were written it was considered inelegant to use the same term over and over again (in a quite similar way to how we look at language today). From our modern point of view it would make life simpler if the same term were used only ever to denote the same fact, as it would make yoga scriptures more akin to engineering manuals with a predictable outcome assured. For example the terms prana, Shakti, Kundalini and prakrti describe the phenomenon of energy, power and life force just from slightly different angles. In the case of inversions, it is the terms bindu, amrita, soma and Chandra that refer to the same phenomenon. To simplify, I call this phenomenon lunar prana.
Apart from the central energy channel, the body has two main nadis, Ida and Pingala, the lunar and solar nadis. The lunar nadi, Ida, directs the mind, incoming nerve signals and the five senses (jnanendriyas), which are also called the five entry doors of the self. The solar nadi, Pingala, directs outgoing nerve signals, the body and the organs of action (karmendriyas), which are the five exit doors of the self. Each of the two nadis draw on their own energy reservoirs. The storehouse of solar prana – that is, prana used for putting our stamp on the world, for being outgoing – is located in the Manipura (navel) Chakra. The lunar storehouse of prana – that is, prana located to digest sensory impressions and power the mind – is located in the centre of the cranium. This area above the soft palate that includes the thalamus, hypothalamus, pineal and pituitary glands, all centre around the larger area of the third ventricle, is the lunar prana centre, or in yogic scripture simply the moon. Please understand that there is only one prana, but, depending on where it is stored or in which nadi it flows, it has a different function.
In the lunar centre (Ajna Chakra) is located amrita, the nectar of immortality. In the navel area is located the solar centre of prana, or simply the sun, which among other things represents gastric fire. In our normal upright body position, amrita gravitates from the moon downward and is burnt by the sun. When the body is inverted for an extended period daily, amrita becomes stored/arrested. This can be taken to the extent of amrita siddhi, when the amrita is permanently stored and does not fall any more into the fire. This state is very important for the development of meditation and the higher limbs, as it automatically keeps the senses focused inwardly.
Amrita, the lunar prana, leaves the body through the moon-doors, which are the senses. The senses notice objects that we desire and drag the mind outwards. Once the mind has lost its centre, we project ourselves out into the world and ‘become’ the phenomena. We identify ourselves with what happens in our lives. However, as the Maitri Upanishad says, ‘If the fuel of the senses is withheld, the mind is reabsorbed into the heart.’ (Maitri Upanishad VI.35). This is a metaphor for us abiding in our true nature of consciousness. There are many yogic techniques that prevent the reaching out of the senses. Once the senses reach out and we identify ourselves with the world, we are pulled away like a chariot dragged away by uncontrollable horses. This reaching out of the senses is related to amrita (lunar prana) seeping out of the Ajna Chakra, the lunar chakra in the centre of the head. The most straightforward way to prevent the senses from doing this is not through meditation but by arresting this prana through inversions.
Readiness for meditation is supported by inversions. Meditation can bring about spiritual freedom, but that is likely only when alchemical changes have been made in brain and body. Patanjali lists the fifth limb of yoga as pratyahara (Yoga Sutra II.29). This is often translated as ‘sense withdrawal’ but I prefer to call it ‘independence from external stimuli’. As long as you are dependent on external stimuli, your meditation practice will always remain hamstrung. That’s why Patanjali places pratyahara as the gatekeeper to the higher limbs. He lists pratyahara as a bahiranga (outer limb), whereas he considers only dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (absorption), the last three limbs, as true antarangas (inner limbs) (Yoga Sutra III.7 ).
Patanjali does not go into any detail about how exactly pratyahara is to be achieved, but the truth is that the only limb of yoga that he does describe in any detail is samadhi. For all other limbs he does not spell out how to do them but only what the result will be once you have achieved them. This does not mean that pratyahara comes about in any way automatically or spontaneously just because other limbs are practised. As with all the other limbs, Pratyahara refers to a definite catalogue of techniques. In this chapter here we will follow the approach to pratyahara of the siddha Goraksha Natha. In Chapter 9 of this book I will explain Rishi Yajnavalkya’s approach, while in Chapter 12 Raja Yoga’s method to achieve the same goal will be shown. Thus there are in this text three levels of and approaches to pratyahara, which are linked to and support each other in scientific fashion.
Patanjali’s treatment of pratyahara in the Yoga Sutra is odd. First he defines what sort of attainment in pranayama (the fourth limb) makes one fit for dharana (concentration, the sixth limb) (Yoga Sutra II.53). It initially appears strange that he does not link pranayama to pratyahara directly but jumps straight ahead to dharana. He then goes back and defines the effects of pratyahara in two sutras, only to then move on and define dharana (again without giving the actual technique) (Yoga Sutra II.54-55). It is reason- able to assume, then, that Patanjali understood both pranayama and pratyahara as two separate sets of techniques, which, while each of them in its own way prepared for and was necessary for dharana, could be practised entirely independently of each other. What exactly the method of pratyahara was Patanjali did not spell out, but neither did he do so in the cases of asana, pranayama and dharana.
While ancient yoga masters such as Yajnvalkya and Vasishta gave mental and prana-related methods for pratyahara, the great siddha Goraksha Natha taught that pratyahara was not a mental process but a physical one. He said that, while diseases were counteracted by asana and karmic demerit by pranayama, mental disturbances were to be conquered by the method of pratyahara (Goraksha Shataka stanza 54). Of the hundred verses of his original treatise Goraksha Shataka, he devotes a staggering twelve stanzas to pratyahara, showing its importance (Goraksha Shataka stanzas 54–66).
Pratyahara is achieved, according to the siddha, by inverting the body, thus placing the sun above the moon. This method Goraksha Natha calls Viparita Karani (inverted action). In order to arrest the lunar prana, the body needs to be inverted. Viparita Karani is the name not of a particular posture but of a category of postures, chief of which are the shoulder stand (Sarvangasana) and headstand (Shirshasana). Headstand and shoulder stand both have a slightly different way in which they prevent the loss of lunar prana. In the case of the shoulder stand the amrita still seeps out from the ‘moon’ (Ajna Chakra) but it is caught in the Vishuddha Chakra (throat chakra). For this purpose it is essential to use Jihva Bandha (tongue lock) during shoulder stand: the tongue is folded back on itself and inserted as much as possible into the nasopharyngeal orifice.
During headstand, however, the lunar prana is arrested in its original location, the Ajna Chakra. If either of these two states is achieved, one obtains a centred personality, independent of external stimuli and gratification. One’s motivation is also not any more encouragement from other people or obtaining their respect or friendship. Because he/she who has obtained Amrita Siddhi does not relate any more to others from a position of need, for the first time they are able to selflessly serve others and love them unconditionally.
This is an excerpt from my 2013 text Yoga Meditation. Stay tuned for part 2.