Energy and the Chakras

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Most philosophies of liberation are fairly clear on one thing: The state of enlightenment, whatever it’s qualities and whatever techniques are appropriate for realizing it, is something that is already innate within each of us. However, we live in a world of physical stimuli, sensation, thought and intention that distracts us from our true nature. In yoga, these nested hierarchies of awareness are known as the koshas, or sheaths. They describe a way of deconstructing our subjective experience of the world. Our awareness comes into contact with the material world through our physical body, which vibrates in concert with the energy which stimulates it from the outside, these vibrations are transduced by our nervous system into sensations which move throughout the body forming energetic patterns which proceed a cascade of symbols, which are filtered into a series of binary decisions, which are made, reinoculated into the web of symbols and expressed as nerve signals which are transduced into mechanical energy and produce vibrations which emanate from our bodies back out into the world. Of course, this process is happening constantly and at speeds which render any linearity utterly diffuse. Energetic exchange between these various levels form the complex layers of meaning, metaphor and personality that seem to imbue the world as we experience it. But behind all of this there is a substratum of basic awareness. A consciousness that is not the physical body, not sensation, not thought, not intention.

Since we are this awareness, it doesn’t quite make sense to say that we need to become aware of it. It also doesn’t quite make sense to say that we need to experience it. We’re experiencing it all the time. It is the space between every thought, every intention, every flash of energy. The process of liberation can’t be a directing of awareness. Awareness can’t be directed. It can’t even really be said to do anything. It just is.

The point I’m trying to arrive at is that whatever spiritual awakening is, it is by necessity something that our body does. It is a process of gradually gaining control over each of these nested sheaths and relaxing their fluctuations sufficiently enough for us to abide in the ground of our own being, which is innate. This is essentially the philosophy that underlies the discipline of Hatha Yoga.

This process of relaxation, at it’s least subtle, is simple enough. Stretch and strengthen the body so that it functions efficiently, acquire a fine awareness of it’s physical mechanics so that it moves through the world with fluidity and ease, using as little energy as possible to do so, and learn how to control it so that tension can be released consciously. But as the process becomes more subtle, a more subtle domain of understanding begins to emerge, one that is concerned with the nexus between the mental and the physical, the interior and the exterior. With the body as experienced by it’s inhabitor, and the mind as propagated into the material world. This is the domain of prana, the energy body.

When you spend enough time meditating you begin to notice that certain phenomena ordinarily considered to be in the domain of the mental, our emotions in particular, actually manifest themselves mainly as sensation throughout the body. These are not quite the same as coarse physical sensations such as friction, heat or tingling. It’s experienced more like a pooling of energy in certain parts of the body. Though my awareness is not trained enough to be expert in these matters, I’ve always been struck by how undifferentiated these energetic sensations become when you focus on them attentively enough. There is very little difference, for example, between the bare sensations of fear, passion, desire, grief or fondness. The difference lies only in where in the body the sensations are experienced and in how intensely they are experienced, otherwise it’s just energy. It’s what happens when these sensations are interpreted by the brain that things get interesting. Patterns of sensation begin to be affiliated with memories, become symbolic of experiences, and a narrative is applied to them which is fed by our concepts of self-identity. Since there is a perpetual exchange between the different layers of awareness, a feedback loop is created, sensations and narratives reinforce one another and we experience it as a specific type of emotion. By quieting the fluctuations of the mind we discover that we can lessen this process of reinforcement and experience emotion simply as energy, in this way our emotions lose some of their power over us. Another thing that we discover is that with sufficient focus this energy is manipulatable, similar to the way we might redirect the coarser energy of a restless leg away from the leg and into our hands by twiddling our thumbs.

Since the most imminent process by which energy is exchanged between our body and the domains ordinarily considered to be separate from our body is that of respiration, these techniques of energy manipulation tend to begin with and focus most prominently on control of the breath. Contemplating the act of breathing invites us to consider an existential conundrum. When we breathe we allow energy from the outside world into our bodies, however, these areas into which the energy flows are cavities, the energy is gradually distributed into subsequently smaller cavities until the cavities become imperceptibly small. Even if we conceive of this energy as particles it must travel through some kind of cavity in order to distribute itself throughout the body. If the physical body that moves is made from the solid material derived from food, then we can conceive of the body as a porous structure made from food-derived solid material which is impregnated with energy which supports it and propels it throughout the world. However, the idea that this energy, by entering our body cavities has gone from being outside to inside, or from being not me, to me, is simply a semantic formality. The conundrum is this: Is your body the energy or the matter? Is your mind the energy or the matter? Is your consciousness the energy or the matter or is it the empty space that it inhabits? All of these domains are spatio-temporally co-tangential but surely what you are is not simply a spatio-temporal domain by which something can be said to become a part of you simply by crossing an arbitrary boundary, say at the opening of your mouth, or a pore, or the protein channels in a cellular membrane.

In India there is an entire science of the energy of the subjectively experienced body. It is ancient, incredibly complicated, and enjoys remarkable consensus for something so abstract. This energy we are discussing, which is distinct from the ordinary western understanding of energy because of its ability to be transduced into the realm of the subjective, is called Prana. Upon some deep analysis of the distributive patterns of Prana throughout the body it was discovered that it seemed particularly prone to pool in 7 locations throughout the body, and that these patterns of energetic pooling seemed to locate themselves according to particular types of stimuli and tended to be interpreted emotionally and symbolically in different ways according to their location. These 7 locations are called the Chakras.

The Chakras are said to arrange themselves in the centre of the body and follow roughly the path of the spinal column from its base at the sacrum to the top of the head. They correspond to specific systems of the physical body and in turn correspond to an ascending spiritual hierarchy of needs that is in many ways also symbolically related to those systems. They are as follows:

1.) Muladhara Chakra – Also known as the “root” chakra. Located at the base of the pelvic floor, upon which the seated body rests. The sensations that appear here seem to relate mainly to issues of basic survival, to the mundane checklist of ensuring the continued functioning of the body. It is said to be concerned with the physical world and not really with the abstract concepts that seem to stimulate the higher chakras.

2.) Svadisthana Chakra – The second chakra. Located behind the genitals in the lower abdomen. I think most people are fairly well acquainted with the feeling of energy pooling in this part of the body, and also fairly well acquainted with what that energy means. This is the world of desire. Sexual desire in particular, but also sensual gratification in general.

3.) Manipura Chakra – Located around the stomach, this Chakra is said to be concerned with issues of power, influence and control. The link between anxiety, stress and the health of the digestive system is well understood at this point. Most forms of anxiety manifest themselves as intense sensation in the gut and can very easy lead to physical problems like indigestion, food intolerances and ulcer.

4.) Anahata Chakra – The Heart Chakra. At this point the understanding of the energies represented begins to take on a more abstract, metaphysical quality. As we’ve moved up through the chakras we’ve moved from the purely physical, to the relational and then to the egoic. The heart chakra is said to be about love, but it’s a type of love that is quite distinct from sensual desire. Empathy is probably closer to the mark. The feeling of seeing yourself in other people, or the feeling of being connected to the world around you. When your heart stirs, it is the feeling of your separate identity dissolving for just a moment.

5.) Vissudhi Chakra – The Throat Chakra. This one has always seemed the most nebulous to me. The most difficult to pin down the ramifications of. Alot of the popular literature on the subject talks about this chakra, which is centered on the organs of vocalization, as being concerned with creativity and communication, but I think if we accept the model that the arrangement of the chakras represents an ascending spiritual hierarchy of needs, as a journey upwards towards the ultimate self, then most of the feelings associated with the dynamics of art and self-expression fall squarely in the realm of the 3rd chakra, though it seems almost common sense that an energy associated with the ability to communicate attaches itself to the throat. I think what the Vissudhi Chakra is really all about is language. If the lower chakras represent states of relationship with the perceived world, the Vissudhi Chakra represents the creation of the world that we perceive; a world that is for all intents and purposes made out of language.

6.) Ajna Chakra – The Third Eye. Once we relax ourselves past the barrier of the creation of a world of objects through language there is no more distinction between one aspect of the holarchy and any other. There is only form and emptiness staring into each other and seeing one another into being. This is the third eye.

7.) Sahasrara Chakra – Crown Chakra. This chakra is said to be located slightly above the crown of the head. The awareness represented here is one in which all forms of relationship are transcended; Dualism, the 1 that implies 2, the emptiness that implies form. It is the heart of the paradox of being. It is the incomprehensible chaos of God.

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The inward journey that the chakra system proposes is the purpose of virtually all forms of tantra. There are countless methods intended to raise the energy through them and thus achieve the goal of Samadhi. There is also a confused jumble of not-totally-coherent popular wisdom floating around most of which is only tangentially related to tradition. However, regardless of the methods and regardless of how literally you take their spatio-temporal existence it is important to remind ourselves that what the chakras represent is a process of relaxation. A process not of relaxing our body, but of relaxing our identity. The less complicated our identity is, the clearer we see the nature of the self, the nature of the world and the nature of consciousness. The higher we get, the less we know, not because we become ignorant of anything, but because we realize that there are fewer and fewer objects of knowledge to know about. Our ordinary conception of intelligence is turned on its head, the memorization of multitudes of discrete factual minutiae becomes an act of misapprehension and our task becomes remembering the one thing that is. Of course for most of us nature has predisposed us to be attached to one perceptual level or another and this is what we can think of as a blockage in our chakras, but if we are lucky enough to touch those more general echelons of perception perhaps we can conceive of our life as a dance between echelons; between flesh, beast, man, biome, mythos and god, and learn to hold each of them very lightly, secure in the knowledge that whoever we think we are at that moment, we are never merely that.

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Pilgrimage and the Miraculous

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One of the obstacles that anyone raised within a rationalist, nationalist or otherwise materialist cultural mythology inevitably faces when trying to explore the mystical is the presence of the miraculous.

I have experienced the feeling of this presence precious few times. Mostly due, not to a miraculous event, but to settling into a sense of openness and awareness that allowed me to see the miraculous as present in the minute particulars of normal life. Though every once in a while there have been small, private miracles. Strange synchronicities that seem wildly unlikely, oddly connected to the events of my life but not unexplainable in strict scientific terms. I think most people have experienced similar things. Small, forgettable miracles are common enough. It is, however, a weakness of spiritual people to aspire to witnessing the undeniable proof of a causally uncoupled divine force in the world. Some seem to have acquired this proof one way or another, most have not.

My own position is to try to remain open, to admit to uncertainty, to simply observe my subjective experience without feeling obliged to force a conclusion on anyone. For someone so disillusioned by his own deeply ingrained rationalism I think this is the best approach.

Yet in India, unlike the West, claims of the miraculous are not something relegated to dusty scriptures and forgotten legends. There are countless stories of gurus and saints performing unexplainable acts in relatively recent memory, and some are not so easy to dismiss. Neem Karoli Baba, the famous guru of Ram Das, Krishna Das, Daniel Goleman and countless other westerners who came to India in the wake of the 1960’s had hundreds of miracles attributed to him. Ramana Maharshi, Ramakrishna, Yukteshwar Giri, Shirdi Sai Baba, Anandamayi Ma, Meher Baba; these are all beings with photographs taken of them many of whom people currently living have met all of whom have legends surrounding them that are every bit as magical and seemingly impossible as Jesus Christ or Abraham or Mohammed.


Another locus of the miraculous are physical places of particularly potent spiritual energy, usually either the sites of the acts of saints or places of mythological importance, where important scriptural events are said to have occurred. These places tend to have stories of supernatural healing and spiritual awakening associated with them. These are the sites of pilgrimage and they form an important part of most religious traditions, but there is a strange abundance of them in India. One of the most significant is a place called Badrinath, way up in the desolate reaches of the Garhwal Himalayas.

I had a little break in my Yoga training so I decided to use the opportunity to get out of Rishikesh for a few days and have a little spiritual adventure. There are other significant pilgrimages much closer to Rishikesh but few were still accessible so late in the season, so I elected to rent a scooter and brave the journey to Badrinath, an estimated 12 hours away. I found out that the cook from the Yoga school, Ravi, was also planning a trip there. We decided we might as well go together.

About 5 hours outside Rishikesh, in a place called Rudraprayag, we were pulled over by the police. Unbeknownst to me, the scooter I had rented had improper paperwork and expired insurance. Ravi did his best to convince them to look the other way but the fellow in charge seemed a bit more by-the-book then your average Indian policeman. They seized the scooter and apparently slapped the owner with a 14000 rupee fine. This put a bit of a damper on the whole affair, and Ravi suggested we should head back. I told him that he was free to go if he wanted to but that I intended to finish what I started and would just flag down a bus. He thought for a moment and decided that he would continue as well, this time with both of us on the one scooter. I hopped on the back and we set off. Our spirits were a bit low and we were now WAY behind schedule but its hard to stay remorseful in a place that looks like this:

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At a little town called Chamoli the road curves north towards Tibet and you’re suddenly plunged into one of the most astonishing landscapes imaginable, surrounded on all sides by orange cliff’s rising up into the clouds and carrying on as far as you can see, with evergreen trees somehow clinging to the almost vertical planes. Every peak is a precipitous spire and the only way to navigate through is to follow the path of the river, on roads cut out of the sides and winding up and down in an agonizingly long series of switchbacks.

After Joshimath, the last village habitable year-round, the road cuts through a narrow valley and starts the climb up into the higher reaches of the Himalayas. Eventually the trees start to disappear, the temperature drops and the atmosphere takes on a stark, forbidden quality. This is no longer an earthly beauty. This is what philosophers call the sublime. The staggering, terrifying indifference of nature. People come to look for God in places like this because God is the only thing that can live here permanently.

 

Eventually the landscape opens up into a wide, stony plateau surrounded by snow capped peaks and you’re in Badrinath. A place where Narayan, an incarnation of Vishnu, is said to have performed severe penances for the benefit of all mankind.
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Unfortunately for us, a 110cc scooter with 2 grown men on it stops working properly at about 3000 metres. We completed the last 40 kilometres, a rather arduous climb, at a snails pace, no faster then a mountain bike. By the time we got there our 12 hour trip had taken a full day and a half. We couldn’t stay for long. After another day and a half retracing our steps we made it back to Rishikesh barely in one piece, our bodies in terrible pain all over from spending three days on a scooter driving over the bumpy mountain roads. After 3 days of village food and cold weather I finally succumbed to a fever and spent the next day in bed.

In hindsight there was a definitely a smarter, more expeditious and less punishing way to undertake this journey then the way we chose. But somehow our quixotic little adventure was far more potent. Not 100 years ago the journey to these pilgrimage locations would have taken weeks, not days. It would have been no small feat of outdoorsmanship to get there and I’m sure many would set out and not return home. Now there is a paved road right up to the temple with jeeps running up and down and guest houses with hot running water. There’s even a helipad a few kilometres down the mountain so you can complete your holy pilgrimage in true, dystopian luxury should you have the means. Even in so remote a location the data on my phone was working fine and I could text my friends “OMG Made it to Badrinath, very cold but super cool #India #Vishnu #Shanti.”

I think this says something important about our perception of the miraculous in the modern world. I would never dismiss the spiritual potency of the place itself, but there is also a bigger picture to consider. Nothing makes you appreciate the narrow band in which all of the drama of organic life plays out like a trip to its margins. The miracle is not that God is in Badrinath, God is everywhere. The miracle is that we are here. Somehow, against all odds, in a universe otherwise completely hostile to life, in a filmy layer on the surface of a middling planet hurtling around an unremarkable sun in a galaxy with a hundred billion more, there is this impossibly miniscule thread of time and space that nurtures us, holds us and sustains us, and when I say “us” I mean the “us” that includes every amoeba, every parasite, every moss, every mushroom. Everyone you love and every jerk on the street you, incredibly, couldn’t care less about. In a universe 90 billion light years across, ten thousand metres in either direction and we’re all dead meat.

What a fucking miracle.

Om Namo Narayanaya

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Asana and The Path Of Instagram

This is Fah. She’s a lovely young lady from Bangkok that I’ve had the good fortune to befriend while attending this yoga course in Rishikesh. She has a background in acrobatics but has only been practicing yoga for about 8 months.

The unwashed lout seated beside her is yours truly. My background before yoga was mainly in beer and deep-fried snack food. I have, however, been practicing yoga in one form or another, with varying degrees of commitment, for almost 8 years.

We are both here in India studying at a Yoga school to receive certification from a slightly problematic North American institutional body called the Yoga Alliance. The idea of becoming an expert in the physical disciplines which attend yoga after a one month intensive course is ludicrous, but the hope is that we will now be able to teach an exercise class with some spiritual assumptions attached to it without seriously hurting anybody or being a financial liability to whatever facility should play host to such an endeavor. There is sense in this. In order to receive certification one has to prove that they aren’t a health risk. The requirements beyond this are meager. There has been a great deal of criticism leveled at the Alliance because of this fact, but perhaps it’s a good thing. As I’ve tried to repeatedly assert Yoga is a spiritual discipline first and foremost and the idea that an institutional body could even make a claim to certify people as wise would be a very western type of insanity. The idea that a yoga teacher should have to subject themselves to a 4 year degree program at an educational institution mediated by a power dynamic characterized by a tension between the needs of the state, the needs of industry, the needs of deeply ingrained social hierarchies and the needs of the scientific materialist bias to assert itself, as some have suggested is appropriate, makes me deeply uncomfortable. Western society wants so badly for yoga to accept the role that uninformed people have ascribed to it; somewhere between a kind of wimpy aerobics and a not-quite-competent physiotherapy, but with incense and goofy music. I think it’s important that we push back against this tendency. Especially since there is a whole world of yoga out there that has nothing to with physical postures at all.

Anyways, enough politics. This was supposed to be my light-hearted post.

I will now show you a series of pictures of me, with my years of practice, and Fa, 8 months in, doing a few of the poses, or Asanas, from the primary series of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. By doing so I offer my pride and self-esteem up as a sacrifice unto the purifying fire of humiliation that is the internet.

Alright, in fairness to me I have a knee injury and this pose will simply make it worse if I go any deeper. It took me…way longer then it should have to swallow my pride and modify it sufficiently for it to heal.

I’ve been doing several hours of yoga a day for a while now and my hamstrings are so fucking tight. Sometimes I can get my chin to the floor in this pose but not today. Fah has also been doing several hours of yoga a day for a while now and…yeah.

Knee injury = no lotus position for Joel. How the hell am I going to get Instagram famous at this rate?

You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.

Allright, I’ve got a pretty flexible back and my knee injury and tight hamstrings don’t really interfere with this pose, but then there’s Fah…


Finally! A picture worthy of my closely curated and utterly fabricated online fantasy identity! Surely this will attract droves of wealthy suburbanites in designer tights to my island retreat weekend! Right now I feel pretty fucking cool…Oh…Hi Fah.

Hmmm…maybe I should just stick to my wheelhouse of being a fake know-it-all instead of a fake contortionist.

Alright that’s enough humiliation for one day.

The point that I’m trying to make here is that me and Fah come to this practice with very different bodies, very different genetic backgrounds, very different personal histories and very different challenges, both physical and mental, to overcome. Coming to terms with these challenges is the actual work of yoga, it’s how you turn the physical practice into a spiritual one. Settling into a relationship of acceptance with your bodies limitations and learning to practice anyway, safely, even when things are a bit stiff, or if you’re a bit tired, or if you need to modify things to accommodate an injury, and especially if things don’t look quite as your ego imagines that they should. It’s easy to be envious of Fah’s incredible flexibility, balance and poise. But she will have her own challenges to overcome. They might not be as obvious immediately but they’re there. The practice will continue to place physical obstacles in front of her no matter how far she gets and a good teacher will always be able to detect minor imbalances of alignment that will frustrate her no matter how perfectly she might think she’s doing a given pose. More importantly however, none of this permanent. The stronger your body gets the more it becomes necessary to accept that it will not always be this way. Every body will age, degenerate and decay. In a sense I’m lucky that I’ve been forced to accept so many frustrating truths about my asana practice relatively early on. It might make things easier later. It’s these hard truths that invite us to look inside, to a space beyond our bodies, beyond our genetics and beyond our life story.

In this space me and Fah are exactly alike.

Svasti Prajabhyah Paripalayantam
Nyayena Margena Mahim Mahishah
Gobrahmanebhyah Subhamastu Nithyam
Lokasamastha Sukhinobhavantu
Om Shanti Shanti Shanti

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