Living Tantra: Part 2
Harness prana shakti—the inner divinity—with a potent tantric practice that will charge your mind with vitality, insight, and the power to heal.
By Pandit Rajmani Tigunait
Let’s begin by reminding ourselves of the distinctive nature of tantra as encapsulated at the end of my last article:
For ages people have been fighting an unending war—the war of good and bad, right and wrong, virtue and sin, heaven and hell, sacred and mundane, freedom and bondage. Everyone caught in this war—monks and householders, clergy and laymen, politicians and philosophers, men and women, poor and rich, businessmen and those fully committed to inner life—are equally miserable. Tantra has a remedy for this misery. This remedy works because a tantric seeks freedom in the world, not from the world. In tantra, the sacred and the mundane are held together in harmonious balance. Worldly success and spiritual development go hand in hand. This is a joy-driven path, a path of active participation in life. It is not a path for those who seek salvation after death but a path for those who seek health, wealth, peace, and happiness here and now.
The events I shared with you in the last issue show that the range of tantra is as vast as life itself. Within tantra there are numerous paths—each leading to unique experiences. Some tantric practices are trivial and shallow. Others are profound and deeply meaningful. Some focus on the acquisition of worldly possessions and power. Others have spiritual enlightenment as their central goal. Some tantric paths place exclusive emphasis on rituals and others employ yogic techniques to awaken the kundalini shakti and chakras in one’s own body. Some use yantras and mandalas to awaken and gain mastery over the healing power. Other paths employ unique internal visualizations and concentration techniques to awaken and acquire that same healing power. Some tantrics use herbs to accelerate their practice and others use unique breathing techniques. Some go as far as to use drugs and sex while others abstain from both. But all tantric paths and practices have one common theme: the acquisition of power.
The power to be and the power to become, the power to grow and the power to blossom, the power to explore limitless possibilities and the power to materialize those possibilities—these are the hallmarks of tantric spirituality. Rising above our limitations and gaining access to the limitless domain of the power of will, the power of knowledge, and the power of action is the ultimate goal of tantric wisdom and practice. The term tantra itself tells how to gain access to this boundless field of power.
Tantra is a compound of two verbs, tan and tra. The verb tan has two sets of meanings. The first is “to expand, to grow, to expound, to give meaning.” Tan also means “to weave, to intertwine, to integrate, to connect, to breathe newness into the old, to pull the present out of the past and give it a meaningful future.” The second verb in this compound, tra, means “to protect, to free from sorrow, to help one move away from the domain of afflictions.” Thus tantra refers to the path of health and healing, science and spirituality, that holds our full expansion and development as its main objective. It shows us how we can grow and blossom. It shows us how to find purpose in life and how to weave the tapestry of life in the most meaningful manner, how to protect and nurture ourselves, and how to protect and nurture others. The principle of integration lies at the core of tantric philosophy and practice. This principle refers to the integration of our worldly endeavors with our spiritual pursuits, the integration of personal empowerment with the empowerment of others and the empowerment of the natural world. Good and evil, sacred and mundane, coexist harmoniously in this tantric world of integration. Following the principle of integration, a tantric practitioner attempts to find freedom while living in the world and aspires to experience the fullness of life.
To a tantric, life is not bondage but the gateway to freedom. To be born as a human is an opportunity to experience our oneness with Absolute Consciousness—our own inner divinity. God, Absolute Consciousness, deposited Her limitless power of creativity in each of us. Gaining access to that limitless creativity fulfills the purpose of life. And dying without knowing and experiencing that power defeats the purpose of human birth.
A tantric begins his spiritual quest by changing his worldview and his attitude toward his own body, mind, and senses. For ages, people have been living with a self-defeating philosophy that condemns the world and thereby promotes the idea of finding freedom from it. According to that philosophy, the body is the focal point of misery: pleasure is the doorway to hell; worldly objects are a burden to the soul. In the view of tantra, this philosophy is deeply flawed.
According to tantra, the world is beautiful. Life in the world is beautiful. Our inability to see the beauty within and without is bondage for it forces us to live in this world purposelessly. The quest for freedom here and now begins with understanding the sacred nature of our body, mind, and senses. According to tantra, the body is the living temple of divinity. The center of consciousness (soul, atman, jiva) is the highest divinity within us. A vast portion of the powers, potentials, and privileges of this divinity remain dormant. This dormant power is called kundalini shakti. Only a fraction of its potentials are available in their awakened form. The power and potential of the soul that is awakened and active in us is called prana. Prana, the force that keeps us alive, is the intrinsic and vibrant attribute of this inner divinity. For all practical purposes, this prana shakti is the highest god in us, for it is this particular aspect of divine power that helps us gain access to the infinite dormant potentials within.
The forces that pervade and permeate every nook and cranny of our body are emanations of prana shakti, the inner divinity; they constitute our core being. These forces are gods and goddesses. They live in the body. They heal and nurture it. They maintain order in the body, ensuring that every limb, organ, and system function harmoniously. They preside over our thoughts, speech, and actions. The guiding intelligence of these divine forces offers all the tools and means we need to experience them as integral to ourselves. This guiding intelligence empowers us to know, through our own direct experience, that these divine forces are us and we are them. That is why, according to tantra, the human body is the most complete yantra and mandala—and the finest of all temples. Gaining access to the innermost chamber and discovering the inner divinity, the center of consciousness, is the goal of tantra.
Concentrating the Life Force
Over millennia, tantra has discovered countless techniques for entering the inner world and experiencing our oneness with the divinity within. Some of those techniques place greater emphasis on using external tools and means; others emphasize internal means. Those using external tools are ritualistic and follow a set of rules and laws that ensure the rituals are effective and fruitful. This approach is known as kaula tantra. Those using internal tools—such as asanas and pranayamas in conjunction with bandhas and mudras, and meditation on chakras and mandalas in conjunction with mantras and the visualization of deities—follow their own unique rules and laws. This approach is known as samaya tantra. The tantric schools that combine these two approaches are called mishra tantra. However, the adepts belonging to all of these paths—kaula, samaya, and mishra—share a common understanding: no matter which path you follow or which practice you undertake, you must have a clear, calm, and tranquil mind.
A disturbed, distracted, or stupefied mind is not fit to follow any path. Cultivating a clear, calm, and tranquil mind and infusing it with prana shakti, the radiant, indomitable life force, is the first and foremost practice of tantra. Infusing the mind with prana shakti is the most crucial of all tantric practices for it ensures that the mind—which is at once the most important instrument of practice as well as the container of the energy generated by the practice, is charged with vitality, stamina, and willpower.
In tantric terminology, first infusing the mind with prana shakti and then infusing a practice with this prana shakti is known as prana dharana. To clarify why this infusion of prana shakti is so crucial, let us see what happens when a practice—non-tantric as well as tantric—is undertaken without this infusion.
Let’s say you have learned the art of creating a mandala. You drew it on silk cloth, accurately and with faith. Before you installed the mandala on your altar, a holy man from India or Tibet blessed it. For five years you have been making daily ritual offerings and meditating following all the guidelines, but you see little or no result. Why is your practice so unsatisfactory? According to a tantric, the main reason is that you have been meditating while facing a piece of silk cloth. The mandala you drew on that cloth was not charged with prana shakti and so it remains lifeless. Meditation on it is also lifeless.
The same is true of an internal non-ritualistic tantric practice, such as meditation on a particular chakra. For example, you are trying to awaken the healing force of the navel center. The mantra you picked from a book is correct. It is an authentic mantra for awakening the healing force. The image of fire your mind has conceived is correct. The technique and procedure you are using to enter the navel center are also correct, yet you have been trying to awaken your navel center for years, without success. Why? The answer is simple: the mantra you picked from the book is lifeless and you did not infuse it with prana shakti before using it. The image of fire is also devoid of the life force, and the navel center has not been infused with living, awakened, vibrant prana shakti. Thus the whole practice is lifeless.
In a traditional tantric practice, you go directly to the crux of the matter—infusing your mind with the living, vibrant energy of prana shakti. First unite your mind with the prana shakti so it is fully healed and nourished. This fully nourished mind will reclaim its pristine characteristics—clarity and insight, stability and concentration. It will reclaim its ability to receive and retain revelation. It will reclaim its power of discernment. It will learn to travel with the prana shakti to wherever concentration, meditation, and samadhi are needed—to yantras and mandalas, to statues of gods and goddesses, and to spiritual/religious emblems—and will witness the infusion of the life force into those objects. Thereafter, any form of practice—ritualistic or non-ritualistic, external or internal—will become fruitful. This whole process is called prana dharana.
Prana dharana means “to concentrate prana shakti (the life force); to make prana shakti become concentrated; to intensify the life force until it begins to glow and breathe life into anything falling within its field.” The life force is everywhere in our body in a diffused form. It is performing its function in a diffused manner, which is just enough to keep us alive. In order for this life force to perform extraordinary feats, it must be concentrated.
Concentration begins by collecting the diffused energy and compressing it in a well-defined space. In that confined space, the energy begins to exhibit extraordinary properties which were lying dormant within it. These extraordinary properties include infusing the mind with the power to rise above disturbances, distractions, and stupefaction, and become still and composed. With the unfoldment of its extraordinary properties, prana shakti is able to heal and nurture the body, mind, and senses. It is able to infuse the mind with the power to reach every nook and cranny in the body as well as any destination in the external world. Once it is concentrated, the prana shakti is able to beam its healing and enlightening properties to any point in time and space. Accompanied and assisted by the concentrated pranic force, the mind is able to awaken the dormant energy of any of the chakras in our body, as well as the energy dormant in mantras, yantras, mandalas, herbs, gems, or any object of meditation or ritual worship. The tantric practice of prana dharana is the means of concentrating the pranic force.
Bhastrika and Beyond
The systematic practice of prana dharana begins with a tantric variation of the well-known pranayama technique called bhastrika. To practice bhastrika, sit with your head, neck, and trunk in a straight line. Close your eyes and relax your shoulders. Restore your normal harmonious breathing pattern. Then begin to inhale and exhale forcefully through both nostrils. Breathe with the active involvement of your abdominal muscles while keeping your chest region as relaxed as possible. Each time you exhale, pull your abdomen in; when you inhale, push it out. How strongly and forcefully you move your abdominal muscles in and out and how fast and forcefully you inhale and exhale depends on your current level of strength, stamina, and experience with the practice. Don’t go beyond your current capacity. Be especially gentle and mindful if you have had surgery in the abdominal area, are pregnant, or have high blood pressure.
In the regular hatha yoga style of bhastrika, awareness of the movement of the breath is concentrated at the opening of the nostrils—air flows while brushing this opening. But in the tantric tradition, a practitioner is led to become aware of the movement of breath at different places in the throat and mouth cavity. For example, while practicing the tantric form of bhastrika pranayama, you can maintain the awareness of the movement of your breath at the hollow of your throat. This balances the metabolic process. If you are in the habit of overeating, it will reduce your appetite. If your appetite is devitalized, this practice will increase it. Awareness of the breath at the tip of your nostrils, on the other hand, will lead to an entirely different result—the experience of an extraordinary fragrance.
When you practice bhastrika as a stepping-stone to the practice of prana dharana, however, you focus the movement of the breath as it brushes the soft palate, at the back of the roof of the mouth. The pituitary gland sits slightly above the soft palate, at the base of the brain. This is the region associated with the ajna chakra, the eyebrow center. When, with the help of your awareness, you allow the exhalation and inhalation to brush against your soft palate, it creates a pulsation in the region of the pituitary gland, and the energy residing there becomes active. The pituitary gland is a master gland that regulates key organs in the endocrine system. The pituitary gland’s role in the regulation of our reproductive organs and, more precisely, the regulation of our moods and emotions (which largely depend on hormonal changes), is well understood. The pineal gland is located in the same general region. The pineal gland not only regulates the secretion of melatonin, but also exerts its influence over the process governing relaxation, renewal, and rejuvenation.
The newly emerging science of psychoneuroimmunology makes it easy to understand why tantric adepts call the energy field of this region ajna chakra, the command center. The pituitary gland receives hormonal secretions from the hypothalamus. These hormones contain the information and instructions that our endocrine system and the interconnected network of other organs need in order to function harmoniously. The master glands in this region thus receive an ordinance (ajna) from the hypothalamus and pass this same ordinance on to the organs involved in complex and mutually dependent biophysical activities.
It is important to remember that we are talking about the entire region and not a particular organ or spot in that region. Vibration/pulsation in that region will activate the energy of the ajna chakra, the center of consciousness that fills the space in the area known as the “third eye.” This is the most suitable center for the concentration of prana shakti. Awareness of that center during the tantric version of bhastrika will attract the pranic forces that are diffused throughout the body. Complete the bhastrika-style breathing by inhaling deeply into the ajna chakra and retain the breath to your comfortable capacity, thus compressing the prana shakti and containing it at the eyebrow center. Then exhale and breathe normally, letting your awareness rest in the vibrant field of energy at the ajna chakra.
As the pranic forces become concentrated at the ajna chakra, awareness of that center will intensify. The greater the intensity, the more pranic force will be attracted to that center. “Intensity of awareness” is another way of referring to the concentration of mental energy. Practically speaking, therefore, the pranic force is making the mind become concentrated, and this concentration of mind is concentrating the pranic force even further. Once this process has begun, it gathers momentum spontaneously and the prana shakti becomes more and more concentrated. This pranic concentration is seen through the eyes of the mind as a radiant field of energy. Tantrics call it bindu, an ocean of vibrant, radiant prana shakti compressed in a dot—a point of reference beyond our normal concepts of time, space, and the law of causation. Here, the pranic field is so intense, so compact, that it is lit by its own effulgence. Its healing and nourishing power is so intense, so awakened and active, that anything—yantra, mantra, mandala, form, shape, or visual object—that falls in this field instantly comes to life. It is through this power that we can breathe life into any practice—tantric or non-tantric.
Advanced Prana Dharana
The tantric practice of prana dharana, which is established on the firm ground of the tantric version of bhastrika pranayama, is completed in several steps. The first step has been described in some detail above: awaken the prana shakti at the ajna chakra with bhastrika-style breathing, retain the last inhalation at the ajna chakra, and rest your aware-ness in the pranic field pulsating there. Through regular practice, you make the prana shakti become stable and compact at the ajna chakra. Do not do this practice for more than a few minutes a day. If it is done accurately and methodically, a five-minute practice will generate more than enough shakti to recharge your entire body and mind. You will have enough shakti to command your mind to attend to the object of your choice. Not only will your mind return from numberless corners of the world, it will stay at the ajna chakra joyfully. Through prolonged and consistent practice, prana shakti and the mind begin to embrace, nurture, guide, and support each other. As this happens, any quest—worldly or spiritual—becomes easy and fulfilling.
Practicing the next three steps of prana dharana requires a deepening understanding of tantra, especially the secret of tantric rituals and why they bring dramatic results. The second step involves selecting an object and bringing it into the field of prana shakti concentrated at the ajna chakra. For example, you could bring an image of sacred fire into the intense pranic field at the ajna chakra. When it falls into the awakened and active pranic field, it automatically comes to life. No longer an inert, motionless image, it will share the vibrant pulsation of the prana shakti. Then you could bring this living fire down to the navel center, and with the power of mantra, formally place it there. Tantric adepts use unique mantras to further feed and nurture the fire at the navel center. An understanding of the dynamics of fire in tantric cosmology forms the basis for these practices.
The third step of prana dharana involves the precise application of prana shakti to accomplish a specific purpose. For example, you wish to cultivate healing power—the power to heal yourself and/or to heal others. Let’s say you wish to boost your strength and stamina. You wish to restore your vitality and youthfulness. In that case, you would meditate on one of the most powerful healing mantras—the maha mrityunjaya mantra—while keeping your focus at the navel center, which is already filled with intense, awakened, and active prana shakti. This third step of the prana dharana practice is for healing oneself. If you wish to heal others, you would go on to the next step.
The fourth step of prana dharana involves undertaking and completing a tantric practice called purascharana. This practice consists of reciting a mantra a specific number of times while focusing at the navel center, then making an offering with the same mantra into the sacred fire at the navel center. You would go into your navel center and, with the exhalation, bring the fully awakened, active healing force from the navel center into your nostrils. From there, you would transfer it into a special hand mudra known as trikhanda mudra. As you dissolve the trikhanda mudra, you would transmit the healing power to the person or precise aspect of the natural world you wish to heal.
The process of prana dharana as described in this fourth step can also be used to breathe life into a particular yantra, mandala, or mantra. As tantrics affirm, only an awakened mantra or mandala can awaken our minds and hearts. Only a ritual brought to life through the power of prana shakti can heal or nurture ourselves or others. The practice of prana dharana is the means of making our practices come to life. The beauty of prana dharana is that we benefit from it while we are practicing it. Once charged with and guided by this energy, we gain the competency to undertake any practice, including the ones forbidden to ordinary seekers.
Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, PhD, is the spiritual head of the Himalayan Institute. A teacher, lecturer, Sanskrit scholar, and author, he has practiced yoga and tantra for more than 30 years.
Photo by Lisa Stirling / Getty Images