Editor’s Note: This post is part 3 in The Enchanted World of Tantra, a blog series by Sandra Anderson exploring the many dimensions of the tantric path.
My first yoga teacher was a tantric yogi as well as a martial arts student. He was fond of inspiring students by breaking a stack of cement blocks with the side of his hand. I couldn’t imagine how he did it, and when questioned, he would simply say, “Prana shakti.”
The tantric sages say that prana shakti, or pranic energy, flows through the body in a network of pranic currents called nadis. The nadis are not physical structures, but rather are defined and delineated by the flow of prana in the same way an electromagnetic field is defined by the flow of electric current. This field of pranic flow constitutes the pranic body. The physical body is suspended in the pranic field, which penetrates, nourishes, and protects both the body and the mind, just as the atmosphere nourishes life on earth and the earth’s electromagnetic field protects it from harmful radiation. When prana withdraws from the body, the pranic field collapses, and we die. When we use prana wisely, we live fully and well.
Ida, Pingala, and Sushumna
Of the innumerable currents of the pranic body, the yogis describe three major nadis according to their characteristics and functions: ida, pingala, and sushumna. These three are the axis through the core of the body, from the pelvic floor to the eyebrow center. Sushumna is the center nadi; ida and pingala are depicted, respectively, to the left and the right of sushumna. Ida and pingala delineate a fundamental duality that defines night and day, left and right, rest and activity—and ultimately our experience of the world. Our body expresses that duality in its bilateral symmetry organized around the axis defined by the spine: nerves branch off the spinal cord in pairs; many of the organs are paired; the brain has two hemispheres; we have two arms, two legs, two eyes, two ears, two nostrils. The autonomic nervous system also features two parts with opposite effects—the sympathetic (arousal) and the parasympathetic (calming).
The pranic forces behind ida and pingala manifest in the larger world as the moon and the sun, respectively. The Shiva Samhita describes the moon as “raining nectar day and night,” and ida carrying that nectar to nourish the body “like the waters of the heavenly Ganga.” It describes pingala as “another form of the sun, the lord of creation and destruction . . . that moves in this vessel (the body).”
Another way to think about how these energies affect us is to consider activities favored by moonlight versus those favored by sunlight. The moon (ida) is the realm of sleep, dreaming, and the unseen aspects of the mind; the sun (pingala) is the realm of growth and outwardly directed activity. In ordinary life, a much shorter cycle (about 60–90 minutes, in which the two nadis alternate in dominance) is superimposed on this longer cycle of night and day. If you watch a young child or your cat or dog throughout the day you will see this cycle playing out in periods of activity alternating with rest—the proverbial cat nap. As we mature, we gain some mastery over the extremes of this cycle.
Hopefully, we are able to stay awake throughout the day by the time we go to school, but who hasn’t struggled to stay alert during a monotonous meeting or a long interstate drive?
Alas, being able to stay awake during the daylight hours doesn’t qualify as yogic self-mastery. For that we need access to the sushumna nadi. Sushumna is the spiritual energy force, a neutral energy that is not polarized into light and dark, right and left, activity and rest, and all the other dualities that constitute our experience of embodied life. The Shiva Samhita describes sushumna as “a fountain of great joy.” Sushumna is a state of balance and equanimity in the flow of prana, including a balance in the autonomic nervous system. In short, sushumna characterizes the meditative mind. That is the beginning of yoga, and to get there we will need to understand all three nadis a bit better.
Your Nose: Gateway to the Shrine Within
Here is the remarkable realization of the yogis: all these shifts in the flow of prana in the nadis, the shifts in dominance, and the corresponding shifts of activity in the body and mind are expressed in the flow of the breath in the nose. The breath in the nose responds to every minute change in the body and mind—your thoughts, the smell of gardenias, what you had for lunch, and every other activity or experience in your body-mind. Furthermore—and this is the reason this information is so important—by changing the pattern of the breath, we change how prana is operating in the body and mind, and thus how it can affect the mind, the nervous system, the liver, and everything else.
We can observe the flow of prana in ida and pingala by observing the flow of our breath in the nostrils. Ida expresses in the left nostril, and pingala in the right. The alternating dominance of the pranic force manifests in an alternating dominance of breath in one nostril or the other. If you close one nostril right now and breathe through the free nostril, and then switch, taking a breath through the other side, you will most likely notice at least a slightly freer flow in one side.
When you have a sinus cold, this dominance is particularly obvious, as you cannot breathe at all through one side. Then there is a moment when both nostrils open and you think maybe you are getting better, only to soon be congested in the formerly open nostril. Or perhaps both nostrils are completely blocked before the switch and you think you are about to die, and then the formerly blocked side clears and death is averted, at least for the moment.
That moment of free, equal flow in both nostrils, or alternatively, no breath in either nostril, is the experience of sushumna—a balanced flow (or lack thereof). We all have a regular experience of sushumna as the pranic dominance shifts and a moment of balance ensues, but we are typically unaware of it, and the moment is fleeting. To stabilize the flow of prana in sushumna and establish an inward-moving mind is both the intention and the result of tantric yoga practice.
Pranayama practice and breath awareness meditation techniques are intended to establish and stabilize prana in sushumna so that meditation proceeds easily. The touch of the breath in the nose is the entry point for these techniques, opening the gateway into the core of the mind in the realm of the ajna chakra. Other yoga practices work with prana in the body to create the same effect. The tantric texts, as well as yoga texts, describe hatha yoga practices like the bandhas and the mudras to change the direction of pranic flow, bringing apana (the downward force of elimination) up and prana (the intake force of nurturance) down to meet at the navel center and awaken sushumna.
So we see two starting points for stabilizing prana in sushumna through tantric yoga: the mind and the pranic hub at the navel center. We may start with one or the other, but ideally we will soon work with both. Working with prana in the body as well as with the mind in meditation begins to attenuate those subtle mental inclinations and tendencies (samskaras and vasanas) that are obstacles to our growth. Understanding more about the pranic centers of consciousness (chakras) will help us practice efficiently and effectively, so we will explore the chakras in future posts.