Have you ever tried balancing a raw egg? There are only two days when this is possible: fall and spring equinox, when the earth’s gravitational pull is perfectly vertical. You balance the egg between your fingers until, like magic, the egg comes to balance. This is how it feels when your meditation posture is stable and effortless, and opposing forces are in balance. But just as the egg balances with the assistance of astrological alignment, our posture is assisted and made effortless by pranic alignment.
Pranic alignment is an alchemy of a stable and comfortable physical alignment, effortless breathing, mental quietude, and prana (life-force energy) sensed as a container for the mind and body. Before delving into how to arrive at pranic alignment, we’ll first look at challenges to our physical alignment. Next, we’ll see how to cultivate an inner awareness of prana, which is key to understanding pranic alignment. Finally, we’ll explore how to arrive at a mutually supportive physical and pranic alignment, which helps us quiet our mind and deepen our meditation.
Physical Alignment Challenges
The sit bones of the pelvis are the foundation of our sitting posture. But it is an odd foundation: like an egg, the sit bones are rounded. Thus, there is a wide range of places where you can rest your weight. Sit and roll forward and back over your sit bones to see what I mean. When the sit bones are pointing forward and the upper part of the sacrum is further to the back than the lower part, this is called a posterior pelvic tilt. In this position, it is easier to turn out the legs, but the lower spine is rounded and your head and chest begin to collapse forward. The collapsed chest compromises your breathing and digestion and disturbs the alignment of your neck; you are also more prone to fall asleep.
Anterior pelvic tilt is the opposite of posterior: the upper part of the sacrum is forward of the lower part. When the pelvis is tilted anteriorly, the front of your body is more open, which feels good. But if you stay here long enough, your lower back muscles may tense from being overactive, your legs may fall asleep from pressure on the main artery at the front of the hips, and your knees or hips may start to hurt from lack of circulation or from counterbalancing the forward weight.
Knee or hip pain can also stem from problems in upper-body alignment: a habitual twist in the spine, leaning to one side, or neck tension that pulls the head off-center. Any of these spinal imbalances also weaken the tone of the pelvic floor, making it difficult to access the root lock (more on this later).
How do you know what your imbalances are? Have a friend photograph you from the front, sides, and back while you are meditating. Knowing our tendencies will go a long way in finding our optimal alignment. Finding optimal alignment also depends on an awareness of prana, which we will look at next.
Prana and Pranic Alignment
Prana is the life force. It is the energetic substratum from which all of life comes into being. Prana is universal, yet each of us has a personal sphere of prana within which we have our being: it is oval, extending 10–12 inches beyond our skin. Prana also moves within our body, traveling in pathways that touch every cell.
In the previous post in this series, we learned how physical alignment and the flow of prana are connected: We understood that our body’s physical alignment is mediated by a balance of tensional support from our muscles and from fascia, connective tissue that envelops every organ, muscle, bone, and nerve in a seamless matrix. We also saw evidence that our pranic energy pathways (nadis) flow through fascia, though from a yogic perspective, it is more likely that fascia develops around these pranic pathways. So it makes sense that engaging our fascia in a balanced way will help the flow of prana; likewise, an optimal flow of prana balances and stabilizes our structure.
Without training, it is difficult for most of us to sense prana because we are so focused on the physical layer of reality. The key to becoming aware of pranic movement is breathwork, because breath is the most tangible aspect of prana. That tingling vibrancy felt in the body after breath-centered asana, or that expansion of mind experienced after vigorous pranayama, are ways we begin to feel the presence of prana.
Our experience of prana becomes more concrete when the mind follows the flow of the breath in the body. One way to do this is through relaxation exercises such as point-to-point breathing. When we relax and withdraw our awareness from physical-level sensations, we may feel the body “floating” in prana. We also follow the flow of the breath during meditative pranayamas, or in practices such as Vishoka Meditation. Though our experience of prana is one of discovery, we must remember that it is our home—our foundation. Thus our awareness of it is the source of deepest healing for our mind and body.
Finding the Optimal Sitting Posture
How can we experience prana to be a support for our meditation posture? Let’s find our optimal physical alignment and see how it jump-starts our awareness of prana and pranic alignment; then we’ll see how pranic alignment completes the physical alignment by making it effortless, even joyful.
Sit on your meditation cushion, bench, or chair. If you are sitting cross-legged on the floor, be sure your support enables you to have your knees lower than your hips; place props under your knees if needed. If you are sitting in a chair, make sure the support is flat. Then roll your pelvis forward and back a few times, to feel how the sit bones make contact with the support.
Now do seated tadaka mudra: bring your arms straight overhead, stretching your spine upward, which engages the torso’s muscles and fascia in a balanced way. Then turn your attention to your pelvis: lengthen your lower back and relax any residual tension in the hip creases as well as the sides of the hips, so that the sit bones can drop straight down into your support. This action frees the nerves and blood vessels in the groin so they are not compressed.
Next, inhale by expanding your belly, lower ribs, and lower back. Exhale and gently engage the pelvic floor. See if you can lift the pelvic floor without losing the relaxation in your tissues where the legs join the hips: this exercise merits repeated practice to become familiar with these opposing actions. Now allow your arms and shoulders to come down, but keep a subtle lift in the waist. I have found this exercise gets you very close to a balanced meditation posture, but you’ll also want to repeat the exercises to fine-tune the alignment of the chest and head. These will help you lift your sternum and gently encourage cervical vertebrae 4–6 to lift back and up; this lift allows your chin to drop slightly.
The pelvic floor requires special attention: It needs to stay lifted but not by effort. To do this, create a subtle lift in the perineum, then center your head over the sit bones. Once you are centered, relax your effort in the pelvic floor. You should find that the subtle lift there is maintained by the muscle tone generated by this alignment.
In finding our optimal sitting posture, we have applied the three major bandhas (yogic locks) in a subtle way for meditation: mula bandha (root lock, or lift at the perineum), uddiyana bandha (abdominal lock, sensed as a subtle lift in the waist under the ribs), and jalandhara bandha (chin lock, a slight drop in the chin). When we apply these bandhas, this is what the Hatha Yoga Pradipika says of the results:
By contracting the perineum, performing uddhiyana and locking ida and pingala with jalandhara, sushumna becomes active. (HYP 3:74)
Ida and pingala are energy channels that flow along the left and right sides of the spine, respectively, and govern basic polarities in our energy field. The subtle contraction of the bandhas gathers and directs these energies to flow upward in the channel called sushumna, located in the central space of the spine. Swami Rama, founder of the Himalayan Institute, described sushumna this way:
Although the word sushumna cannot be adequately translated into English, it signifies the state of an undisturbed and joyous mind. When the breath starts flowing freely and smoothly through both nostrils, the mind attains this state of joy and calmness. Such a mental condition is necessary for the mind to travel into deeper levels of consciousness, for if the mind is not brought to a state of joy it cannot remain steady, and an unsteady mind is not fit for meditation. The process of awakening the sushumna is possible only when a student starts enjoying being still by keeping the head, neck, and trunk straight (italics mine).
Locking the three bandhas helps stabilize the alignment of our physical posture and gives us an awareness of the upward flow of prana. Mentally following the flow of breath in the nostrils unites the mind with prana, so the mind is joyful, tranquil, and turned inward; then the body feels held and nurtured by prana. This is the essence of pranic alignment, which helps us sit longer without pain, almost effortlessly, like a balanced egg. And a sitting posture without pain is the foundation for a deepening meditation.
As our meditation deepens, our mind becomes absorbed in increasingly subtle levels of consciousness. According to sutra 2:47 of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, when our posture is effortless and our level of mental absorption reaches the infinite, then we attain perfection in our sitting posture (asana). But don’t worry about being perfect: our journey to experience the effortlessness of pranic alignment is its own reward.