The physiology and psychology of Yoga

The physiology and psychology of Yoga
Courtesy: Christine Hewitt | Moment via Getty Images

Ahead of International Day of Yoga on June 21, Professors Nawal K. Prinja and Raman Gokal offer insights into the physiology and psychology of this ancient Indian discipline in this in-depth analysis.

New discoveries have overturned 150 years of scientific thinking. We now have the best of the science that proves the ancient wisdom of seers and saints from more than 7,000 years. This allows us to awaken the deepest truths of ourselves. What is our relationship to our body, mind, emotions and are we able to participate in these, are we empowered to change the circumstances of our lives or are we just victims of the past and circumstances. 7000 years ago there was no science as we know it today; yet the seers innately/intuitively knew it and worked it out. In the last 300 years science has tried to answer these fundamental questions. New discoveries have overturned our way of thinking and are writing a new story about you and me. The message: you are not what you have been told and you are more than you have ever imagined. The philosophy of Yoga shows us the way.

Yoke and Yoga

The English word ‘yoke’ perhaps conveys the best meaning of the concept of Yoga. It represents two seemingly opposite functions. On one hand a yoke ‘connects’ the central axle to the peripheral rim and on the other hand it maintains the ‘separation’ between the two. Without this separation between the axle and the rim, the wheel will not function. In our lives, we too have to deal with the two aspects: the material world full of things that appear and disappear (now and then) and the spiritual aspect of life. Earlier in the Vedic literature, Isha Upanishad [1] talks of ‘Ishwara’ as one unchanging constant behind this transitionary world and later the Guru Granth Sahib [2] teaches that it is ‘Gobind’ the one ultimate Reality behind the illusory world of ‘Maya’. What is this unchanging constant? Where is it in me? And can it keep me steady when everything around me appears unsteady?

The philosophy of the Upanishads and the practice of Yoga helps one to discover the changing and the unchanging aspects of oneself. Yoga keeps the constantly changing empirical self, the one that experiences the outside world (body, mind, intellect) called the ‘prakriti’, separate from the eternal, constant, unchanging Self called the ‘Atman’. At the same time, it is the union of the Self (Atman) with the Supreme-Self (Parmatama), union of the power of life (Shakti) with the power holder (Shiva) and the union of the two main channels (Nadis) called ‘Ida’ and ‘Pingala’ through which the vital life force (bio-force) flows in the individual.

To unite or join

Yoga comes from the Sanskrit root ‘Yuj’ – to unite, join, connect or to establish a union with the Creator. The concept of Yoga in the west is that of postures (asanas) –this is a very limited view. Yoga is the journey of the self, through the self, to the Self. There are 4 paths laid out in Yoga through which to gain this realisation of the Self – self-realisation or enlightenment (Raj –self control; Bhakti – Love and devotion; Jnana – knowledge; Karma – action; none of these paths are self exclusive). Raj yoga – the King of Yoga philosophy – works on the mind-soul to establish the union with the Supreme.

There are two main streams of Yoga:

1. ‘Patanjali’ yoga that focuses on the subtle aspects (Patanjali laid down the eight fold spiritual path - Ashtanga Yoga Fig1, which also compares Yoga with Ayurveda in the path of Atmabodha – awakening to the truth of our spiritual nature)

2. ‘Hatha’ yoga that focusses on the gross. ‘Ha’ means right which represents Shiva. ‘Tha’ means left which represents Shakti. More on ‘Hatha’ later to see how it is also related with the concept of ‘Nadis’, the channels through which the life-energy flows.

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Ida, Pingala and Sushma

In the Prashna Upanishad [3], Sage Pippalda whilst answering questions put by his six disciples, explains that there are 72,000 channels ‘nadis’ through which the ‘Prana’ (bio-force) flows and goes on to describe the five aspects of Prana that maintain and control the body-mind complex. (i) Prana: Responsible for impulses including intake of oxygen, food, water etc. (ii) Apana: Responsible for excrementary, expiratory and ejaculation functions and impulses. (iii) Vyana: Responsible for circulatory function. (iv) Samana: Maintaining balance between inspiratory and expiratory activities to digest and absorb. (v) Vyana: Responsible for impulses and activities relating bodily functions and sensations with cognitive functions or simply the heart and mind connection. [Note that in Vedic literature the term ‘Prana’ has been used with two different meanings – one meaning the life-force or bio-force and the other just for the intake of nutrients.]

Out of the 72,000 Nadis through which the aforementioned bio-force ‘Prana’ flows there are three main nadis: Ida, Pingala and Sushma. In the ‘Hatha’ yoga, ‘Ha’ stands for Sun (Surya) and ‘Tha’ for the moon (Chandra). Physiological explanation is that they represent the ‘Surya’ Ida nadi (similar to sympathetic nerves) and the ‘Chandra’ Pingala nadi (similar to parasympathetic nerves). Scientists writing in the ‘Marvels and Mysteries of Human Mind’ [4] labelled sympathetic and parasympathetic nerves as “war and peace”. Under threat or emergencies, sympathetic nerves get us ready for fight our flight – pupils dilate, heart rate and blood pressure increase, and breathing deepens. Whereas the parasympathetic part restores calmness and urges rest. Both these nerve systems work automatically as they are part of the autonomic nervous system. They automatically control the inner workings of the body organs like the liver function, insulin secretion, metabolic rate and pulse etc. Normally they are beyond our conscious control. This is where Yoga comes in. Scientists have now acknowledged that skilled yogis can change their heart rate, bring their metabolic system to near halt, lower body temperature and lower blood pressure.

The Sushma nadi represents the central electrical flow in the nervous system. There are many purificatory processes (Shudhi kriyas) specified to clear away any blockages or impurities in these channels. An unobstructed normal flow of bio-force through these channels leads to disease-free healthy mind and body helping to achieve a blissful state (Samadhi). At this stage, it is worth giving some explanation about how brain learns.

Self-learning

Modern science explains that neurons are primary components of the nervous system and Sir Charles Sherrington discovered that signals between neurons occur via specialised connections called synapses. Synapses can transmit impulses over a gap, and they are not just chemical synapses but also electrical ones.

At this juncture, it is worth pointing out how understanding of the way brain neurons work has led to development of artificial intelligence (AI). In the 21st century, AI is being developed and applied in virtually all fields: engineering, science, education, medicine, business, accounting, finance, marketing, economics, stock market, law, agriculture and many more. The human brain consists of an estimated 100 billion nerve cells or neurons which are inter-connected and communicate via electrical signals that are short-lived impulses or "spikes" in the voltage. The interneuron connections are mediated by electrochemical junctions called synapses, which are located on branches of the cell referred to as dendrites. Each neuron typically receives many thousands of connections from other neurons. They are integrated or summed together and if the resulting signal exceeds some threshold then the neuron will "fire" or generate a voltage impulse in response. This is then transmitted to other neurons via a branching fibre known as the axon. The key is that the signal must cross the set threshold before propagating to other neurons. These network systems are self-learning and can be trained. This is how brain learns.

Vedic thinking

In modern times the ability of the brain to ‘learn’ and change per our internal and external environments is well recognised and termed neuroplasticity – the ability of the brain to form new connections and pathways and change how its circuits are wired; neurogenesis is the even more amazing ability of the brain to grow new neurons.

Computer Data Scientists have used mathematics and computational models to create Artificial Neural Networks (ANNs) which perform similar function as biological neurons. Complex AI networks have been developed to recognise images, do language processing, medical diagnosis etc. I have personally developed ANNs to solve engineering problems. The point is that AI relies on the fundamental principle of collecting signals, integrating them and deciding whether to react or not. The same principle is applied in yogic practice.

So far, one can see similarities between Vedic yogic thinking and modern scientific explanations. Whilst the modern science restricts itself to experimentation and analysis of the physical, the Vedic scholars had gone way beyond just the physical and have explained the inevitable connection between the physical and the meta-physical. The physical world is mapped on to the meta-physical world. For example, if the Sun represents the eternal universal divinity then the moon is reflected light of the same representing the consciousness in an individual. We can relate it back to the concept of ‘hot’ Sun (sympathetic nerves – Ida nadi) and ‘cool’ moon (parasympathetic nerves – Pingla nadi).

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Holistic view

The Vedic seers present a holistic view of human personality comprising of five conceptual layers (Koshas). (i) Annamaya Kosha: gross body/outer aspects (ii) Pranamaya Kosha: subtle functions, (iii) Manomaya Kosha: Feelings, emotions, conception of thoughts, (iv) Vijnanamaya Kosha: intellect, rationality and decision making and (v) Anandmaya Kosha: Blissful inward awareness. The aim is to transcend all these koshas from the outer layer to the inner most and once that is done the seeker is said to have realised the Self. These koshas are interlinked, indicating that human personality coexists simultaneously at a physical, mental, intellectual and spiritual level. The western models proposed by Maslow and Rogers talk of self-expression, self-esteem and self-actualisation. Self-actualisation happens once the basic needs are met. However, the Vedic model goes further and seeks total freedom of the Self by achieving a state where one is immune to deleterious influences. Yogic practice can develop an ability not to be influenced by the root cause of stress (kleshas).

Western psychologists have mostly focussed on explaining human behaviour and still do not have a satisfactory explanation of the human ‘mind’. One of the best descriptions of ‘mind’ can be found in the Mandukya Upanishad [5]. In this small scripture of only 12 mantras, three states of mind are described as the three letters of ‘AUM’. The letter ‘A’ represents the gross body, the waking state where interaction with the external world and awareness is through the five senses and the sense organs. The impulses from the sensory organs are stored and processed in the subtle body represented by the letter ‘U’. This is the dreaming state or reflective state of the mind. When both the gross and the subtle bodies rest, one enters into deep sleep where only casual body remains represented by the letter ‘M’. The casual body is always blissful and gives deep sense of rest and stability. However, as soon as the state of mind changes to ‘awake’ or ‘dream’, the blissfulness seems to disappear. The challenge is to maintain this blissfulness even whilst being awake. Yoga helps with this ability through understanding and recitation of AUM. One can become aware of the three states and three levels of awareness such that the powers of action, will and wisdom are all transcended to remain in blissful (Anandmaya) state. This is the fourth state of ‘Turiya’ where one can be in the present and experience it (being in present - Sat), have knowledge and realisation (consciousness within – Chit) and remain blissful (Ananda). This is Satchitanada that a yogi can achieve.

Chakras of desire

One can attain a spiritual state called the ‘samadhi’ through awakening of the ‘Kundalni’. As mentioned earlier, the bio-force flows through the two main channels (‘knowing’ and ‘controlling’ Ida and Pingla). Kundalni Shakti (serpent power) is a conceptual entity which lies in a coiled shape (kundal) in a dormant state just above the anal sphincter with three and a half spiral turns. A yogi through various ‘mudras’ (postures) and ‘kriyas’ (processes) becomes aware of this power and makes it rise upwards in the spine passing through the seven plexuses (chakras). Chakra literally means a wheel or a circle. In Yoga, it refers to wheels of energy which align the spine, starting from the base of the spine through to the crown of the head.

The first three chakras are chakras of matter.

  1. The Muladhara is the chakra of stability, security, and our basic needs. It encompasses the first three vertebrae, the bladder, and the colon. When this chakra is open, we feel safe and fearless.

  1. The Svadhisthana chakra is our creativity and sexual center. It is located above the pubic bone, below the navel, and is responsible for our creative expression.

  1. The Manipura chakra is the area from the navel to the breastbone. It is our source of personal power.

  1. Anahata is the Connection between Matter and Spirit. Located at the heart center, it is at the middle of the seven and unites the lower chakras of matter and the upper chakras of spirit. So, it serves as a bridge between our body, mind, emotions, and spirit. The heart chakra is our source of love and connection. It is also the way to achieve coherence with our brain –the heart is many fold more powerful electro-magnetically than the brain.

  1. The Vishuddha chakra is located in the area of the throat. This is our source of verbal expression. It includes the neck, thyroid, and parathyroid glands, jaw, mouth, and tongue.

  1. The Ajna chakra is located in between the eyebrows. It is also referred to as the “third eye” chakra. Ajna is center of intuition.

  1. The Sahaswara chakra or the “thousand petal lotus” chakra is located at the crown of the head. This is the chakra of enlightenment and spiritual connection to our higher selves, others, and ultimately, to the divine.

Chakras are where matter and consciousness meet. Chakras are playground of the 5 physical elements (Earth, air, fire, water and space). Desires relate to the ‘chakras’ in the body. Alignment of these chakras lead to blissful happy life. If a person’s basic desires including sexuality, eating habits, feelings, expressions and understanding are all aligned, that person will feel enlightened and blissful.

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Yantra, mantra, tantra

Tantric Yoga is needed to awaken the energy centres at all chakras which is known as ‘kundalni arousal’. It is visualised as a coiled snake that uncoils to rise upwards. The term Tantra means technique. Tantric Yoga uses yantra (tools), mantra (methods) and tantra (techniques) to create a bridge between matter and body, body and soul, individual and the universe. It is a unique psycho-physiological process of transformation of the whole sensory system. Unfortunately, some neo-tantric traditions in the west have focussed only on the sexual aspect of the tantric yoga.

Sexual energy is only just one of the natural primal part of the human body not all of it. To understand how Yoga can reprogramme the brain, it is important to know how brain has developed. Scientists explain that the brain evolved from inside out. The oldest part is the brain stem capped by the reptile brain responsible for biological functions and territorial and survival behaviour including fight, flight, sex and hunting for food. Surrounding the reptile brain is the limbic system or mammalian brain that controls our moods and emotions. The outer part is the cerebral cortex which crosses the boundary from matter to consciousness and leads to inspiration, abstract thinking, reading and writing etc. Tantric yoga uses the yantra and the mantra to apply the postures, breathing exercises and rituals to attune one to the same regulating forces that had created the nature including the brain. It awakens the energies that had laid coiled up at Muladhar chakra at the base of the spinal cord.

Electric circuit

Please note this journey of shakti from Muladhar to Sahasrara is not just a linear straight line. It is not just two ends of a line but a circle with top-down and bottom-up energy flow. It is like an electric circuit. Ohm’s law in physics states that the electrical current flowing in a circuit is proportional to the voltage (V=intensity) and inversely proportional to the resistance (R=barriers). Therefore, if the voltage is increased, the current will increase provided the resistance of the circuit does not. This 'resistance' to energy flow is called 'Bandha ' in tantric terminology. These are psychological and physiological barriers and there are specific sadhanas to remove them. There are in total seven chakras in the path from Muladhar at the bottom to Sahasrara at the top. These can be seen simply as seven levels of consciousness, from bottom to top: I see, I feel, I do, I love, I express, I see and I understand. Barriers and resistance to flow of life energy occurs if there is any conflict, any dichotomy, between any of these levels. Purpose of Yoga is to align them. So, a true yogi or sadhak must be willing to remove these barriers and be true to themselves.

Cosmic energy

‘Kriyas’ (physical activities) have been devised for individual or male/female partners in which music, dance, postures, breathing patterns and sensual stimulation or combination of these are used to arouse the dormant Kundalini Shakti to higher levels of consciousness through the above mentioned psychic centres (Chakras). In the book ‘From Sex to Super consciousness’, Osho [6] has tried to explain spiritual aspect of sex. He says, “I request you to approach sex only when you are feeling bliss, feeling love, when you are cheerful, when you are prayerful; only when you feel that your heart is full of joy, peace and gratitude. Only a person who approached sex like this can experience super consciousness, Samadhi.”

Sir Woodruff, writing under the name of Avalon, called ‘kundalni’ the ‘divine cosmic energy in the body’ which needs to be aroused. Tantric yoga is actually a powerful combination of asana, mantra, mudra, bandha (energy lock) and chakra (energy centre) work that can be used under expert guidance to build strength, clarity, and bliss in everyday life.

Dr S. Radhakrishnan, in his book ‘The Principal Upanishads’ [7] explains that in treatises of yoga, consciousness is represented in the form of a radiant serpent called Kundalni or Vag-Devi. Process of yoga consists in rousing the radiant serpent and lifting it up from the lowest sphere to the heart, where in union with ‘Prana’ its universal nature is realised and from it to the top of the skull. It goes out from through an opening called ‘Brahma-randhra’ to which corresponds in the cosmic organism the opening formed by the sun on the top of the vault of the sky.

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Summary

In summary, Yoga is a holistic scientific approach involving both psychology and physiology. Dr Alan Watkins [8], a neurology consultant from Imperial College, London has conducted research on improving human performance. He proposes B.R.E.A.T.H.E – Breathe Rhythmically Evenly And Through the Heart Everyday. His research has shown that we can make step-change in our performance by regulating our heartbeat. Because our heartbeat is correlated with our low/high level of performance. We can stabilise your biology with a rhythmic breathing and improve our performance. As shown in the figure by Dr Alan Watkins, our behaviour and its result that appear on the surface are underpinned by our thinking, feeling, emotion and ultimately our physiology.

Yoga teaches to use the body as a bow, yogic asanas and practices as the arrow and the soul (Atman) as the target. It is based on the simple fact that the ultimate core of our being, the ‘Atman’ cannot be realised without the use of the body, mind, intelligence and the consciousness (which are all part of the prakriti). All of these can be refined to increase the awareness of the ‘Self’ which will help one lead a healthier and more blissful life.

References:

1. Isha Upanishad, Mantra 1.

2. Guru Granth Sahib, Ang 485, Raag Asa Bhagat Namdev

3. Prashna Upanishad, Question 3, Mantra 6. Also see Chandogya Upanishad 8-6-6 and Brihad-Aranyaka Upanshad 2-1-19.

4. ‘Marvels and Mysteries of Human Mind’, Edited by A E Guiness, The Readers’s Digest Association, 1997.

5. Mandukya Upanishad, mantra 8.

6. ‘From Sex to Super consciousness’, 15th edition, Osho. Osho International Foundation, Full Circle Publishing, 2015.

7. “The Principal Upanishads”, 19th edition, Dr S Radhakrishnan, Harper Collins Publishers,2008.

8. Dr Alan Watkins, Being Brilliant Every Single Day (Part 2)

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