Advanced Yoga Practices
Lesson 182 - Healthy Skepticism
Date: Thu May 6, 2004 3:06pm
Q: I like your writing – both the content and the style. Your approach is sane and practical. But some aspects don’t satisfy me. Isn’t the ‘spinal breathing’ a hyperventilation with attention on imaginary spinal nervous channel? How does the mix of breathing physiology and mental phenomenon really purify the ‘nervous system’? Are the so-called impurities physical (physiological) or mental? You rightly point out that visions etc don’t mean ‘realization.’ Nobody knows how the body-mind interaction works. But the yogic life style of meditation, contentment, ‘yama-niyam’ does alter one’s world-view. How do you characterize ‘divine love’? Is it ‘karuna’ compassion? Maybe you can shed some light on these questions.
A: Thank you for your note. It is much appreciated.
Healthy skepticism is good because it reduces the tendency toward blind faith and superstition, which are not good for yoga or spiritual progress — as long as skepticism does not become extreme and kill our desire to seek the truth altogether. Then skepticism becomes a kind of superstition itself. A good intellect is one that is inquiring and balanced, and willing to accept the demonstrated truth of things, even if it means dissolving the intellect (and ego) in the process!
As you can tell, I have a scientific orientation and view yoga as both an ongoing experiment and the application of known causes and effects. For this reason you find minimal theory and philosophy in the lessons. The lessons are not to entertain the curious mind. They are to offer solid means for us to change what we are on this earth for the better, if we choose to. There is a lot we don’t know. But we are here, and we can grow in our experience of life in remarkable ways if we are willing to do what is necessary to stimulate our nervous system to go in its natural evolutionary direction.
If you find the explanations of things hard to believe, that’s okay. They are just explanations, just ideas. The practices are something else. If we do them in the ways suggested, changes will happen in us. No one has to take anyone else’s word on that. It is a personal experience each of us can have in the privacy of our own room, and in our daily activities. The experiment of yoga is one everyone can do, and that is the first and last word on yoga for all of us. So, consider the experiment and see what you find in yourself. It can be a wonderful surprise – one so attention-grabbing that it can give us a belief in our divine possibilities. The best yogis and yoginis are both believers and skeptics. They believe there is a destination, and they will accept nothing but the most effective means for traveling there. They leave cults and dogmas behind, after they have harvested the seeds of truth from them. And they are constantly on fire to carry on the journey.
Having said all that, I’ll take a shot at your questions. Keep in mind that, if you give the practices a fair try, your own experience in these things will outweigh anything that I or anyone else says about them. You are the playing field. Everything else is just information and advice.
On spinal breathing, hyperventilation is too much oxygen in the bloodstream. That is why people who are hyperventilating are advised to breathe in a paper bag for a few minutes until they can reduce the over-oxygenation. Spinal breathing and most other forms of pranayama are the opposite. Pranayama means “restraint of life force (breath).” So with pranayama we are systematically and safely restraining oxygen consumption. Why? It stimulates the life force stored in the body (mostly in the pelvic region) to compensate, to move up into the nervous system to nourish us. It is a neuro-biological phenomenon. This produces both calming and energizing effects in the body and mind.
Can this life force substance/energy be directed with the attention? Experience indicates that it can. By directing it up and down through the spinal nerve between the point between the eyebrows and the perineum, something happens. In time, it is no longer an exercise of the imagination. An awakening occurs and it becomes a neuro-physical event. I call it the rise of “ecstatic conductivity.” In any case, the spinal nerve can be induced by the attention used with breath to produce a permanent awakening that produces a wide range of neuro-biological and psychic effects. I can’t tell you exactly why this is so. But I can tell you that it is so from experience. Many others can verify this, and you can find quite a few examples in the Q&As. It is also described in writings going back thousands of years. Not that we have to take anyone else’s word for it. It is what it is — a path to somewhere that the human nervous system can take us.
Enterprising humanity is such that whenever there is someplace new to go, someone will go there. If the place is good, then many will go eventually. Maybe we are on the verge of many people going to this wonderful place called “enlightenment.” It is only a matter of describing the place and marking the route. Many have done so. The lessons are another attempt at it, leaning toward a more open scientific approach.
The purification aspect you ask about is mysterious, I admit, yet does happen in those who do yoga practices. It happens in mind, emotions and body, and these are intertwined. We know that the human body will purify (and also heal) itself when given the opportunity. This happens during rest. It also happens whenever normal loads are taken off the body or mind. Fasting has been shown to produce purifying effects in the body. Pranayama is a kind of fasting, involving air — and is found to produce physical effects. Meditation is also a kind of fasting, involving thinking — systematically allowing the mind to become still. We don’t force the mind to stillness. It just happens automatically when the right conditions are set up in the mind. Generally, purification happens in the body when we allow something to reduce or stop — food, air, thoughts, metabolism, etc. When any or all of these come to be less, or completely at rest, then purification happens.
Purification from yoga can take on many forms — ranging from seemingly random streams of thought, to unusual emotions, inner sensory events, and physical indications such as involuntary body movements, perspiration, physical sensations, etc. In rare cases, rashes, fevers, pain, and other extreme physical symptoms can happen. A big part of yoga is about managing practices in such a way so as to keep the level of purification going on as stable and comfortable as possible. I get emails every day from people who are trying to balance practices with various symptoms of purification. The variety of physical, emotional and mental symptoms of purification that can come up in yoga seems endless. The neuro-biological process of purification and opening is very real, and is at the heart of the journey of yoga. That is why there is so much emphasis on self-pacing of practices in the lessons.
“Divine love” is what happens as the nervous system purifies and opens to the point where our consciousness is much less identified with the body as self. Then everyone is becoming part of our own rising sense of oneness. Divine love (unity) is born of a neuro-biological union involving deep inner silence and ecstatic energies blending in our nervous system. Then, somehow, it expands beyond our physical body and we become the other. When we become the other and the other is as dear to us as our own self, that is love, yes? Everyone feels this intuitively. Peace, wisdom, compassion, conscience, selfless service and sacrifice are natural qualities we possess within ourselves. We may be in touch with them, or not, but they are there latent inside each of us.
The ongoing human drama is about revealing the light in ourselves as we overcome the darkness. Just about every story ever told has been about that, either literally or metaphorically. Why does this theme have such a universal appeal? Is it because we know instinctively that we are the light?
As we continue with yoga, the positive qualities in us do become stronger. This implies that as we continue to clear away the inner obstructions, something “divine” shines through from inside. Is this really true? Are we inherently divine? Again, it is cause and effect. If we continue in yoga, this is what eventually comes out. It is the experience of many throughout history. It has been written down for thousands of years. It is part of the human experience that is available to anyone who is willing to undertake the means to let it blossom out.
Don’t take my word for it. Do the full investigation of yoga and find out for yourself. I wish you all success in your endeavor to uncover the truth.
The guru is in you.