Yoga in its various forms works at the vibrational level to enhance health and wellness, says Chandrika Gibson
Yogic Physiology is the study of the vibrational or pranic effects of yoga practices. While vibration is not necessarily the common term used to describe the flow of subtle energy, it is actually how many people experience the movement of prana. It's a whole body and beyond buzz that becomes easier to access with regular practice.
Western and Eastern anatomy and physiology have very different models to explain the way energy and information move through the body and yet in many ways they are describing the same pathways. Western science has a well developed understanding of the nervous system, cardiovascular system and lymphatic system as channels for information to travel. The Eastern philosophies of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Yoga and Ayurveda describe the flow of a subtle vibrational force through meridians (TCM), nadis (yoga/ayurveda) and in specific directions (vayus in yoga) that relate, but are not necessarily equivalent, to physical structures.
A central concept to yogic science is prana, the lifeforce energy which moves through all living things. Yogic techniques intentionally harness and direct the movement of prana through the nadis or channels of the body. There are a number of prana subtypes described in the yogic texts with specific patterns of movement depicted in health and blockages indicating a lack of prana to organs or areas of the body. According to yoga philosophy, we have this lifeforce energy innately within us and the levels increase or decrease with diet, lifestyle, movement, breathing, environment, thoughts and practices. Hence yoga presents a comprehensive holistic system of filling the vessel of the body with life giving and wellness enhancing vibration.
According to Patanjali, founder of yoga science, there are five types of Prana:
Prana Vayu controls the breathing process and the disciplines of breath awareness and control are collectively termed pranayama.
Apana Vayu controls the excretory organs and the reproductive organs. It is the downward flow of subtle vibratory energy that carries waste out of the body. This vayu is the reason inversions (upside down postures) are generally not recommended during menstruation. It is not for physical reasons although some people fear that menstrual blood may flow into fallopian tubes there is no evidence to support this idea. Instead, the guideline exists based on traditional yogis' understanding of the downward force of apana vayu which serves to cleanse the body and should not be unduly disrupted.
Samana Vayu helps in the process of digestion and controls hunger. This central circulating region of prana acts as a fulcrum between apana(below)and prana (above) vayus, flows in a horizontal direction and is closely related to the governance of agni or digestive fire in the abdominal organs.
Udhana Vayu controls the vocal chords; this helps in breathing air and eating food, two primary sources of prana derived from outside the body.
Vayana Vayu is spread all over the body. It is this all over vibration that sensitive yoga practitioners may be aware of when resting in savasana after an asana practice.
Nadis are the energy channels of the yoga system and include the nerves, blood and lymph vessels, and the acupuncture meridians (Borg-Olivier & Machliss, 2009). These channels carry energy in the form of heat, electrochemical energy and molecules such as glucose and ATP at the physical level and prana at the subtle level. They also carry information in the form of neurotransmitters, immune factors and hormones at the physical level, and citta or consciousness according to yogic physiology.
While the practice of asana is the most popular dimension of yoga in the Western world, it is not the complete system of yoga, just one aspect of the living science of spirituality that yoga describes. Even in a purely physical practice though, yoga is different from other bodily disciplines in that it systematically circulates prana. According to Forstater and Manuel's book The Spiritual Teachings of Yoga asana not only increases flexibility, fitness and strength, but releases tension held in the body. They describe what many yoga practitioners feel, that the body becomes loose, soft and open so that internal blockages and obstructions formed by negative emotions or poor postural habits can be moved, cleansed and washed away. The removal of obstacles physically allows the flow of prana to move freely throughout the body. As the body-mind is understood as one whole by yoga, movement physically equates to movement mentally and promotes an optimal environment for spiritual practices and realisation.
Mudra is the art of positioning the body to enhance pranic flow and express the possibilities of human feelings. Much Buddhist and Hindu art depicts deities in mudras, including whole body asanas. The positioning of fingers and toes has particular significance as each digit is representative of a mental state, element or planet. For example, a commonly used hand mudra is chin mudra practised in a seated meditation pose such as sukhasana (easy cross legs), ardha padmasana (half lotus) or full padmasana. The arms are extended over the knees with palms up (or down, in some schools this is called jnana mudra). The tips of index fingers are connected with thumbs. According to Gertrud Hirschi in Mudras: Yoga in Your Hands, the index finger represents the individual self while the thumb is symbolic of cosmic consciousness. At the heart of yoga is the union of self with universe or the essential oneness of being. This mudra links the apparently separate entities and subjugates the individual or ego self to the macrocosmic whole. Such simple yet powerfully evocative images are part of the beauty and grace of classical Indian dance, or Bharata Natyam. Mudras are used to express emotion and tell the spiritual stories of India through movement and music.
Bandhas are another technique to control and move prana through the body. Often translated to mean "locks", bandhas are contractions of muscles or groups of muscles which provide physical and vibrational control to the body. They are used during asana practice to direct prana as well as provide stability to the joints. Practitioners of hatha yoga, and particularly those influenced by the teachings of Pattabhi Jois, will likely be familiar with the three main spinal bandhas. The muladhara bandha, also known as Mulabandha, is associated with muladhara chakra and is sometimes called the "root lock" and involves activation of the pelvic floor muscles. A balance is sought between tension and relaxation and the subtlety of the action is far more relevant and powerful than the muscular effort. There are subtle differences in how this is instructed and explained but the aim is to physically stabilise the pelvis and vibrationally to retain the heat built up during asana within the torso. Mulabandha prevents the loss of prana downwards via the apana vayu and encourages an upward flow of prana suitable to meditation.
Uddiyana bandha also stabilises the lower torso by activating the transverse abdominis and iliopsoas muscles. David Keil of YogAnatomy.com says that Uddiyana translates to mean "upward flying". This bandha is said to give lightness to the physical practice which can be seen in the floating movements of advanced practitioners. The psoas muscle group (iliopsoas is psoas major and iliacus) attaches to T12, the lowest vertebrae of the thoracic spine, right down to L4, forms a large triangular shape and inserts at the femur. This position brings the powerful muscles of hip flexion close to the sacrum and the regions relating to the three lower chakras of muladhara, svadisthana and manipura.
The third major bandha is jalandhara bandha or the chin lock at the throat. Jalandhara is translated to mean "upward pulling net". Some interpretations of the vibrational effects of this bandha include connecting head with heart and balancing the vishuddha chakra.
Physically, many asanas compress the throat and are thought to tone the thyroid gland thereby balancing the metabolism and enhancing calcium metabolism among other benefits. In general, this bandha is engaged when the back of the neck is lengthened and the front of the throat softens, although there are variations in postures where the chin is raised and the neck is extended. Yoga postures such as halasana(plough) and setu bandhasana (bridge) naturally draw the chest towards the chin and create this energetic restriction or lock. The three spinal bandhas may be performed separately although they are synergistic and when combined are termed the maha mudra.
While the various schools of yoga will add or subtract their foci and interpretations, the core teachings of classical yoga run through most modern practices. Whether crude or subtle, yoga is operating at the vibrational level to enhance health and high level wellness. The current resurgence in interest in yoga by researchers and practitioners worldwide is creating a reconnection of East and West. The scientific model is now verifying the ancient science of yoga and the combined knowledge is adding an holistic dimension to material science. Yoga continues to achieve its aim of union by reuniting body and mind, the gross physical anatomy and subtle vibrational physiology through diligent investigation and practice.
Chandrika Gibson ND is a holistic yoga teacher and naturopath