Fortunate indeed is the one who drinks the cosmic milky nectar falling from the moon, which has been heated thus: by the sacrifice-devouring fire, stoked by the ceaseless clamping of the root, which turns the downward expelling force back upon itself and reverses its flow.
I wouldn’t be too surprised if your response to this lovely śloka were along the lines of: “Nice imagery. Quite beautiful, in fact. But what the fuck is he talking about? No, really. Was I supposed to have taken acid before I read this?” I get it. It’s a valid response to a most esoteric concept of the body rendered as poetically as possible. I think the best way to unpack this one will be to start at the end and work to the beginning.
Right off the bat there is a choice to make as a translator. The “downward expelling force” is apana, which is a term that is relatively familiar to more seasoned Yoga practitioners and might have been left untranslated. For those unfamiliar with the term, this is what apana is about, in a nutshell: prāna (or life-force) travels throughout the body by means of the nadis. This much has been brought up before. But as it travels throughout the body it can take one of five directions, or spins, or perhaps even flavors (like the subatomic particles called quarks). These are known as the five vayus, or winds. They are: prāna, apana, samana, udana, and vyana. (Note that we have now encountered three meanings for prāna. It can mean breath, or life force, or a specific flow of life force. Sanskrit is very slippery this way. Words can easily have upwards of ten or even more meanings or senses…). Briefly: prāna = inhalation, intake, forward movement; apana = exhalation, elimination, downward movement; samana = assimilation, consolidation; udana = growth, upward movement; and vyana = circulation, expansiveness. In asana practice we tend to focus on the first two. Indeed, in Ashtanga Yoga we consciously link every movement we make either to prāna or apana.
Now, the “ceaseless clamping of the root” means none other than the steady of engagement of mula bandha, the root lock. In this way we conserve energy by not letting it escape down and out of our bodies. It goes without saying (I hope) that one would only wish to do this in the energetic body. To seal off our anuses and penises and vaginas would very quickly have dire consequences for our health. But energy is clean, and it is ok to keep it inside, swirling and percolating. When energy is retained the whole energetic body heats up and thus stokes “the sacrifice-devouring fire.”
The sacrifice-devouring fire is a metaphor for the digestive fire, known as Agni (which, as you can probably see, is the source of our word ignite, among other fire words). In Vedic times, it may surprise to learn, animal sacrifice (horses most important of all) was central to Hinduism. As the religion evolved what was offered to the fire came to be oil and ghee. To this day many pujas (or rites) involve ladling large quantities of ghee into a raging pit fire which causes huge billowing clouds of thick, unctuous, black smoke. At one puja I remember we were told that this smoke was not only auspicious to breathe in, it was healthy. This for me was one of those times I decided not to suspend my disbelief and so I took frequent trips outside for fresh air. And yes, the raging pit fire was burning indoors! I digress. In pujas, the sacrificial fire is fed by ghee and oil. In our bodies, the digestive fire is fed by a viscous substance known interchangeably as amrita (immortality) or bindhu (nectar). For the sake of clarity we’ll stick with amrita here. According to the ancient Yogic conception of the body the digestive fire powered the engine of the body, if you will, and amrita was the fuel for that fire. The ancients believed that the pineal gland was the source of amrita. The pineal gland is a small gland, about the size of a thumbnail, which fits just between to the two hemispheres of the brain, and it was poetically referred to as the moon. There is a limited supply of amrita, and as it drips down into the fire of the belly one’s life gradually fades. This is why so much importance is placed on inversions. If you’re upside down, then the amrita can’t fall down into the fire, thus elongating life.
Sweeter still, though, is to do what’s described in this śloka. By engaging the three bandhas energy is conserved inside the body. The conserved energy causes greater heat throughout, including the pineal gland (the moon) which is the source of amrita. With the pineal gland heated, more amrita drips. However, because the jalandhara bandha (the throat lock) is engaged the amrita is diverted from the digestive fire in the belly to the palate. It is tasted, and man is it delicious!
And finally, there is the cosmic, milky nature of the nectar to discuss. The source of amrita in the body is the moon. But the moon receives amrita from still another source: the cosmos itself. The Milky Way, to be exact. The word galaxy comes from Greek, a combination of galakt (milk) and kyklos (circle). Ancient Hindus perceived our galaxy in a similar way, as a milky river in the heavens. One of the Sanskrit words for the Milky Way is akashaganga (more literally, “the space-Ganges;” more poetically, “the river of heaven”) The cosmic, milky nectar finds its way from the heavens into our digestive fire. It seems that we’ve known for some time that we are truly made of stars. What a lovely thought.
In the next edition, we will be introduced to the sublime spontaneous suspension of the breath known as Kevala-kumbha. Stay tuned!