Hello everybody. This week we begin with a reminder of my disclaimer concerning my Sanskrit skills. I’m very much a beginner, and thus obliged to begin with a correction from last week’s commentary. In discussing the word laya, which can mean either absorption or dissolution, I used the word himālaya as an example. I said the name roughly translates as “never-melting snow.” In doing so, I had forgotten some super basic principles of spelling and thus committed the common sin known as “Sanskrit by intuition.” The name is a combination of two words, but I got one of them wrong: hima does mean snow, but the other word isn’t alaya (non-dissolving), but ālaya, which means abode or dwelling place. So himālaya means “abode of snow,” not “never-melting snow.” Similar sense but not exactly the same thing, and this is what’s so challenging about Sanskrit. How to strive for accuracy and precision in a language so slippery and full of nuance? It’s certainly challenging, but that’s what turns me on about studying Sanskrit. I certainly encourage all of you, if you have any spare time left over at all, to see about a hobby that is strictly intellectual. I suspect that just like cardio fitness, exercising the brain in such a way can be shore you up against stress and despair. Big ask, probably, but something to consider. Now, on to the lecture at hand…..
Sa recapūrairanilasya kumbaih sarvāsu nādīshu viśodhitāsu |
When all the nādis [channels of life-force], along with the breath’s inhalation and exhalation, have been purified by retention; the appearance of many forms of the unstruck sound always takes place
Let’s start at the start here, at the risk of a little redundancy for readers who have more experience with yoga’s theoretical underpinnings, and clarify some of the terms and ideas presented in this śloka. According to the Monier-Williams Sanskrit-English dictionary (the gold standard, makes you look really scholarly if you have a copy of it lying around) a nādi is: “any tube or pipe, a tubular organ (as a vein or artery of the body.” However, the nādis described in this śloka do not transmit blood but rather prāna, or life force, or vital energy. In Chinese it’s called chi, and in Korean and Japanese it’s known as ki. According to the Indian conception of the body, each person comprises a matrix of five fields (known as koshas, or sheaths) which are interwoven and superimposed over each other. The first field is called the annamaya kosha, which is our physical body: skin, bones, viscera, blood, nerves, etc. The second field is called the pranamaya kosha, which is the energy that animates the physical body. This energy, the prāna, flows throughout the pranamaya kosha by means of nādis, or channels. The nādis of prāna of the pranamaya kosha are superimposed over the nerves of the annamayakosha. (N.B.: The idea of life-force coursing through channels that correspond roughly with the nervous system is also a bedrock of acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), although in TCM they are called meridians.) You will remember from last week’s newsletter that although there are a vast number of nādis in the body, there is one that is most important. It is called Sushumna nādi and it corresponds with the most important nerve, which of course is the spinal column.
Right. The channels of life force are to be purified, along with natural breathing cycle of inhalation and exhalation, by means of retention. Essentially, Adi Śankara is reminding us to do our pranayama. Retention here means just that. It means holding the breath with the lungs either full (challenging, but can be fun and easier to do if you’re in a pool), or empty (most unpleasant, but where the real skill of using your Mind to override your body and its instincts can be honed). The practice of breath retention is a deep and heavy thing. It’s a gateway drug, if you will, to some of the more outlandish and esoteric practices of Yoga. Think about it: with practice one can consciously over ride those systems (such as breathing, blinking, heart rate, digestion) which run autonomously. Good news, though: we don’t need to go stopping our hearts from beating or stabbing knitting needles through our cheeks without bleeding in order to achieve success in Yoga. Through the practice of retention, or pranayama, we can purify the flows of energy in both or physical and energetic bodies. When this happens we will hear the unstruck sound, and thus have the best possible anchor, or seed, for our meditation.
A final word: so many ślokas and sutras are presented in terms of when/then. E.g., “when you completely stop all intake of carbohydrates, then ketosis occurs.” A more relevant example: it’s often said that once one gets a solid grasp of the first five limbs of yoga (yama/niyama/asana/pranayama/pratyahara) then the final three (dharana/dhyana/samadhi) just blossom out and occur spontaneously. There’s a zen saying that goes “dedicate your life to cultivating flawless technique and then throw yourself at the mercy of inspiration.” I don’t want to be a total Debbie Downer, but I’m afraid we all tend to think about, or look forward to, the spontaneous explosion part at the expense of the work leading up to it. Whether it’s the purification described in this week’s śloka, or marichasana D, or kapotasana, or coming to terms with an early trauma…. it won’t come easy, or soon. It may seem like it happens in a flash when it does but that flash can only be set up with a long, slow burn first. The good news is that we needn’t work alone. We have our sanghas/churches/communities/scenes. We have our families, both biological and chosen. We have our teachers. Thank God for all of them, and roll up your sleeves…..