Advanced Yoga Practices
Note: For the Original
Internet Lessons with additions,
For the Expanded and Interactive Internet Lessons, AYP Online Books,
Audiobooks and more, see AYP Plus.
AYP Plus Additions:
New Visitors: It is recommended you read from the beginning of the web archive, as previous lessons are prerequisite to this one. The first lesson is, "Why This Discussion?"
Can diet be a primary spiritual practice? While some believe that all things can be solved with diet, and go to great lengths to make it so with some extreme behaviors of eating or non-eating, we have to be realistic and say that diet is an aid to spiritual development, not a primary cause. If it were a primary means, the ancient Yoga Sutras would surely have diet as one of the major limbs, and we would have many more enlightened diet enthusiasts running around. In the Yoga Sutras, diet is, in fact, in the sub-limb of purity under the niyamas (observances). In other words, we can't likely eat (or fast) our way to enlightenment, but we can help things along considerably with diet if we are doing more powerful spiritual practices like deep meditation, spinal breathing pranayama, asanas, mudra, bandhas, etc. Then, diet can add another layer of purification and opening to enhance the effectiveness of other practices and our overall progress.
It is often reported by those who are doing deep meditation and other spiritual practices, that diet preferences shift naturally over time to be more light and nutritious - the call from within (see Lesson 30). As our consciousness rises, so will our awareness of healthy eating, as well as a natural urge to do so. And if we don't feel the urge? Well then, let's not worry about it too much. All things in their own time. Taking a forced approach to diet and lifestyle issues will not provide for lasting results. It is pretty certain that a forced diet will be a failed diet in the long run. So, work it from within with sound spiritual practices, and the external habits will follow in time. "Seek first the kingdom of heaven, and all will be added to you."
As we engage in our spiritual practices over months and years, we are gradually coaxing our nervous system to move to a higher level of functioning. Many of the characteristics of this are measurable in our neurobiology. And quite a few of the changes that are occurring are directly observable. A complex process of purification and opening is occurring in those who practice yogic methods.
There are two main aspects to our purification and opening, each with its own biological signature.
--The Rise of Inner Silence - an abiding inner quietness, or stillness, that is beyond our thoughts, feelings and the ups and downs of daily life. We come to know this as our "self."
--The Rise of Ecstatic Conductivity (Kundalini) in the Body - sensations of pleasurable energy moving within us, penetrating every aspect of our neurobiological functioning. We come to know this as the "radiant aspect of our self."
While diet is not a primary cause of these changes in our inner functioning, it is a participant in them.
As we find more abiding stillness within ourselves coming with daily deep meditation, we will naturally be drawn to a lighter more nutritious diet.
Likewise, as the neurobiological changes associated with a stirring kundalini begin to occur within us, our diet preferences may change. In addition, certain diet adjustments may be helpful to aid us in navigating some of the excessive energy symptoms that can occur as our inner experiences advance. The process of kundalini is famous for its many symptoms, which can include sensations of heat or coolness in the body, prickly sensations on the skin, surging emotions, physical vibrations or bodily movements, visions, occasional dizziness or nausea, etc. Sometimes there can be some pain as inner energy (prana) is moving through areas where there are remaining obstructions in our nervous system. All of these symptoms eventually give way to much higher and enjoyable experiences.
Depending on the pattern of inner obstructions in our nervous system and the degree of prudence we exercise in self-pacing our practices, we may experience little in the way of uncomfortable symptoms - just steadily increasing ecstasy and bliss, which can bring its own challenges (distractions from stable practice). Regardless, when kundalini becomes active, a good knowledge of yoga practices and the methods of regulating them will pay off in a big way. For those who experience an unmanaged kundalini awakening without knowledge of the particulars involved, it can be a challenging experience, lasting sometimes for years.
Once the kundalini process has begun within us, it can be managed by self-pacing our practices in ways that maintain good progress with reasonable comfort. It is a long term transformation we are engaged in, leading to a permanent condition of abiding inner silence, ecstatic bliss, and divine love radiating naturally outward from within us in all that we do in daily life.
Digestion is at the center of the kundalini process and many of its associated symptoms. So it stands to reason that diet has a role to play. And the role of diet will not always be the same, depending where we are on our path. To understand this better, let's look at the process occurring in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract in a person who has an active kundalini, and how this relates to diet.
While there are many aspects to the functioning of kundalini, both physical and non-physical, we will focus on the physical here, as far as we can go with it. For the purpose of this discussion, we will take the view that spiritual experience rises from neurobiological processes occurring in our body. There are more mystical ways of looking at it, and there is nothing wrong with that. It is the same process occurring, no matter how we choose to describe it. When we are reviewing the effects of diet (and shatkarmas and amaroli in upcoming lessons) looking at the biology can be helpful, as far as we can trace it with direct perception. There is little doubt that modern science will be taking a much closer look at the neurobiology of kundalini in the years and decades to come. It is the next great frontier of scientific exploration - the causes and effects of human spiritual transformation!
Kundalini is traditionally viewed as the awakening of a vast latent energy located near the base of the spine, which rises up the spine to the head. There, a union occurs between the rising energy and stillness, with the energy being feminine (shakti) and the stillness being masculine (shiva).
When we look at the experiential neurobiology of this, a few more components can be added, which are consistent with the metaphors found in many of the world's scriptures, including the more direct descriptions found in Indian Yoga and Chinese Taoism.
When there is sufficient inner silence present via the daily practice of deep meditation, and then the breath and body are brought into the process via spinal breathing pranayama, asanas, mudras, bandhas, and tantric sexual methods, we will notice three things occurring.
1. An expansion of sexual energy from the pelvic region upward, with part finding its way into the GI tract.
2. The natural retention of air in the GI tract.
3. The interaction of food with the sexual essences and air in the GI tract.
The natural combination of these three elements in the digestive system through an emerging higher form of digestion gives rise to a new substance emanating from the GI tract, which permeates the entire body. Much of this penetration occurs as this substance enters the spinal canal and rises up through the chest cavity to the head. The highly penetrating and sometimes intoxicating substance produced in the GI tract has been given many names. A name prevalent in yoga is soma. The word soma also refers to a hallucinogenic plant, which is not what we are talking about here. In Taoism, the GI tract, when engaged in this higher functioning, is called the caldron, recognizing the alchemy that is occurring there - three ordinary substances (sexual essence, air, and food) being combined to create an extraordinary substance that is a key to the process of human spiritual transformation.
The process continues in the head, with further refinements occurring in the brain, which lead to another substance being secreted through the sinuses, down through the inside nasal passages, into the throat and then down into the GI tract again, where it joins in the process already described. This recycling of subtle essences leads to even more refined processing in the GI tract. The substance coming down from the brain into the GI tract is referred to as amrita (nectar) in the yoga tradition. It can sometimes be experienced as a sweet aroma in the nasal passages and sweet taste in the mouth.
The overall experience of this combining and transformation of substances, and the recycling of the resulting essences leads to large flows of ecstatic pleasure throughout the body, and the radiation of energy beyond the body. This is why those who are advancing in spiritual practices are sometimes said to be radiant. There is a specific neurobiology behind it. In yogic terms, the body-wide radiance of ecstatic energy indicates the rise of the mythical quality of ojas, which is a greatly enhanced manifestation of vitality that is easily noticed by others.
If we begin to understand that such a process really exists and, better yet, begin to experience aspects of it within ourselves as a result of our daily practices, then we are able to look at diet from an entirely new angle. And we can also see an increasing relevance of shatkarmas (cleansing techniques) and amaroli (urine therapy). All of these methods are aimed at enhancing and optimizing the process just described.
As mentioned earlier, diet is not a core practice in yoga, but an important supporting element. If we look at this that way, we can see how our cooperation with inner urges relating to diet can enhance the overall process that is occurring on the road to enlightenment.
The higher form of digestion described above can generate a lot of heat in the GI tract, radiating out to fill the whole body. It is sometimes referred to as the kundalini fire. When the fires are burning, it can be beneficial to eat heavier foods more often. Then the fire (intense digestive activity) can be used to consume the substances in our GI tract in a more regulated way to produce more soma, rather than frying us from the inside, which is the sensation we can get sometimes if eating too lightly when energy is surging within us. It is also possible to quench the inner fires and related inner energy imbalances with application of the diet methods of Ayurveda, which take into account our bodily constitution and inner energy flows, and how certain foods can either aggravate or pacify these (see Lesson 69).
To keep it as simple as possible, we just listen to what we are being called to do from within with respect to our diet, and in other aspects of our daily activity. When we are engaged in daily deep meditation, we may feel inclined to eat a lighter diet. And when our kundalini becomes active, we may feel inclined to eat a heavier diet at times, and a lighter diet at other times. It will depend on the energy dynamics occurring within us, and the process of purification and opening that is underway.
We learn to become good listeners to the inner voice of our neurobiology as we travel the road to enlightenment.
The guru is in you.
© 2003-present (see copyright notice)