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Why Yoga, Pranayama, and Meditation are so Effective
Do you prefer yoga to meditation? Or meditation to yoga? For many of us in the western world, moving our bodies is a lot easier than sitting with our unruly minds. For others, a daily yoga practice is just too much to ask, but meditation feels doable.
With yoga, breathing techniques (pranayama) and meditation flourishing in the Western world in an amazing way, I still see a lot of confusion around the roles of these techniques in relationship to each other. The truth is that yoga, breathing and meditation are all cogs of the same wheel, each playing a very important role in the purification of the body and the freedom of the mind.
The Vedic Sciences
Before we talk about yoga, breathing, and meditation individually, let’s examine the common goal of all the Vedic sciences. These three techniques were all used as part of Ayurveda, which was the Vedic system of health designed to purify the body in order to enhance self awareness and lay the foundation for deep and profound transformational changes in one’s life.
Of these three techniques, yoga works most directly on the density and imbalance of the body. Clearly, there are well-documented benefits of a yoga practice on physical health, well being, stress reduction, fitness, and mental and emotional health. Each posture in a yogic practice breaks up physical congestion and adhesions in the muscle and soft tissue that literally block the flow of the body’s prana, or life force, through the body. Without the unobstructed flow of prana, the body becomes dense, toxic and emotionally protective.
Pranayama, or breathing techniques, were prescribed to drive the prana or life force into both the body and the mind. Once the yoga has plowed through subtle physical blockages, old protective mental and emotional patterns that create the density of the body are cleared by the movement of the life force through specific pranayama breathing exercises.
Meditation is the final step on this road to deep transformational change. With the prana now moving through the subtle energy channels (called nadis ) into both the body and mind, the ability to drop into a state beyond thought becomes possible. This is the role of meditation – to transcend incessant thinking and begin to function from a deeper place of feeling and knowing.
Traditionally, each yoga posture, breathing technique and type of meditation was individually prescribed by a master to help redirect subtle energy into subtle channels or nadis that would support the most successful spiritual progress for that specific person.
Before I take you further into the subtle body science of yoga, breathing and meditation, let’s take a look at a map of the whole person through the lens of the Vedic sciences.
Koshas – The Building Blocks of a Human Being
In the eyes of Ayurveda, the human body is a container for the true self – or pure consciousness – which has its seat in the center of this container. Surrounding the eternal Self is a series of sheaths, traditionally called koshas, which organize the various elements of the human being. These sheaths get progressively more dense as they move outward. As I map out the sheaths, I’ll start with the densest, outermost sheath and move inward.
Understanding the way the sheaths work can be helpful in mapping out a way to access the stillness of pure consciousness, which may be said to be the goal of yoga, breathing, meditation, and Ayurveda.
Annamaya Kosha – The Body Sheath
The sheath that we are perhaps most conscious of is the annamaya kosha, or the body sheath. According the the Vedic sciences, this sheath is actually the last line of defense, meaning that imbalances that go unchecked in the other sheaths will ultimately manifest as symptoms in the body.
As I mentioned, as a technique with a strong physical component, yoga works most directly on the imbalances of the body. But it really begins before that, in the Pranamaya kosha, or energy sheath.
Pranamaya Kosha – The Energy Sheath
Just within the body sheath is the energy sheath (pranamaya kosha) where prana, or life force, moves. The energy sheath is the support system for the body sheath. In order for the body to function properly, prana must be flowing freely.
It is here that yoga is most effective. When prana does not flow freely, the whole energy flow of the subtle body system is compromised. The 72,000 subtle energy channels (called nadis) don’t activate – in fact, they don’t exist if prana doesn’t flow. Without prana flowing through the nadis, the energy centers (chakras) are blocked and spiritual progress comes to a grinding halt. Each yoga posture is much like a whole body mudra. Each asana has a specific effect on the opening of subtle channels and on the movement of the prana. This movement of prana is not just an esoteric idea, it is something you can feel and experience directly by trying a few simple yoga postures.
Pranayama also works at this level. Pranayama breathing exercises are used to activate the nadi system. These are very subtle channels that not only carry prana but also the body’s most subtle energy, its consciousness or what is called shakti. It is the movement of consciousness that begins the nudge the body into heightened awareness and transformational change.
But how does prana get blocked in the first place? To get the answer, we have to look back at the manomaya kosha, or mind sheath.
Manomaya Kosha – The Mind Sheath
In childhood, we inevitably get our feelings hurt. Someone takes our seat or makes fun of us on the playground, and we are crushed. We no longer feel that it is safe to live in our heart-centered world, and we employ the mind to protect our feelings from getting hurt again. The mind is located in a more dense sheath called the Manomaya kosha. I call this the great barrier sheath. Unfortunately, the mind does such a good job of protecting us that, over time, it creates a seemingly impenetrable barrier – doing everything it can to keep all invaders out of our delicate heart space, including ourselves.
When we’ve lost touch with our true selves and the mind takes the reins, the prana does not flow freely and blockages are created in the pranamaya kosha.
Meditation helps balance the manomaya kosha by inviting us to still the mind and transcend the trajectory of thought, unveiling the connection to pure consciousness that is always there. Pranayama also works at this level by driving prana into the mind and loosening old protective mental and emotional patterns. In this place of non-thinking, uninhibited by old emotional patterns, the mind finally has a choice. Seeing its fears and attachments for what they are (protective thought patterns), we have the choice to act out of that fear, or out of our true nature.
With a clear mind, we can connect into an even more subtle sheath that acts to gently protect our hearts from the stimulating and distracting nature of mind: the vijnanamaya kosha, or discernment sheath.
Vijnanomaya Kosha – The Sheath of Discernment
Sometimes called the Intellectual or Wisdom sheath, the Vijnanomaya kosha is the sheath of discernment. Here we discern between the impressions that we allow ourselves to experience on the deepest level, and the ones we do not let in. You can think of this kosha much like a lotus flower that opens and closes as needed.
Meditation helps balance the vijnanomaya kosha by stilling the mind and allowing us to access a pure place of feeling and knowing, so that we can know what is right without having to think about it. It can also be described as the level of gut feeling or intuition.
Anandamaya Kosha – The Bliss Sheath
At the center of all the other sheaths, the subtlest sheath is called the Anandamaya kosha, or bliss sheath (Ananda means great joy or bliss.) Housed in the heart, the seat of pure consciousness, the bliss sheath lies closest to our eternal Self and governs our authentic self-expression.
Yoga, pranayama, and meditation work together to help us cultivate and maintain a constant connection to the Anandamaya kosha, so that we may carry this connection to our true selves and pure consciousness into every aspect of our lives.
The only roadblocks in the healing process are our fears. From here, as we continue to live with awareness through the practices of yoga, breathing and mediation, we are constantly confronted with more choices. We are continually challenged to take the risk to be vulnerable, powerful and loving rather than controlling, needy and fearful. This is the game of life and the real purpose of all Vedic sciences.