Model: Priscilla Torres Lopez // Photo Credit: Dave Miyamoto
After a recent yoga class, a student, glowing from a deep meditation, walked up to me and said, “I know how they do it now, how people levitate. In savasana, I felt like I was literally rising off the ground.”
I know exactly that feeling. Prana (energy) seems to rise within the body while your feet touch into the core of the Earth, but you’re walking on air, gliding in what seems like seventh heaven. Stepping outside after the workout and work-in of an integrative yoga session, colors are brighter, and scents fill the nostrils more vividly. Voices, wind, and traffic noise are more keen. You feel everything inside more deeply than ever, and yet connected to everything around you. After yoga, space feels purified, the heart coherent. With our true nature shining through, we hum. We purr. We feel the joy of peace. How does this happen?
The Left-Brain Answer: Muscles Moving Molecules
Modern neuroscientists explain our post-yoga state as the natural outcome of improved circulation, organ cleansing, and increased dopamine output. Simply said, yoga activates the parasympathetic nervous system—the rest-and-digest system—by stimulating the vagus nerve, leading to feel-good hormones, cognitive enhancement, and feelings of bliss. The facts are true, but I was looking for something beyond facts and feelings when I started my yoga practice four decades ago. Recovering from a car accident and near-death experience, I was looking for why we were here, where we had come from, and where we were going.
The Right-Brain Answer: Changing Polarities in the Energy Field
“Beyond ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there,” wrote the Persian poet Rumi. His field of energy is universal and specific.
Many philosophies share a belief in either the “Gaia” field, a universal time space matrix, a quantum field, the field of Prana, or the life force. The “Oversoul,” which becomes more clear with every yoga practice, lives in this field. Yoga cultivates our contact with the Oversoul, an assembly of elder spiritual energies who gather for our benefit. Hawaiians call this ancestral field the ‘aumakua realm. Christians call it heaven. In Sanskrit, the field is prakriti and the “knower” of the field is purusha.
The Soul Guides the Chariot
In the Katha Upanishad, an early writing on yoga philosophy, there is a pictorial treasure, one of the most powerful symbols in the Vedic canon, the shining parable of the chariot: “Know the Soul as lord of a chariot, the body as the chariot, Know the intuition as the chariot driver, and the mind as the reins. The senses are the horses; the objects of sense the paths.”
The charioteer is the intellect; the rider is the individual Soul, or atman, who directs the chariot driver on the path of life. The senses are like wild horses which can pull the body-chariot like a runaway stagecoach, careening from ditch to cliffs, with a helpless rider cowering inside, no driver in sight. But in yoga, the intellect, or buddhi, is exercised, under the direction of the atman, to rein in our horsepower. In yoga, what is “seen,” pakriti, the stuff of material life, is less significant than how we view the world, the “seer,” purusha. Our individual soul, traveling through a landscape of pakriti, directs the chariot, and we prosper, connected to the larger Oversoul, the cosmic purusha.
Asana and Samskara
Rumi’s field is directly touched through yoga, through the embodiment of the higher mind connected with the universal field of light. “Mind,” says B.K.S. Iyengar, “is the king of the senses. One who has conquered his mind, senses and passions, thought and reason, is a king among men. He has Inner Light.” Most problems arise from being un-clear about our true identity. Are we skin-encapsulated egos or are we the light and love of the universe? Are we horses or are we purusha? Most of us are both—of “two minds.”
Yoga helps us gradually transcend those different personalities and integrate our desires with our purpose in life. We remember what we came to Earth to remember who we are, an immortal Oversoul. Conditioning that moves the naïve mind in habitual ways is called samskara, which come from childhood experience or past lives. These mental impressions carve grooves that favor certain habits of action, or karma. Samskara may be positive or negative. Rather than reinforcing old ineffective samskaras that have been misdirecting us, yoga helps us actively create new, positive grooves in the body-mind. When new samskaras become powerful enough, their newly formed pathways direct energy toward higher frequencies. We then relax, shed old habits, make wiser decisions, and enjoy life with less stress.
From the first moment we step on a yoga mat, practice deep breath work, or sit at dawn, gazing at a candle flame, we start to connect our individual light to the larger field of light. We start a completely new life. Moving not so much by habit, but to encourage a broader range of our abilities, we start to know what is really good for us. We become the Seer, rather than what is Seen. If an old samskara pops up, we are not bound by its habits. Involved in becoming one with every being, every shape, every animal, every energy, and every field potential, because this is what we came here to do, the yogi feels unified. Purusha, rather than the mind, takes the lead. We’ve heard it before— “Follow your heart.” “Let your Soul decide.” Mythologist Joseph Campbell coined the phrase, “Follow your bliss.” We hear this again and again because it’s so important, yet we forget that the mind is a loyal servant and a terrible master. Every movement in yoga, every breath, brings us a step closer to purusha, this resonant field full of magic, mystery, and our divine heritage.
Love, the Breath, and Transformation
Ultimately, yoga is a prayer about relationships, about returning to a vivid, nourishing relationship with the cosmos. Loving relationships and daily rituals are at the very heart of the liberated condition. For thousands of years, our ancestors have risen with the dawn, to perform the rituals of lighting the lamp and pouring water, practicing the rituals of first breath and last. All forms of yoga teach this breath awareness to provoke a deep meditation on love, life and death, thus establishing one-pointedness. Seeing the first and last breath in every practice pierces through the layers of the conscious, sub-conscious, and superconscious states and reorients our perspective. This breakthrough is called samadhi. In samadhi, one is free from the bondage, the heavy baggage of karma, suffering and pain. We transcend the limitations of time, space, and causation. We are free to stand in tree pose, become a tree, climb a tree, or possibly even—to levitate.
Marya Mann, Ph.D, shares yoga because it feels so good, puts suffering in its place, and keeps her on her toes! With roots in Ashtanga, Iyengar, and Vinyoga, she teaches people of all sizes, shapes, and cultures while directing Pacific ArtWavEs, a project to nourish children through yoga and art.