Yoga: subtle physiology (excerpted from "Sex, Askesis and
By practising to draw in the bindu [semen], discharged during cohabitation, whether one be a man or a woman, one obtains success in the practice of Vajroli. By means of a pipe, one should blow air slowly into the passage in the male organ. By practice, the discharged bindu is drawn out. One can draw back and preserve one’s own discharged bindu. The Yogi who can protect his bindu thus, overcomes death; because death comes by discharging bindu, and life is prolonged by its preservation.
(Hathayogapradipika 3: 83–7)
As clearly explained by Mircea Eliade (1990), David G. White (1996, 2003), Geoffrey Samuel (2008: 271–90) and others (Feuerstein 1989, 1992; Snellgrove 1987), hatha yoga, both when it directly involves sex – as in the case of vajroli – and when it does not, is structured around the way in which the material nature of the body, both subtle and gross, is linked to inner alchemy and the transubstan- tiation and flow of sexual fluid.
There can be great disagreement on what counts as yoga, and how the practice of yoga is classified and sub-classified. The position taken here is that yoga in general, but most certain the practice of hatha yoga, meaning ‘forceful union [of atma and parmatma]’, involves the body, both directly in practice but also more ‘abstractly’ with regard to the way in which consciousness as such – which mani- fests the individual self – is understood to be an evolute of prakriti, or matter (Whicher 1996). As a technique for realizing transcendent consciousness, yoga works through the structure of prakritik manifestation: the world as experienced by the senses.
The clearest way to appreciate this – keeping the principle of askesis in mind, as well as the strategic extension of the term athleticism – is with reference to yoga physiology. This physiology is based on the movement of prana (vital air) through the body. This movement requires exercise, training and discipline known as pranayama (see Green 2008; Zysk 2007).6 In essence, hatha yoga postulates a theory of the body that is structured in terms of layered sheaths, each one more or less subtle than the next. Significantly even the most subtle sheath is constituted of matter. Prana is understood to flow through myriad nadi conduits, and this flow animates the sentient body; prana is the agency of everything, including conscious- ness, and it cross-cuts, or permeates, all of the sheaths, from the most gross to the most subtle. There are three primary nadi: the axial susumna and the ida and pingla. Starting at a common base point, the ida and pingla nadi are, respectively, on the left and right of the susumna, intersecting it at seven points along the gross axis of the spinal column, thus defining the cakras as the subtle ‘back bone’ of yoga physiology. Pranayama exercises are designed to clear and purify all of the nadi, draw the prana to the base point of the susumna and then channel it upwards along the susumna and through the subtle roundabouts or cakras.
This channelled flow of prana ends in enlightenment, the dissolution of the self in the Self, but it produces what might be called an embodied state of perfection, or absolute union, called samadhi. In a state of samadhi, the body no longer flows with prana, is not sentient, and is both immobile and immortal. As Eliade first pointed out and as David G. White has most recently made clear (1996), samadhi, achieved through the practice of hatha yoga in general and pranayama in partic- ular, is a condition in which the body is rendered pure, all-powerful and impen- etrable, just as base metal is turned into gold through the agency of mercurial transubstantiation in the technology of alchemy. In this scheme asanas (seats) – the iconic posture exercises of the yoga tradition – are conceptualized as training the body to withstand the force of enlightenment. Together, therefore, asana and pranayama primarily but also the preliminary moral and ethical restraints and modes of self-purification known as yama and niyama – involving physiologically based methods for cleaning the eyes, ears, sinuses, digestive tract, brain and alimentary canal – should be understood as modes of physical fitness training oriented towards transcending consciousness and embodying a perfected soul.
Most significantly (both in general but specifically for the purposes of the argument being developed here), the channelling of prana through the susumna is understood very clearly as the internalization of orgasmic ejaculation (Samuel 2008: 274; Silburn 1988; Snellgrove 1987; White 2003). Mercury is to alchemy what semen is to the body, and in the physiology of yoga, prana is cognate with semen. Referring to the broader tantric tradition, of which medieval hatha yoga was a specific manifestation, David G. White elaborates on the embodiment of sexuality in practice:
"Here, all humans were viewed as essentially androgynous with sexual intercourse an affair between a female serpentine nexus of energy, generally called kundalini, and a male principle, identified with Siva, both of which were located in the subtle body. An intricate metaphysics of the subtle body – its relationship to the brute matter of the gross body as well as the universal divine life force within, the bipolar dynamics of its male and female constituents, etc. – was developed in every tantric school ... For the Natha Siddhas, the siddhis and jivanmukti were the direct results of the internal combination and transformation of sexual fluids into amrta, the divine nectar of immortality."
Most significantly, the ‘intricate metaphysics of the subtle body’ are not abstrac- tions or esoteric metaphoric entailments, but realized in fact through the physical act of exercise, noting that even meditation involves a kind of athletic physical exercise since consciousness is a manifestation of matter.
Through heroic efforts of mental concentration and physical exertion, the yogin now initiates a controlled rising of his seed, the heat of his solar fires, and his breath along the medial channel ... This heat, concentrated within the infinitesimal space of the medial channel, effects the gradual transfor- mation of ‘raw’ semen into ‘cooked’ and even perfected nectar, amrta; it is this nectar that gradually fills out the moon in the cranial vault such that, at the conclusion of this process, the lunar orb, now brimming with nectar, is possessed of its full complement of sixteen digits ... This transformation of semen into nectar wholly transforms the body, rendering it immortal.
Hatha yoga did not, of course, emerge sui generis in the ninth century, but developed as a dynamic response to a long series of philosophical and spiritual questions dating back to at least the eighth or ninth century bce (see Samuel 2008). There are also intriguing links to comparable forms of practice discussed in the Daoist literature as well as Tibetan traditions (see Samuel 2008: 278–82; Schipper 1994; Alter 2009). In most general terms, one of the key issues in the structure of this series of questions was the relationship between what might be called a sacrificial mode of apprehending reality by ritual means and a mystical mode of apprehending reality by means of integrated self-discipline (see Alter 2012). The mystical mode, articulated first in the Upanisads (800–500 bce) (see Olivelle 1992, 1998), involves the internalization of the sacrifice (see Bentor 2000); that is, the embodiment of Vedic ritual so as to use the self to experience the Self. As Ian Whicher puts it: "Once it is understood that life perpetuates itself through its transformative or changing nature, that is, the creation, maintenance, and dissolution of separate life-forms, the only appropriate and spiritually mature response is to relate to existence as a continual sacrifice of the sense of separate selfhood or individuality." While the external rituals of orthodox Brahmanism were acknowledged as having a proper place in the social order, the Upanisadic adepts denied outright their soteriological efficacy.
The internalization of sacrifice, as a revolutionary, paradigm-shifting idea, was predicated on the fact that ‘the essential core of one’s own existence’ was identical to transcendental reality, and that egoic identity – the self as commonly experienced – was based on, and produced by, an illusion. Stated this way, one is better able to understand the significance of both the similarities and the difference between some key aspects of Classical Greek philosophy and the post-Upanisadic philosophy of South Asia.
What was problematic for Socrates among others was a moral principle worked out with reference to pleasure, and that self-perfection involved the discriminate use of pleasure. What was problematic for Yajnavalkya and his compatriots was the self itself in relation to the Self. As a ‘technique of the self’ that involved self-into-Self transcendence, yoga was a comprehensive and holistic form of athletic self-discipline rather than one that was derivatively and discriminately calculated. As texts outlining the practice make clear, over time physiological yoga came to involve precise rules, detailed instructions and the careful elaboration of regimens and instructions.
Without question, the Yoga Sutra is about the mind, and the technique of yoga expounded by Patanjali is concerned with cittavrttinirodha, the ‘cessation of the misidentification with the modifications of the mind’ (Whicher 1998: 2). Not so much a guidebook or manual of instruction on how to achieve this goal, the Yoga Sutra is a collection of terse aphorisms that outline key concepts and a sequence of development based on both theory and practice. The text does not have much to say about the body as a whole, although it cryptically mentions pranayama and emphasizes the need for both mental and physical self-purification. Even so, in an important way the Yoga Sutra anticipates a more direct and comprehensive integration of the body into philosophical practice, since the mind itself is under- stood to be a material evolute of prakrti, and the process of controlling the mind produces supernatural effects that are clearly physiological in nature.
The development of yogic ideas from the period of the Upanisads on is linked to, but not identical with, the development of ideas concerning renunciation manifest in the ascetic institution of sannyas. Chastity is central to the practice of ascetic renunciation (see Samuel 2008: 173–90). From it the sannyasi derives the inner heat of tapas, the brilliance and power of tejas, as well as radiance, strength and vitality (Olivelle 1992). The principle of tapas is linked to the power of fire both in the cosmic form of solar energy and in the specific ritual technology of fire sacrifice. Thus, tapas involves the internalization of the sacrificial fire and the embodiment of cosmic radiance. On this level there are obvious parallels between asceticism and yoga, and the Yoga Sutra clearly stipulates the value of chastity and the observance of tapas as self-discipline.
Incorporating tapas, which is asceticism broadly defined – and an ancient concept found in the earliest Vedas – the formalized institution of sannyas, which emerged in the post-Vedic period, is philosophically closely akin to yoga insofar as the sannyasi is seeking to experience reality as transcendental truth beyond the illusion of consciousness. The means to this end, however, are significantly different. Among other things, what distinguishes the institution of sannyas from the practice of yoga is the fact that the sannyasi renounces the world and his body as a manifestation of worldly attachment. Although there are many different formulations in the literature about the relationship between the body and asceti- cism within the framework of sannyas, it is clear that the body presents a radical problem with regard to the ideal of absolute renunciation. In the Maitrayaniya Upanisad the most radical position is put this way:
In this ill-smelling, pithless body, which is a conglomerate of bone, skin, muscle, marrow, flesh, semen, blood, mucus, tears, rheum, feces, urine, wind, bile, and phlegm – what good is the enjoyment of desire? In this body, which is afflicted with lust, anger, greed, delusion, fear, despondency, jealousy, sepa- ration from what is loved, union with what is unloved, hunger, thirst, senility, death, illness, grief, and the like – what good is the enjoyment of desires.
(1.2ff., quoted in Feuerstein 2001: 69)
Clearly this signals the need for a radically relativist understanding of desire and pleasure.
Beyond the problem of the body in relation to desire in particular, and worldly attachment in general, sannyas is a lifestyle rather than a set of techniques. As Georg Feuerstein writes:
Although renunciation can be identified as a lifestyle, it cannot be performed as one might perform austerities or meditation. It is primarily a fundamental attitude toward life. Hence the tradition of renunciation can be said to be counter-technological: It aims at leaving everything behind including, if it is pursued rigorously enough, all methods of seeking.
Where the sannyasi struggles with his body and the world to which he is attached by affecting an attitude towards life, the yogi uses his body and the embodied techniques of meditation to transcend the world of experience. Hatha yoga is, in this sense, often referred to as a technology of the self.
Set against a backdrop of institutionalized asceticism – as the binary opposite of institutionalized sport in ancient Greece – it is possible to see how yoga developed as a mode of metaphysical fitness training. Chastity, dietary control, structured isolation and various other aspects of austere self-discipline were incorporated as a comprehensive set of techniques. Although in many ways radical and revolutionary – and therefore disparaged by late classical and Puranic redactors of the Yoga Sutra – hatha yoga reflects the logical outcome of classical yoga’s break with Brahmanical ritualism on the one hand and pre-classical and epic-age asceticism on the other.