Mastering physical balance is the cornerstone to success in sports or gymnastics. However mastering this physical balance is better attained through proper understanding of the vital force called prāña the vital energy that permeates the whole body. The Yogasūtras of Patanjali are the fountainhead of the Indian wisdom that teach us how to attain the state of equipoise and equanimity in all the dimensions of human identity -the physical, mental and spiritual planes and thereby attain the summon bonum of human life - the self realization. They lay an array of disciplines for the whole human persona -starting from the vows to lead a focused and determined life to physical discipline to disciplining the prāña and to mastering the mind through unswerving focus. This paper examines the significance of prāña, the vital energy in gaining the balance -physical as well as mental.
Learning to balance ourselves is a skill that we begin at a very tender age and continue to practice it into the middle of our life. As a toddler, balancing the whole weight of the body on two tender legs is a challenge. As that is mastered, the child then challenges his balancing skill by running and limping on one foot. He continues to test his newly acquired skill by climbing precariously on walls, trees and rooftops. Soon he learns to balance himself on a bicycle. While many of us normally put a full stop to our adventures of balancing somewhere down there, those of us with a predisposition toward sports and games, take it to the further levels and put our balancing skill to test under rigorous conditions. Gymnasts, jugglers and ropewalkers take the idea of balancing altogether to a new height. Often this art of balancing is normally conceived in this restrictive sense and we don’t appreciate the significance of balancing beyond the physical dimensions of sports and games. Occasionally we employ the term balancing to the mental plane also when we speak of somebody as being emotionally balanced. But have we ever thought of the spiritual dimensions of the act of balancing and appreciated its significance and comprehended its underlying mechanism? This paper discusses about the yogic dimensions of the art of balancing.
Whenever we try to balance ourselves, we notice that we hold our breath. When a string needs to be inserted into the needle or when carrying a brimful of liquid in a glass, we hold our breath tight. This holding of breath we surmise, is to stop the expansion and contraction of the lungs and the subsequent peritoneal movement that causes trembling of our body which could throw us out of balance. But the wisdom practiced and preserved in eastern tradition takes the idea of balancing altogether to a very deep dimension. They believe the breath that we inhale and exhale is only an outer manifestation of a subtle energy in the body called prāña. In Tibetan parlance it is called rLung. In an untrained body the movement of prāña is quite erratic. It has direct correlation internally with the activities within the mind and externally with the external breath. Thus mind, prāña and the breath move in tandem and work in close correlation. Restraining one invariably brings control on the other two. When we are deeply absorbed in a very spine-chilling thriller movie or a novel we notice that our breathing has temporarily halted. In the similar vein if we begin to breath slowly, deeply and rhythmically we notice that our agitated mind gets pacified and becomes calmer. However we have not been able to understand the nature and role of the connecting link between the mind and the breath known as prāña. The ancient Easterners have meticulously studied this intermediate link called prāña and how it closely intertwines the mind and the physical breath in a braid by its intangible yet important presence.
According to the ancient wisdom that is in circulation particularly in India and Tibet, prāña is the subtle current that moves all through the body. This has five distinct functional aspects and is classified as prāña, apāna, vyāna, udāna and samāna. prāña is the upward current that manifests from navel up to the head region. Apāna is its antithesis that moves from the navel up to the feet. These two currents are the primary manifestations of this subtle energy and are responsible for the pulsating movement of the body we often experience when we try to standstill on a single foot with our eyes closed. These currents are violent and unrestrained in nature in the case of an uninitiated and are completely brought to the poise at the manipura chakra of the navel region by a trained yogi. When these currents are completely balanced at the navel region the mind experiences complete silence and the external breath becomes standstill. It is stated that with prāña as its primary manifestation, this subtle energy moves in the region of the belly when we are awake and indulged in the daily chores. As we begin to feel sleepy and tired this energy moves upwards towards the heart region where a hidden cave is described entering which we quickly go unconscious for a brief span of time. As this energy begins to ascend and reaches the throat region we begin to dream and indulge in mental reveries.
But how can this subtle interlinking aspect called prāña be experienced in the body? For this yogic texts recommend focusing on the inner bodily movements by sitting at a place with closed eyes and practicing elongated and slow breathing. In Buddhism this technique Anāpāna sati and sati pattāña. When we begin to focus on the inner currents of the body for a prolonged period of time we realize the manifestation of this moving energy quite palpably. In deed this inner motion is the fulcrum in the act of balancing. Its movement becomes violent as we brew agitating and aggressive thoughts and becomes composed as the mind is calmed. Certain yogic texts, particularly of Tibetan Buddhism, go even to the extent of recommending sitting or reclining in such body postures that are claimed to be conducive for diverting the prāña in a certain way thus enabling the yogi to focus his mind in a particular way and reap appropriate results that would otherwise be not possible. A mummy of a sitting yogi with his head abnormally drawn to his knees was recovered in Tibet in the last century which looked almost like a living body. This yogi is now believed to have left his mortal coil after diverting his prāña to leave his body in a certain way enabling him to attain certain secret yogic attainments.
prāña has been understood to be central to the balancing of mind and body since ancient times in the Eastern cultures. For example the Buddhist monks prepare what is known as mandala -an intricate design of brilliant colors as part of their religious practice which requires very minute control on their hand muscles. No amount of physical practice would enable anybody to attain body balance to such an extent unless movement of indwelling prāña is recognized and controlled. Similarly, the martial arts taught in the traditional Chinese country setting primarily emphasize on realizing the subtle currents of prāña and learning to master its movement. In these cultures whether it be archery or Taekwondo, kung fu or fencing the emphasis is on attainment of the physical dexterity that is a resultant of subtle balancing of the minutest movement of this pranic energy.
Patanjali the great Indian sage of 2nd century BCE embedded the recipe for optimizing the various dimensions of human persona and the final attainment of the human life’s objective in the crisp aphorism called the yoga sutras. Patanjali does not speak elaborately on the nature of prāña in his aphorisms but talks of the ways and means of controlling it with a concerted effort called prāñayāma. Verses 2.49 to 2.53 of Patanjali yoga sutras describe the technique of controlling the prāña through restraining the outer breath. Prior to these, in the 46th aphorism, Patanjali describes the nature of balanced body posture. He defines it as that which is stable and comfortable . For attaining such perfect body posture devoid of pulsatory movement, Patanjali recommends prayatna saithilyam combined with anata samapatti in the next aphorism. This means keeping the mind devoid of any desire for activity and allowing it to become one with the vast expanse of the infinity. This, Patanjali states, results in a victory over the duality of life . This duality is the result of the pulsating prāña and apana.
Other yogic texts of India such as Hathayoga Pradipika and Gheranda Samhita describe five major and five minor prāñas in the human body that are responsible for various physiological activities such as flickering of the eye lids, sneezing, yawning etc. Jeevanmukti Vivekah a yogic treatise written by the 15th century yogi of extraordinary attainments, Swami Vidyaranya describes the invariable relationship between mind and the prāña. He mocks the futile efforts of those practitioners of yoga who try to focus their minds without calming down their prāña and calls such efforts as futile.
It is also known that those who have practiced good physical body balance (such as break-dancers, skaters, ropewalkers, etc.) are often good at lucid dreaming, and quickly attain deep levels of meditation and are very easily hypnotized. These people also show better emotional poise than the others. It is also a recognized fact that sportsmen and gymnasts experience ‘runners’ high’ and demonstrate better equipoise even in adverse situations than the normal people because knowingly or unknowingly they reign in on their prāña and gain mental mastery as well. In some texts of the East, unrestrained prāña is depicted as a bull that runs helter-skelter ruining its companion, the mind in the process. Hatha Yoga, that emphasizes on physically manipulating the internal dimensions of the self, states that a yogi who masters prāña will certainly win over his mind which finally leads him to salvation.
It is unfortunate that we have lost the access to this traditional Knowledge on prāña in the last two centuries owing to complete breaking up of guru-§ishya lineage of India with the introduction of Macaulay system of modern education. Now we don’t know what is prāña and every time a sportsman or a gymnast is trained in body balance he is only given instructions to slow down his/her breath and calm down his/her mental activity but the vital link, the prāña is never explained to the practitioner to experience and recognize. Unless a person becomes sensitive enough to recognize the subtle currents and movements within his/her body, he or she cannot achieve true balance of his/her body.