Seems like an obvious statement, doesn’t it?
But for some reason, although most of us ‘get it’ intellectually, we still treat our bodies as separate from our ‘real selves’ – mind and personality.
Funnily enough, in yoga’s Pancha Maya (or Five Layer) model of anatomy, the heart is considered to be the deepest intelligence. Not your head, but your heart. Which happens to be in your body. Which is where you feel.
All my teaching is based on this model: feel in your body, become physically powerful enough to hold your feelings in an appropriate way without having to medicate with food, say. Or resort to other not-so-useful behaviours.
Here’s a brief rundown of the Pancha Maya model:
1. Annamaya, The Physical Body: Asana
Anna actually means food, so this is probably the first example of ‘we are what we eat’. A yoga model of physical wellness has little to do with how hot you look or how many flashy poses you can do, although those things can sometimes be welcome side effects. Rather, yogic wellness on the physical level is defined by whether you feel light in your body (sprightly would be a good word), your ability to withstand the changes that life inevitably brings, and whether you are stable and focused enough to sit for breathing and concentration practice.
2. Pranamaya, The Vital Body: Breath (Pranayama)
Sanskrit scholars believe that prana originally meant breath but since life depends on breath it can to be used also to indicate our vital life-force. Pranamaya can be broken down into vayus, or ‘airs’, depending on where it is in the body:
- Prana (chest/lungs: breath, input, including food and sensory input)
- Apana (lower belly: elimination, menstruation, pregnancy & childbirth)
- Vyana (sensation, lifting, grasping, throwing)
- Udana (speaking and moving our bodies)
- Samana (distributing nourishment through the body)
The nadi system which includes the chakras is generally included into pranamaya because vital life force moves through our nadis (energy channels) – basically, that’s how samana vayu does its job. Wherever the three main nadis, known as ida (lunar), pingala (solar), and shushumna (central) intersect, we find a wheel, or chakra, of energy.
Prana organises and animates our physical bodies: it’s like the electrical current that gets a robot moving. Not that we are robots, of course.
Our circadian rhythms are influenced by how balanced we are in pranamaya level: sleep and dreaming, how rested we feel in the morning, menstrual cycles, digestion and bowel movements, and, of course, breathing.
Our breath is our way in to this level: breath is life. Pranayama practice is the primary tool for affecting the health of this level. Yama means to control or restrain, but first we need to learn to feel our breath, and free it somewhat, before we learn to form the breath. It is pointless, and sometimes counterproductive, to lay restraints on top of an unhealthy or dysfunctional existing pattern.
3. Manomaya, The Intellect
I’m going to haul out yet another cliché: mind over matter. There is a reason these things are cliches…
The ancient yogis recongised the power of the mind and the enormous influence it has over the whole human system: in fact, the Yoga Sutra, possibly the most important sourcebook for yoga practice, mentions asana only twice. It’s all about the mind and personality. Basically, Jungian psychology. I kid you not. Read Jung, then read the Yoga Sutra and you will be astounded at the overlap.
In the context of a yoga class, we include manomaya practices by linking breath and movement: concentrating on starting and ending the movement with the breath, by connecting inhale with the appropriate movement and ditto exhale, and by learning and repeating complex sequences: the physical equivalent of learning and repeating chants.
4. Vijnanamaya, The Personality: Patterns and Re-Patterning
Vijnanamaya is even deeper within than manomaya. It is where our discerning mind is, where our values and mores are, our preferences and predispositions: our true selves (svabhava).
This is also the level at which you would see personal preferences: for solitude or company, a loathing of bananas, irrational fear of the dark and so on. Our patterning, or samskara, is not just a result of our innate natures, but also of our past experiences and our reactions to them. Some of these patterns are useful, some are not. When we practice asana, pranayama, chanting, and meditation together, with our full awareness, we can re-pattern ourselves by cutting new grooves of behaviour, thought, emotion, reaction.
This is not to say that the old patterns will disappear: like a scar, they might always be there, but the trick is to repeat the new pattern often enough that it becomes your default setting.
5. Anandamaya, The Heart: Relationship
Here we are: the deepest dimension of them all. It’s considered the most important level because we humans can only exist in relationship to our external environment. Our first, fundamental, relationship is with the air we breathe. If it weren’t there, nor would we be. This is so for the rest of our physical environment too.
We are tribal animals: our relations with others deeply affect us, and this is yoga: connection to, relationship with, others. The ultimate yoga, however, is our relationship with ourselves, at every level. It is through our hearts that we can access that still place where we know everything is OK, where we are stable and clear enough of mind to see that the divine spark of life is in us just because we are drawing breath.