Laya Yoga

We come now to another school of yoga called the laya yoga. Laya means “latent” or “in suspense.” The especial features of this yoga are its study and practice of kundalinÄ« and the chakras. KundalinÄ« is described as a force lying in three and a half coils like a sleeping serpent, in a cavity near the base of the spine. This is regarded as a goddess or power, “luminous as lightning,” who, even though sleeping, maintains all living creatures. She lies there with her head blocking a fine channel which goes straight up the spine and is known as the sushumnā. Some, to link this up with modern thought, have called it the fount of bodily electricity.

The purpose of the laya-yoga practice is to awaken the kundalinÄ« (or “coiled one”), who will start up hissing, and can then be carried through the series of six chakras (literally, “wheels”), which are threaded upon that channel at various points in the body, which are situated at the level of the base of the spine, the root of the penis, the navel, the heart, the throat and the eyebrows. These chakras are depicted somewhat as flowers rather than wheels, and have petals respectively numbering four, six, eight, twelve, sixteen, and two. The works describing these chakras, and the effects of meditation upon them or in them, are altogether too numerous even to mention. (Except that one would wish to refer the Western reader to The Serpent Power, by Arthur Avalon, published by Ganesh and Co., Thyagarayanagar, Madras, India, for very full information.)

They are depicted with very much symbology. For example, the anāhata chakra (at the heart) has a yantra or design showing twelve petals, each one bearing a certain letter of the alphabet. In the center circle there is a pair of interlaced triangles, having written in the middle of them the syllable “yam” (which is a mantra or sound which can produce some effect when properly repeated). This yam is pictured as riding on a black antelope, and, in its final sound m, which is written as a dot, a figure representing the male divinity is placed. He is styled Isha, has three eyes, and holds out his hands with gestures of dispelling fear and granting boons. Near by, in the pericarp of the lotus (for the chakras are also called lotuses) is the female divinity KākinÄ«, seated on a red lotus, having golden color, dressed in yellow clothes, wearing all kinds of jewels and a garland of bones. She has four arms, two hands bearing a noose and a skull, and the other two showing signs of dispelling fear and granting boons. In the center, above the interlaced triangles, is an inverted triangle as bright as lightning, and in that a symbol of Shiva of a golden color with a crescent moon surmounted by a dot upon its head. This chakra, like all the padmas (lotus flowers) is brightly colored, the petals and pericarp being red.

One cannot attempt in this brief space to unravel the significance of all these letters, colors and symbols, or to give the symbols of the other five padmas. Each chakra has its own diagram, colors, animal, divinities, letters, etc. It will be evident that the yogÄ«, as he meditates in each of them in the course of his progress, will have plenty to think about. Arthur Avalon’s excellent translation of the Shatchakra NirÅ«pana, with comments thereon, is a mine of information on the subject, but the thorough student should also read various minor Upanishads, Purānas and general works on yoga touching on this subject. There is a certain amount of conflicting testimony on the subject of colors, divinities etc., but this does not mar the general unity of information as regards all the main features. ( The Yoga KundalÄ« Upanishad gives sixteen petals in the heart center, instead of twelve, and the Dhyānabindu Upanishad and the Shāndilya Upanishad both describe the navel padma as having twelve petals instead of ten).

There is in all the literature on the subject a poetical rather than an exact description of what happens as kundalinÄ« rises. The spine is called “the axis of creation” for the body. In that is the channel sushumnā; within that another, named vajroli and within that again another, called chitrinÄ«, “as fine as a spider’s thread.” On this tube the lotuses are said to be threaded “like knots on a bamboo rod.” KundalinÄ« rises up little by little, as the yogÄ« employs his will. In one practice he brings her as far as he can, and, as she pierces any one of the lotuses, its face, which was turned downwards before, turns upwards, and when the meditation is finished he leads her back to her home near the base of the spine. (There is a little difference of opinion here. Some hold that once she has reached the heart chakra that will be her permanent home, and she will not return below it. Others say that even from the beginning she was at the level of the navel. These are not altogether reasonable views, if, as is usually believed, kundalinÄ« has the work of purifying and transmuting all the lower centers on her return journey from the higher.)

It is further explained that as she leaves each chakra on the way up, she withdraws the functions of that center, and so makes them latent, hence the term laya-yoga, or the Yoga of Suspension. It is, of course, natural that in such a process, as attention is given more and more to the higher thought, the lower responses should become latent, as, for example, when we are reading and do not hear or see a person who enters the room.

KundalinÄ« proceeds upwards until she reaches the great “thousand-petalled lotus” at the top of the head, beyond all the six chakras. There she enjoys the bliss and power of union with the source of all life, and afterwards, as she returns through the centers she gives back to each its specific powers, purified and enhanced. The process of bringing kundalinÄ« to the highest point is usually considered to require some years, but there are exceptional cases in which it is done quickly.

The hatha-yoga books take up a curious view of the mind in relation to all these matters. It is expressed in a few verses of the Hatha-Yoga PradÄ«pikā. “The mind is the lord of the senses; the breath is the lord of the mind; and that depends on nāda.” (Hatha-Yoga PradÄ«pikā iv 29.) “There is talk of laya, laya, but what is its character? Laya is the non-arising of further vāsanās, (Vāsanā is the “perfume” of past attachments or desires, which now produce pleasure and pain; if one may use a crude simile, like the smell of onions long after they have been eaten.) and the forgetting of external things.” Some of the minor Upanishads, such as the Muktika of the Shukla-Yajurveda, have a similar idea.

Even so brief an account of these practices as this is would be incomplete without mention of the mudrās, or physical practices, and the nādas, or internal sounds. The mudrās, although in some cases similar to the purifications, are intended for a different purpose—to obtain some delight or power, and to awaken kundalinī, for it is held that the awakening can take place through āsanās (postures), kumbhakas (holdings of the breath) and mudrās.

Though there are many mudrās, only ten are usually recommended. Among the most popular ones intended to awaken kundalinÄ« is that of supporting the body on the palms of the hands and softly striking the posteriors on the ground, which is also considered to remove wrinkles and grey hair. In another, very highly recommended, the membrane under the tongue is gradually cut (“one hair’s breadth every seven days”), and rubbed with salt and turmeric, so that the severed parts will not join. The tongue is also gradually lengthened by a process resembling milking, so that after six months the yogÄ« can turn it upwards into the cavity at the back of the palate, and thus, with the hole closed and the breath suspended, contemplate kundalinÄ« and “drink the nectar” flowing there. Another physical method requires a sort of massage for an hour and a half morning and evening, for up to forty-five days. Still another requires the feet to be crossed behind the neck.

It must be mentioned that those rāja yogīs who do not approve of the awakening of kundalinī by these external methods, nor even by meditation upon it, nevertheless usually believe that kundalinī naturally awakens and rises as a result of the purely internal meditations which they practice. This takes place a little at a time so that there is no strong feeling or pain in the body, as is often the case when it is done by the hatha-yoga methods. The purifying and subliming effects of the return journey through the chakra in all cases awakens some degree of clairvoyance and similar powers, but what the yogī sees will depend upon his state of mind, and even then the understanding of what he sees will depend upon his evolutionary status. There is plenty of room for error, inasmuch as his own thoughts and those of others may easily be mistaken for objective realities, as in dreams.

Some of the books prescribe an “elephant mudrā,” which is performed by standing up to the neck in water, drinking it in through the nostrils, sending it out through the mouth and then reversing the process. This resembles the action of elephants in the pools and rivers, though they use the trunk only, not the mouth.

Now we come to the nādas or sounds. The Shiva Sanhitā instructs the yogī to close the ears with the thumbs, the eyes with the index fingers, the nostrils with the middle fingers and the lips with the remaining four fingers. After some practice, he will begin to hear the mystic sounds. The first will be like the hum of a bee, then a flute and then a vīnā. With more practice there comes the sound of bells, and afterwards thunder. The mind of the yogī becomes absorbed in these sounds, and he forgets the external things which could distract him. (Shiva Sanhitā v 22-28. See also The Voice of the Silence, by H. P. Blavatsky, which gives the order as like the sounds of the nightingale, silver cymbal, shell, lute, trumpet, thunder, and much other very valuable information on yoga.).

These sounds are usually called anāhata, or belonging to the heart center. According to the Hatha Yoga PradÄ«pikā, when the ears, eyes, nose and mouth are closed, a clear sound is heard—first like the tinkling of ornaments, and later like kettle-drums; later still there is the sound of the flute and the vÄ«nā. In the middle stage there may be the sound of bells and horns. The yogÄ« must give his attention to the subtler sounds. The Nādabindu Upanishad also gives much the same order of sounds as the Hatha Yoga PradÄ«pikā, mentioning in stage one the sound of the sea, clouds, waterfalls and kettledrums, in the second stage that of drums, bells and horns, and thirdly, that of tinkling bells, flutes, vÄ«nās and bees. The Hansa Upanishad gives the order more in agreement with the Shiva Sanhitā. First come soft chattering sounds, then that of the bell, conch, lute, cymbals, flute, drum, double drum, and, lastly, thunder. The nāda laya or “absorption through sound” is regarded as a great aid to concentration.

Samādhi, the highest practice of yoga, is conceived in a very material manner in the hatha-yoga books. The idea is that the yogÄ« in samādhi is uninfluenced by anything external, because the senses have become inactive, and he does not even know himself or others. Although the Gheranda Sanhitā says that samādhi involves union of the individual with the supreme Self (Parātman) so that “I am Brahma and no other; Brahma am I, without any sorrows; I am of the nature of fundamental existence, knowledge and bliss, always free and self -supporting,” it also prescribes, for the attainment of this, various mudrās or physical practices, such as that of turning the tongue into the nasal cavity and stopping the breath, the theory being that all you need to do is to cut off contact with this world, and the other state will be there.