Paramhansa Yogananda often urged his disciples, “Live in the Self.” Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? But exactly what does it mean, and how in the world can we do it?
In The Art and Science of Raja Yoga, Swami Kriyananda offers some clarity: “To remain more in the Self means to live more in the spine, and at the point between the eyebrows. The yogi’s awareness of the spinal energy must ever be directed upward.”
Most people live at their periphery (i.e., in the senses) rather than in their center, in the spine. The senses help us function in this world, but when they become the focus of our lives — as advertisers hope they will — our energy habitually goes outward, away from the Self, rather than inward to the spine and upward to the spiritual eye.
In this article, I’d like to explore ways to develop this powerful spiritual skill of living in the spine — anytime, anywhere.
Becoming aware of the spine
When yogis speak of living in the spine, they’re referring to the “astral spine,” the primary channel for life-force in the body. It’s in the center of the body, just in front of the vertebral column.
To experience the astral spine, let’s begin with its more-familiar neighbor: the physical spine. For many people, even that is not a living reality, but the following simple exercises can give one a better sense of it.
Stand or sit upright, and sway the body left and right. Now, mentally resist the swaying with your physical spine: As the body sways to one side, feel as though the spine is pulling you back to center, just as a tall pine tree brings itself back to upright after the wind has blown it to one side.
This resistance gradually reduces the swaying until you come to a point of perfect balance in the center. Then sway the body forward and backward, again resisting the swaying with the spine until you come to center.
Now sway your body in a circle, without moving your feet. Mentally resist with your spine the outward-moving (centrifugal) force of the circles, so that you gradually spiral inward, your movements becoming less and less, until you come to a stationary upright position. Then circle in the other direction, spiraling inward.
With these exercises, you can cultivate a better sense of your physical spine. As you gain awareness of the astral spine (see below), you can do these resistance exercises with the astral spine.
Keeping a straight spine
One should always stand and sit up straight, right? But why? To investigate, compare standing (or sitting) with a straight spine versus slumping. Stay in each position for several breaths, observing how the position affects your breath, your energy level, and your state of mind. Notice how, when your spine is straight, it’s easier to breathe, you feel more energetic, and your mind is clearer and more alert than when you slump.
Your physical spinal posture also affects your astral spine, which in turn affects your state of mind. When the physical (and thus astral) spine is “bent,” the flow of life-force to the brain can be diminished, dulling your consciousness, even bringing on negativity. A straight spine, on the other hand, leads to a more energetic, positive attitude. That’s why Yogananda used to warn, “A bent spine is the enemy of Self-realization!”
Centering in the astral spine
The word “centered” is common these days: “He’s really off-center today,” or “She’s a very centered person.” There are deep yogic principles behind such expressions, and one way to experience them is through balancing asanas (yoga postures).
Your balance depends on where your concentration is, where the center of your reality is. That’s a real key to the asanas — and to life.
To explore this, stand on one foot and concentrate on the other foot, making it the center of your reality. Hard to balance, isn’t it?
Now concentrate on the wall in front of you, with deep interest in the texture of the wall. Again, wobble city! In both cases, your balance is compromised because your awareness is not at your center.
Do it again, gazing at the wall without focusing on it. Concentrate on your astral spine, in the center of your torso. Even if you don’t yet feel the astral spine, concentrate on that area as the center of your reality.
Your concentration is now on where you’re gazing from rather than what you’re gazing at. You’re more centered in the spine. It’s a very different experience.
Breathing in the spine
Another excellent way to become more aware of, and centered in, the spine is to “breathe in the spine.” Yoga says that energy rising up the astral spine causes us to inhale, and energy descending the astral spine causes us to exhale. Focusing on this process can be a wonderful aid to living in the spine.
Sit upright and touch the tip of your tailbone with one forefinger, the medulla oblongata area with the other. Visualize a hollow tube, about as thick as your thumb, connecting those two points.
Breathing deeply, see energy flowing up through that tube with each inhalation, and down with each exhalation. Inhale fully, expanding your abdomen, then your lower ribs, then your chest, then relax in reverse order as you exhale.
Continue breathing this way, and move the first finger to the spiritual eye. Now visualize energy flowing up and down the entire astral spine from tailbone to medulla, then forward to the spiritual eye, then back down.
This flow is real; visualizing it will gradually help you experience it. Now relax your hands to your lap and continue the breathing and visualization.
In time, breathing in the spine will become an objective reality, giving you a wonderful key to taking charge of your energies — and your life.
But there’s even more:
Acting from the spine
When you live in the spine, every action originates in the spine, and reaches completion by returning to the spine. In The Art and Science of Raja Yoga, Swami writes,
I have found when skiing that if I deliberately center my awareness in the spine, feeling all my movements to be radiating outward from that center, I can ski very much better. One who can remain consciously centered in his spine will always be poised, ready to meet any situation that arises — even as a man who is well-balanced while running can turn quickly, whereas one who is not will very likely fall if he turns too suddenly.
Try these helpful exercises:
Walk from the spine: Let each step emanate from the spine. Don’t overthink this, lest walking become a complicated activity! Just feel it. It should be both refreshing and centering.
Move from the spine: In the “fencing” exercise in Yogananda’s Energization Exercises, you step one foot forward and thrust the opposite arm forward, double-exhaling and tensing that side of the body. As you do this, feel and visualize both the movement and the tension-causing energy coming from the spine. As you double-inhale back to the starting position, feel both the movement and the energy returning to the spine.
Speak from the spine: Before you express a thought, try to feel inside, in your spine, whether it is true to who you are, to who the listener is, to the situation at hand, to Truth. At first, this is tedious, because the mouth loves to be on “autopilot.” With practice, however, it becomes not only natural, but a huge relief: You’ll become quieter, more truthful, more attentive to others’ feelings and ideas. Your words will have more impact on others — and you’ll get into much less trouble!
Enjoy from the spine: Whenever you enjoy something — good food, a hot bath, a walk in nature — refer your enjoyment back to the spine. Feel the spine as the origin of your enjoyment. Don’t allow the thought that your enjoyment comes from the outward experience. If that were true, everyone would enjoy the same things — and clearly they don’t.
No, the outward experience merely reminds you of your inner capacity for enjoyment. Realizing this brings freedom, because your enjoyment of life becomes much less controlled by circumstances.
Get a practice partner
Above all, know that you’re not “living alone” in your spine, for this is where Divine Mother dwells within you most palpably. Make Her your partner in practicing these exercises — over and over until living in the spine becomes second nature. The results are well worth the time and effort. As Yogananda said of such practice: “Most people don’t have the patience to practice it. I had the patience.”
Gyandev McCord, Lightbearer and longtime Ananda member, lives at Ananda Village, teaches at The Expanding Kight guest restreat, and is the director of Ananda Yoga worldwide.
Meditation on the Spine
by Gyandev McCord
In learning to “live in the spine,” the following visualization from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam Explained by Paramhansa Yogananda can be very helpful:
You are not the rose, which scatters petals afar on the summer wind. You are not the body, which scatters energy abroad on winds of worldly desire. You are the subtle essence of reality, of all beauty and perfection. The essence that is you changes never.
Withdraw the energy of your body into your own center, in the spine. Relax.
Release your mind from its ceaseless busyness. Relax.
Cast onto the wind all desires and attachments of your heart. Relax.
As you breathe naturally, feel your breath rising through the spine with every inhalation, then descending with every exhalation.
Train yourself to become more conscious, throughout the day, of your own center in the spine.
In his book, Meditation for Starters, Swami Kriyananda explains the best way to carry meditation-born awareness into daily life: “By developing a consciousness of your own center in the spine,” he writes. “Live outward from that center, rather than inward from your periphery.”
As you begin to learn this truth through your own direct experience, your life will begin to change in wonderful, magical ways.