The Ashtanga Invocation contains an homage to Patanjali, the mythic author of the Yoga Sutra. The second verse takes the form of a dhyana sloka, a support for meditation that describes an image upon which to focus the mind. To work with this kind of verse, we are not only to visualize, but to imagine ourselves as fully embodying what the verse describes. The idea is to impress the subtle contours of the image into the supple medium of our minds, allowing the image to reshape our experience. Through this practice, we arrange ourselves into mental postures that are conducive to meditation.
The Invocation describes Patanjali as an amalgam of serpent and human forms. He has a human form from the waist to the head, the verse tell us, but his torso is suspended by the coiled tail of a serpent, and his human face, which holds an expression of silent equanimity, is hooded by a thousand serpent’s heads, all singing in different tongues. In his hands, of which there are four, he holds a conch, a discuss and a sword.
The name Patanjali can literally mean “fallen from the hands.” According to one explanation, he acquired this name at birth when his mother, on seeing his serpentine form for the first time, dropped him from her hands in astonishment. Her reaction is understandable, and we might suppose that we would do something similar were the serpentine contours of Patanjali suddenly installed in our consciousness, such that we felt ourselves assuming the same phantasmagoric form. But the possibility of embodying that form begins to seem rather provocative when we understand the esoteric meaning of the serpent imagery.
Symbols of Support
Serpents have a liminal existence. They move in silence, mostly unseen, in the spaces between things. They live above and below the earth, between darkness and light. In primitive cultures, serpents are often regarded simultaneously, and paradoxically, as symbols of both life and death. They symbolize life because of their fascinating ability to multiply and renew themselves by shedding their skin, and they symbolize death because they can kill with a single bite. So they represent the liminal space between creativity and dissolution.
In Indian mythology, serpents often play the role of support. High in evidence is the image of Vishnu, the sustainer of worlds. He is commonly depicted as floating on the cosmic ocean while reclining on a couch, which rests on the back of Adishesha, the primordial serpent. The tail of the serpent supports Vishnu’s couch, while his thousand serpent heads spread over Vishnu like a canopy, giving him shade. This imagery is striking because it suggests that even Vishnu himself, the divine sustainer, who is worshipped by millions as the ultimate support, has something less exalted, less celebrated, supporting him as well. He is pictured just so, resting on the back of the serpent.
Another example is Vasuki, the serpent king who allows his body to be used like a rope for the “churning of the cosmic ocean.” This is the mythical incident from the Mahabharata in which the gods and demons work together to distill out the soma, the vital essence of creation, which gives mystical insight. They wrap Vasuki around an enormous mountain and they begin to pull and release in turns, churning the cosmic waters down to the depths. When the soma arises, Vasuki does not ask for a single drop. He simply slithers back beneath the ocean, allowing himself to be forgotten.
The use of serpents as symbols of support enshrine a simple but profound truth, that all schemes of organization depend for their existence on something that stands outside of them, something which they cannot recognize without risking their own collapse.
Our own existence is like that. The schemes of organization with which we most closely identify, the schemes that we call our selves, depend upon an intelligence that we rarely acknowledge. This intelligence is always here supporting us from beneath. It underlies the creative processes of thought, feeling and action by which we hold ourselves together, the processes that give us our identities, and make us the particular people that we are. Still, we have no common name for this intelligence, for to name it would be threatening to our sense of control.
Awakening the Serpent
In Hatha Yoga, there is a name for this intelligence, borrowed from the older Tantric traditions out of which Hatha practice arose. Her name is Kundalini, and she is imagined as a serpent, sleeping in a coil on the pelvic floor. In this form, she is said to possess our tremendous but mostly unrealized potential for spiritual insight. Her coiled, sleeping body represents our slumbering intelligence, our dormant capacity for seeing through the projections of our minds.
Hatha Yoga invites us to become directly aware of her presence within us, and even to immerse ourselves in the experience of her intelligence, until we can feel that intelligence working on the subtle levels of our bodies and minds, turning our thoughts, moving our sensations, and animating our vital processes. The idea is that, with continual immersion in this sensual experience, over extended periods of time, we can slowly dissolve our delusions of control and isolation.
The process of Hatha Yoga is said to begin when Kundalini rouses from her slumber and stands up hissing, “like a snake beaten with a stick.” As the serpent rises, she burns through the tangles of our conditioning. She exposes us to the ephemeral nature of our self images and opens our minds to insight. This process, which can take many inchoate forms, and only rarely unfolds to completion, is the rousing of our natural intelligence. It dissolves our delusions of control and exposes us to the open radiance of our true nature, which is the blissful pulse of life that is moving so lovingly within us.
In the subtle anatomy of Hatha Yoga, the coiled body of Kundalini is said to obstruct the lower entrance to the central axis of the body. In fact, she is often depicted as sleeping with her mouth sealed around the entrance, preventing the subtle breath from entering. When she awakens and uncoils, the obstruction is removed, and the internal breath can suddenly rise up through Sushumna Nadi.
This most important nadi lies between Ida and Pingala, the lunar and solar channels through which the subtle breath normally oscillates, animating the creative and dissolutive movements of our minds. Meditative insight is said to emerge when these movements come into balance, allowing Prana to slip into the liminal space between them. This is the beginning of the meditative experience.
Most of the Hatha practices in currency today were originally designed to arouse Kundalini by balancing prana and apana, the two complementary forms of our vital force that rule over the opposing movements of creativity and dissolution in our bodies and minds.
As an aspect of subtle breath, prana can be experienced viscerally as having an upward and outward movement that radiates from the plane of the heart, most obviously during the inhale phase of respiration, when the rib cage lifts and expands, straightening the spine and elevating the head and shoulders. And prana takes the same upward and outward pattern in the space of the mind. Here, prana is responsible for the branching movement of our thoughts, and so for the diversification of single thought form into others, whether through imagination, memory or rational inference, which is often experienced as an upward movement that reaches indefinitely over the head. In this connection, prana is responsible for our receptivity, our openness and our ability to see things from diverse points of view.
The opposing force of apana, on the other hand, can be experienced viscerally as having a downward and contractive movement that spirals toward the pelvic floor. This force, which predominates on exhalation, is responsible not only for pushing things out of the body, but for the ongoing dissolution of our thought constructs. Its dissolving force clears the inner space of the mind on a moment to moment basis, making room for other thought forms to arise. So apana is the force that allows us to focus on some things to the exclusion others, to make decisions, or simply to let things go. It underlies certainty and stability of mind.
When prana and apana oscillate, they create our inner voices, the voices by which we continually narrate our experience and silently converse with ourselves about what is happening. These voices are essential to our sanity, but they also obscure the true nature of reality, by imposing their stories onto our experiences, so that we can never simply take things as they are.
Hatha practices teach us to bring prana and apana into balance, and then to press them together at the center of the body. This mudra creates an intense internal heat that encourages kundalini to awaken. The heat at issue here is just the metaphorical heat of concentration, the heat of holding the mind steady in the present moment, which is to say, in the liminal space between the opposing movements of creation and dissolution. When the mind is held there, the heat builds, and Kundalini begins to awaken.
Meditating with Support
Returning to the imagery of the Ashtanga Invocation, we find the sage Patanjali, or what is truly human in him, sitting quietly in the center between two serpentine forms. And these now appear to symbolize the subtle experiential patterns of prana and apana. The upward and outward pattern of prana is reflected in the rising and spreading of his cobra hood, while the downward and contractive pattern of apana is reflected in the dropping and coiling pattern of his serpent tail.
Patanjail is listening, we can imagine, with silent adoration, to the thousand singing heads of his serpentine hood. These represent the countless ways in which his prana can unfold, and so the endless diversity of possible perspectives that he might take on any situation. But his steady and empty gaze, which is depicted in traditional statuary as utterly serene, reveals that he does not allow those voices to seduce his attention. That is, he does not allow any of them to distract him from what is happening, and lead him wandering down some narrative path.
With the support of his serpentine tail, which represents his apana, he stays grounded, embodied, connected to the earthly plane, so he can listen to the voices of the serpent heads that rise above him without being swept off in their currents. Therefore, he can appreciate them for their pure musicality. That is, he can admire the formal beauty of their unfoldment without being drawn into the drama of their narrative meaning, and mistaking it for his own reality. His experience of their unfoldment can be direct, detached and purely aesthetic.
The meditative practice of sitting in the center between the movements of prana and apana, and appreciating them as they unfold, is noted in the Bhaghavad Gita as one of the sacred paths to awakening. Krishna describes the method in felicitous terms as “pouring prana into apana and apana into prana.” This lovely description captures the richness and smoothness of the kind of mediative experience in question. When prana and apana are balanced, the material of our thoughts becomes like warm oil or ghee. It glistens over the sacrificial fire of our awareness, changing fluidly from one thought form into another as we pour it back and forth in silent reverence and wonder.
Meditation, as described, is not a practice of destroying or suppressing our thoughts, but of giving space to them, and admiring their sublime beauty as they unfold. Once we have appreciated the esoteric meaning of serpent imagery, this can involve seeing our thoughts as ephemeral formations of the serpentine goddess herself, glistening like embers from her blissful effulgence, and revealing herself as the subtle essence of who we are.
The Ashtanga Invocation invites us to cultivate this profound meditative experience from the beginning, by tuning in to the subtle experiential patterns of prana and apana, and appreciating them as manifestations of the creative intelligence that sustains us. And as we draw the internal breath into the long, flowing lines of the Ashtanga sequencing, we begin to feel the serpentine goddess moving within us.