May 18, 2013

The 4 Functions of the Subtle Body. ~ Colin Hall

What we typically call the mind is not one thing but actually a compilation of functions.

This shouldn’t really be a surprise. We know that memory, ego, decision-making and interpretation of sensory data all happen in our minds. So a more sophisticated approach to the mind is one that integrates all of these functions.

The known sources of yoga literature (Vedas, Upanishads, Tantras, Agamas, Yoga Sutras, the medieval Hatha yoga texts, among others) are divergent in many regards when it comes to what yoga is and how it is to be practiced. Interestingly, one of the points on which most of them agree that the mind is not one thing but four. These four are:

Manas: Navigates sensory data and produces thoughts

Ahamkara: Produces a consistent sense of self, ego, or “I-ness”

Chitta: Stores memories and impressions

Buddhi: Witnesses mental activity; contemplation

In meditation the yogi is meant to identify the function of all parts of the mind. At first the manas is constantly flitting about. What time is it? What was that sound? My back is tired. And so on.

Then, the manas is calmed and the buddhi awakens producing a sense of calm, reflective awareness. In this calmed state, latent impressions may arise from the chitta resulting an a state of disquiet, or a subtle sense of irritation or frustration as the manas attempts to push back the impressions arising from the chitta.

The whole time, the yogi may experience all of this personally—something that is happening to me as I sit in my meditation practice. That is ahamkara.

Adding to this already sophisticated understanding of the mind, the Mandukya Upanishad tells us that these four functions of mind are functioning through four states of consciousness: waking, dreaming, deep sleep and a fourth state, known as turiya, that transcends and includes the other three. I will write more on the four states of consciousness later. For now. just know that when I use the word mind I am referring to a complex compilation of mental functions.

Now, the real juice is in locating these mental functions.

Swami Rama was heard telling one of his students:

“All of the body is in the mind, but not all of the mind is in the body.”

This statement accurately reflects current research on non-local consciousness. Such research involves studying near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences and remote viewing. It sounds pretty far out, but there is a growing body of literature suggesting that the mind is not limited to the perspectives made possible by the human body.

When we talk about the mind we often do so in the way that is synonymous with the brain. That is not my view in the least. I believe that the functions of the mind may be played out or manifest in the brain.

For example, fear or anxiety may manifest as a particular kind of brain wave (beta waves) visible on a EEG machine. But, it is a big leap to suggest that beta waves are the cause of anxiety. The beta waves are the result of the anxiety—not the cause. Sweaty palms, increased heart rate and indigestion may also be considered the cause of the anxiety. Instead, these are all products of anxiety.

How can the result of something be the cause of that same thing?

The mind is prior to the body. This relatively simple idea is absolutely crucial for any understanding of subtle body Hatha yoga.

The mind evolved first, the physical body evolved later. This is not how we commonly understand the mind. The mind is typically imagined as an accomplishment of this rather impressive piece of physiological architecture we call a human body.

Our brains evolved so much that they were able to produce something called mind. This is the understanding we typically carry with us into Hatha yoga asana practice—namely that the physical postures have subtle effects.

I am suggesting that we, instead, attempt to practice subtle postures that have physical effects.

In order to really get a clear picture of this whole business I would need to better familiarize myself with Samkhya, Patanjalian Yoga and Kashmir Saivism—not to mention the all the Vedic, Upanishadic, Tantric and Agamic literature.

Fortunately, I have my whole life and access to these materials. I don’t have time in this little blog post, nor do I have the expertise in all these fields give you an accurate review of all these rich sources. Fortunately, you have the rest of your life and, hopefully, access to these same resources yourself.

For now, just allow for the space in your imagination required for the mind to be prior to the body. Is your mind prior to your body? Can you imagine the functions of the mind manifesting without a physical body through which to operate?

With the attention on the function of the mind during Hatha yoga practice, the yogi can make more conscious how the mind (subtle body) interacts with body (physical body).

The intention of the practice is placed on awareness of the quality and function of the mind during asana practice.

I think of this as a first step in a re-evaluation of hatha yoga asanas as a subtle body practice.

I know, I am leaving aside a whole pack of questions and even more issues left unresolved. Approach my posts as you would a dude with a guitar out front of a health food store. You might like it, but there is no commitment to stay and listen.

I don’t even have a guitar case for your loonies.


Colin Hall runs a yoga studio in Regina, Saskatchewan with his wife Sarah Garden. He is the father of two beautiful little people, has an M.A. in religious studies focusing on the teacher-student relationship in hatha yoga traditions and has always dreamed of being a stand-up comedian.




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Asst. Ed: Amy Cushing/Ed: Kate Bartolotta

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