Dr. Don Glassey
The word yoga means to "yoke" or "unify", to bring together so as to identify one's awareness with the one Consciousness commonly referred to as God. Yoga includes specific practices designed to remove obstacles that cloud awareness from the direct experience of God. There are a variety of systems of yoga used for this purpose and vary according to the psychological make-up and capabilities of the practitioner. However, when done correctly, the practices of yoga are scientific, that is the results are predictable and repeatable. Yoga signifies union with God through the practice of specific, scientific spiritual disciplines.
While the overall goal of yoga practices is to facilitate and awaken spiritual awareness, there are also many documented physical benefits. These include improved functioning of all bodily systems, and in particular the immune system is strengthened. Other benefits include the slowing of the biological aging process as well as an overall reduction of stress indicators. Clearer thinking processes, improved intellectual skills, enhanced creativity, and an overall increased appreciation for living are also some of the many benefits of yoga practice.
Of all the yogic systems, Hatha Yoga is the best known and widely practiced in the Western world. This presentation will address certain aspects of it’s most widely utilized procedures; asanas (postures), pranayamus (breathing techniques), and meditation (concentration methods).
It is well known that Hatha Yoga practices place great emphasis on the spine. A great Indian Master asserted that the brain and spine (spinal cord) are the altars of God. He also stated that we worship God in the temple of the spine. The question then arises as to why the brain and spine are of such paramount importance to the overall purpose of yoga practices. That is to say, what is the physiological basis of this focus of attention in terms of the ultimate goal, and the above-mentioned physical benefits of yoga. On a physical level the answer lies in the flow of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) around and within the brain and spine, and in neuropeptides, whose greatest concentration is in the CSF.
Cerebrospinal fluid is a clear, colorless body fluid similar in chemical composition to blood plasma and seawater. It flows primarily within and around the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord), supplying it with nutrients and eliminating waste products. It also physically protects the brain and spinal cord, serves as a medium for the flow of energy and information, and is the most conductive fluid in the body.
Neuropeptides (nerve-proteins) are informational substances that are produced mostly in the brain, and are found primarily in the cerebrospinal fluid, and secondarily in the blood. They are called "messenger" molecules, (molecules are the smallest entity that retain the characteristics of a substance) because they distribute information throughout the body, and coordinate practically all life processes on a cellular level.
All the systems of the body (digestion, respiration, elimination etc.) are made up of glands (adrenal, mammary etc.), and organs (heart, liver, lungs, etc.). Glands and organs are comprised of tissues, (fat, bone, muscle etc.), and tissues are composed of cells. Cells, therefore, are the fundamental functional (physiological) and structural (anatomical) parts of the human body as well as all other living organisms.
Neuropeptides not only coordinate almost all body functions on a physical level, but also on an emotional level. These powerful biochemicals are concentrated in the limbic system, the seat of the emotions, and play an important role in governing our emotions as well.
Neuropeptides are one category of essential body chemicals called "ligands (from the Latin word ligare, "that which binds"). Ligands are natural or man-made substances that bind selectively to a specific receptor site on the surface of a cell. For example, if the cell were a golf ball, the tiny depressions on the surface would be receptor sites. However, unlike the number of dimples on a golf ball, each human cell has hundreds of thousands of receptor sites for neuropeptides, and nerve cells have millions!
It is the function of ligands to transmit a message to the cell that coordinate body functions such as metabolism, (digestion and elimination), and respiration on a cellular level. These cellular processes in turn bring about dramatic functional changes in tissues, glands, organs, and entire body systems.
The life of the cell, and hence in a large part the life of the individual, is determined by the actions of neuropeptides, of which scientists have discovered over one hundred circulating within the body. Almost all-physical activity, behavior, even our emotions are defined by microscopic physiological (functional) changes on a cellular level involving neuropeptides. These physiological changes result in changes in our mental emotional state in a cyclical process, where changes in our mental-emotional state also produce changes in our physiological state.
Candace Pert, Ph.D., an eminent, world-renowned neuroscientist, calls neuropeptides the "molecules of emotion". In Dr. Pert's ground breaking book by the same title, she uses the analogy of the cell as an engine that drives all life processes, where the receptor sites are the buttons on the control panel, and the neuropeptide is the finger that pushes the button and starts everything. Dr. Pert feels the standard scientific key fitting into a lock analogy, (where the neuropeptide is the key and the receptor site the lock), is too static an image for this dynamic process. She uses the description of two voices, ligand and receptor site, hitting the same note, and resulting in a resonance that rings the doorbell of the cell to open it.
An example of the interplay between ligands and receptor sites would be "endorphins", which are neuropeptides in the opiate group. Endorphins are natural body chemicals produced in the brain in response to pain. They are a "pain-relieving" neuropeptide that raises the threshold of the mind-body to pain. A mentally or emotionally stressful condition may prevent endorphins from reaching their opiate receptor sites on the cells to relieve pain. Under these conditions a man-made substance, such as morphine, can also function as a ligand, and bind with the opiate receptor site and relieve pain.
The flow of cerebrospinal fluid is of paramount importance because it contains the greatest concentration of the "messenger molecules" (neuropeptides) as they circulate throughout the body. The largest volume of cerebrospinal fluid in the body is found within a space between the layers of the meninges, a very thin, saran wrap-like, multi-layered covering of the brain and spinal cord. It is suggested CSF also may flow outside the brain and spinal cord in the peripheral nervous system, and within a micro-circulatory system in the neuroglial connective tissue of the body. Connective tissue is aptly named because it "connects" and supports literally everything in the body.
It is proposed that neuropeptides, circulating in the cerebrospinal fluid, reach their cellular destinations via the central and peripheral nervous system vis a vis CSF filled nerve connective tissue tubules within the nervous system called neuroglial cells.
"Glial" is from the Greek word meaning glue, which is a misnomer, as glial cells (the largest number of cells in the brain) are much more than a supporting structure for the nervous system. They also serve a nutrient function, and some neuroscientists claim they form a communication network of their own, which could serve as a transportation system for the all-important neuropeptides.
Although some neuropeptides also circulate in the blood, it is proposed that the cerebrospinal fluid is the major medium utilized by the "messenger molecules". Neuropeptides can travel the nervous system thousands of miles over the glial cell/CSF network to bring about dramatic changes in the mind-body on a cellular level. Consequently, as the major pathway of neuropeptides, the unimpeded flow of cerebrospinal fluid is of paramount importance to the optimal functioning of the mind-body.
Another aspect of CSF flow and the aforementioned beneficial effects of yoga, involves substances called electrolytes. Electrolytes are substances that conduct electricity when in a solution, and the CSF contains two such substances, sodium and potassium. These electrolytes in the CSF maintain an electrical balance that controls the functioning of the nervous system, which works by the principle of electricity. The nervous system regulates and coordinates all the body's systems. Therefore, the optimum functioning of all body parts is directly related to the proper balance and circulation of the aforementioned electrolytes in the CSF.
The Hatha yoga system was conceived by the ancient rishis of India to benefit the mind, body and Spirit of the practitioner. It is our theory that Hatha Yoga practices assist the mind-body through the positive impact they have on the flow of cerebrospinal fluid. It is suggested that the way yoga works is directly related to CSF flow, and the role neuropeptides play as the notes that orchestrate the symphony of all mind-body activities.
Asanas (physical postures) help to tone and strengthen the spinal musculature, enhance the flexibility of the spine, and improve overall spinal alignment. The body movements associated with the various postures benefit the spine and enhance the flow of the largest volume of CSF within the cranial and spinal bones. Theoretical flow of CSF within the connective tissue of the nervous system (neuroglial cells) would also be augmented as the yoga practitioner performs asana stretches involving the arms, legs and torso.
Pranayamas (breathing techniques) are procedures used to enhance the flow of "prana" in the body, usually through regulation of the breathing pattern or rhythm. "Prana", or life force, is said to enter the body through food, sunlight and breath. It energizes and vitalizes the vital fluids in the body called "ojas", which include the blood, lymph, extracellular, sexual and cerebrospinal fluid.
Cerebrospinal fluid flows around the brain and spinal cord by two pumping mechanisms at the top (cranium) and the bottom (sacrum) of the spinal column. The diaphragmatic breathing practiced in pranayamas activates the CSF sacral pump at the bottom of the spine. This occurs as dome shaped diaphragm muscle contracts down on the sacrum on inspiration (breathing in) pumping cerebrospinal fluid up around the spinal cord into the brain. As the practitioner concentrates on breathing diaphragmatically, it evokes a succession of contractions and relaxations of this powerful muscle pumping CSF through the rhythmic movement of the sacrum, the foundation of the spine.
This flexion and extension (forward and backward movement) of the sacrum also effects all the spinal bones above it. The connecting joints between each spinal bone or vertebrae, (aptly called "articular pillars" because they look like pistons), move in an up and down motion in coordination with the diaphragmatic contractions and relaxations. Thus, as the sacrum pumps, the action of the piston-like joints between each vertebrae also pump cerebrospinal fluid up into the cranium.
Other types of pranayamas such as alternate nostril breathing and Kriyas (advanced pranayamas) effect the other CSF pumping mechanism within the cranium itself. In alternate nostril breathing as the practitioner inhales and exhales, the diaphragm muscle pumps CSF via the sacrum. Also as the nasal passages fill up with air the spheo-basilar cranial bones behind the nose (the cranial pump) are activated, and oscillate in a rhythmic motion. This movement propels the CSF down the spine through the vertical space within spinal column in between the meninges called the spinal canal.
Kriya pranayamas effect both the sacral pumping mechanism and the to and fro oscillations of the spheno-basilar bones. Kriya breath stimulates the spheno-basilar bones to vibrate propelling CSF down the spine, and also activate the sacral pumping mechanism. Thus, because Kriya pranayama effects both the cranial and sacral pumps, it is a particularly powerful technique in enhancing circulation of CSF around and within the brain and spinal cord.
Another type of pranayama that facilitates CSF flow occurs as the practitioner gently holds their breath for a very short interlude, or breathes in a circular pattern up and down the spine (shushuma breath). Temporarily holding the breath or doing shushuma breath increases pressure within the chest cavity as the lungs fill up with air. This enlarged air volume in the chest area, caused by the expanded lungs, exerts a slight pressure on the CSF flowing around the spinal cord and thereby facilitates circulation. Temporarily holding the breath, or doing shushuma breath also causes neuropeptides to quickly release into the CSF from the respiratory centers at the base of the brain.
In the ancient Indian text of the Yoga Sutras 1:2, Patanjali explains; "Yoga is the regulation and cessation of fluctuations and changes which are ordinarily expressive in the conditioned field of consciousness." The purpose of meditation (concentration methods) is to still thought processes by calming the mind. This enables the meditator to experience pure consciousness without the interruption of the waves of mental activity and thought. As the meditator assumes a relaxed body posture with the spine up right, the flow of CSF up and down the spine is enhanced. Then by focusing one's attention between and above the eyebrows, CSF is encouraged to move up into the area of the optic cistern, a reservoir of CSF in the same anatomical area as the "third eye" center.
Meditative techniques such as "mantras", and "kirtan" (chanting) are also utilized to help the practitioner experience pure awareness without the interruption of thoughts or feelings. A "mantra" is a word, sound or word-phrase, which the meditator concentrates upon to keep attention from being involved with the external physical environment, physical feelings, moods, or thought processes. "Mantras" are mentally repeated and/or "listened to" in reiterated cadence, usually in coordination with, and simulating the audible sound of the in-going and out-going breath. As the "mantra" is coordinated with the in and out going breath, the practitioner's attention is focused on the cerebrospinal fluid going up and down the spine.
If man is a microcosm of the macrocosmic universe, then the “Om or Aum” vibration (sound) may be the purest of all meditation mantras to contemplate. In 2000 a team of astronomers at the California Institute of Technology published a detailed analysis of the cosmos primordial sound which they likened to the mantra “Om”. Cosmologist K.C. Cole and his colleagues through painstaking computer analysis have compared depictions of sound made by the universe a few hundred thousand years after the Big Bang of creation to the “banging on the head of a drum”. This sound current physicists claim was caused by the compression of “liquid light” as it fell into gravity wells. This physical phenomena may have set-up vibrational waves which may be the oldest sound in the universe, from which all manifestations of nature were produced including man, which yoga calls the Om vibration.
On a microcosmic level, CSF, because it is luminescent, can also be depicted as “liquid light”. Futuristic thinker, Itzak Bentov, in his book “Stalking the Wild Pendulum”, claimed that standing waves in the lateral ventricles at the top of the cranium are oscillators that create an acoustic (sound) vibration. It is suggested that the lateral ventricle reservoirs at the top of the brain where CSF is primarily produced, are analogous to the abovementioned “gravity wells”. And that the flow of CSF may produce the aforementioned “standing waves” and could be the physical source of the sound heard in the “Om” vibration mantra. Since CSF is continuous with the fluid of the inner ear, the tympanic membrane may act like a “head of a drum” receiving acoustic vibrations from the lateral ventricle’s “standing waves”. This could be responsible for the sound of the “Om” vibration heard in meditation, which has been likened to the sound of “many rushing waters” or the “roar of the ocean”.
Chanting involves repeating aloud, over and over again, a certain specific series of Sanskrit or English words about some aspect of God. The chants are short, reiterated affirmations that reinforce the purpose of meditation, which is to experience pure Consciousness or God. Chanting is also another method utilized to help remove the meditators attention from thought processes or moods as the practitioner concentrates on the sound of the chant rather than mental activity.
The high and low pitch "tones" of the chant resonating within the body also enhance CSF flow. This occurs because the vibrational sound of the chant has a stimulating effect on the liquid medium of the CSF as it circulates around the brain and spinal cord. Lower pitch "tones" resonate in the chest and abdomen areas, and effect the CSF flowing within the spinal column. Higher pitch "tones" resonate in the head, and therefore impact on the CSF as it flows around the cranium.
Through the yogi practices of physical postures (asanas), breath techniques (pranayamas), and concentration methods (meditation), the overall flow of cerebrospinal fluid is greatly enhanced, and thereby the functioning of the all important neuropeptides. These powerful body chemicals may also play a role on the physical level in the overall goal of yoga practice to experience God consciousness on the spiritual level. Although the experience of pure consciousness or God is difficult to define in words, a great Indian Master described God as; "ever-present, ever-lasting, ever-new joy". The experience of God consciousness, could in part be related to the physical effect of two of the body's most marvelous ligands, serotonin and the aforementioned endorphins.
Serotonin is a natural body chemical, which enhances mood and our feeling of well-being. It is released from the cells that line the walls of the ventricles, two cavities within the upper part of the brain where CSF is produced. It is also secreted from the supraependymal cells that line the central canal of the spinal cord, the major pathway of CSF. As the cerebrospinal fluid flows more freely around the brain and spinal cord, it stimulates the above-mentioned cells to release serotonin.
When endorphins are released from the brain into the CSF, the result is a feeling of euphoria, bliss and expanded consciousness. Therefore, the combined effect of these two body chemicals flowing more naturally in the CSF creates physical feelings of joy and well being as well as a sensation of expanded consciousness.
When the cerebrospinal fluid is flowing freely we are truly "in the flow", as the neuropeptides are able to go where they need to go to coordinate life processes on a physical and emotional level. This enhances our ability to maximize our potential as human beings physically, mentally and emotionally. Yoga works because it facilitates the flow of the fluid of life; the liquid light called cerebrospinal fluid, and thereby enhances the functioning of the all-important neuropeptides.It is no wonder then why two of the most distinguished Western healers had such reverence and regard for cerebrospinal fluid. In the words of Randolph Stone, D.C., D.O., founder of Polarity Therapy, CSF is the "liquid medium for the breath of life". And A.T. Still, father of Osteopathy, characterized it as the "great river of life in the body."
Bentov, Itzhak, Stalking the Wild Pendulum: on The Mechanics of Consciousness, Destiny Books, 1977
Cole, K.C. et. al., Mind Over Matter: Conversations With the Cosmos, Harcourt, NY, 2003
Pert, Candace, Ph.D., Molecules of Emotion, Scriber, NY, 1997
Whedon, J. and Glassey, D., “Cerebrospinal Fluid Stasis and Its Clinical Significance”, Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine – A Peer-Reviewed Journal, Vol. 15, NO.3, May/Jun 2009
Whedon, James, “Clinical Anatomy and Physiology of CSF for the Bodyworkers”, 1997