The human being is very complex. The part that is visible to the eye is obviously the physical body.
This body is, however, the result of, and is composed of, many parts that are not so visible to the eye.
Beginning with the most obvious part, the skull contains the brain, which is composed of various parts (neocortex, cerebellum, amygdale etc.)
The heart, which is the motor of the physical body, is generally associated with the emotions.
Less known is the lower part of the body, the so-called core , which means ‘centre’ where the internal organs and the intestines are. The intestines are the ‘factory’ not only of the immunity system, to defend the body against diseases and viruses, but are also an important reservoir of emotions and intuitions.
The physical body is, so to speak, the final result of the sum of all the other components, mentally and emotionally. It is, so to say, the tip of the iceberg, visible above sea level, while the bigger part is under the sea level, unknown to many people.
In Western languages there are no special words to describe those parts, therefore I will use the Sanskrit words, which are very clear.
The physical body is made of physical material, flesh, bone, nerves etc. which we can see, touch, examine, but which in itself is only inert material.
The bricks that construct the physical body is the food that we eat and the drinks that we drink. Therefore in Sanskrit yogic language it is called annamaya kosha, or the body made of anna (food).
To move the annamaya kosha we need the brain. The brain is also material, but emits electric waves, and it is those that move the physical body (annamaya kosha).
Everything that the annamaya kosha does begins with commands in the brain,.
The brain programs all the movements of the annamaya kosha and all the other processes of the physical body. This centre of organization is called in Sanskrit in the yogic tradition manomaya kosha. In this word we can recognize the word ‘man’ or ‘hu-man’ in English, for instance.
This is the organ that distinguishes us from the animals, who have it but in a more rudimentary form, less developed, and which makes us ‘human’.
There is however one thing that even the Western doctors do not know, but which the Orientals and the yogi’s have always known, which is that the manomaya kosha CANNOT act directly on the annamaya kosha. There is NO connection between the two.
That which many people know, without knowing that they ‘know’, is that between the brain and the physical body, between the manomaya kosha and he annamaya kosha, THERE IS ANOTHER BODY.
Acupuncture, shiatsu, tai chi, shao-lin and many other disciplines, do not act on the physical body, but on another body, a subtle, electric body.
This electric body (think of the meridians in acupuncture or nadi’s in yoga tradition) is called in yogi tradition pranamaya kosha, or subtle or etheric body, made of prana, chi. According to yoga, and the name itself says it already, this body is made of prana.
Many books have been written on what is exactly this prana, but if we keep to the tradition, both occidental and oriental, we can see many figures of ‘saints’ surrounded by a halo of light.
Personally I would say that prana is not air, not oxygen, not energy, but is the basic material of the universe, which is LIGHT, photons.
The pranamaya kosha is made of photons. In yogic tradition the practice of breathing, called pranayama, is a very important part of the practice. With pranayama, we inhale air, oxygen, but in the first place we inhale LIGHT. Therefore the guided breathing, called pranayama, fills the pranamaya kosha with light, strengthens it and makes it shine. It is this shining that you see around saints, but it is also the same which we see when one is ‘happy’. We say that that person is ‘radiant’. In the winter, when there is little light we feel more depressed, dull, but in the summer when there is a lot of sunlight we feel uplifted, full of energy.
The pranamaya kosha is the ‘blue-print’ of the annamaya kosha, and is similar to the annamaya kosha, or rather, the annamaya kosha is similar to the pranamaya kosha, having been ‘created’ by it.
Any blocking or problem in the pranamaya kosha manifests itself sooner or later in the annamaya kosha. In the same way that the annamaya kosha becomes ill starting in the pranamaya kosha, so also the healing of the annamaya kosha starts in the pranamaya kosha.
In Japanese that energy, that light, which is the subtle body, is called chi, and the body made of chi, prana, the pranamaya kosha, is that body that acts between the brain, between the manomaya kosha, and the annamaya kosha. The annamaya kosha in itself cannot execute the commands of the manomaya kosha. Tai chi, shao-lin and all the other oriental disciplines serve to strengthen and control the pranamaya kosha.
The manomaya kosha, which composes a command for a certain movement, sends this command to the pranamaya kosha, which in turn ‘collects’ energy, chi, prana, to execute the command and translate it in a movement of the annamaya kosha. When it has gathered sufficient chi or prana it can move the annamaya kosha. This process is called intent. It is this command, this intent sent out by the pranamaya kosha which moves the annamaya kosha.
This process goes on all day, but for 99 % it is on an unconscious level. Each movement that we make follows this procedure.
So what is the difference between the daily movements and the yogic core movements?
The annamaya kosha, the physical body, has a center, which is between the upper part of the body (arms, head and chest) and the lower part (legs)
This center is called in western language core.
The word core means center.
The core covers the central part of the physical body between the pelvic diaphragm and the thoracic diaphragm.
The bones that contain the core are:
- The five lumbar vertebrae
- The false ribs (3)
- The floating ribs (2)
- The bones of the pelvis (ilium, ischium and pubis). For later reference the word ‘pelvis’ in Latin means ‘basin’.
The muscles of the core are:
The posterior muscles:
- The erector spinae
- The quadratus lomborum
- The greater psoas
- The smaller psoas
- Gluteus medius and minimus
The lateral muscles:
- Gluteus minimus
- Tensor fasciae latae
The anterior/lateral muscles:
- Rectus abdominis
- External oblique
- Internal oblique
- Transversus abdominis
But the most important muscle, which few people know and use, is the psoas.
The psoas is the only muscle in the body that connects directly the inner thigh (the small trochanter) to the lumbar spine, and has a very important role in the correct posture and in the activity of the core. It stabilizes the pelvis and the inner organs.
The action of the psoas
The psoas is loose, does not have tone, and the weight of the inner organs pulls the lumbar spine forward, so that the pelvis collapses/rotates forward (ante-version). Think of a pregnant woman with the lumbar collapsed forward because of the weight of the baby.
The psoas works in a correct way, has a good tone and sustains the inner organs, keeping the pelvis in a vertical position, even slightly in a retro-version. This slight retroversion I have called the scoop. Remember that the word pelvis means basin. The organs are held correctly and do not ‘spill over and out’ forward.
The core is the central part of the annamaya kosha. It is purely physical.
Within the core, which is the physical part, however, is the subtle center, the center of the pranamaya kosha, which, in various languages, is called hara, dantien, kanda. This subtle center is below the navel, halfway the navel and the pubic bone, and halfway between the two iliac crests.
This is the center of the pranamaya kosha, and is considered the center of life and vitality in many traditions.
Since we all know the word hara I will use that from now on.
The hara is the center of the pranamaya kosha, and is situated in the center of the core, which is the center of the annamaya kosha. The hara is the subtle center from where the energy radiates in the whole subtle and physical body. All the movements of the physical body start here, also those which are furthest away from the center (arms, shoulders etc.).
A word here about the core and hara being the center of life and emotions (the intestines and the emotions), it is interesting to see that the most common modern ‘disease’ is obesity, especially in the central part of the body (the core), the so-called belly-fat, thighs and buttocks.
Our modern life has never been in history so stressful and hectic, with millions of things to do every day and millions of problems to solve, but our annamaya kosha and the amygdale, which is the center of the three f’s, fight, flight or freeze, has not been able to keep up with modern life, technology and other stress factors.
As this stress is practically continuous, the brain produces constantly cortisol, the so-called stress hormone, as the body and brain feel continuously ‘threatened’ by daily life (think of cortisol as nature’s built-in alarm system. It’s your body’s main stress hormone).
As a result the body tries to ‘protect’ its most vulnerable part as far as emotions, the core and hara is concerned and builds a ‘cushion’ around it to protect it against the perceived threat, stress: the famous ‘big belly’, obesity.
Jon Gabriel in his book: ‘Visualization for weight loss’, explains in a simple way how this whole process functions, and how to reverse it by learning certain techniques of visualization and meditation in order to ‘convince’ the body that there is no life threatening situation going on and therefore lower the production of cortisol.
The Japanese have a kind of ‘walking meditation’ called ‘Shinrin-yoku’ (professor Qing Li of the Nippon Medical School of Tokyo is the main researcher in this field). In his book ‘Art and Science of Forest-Bathing’ he describes the ‘technique of forest walking’, which is a slow walking through a wooded area, paying total attention to everything you see (!) which has the same aim of taking a ‘holiday’ from modern life by immersing oneself in nature in a meditative way, leaving computers and cell phones at home.
For the same reason yoga should be done very slowly in order not to set in motion this ‘defence’ mechanism by unnecessary stressing it. I have noticed however, that many people after doing years of yoga ‘increase’ their body fat, which, as I said, may be triggered by the fact that they do yoga or other exercises in a hurried and stressful way, setting off the body’s alarm system.
How to activate the core.
To activate the core you have to contract the glutei and the tensor fasciae latae muscles of the thighs and ‘suck’ the abdomen inside, starting from the pelvic diaphragm and pubic bone up till the sternum (xiphoid process).
At the same time the lumbar spine and the sacrum are slightly pushed forward vertically and the pelvis placed in a slightly retro-version mode.
This movement is called scoop (like the spoon with which you take the soup out of the soup bowl, or the ice-cream out of the ice cream carton).
The scoop is part of a type of breathing which I call mula bandha breathing. With this movement the breathing changes and moves from the anterior ribs, where most people breathe erroneously, to the back ribs, where in fact the lungs are, and as a consequence the back ribs widen towards the sides of the chest.
(Note : The true ribs (1-7) are attached to the sternum, and therefore cannot widen. The false ribs (8,9,10) are not attached to the sternum but to each other with cartilage, ribs 11,12 are the floating ribs, which attach only to the vertebrae. Therefore the main widening is done in the false ribs and the floating ribs).
At the same time the place where the breathing enters the throat, which for most people is in the upper throat, is lowered and the air enters through the lower throat (the part of the throat used for yawning and ‘heaving a sigh of relief’).
The total effect is that the movement of the breathing starts in the lower abdomen, goes backwards towards the kidneys and from there goes upwards, following the curve of the spinal column and ending up behind the manubrium, which is the upper part of the sternum, which, as a consequence, lifts (the first part of jalandhara bandha).
This is the movement of the mula bandha breathing, from down upwards. Obviously, however, the air itself enters in the lower throat and goes down into the lungs.
The lower part of the sternum, the xiphoid process, does NOT come forward, like many people do erroneously, placing in this way the sternum in an inclined position , but the sternum remains vertical with the manubrium in a vertical line above the xiphoid process. The whole movement takes place on the back side of the chest (where the lungs are). You can imagine that you have a large belt between the chest and the pelvis. This belt should always have the same width in the front and in the back, so the frontal ribs should not move upward away from the iliac crests.
It is important to emphasize that this whole movement of the breathing is only possible with peripheral eyes. With concentric eyes this movement is not possible. With peripheral eyes the air enters automatically in the lower abdomen, with as a result the mula bandha breathing, while with concentric eyes the air enters automatically in the upper throat, resulting in the classical Ujjayi breathing of the old texts.
In ‘HARA AND THE CORE Part Two’ I will discuss concentric and peripheral eyes, total attention and isometric and isotonic exercises.