At this point most of us are willing to accept that our physical structure develops and grows from some combination of intelligence, energy, and matter. Matter is the stuff of which we are made. Energy is its process of movement. Intelligence guides its growth. Nowhere is this more evident than in the embryological time.
An awe-inspiring amount of creativity and intelligence expresses in our embryological development. Each phase of development is fascinating and reveals core truths that we live with for the rest of our lives; templates of organization and connection, that may no longer be evident to the eye, but form support structures and relationships that remain with us throughout our life. Often in yoga practice we find that some of the earliest templates of organization from embryology relate very clearly to yogic principles of support and awareness. This is particularly clear when we are observing the flow of prana. Our embryology offers important clues for practice and validates some of the more advanced practices in yoga and the more esoteric descriptions of the inner world that accompany those practices.
The pranic-flows form the templates – the energetic scaffolding – upon which our structure grows. When we look to our embryology with an eye toward Tantric philosophy, we find that prana and apana were present from our earliest beginnings and that it appears/feels that they created the polarity of life force between them upon which our core – our spine and subtle spine – developed.
According to the tantric picture, apana and prana are attracting and repelling one another right from the very beginning. Their opposing energies create a dynamic force between them. It is along this axis of pranic repulsion and attraction that the primitive streak and the notochord initially develop. This is our first central channel – our first structural core.
In early gestation, from about nine to fourteen days after fertilization, we are nothing more than an embryonic disc. We already have a top and a bottom and a front and a back to our disc. We haven’t yet developed a visibly discernable central axis. According to the Tantric picture of development, apana vayu is already situated at the tail end of the disc and prana vayu is already situated above. The attraction and repulsion – the polarity – of prana and apana are part of the developmental process that defines our structural center for the first time.
We believe that there is awareness at this early place of development. Of course there is. Awareness is at the core of everything and when anything begins to manifest it is already awake and self-aware. It is not a differentiated sense of awareness at this point. At this very early time, awareness is still entirely one of Unity. The disc itself is undifferentiated Awareness, full of all potential and the Creative Intelligence that will create our form and will continue to do so for the rest of our lives. At this early time our experience does not include an experience of individual qualities and traits. It is not personal. It is a Universal experience of life, by life itself.
Can this be experienced directly? I feel that it can. Opening to the possibility of recognizing our undifferentiated, awake, alive, and self-aware beginnings can be profoundly transformational in terms of how we perceive ourselves now. In Embodyoga®, as in Body-Mind-Centering®, we believe that this can be experienced directly, by dropping in through the layers of our current experience to witness their deepest supports. This can be an amazingly comfortable and soothing sensation in body-mind when we remember and re-experience the profoundly centering and stabilizing support of Unity that is underneath so much complication and differentiation. It was and is our immediate and real perception. We can tune into its existence if we so desire and inquire. As Bonnie has said, “We embody ourselves in four dimensions because we include the dimension of time as a current event.”
The Primitive Streak—The embryonic disc begins to profoundly transform into a multilayered and complex structure with the arising of the primitive streak from its root end. From the center of the bottom of the disc, the primitive streak begins to grow. The source of the primitive streak is where the eventual perineal body will be. As it rises upward – perhaps being pulled by the prana above – it establishes the first bilateral symmetry in our growing anatomy. In terms of yoga, it is important to remember that primitive streak’s origination point is at what will eventually be our perineal body – the home of apana vayu and the root of mulabandha.
The primitive streak rises up only to what will be about the level of the second and third sacral vertebrae. This is the area we refer to as the pit of the belly in Embodyoga®. It is right in the center of the pelvic belly region. The primitive streak pauses at this point. Its stopping point is another structure called the primitive node or knot. The primitive node is exactly where we experience the point of the pelvic belly to be in our adult form. The rising of the primitive streak to the primitive node is the same pranic movement, even the underlying template, for mulabandha in the adult yogi’s body. It is the root of our experience of core.
The Notochord—The cells of the primitive node begin to secrete signals that correspond with further development of the central structure. Out of the primitive node grows the notochord. The notochord develops and rises upward through the center. The notochord is composed of axial mesoderm that gives the embryo solidity and creates a full symmetrical axis for the first time. It is a dense cord of mesoderm, the germ root of all connective tissue in the body. It thickens and jells into a flexible rod like structure with the consistency of a peeled grape. It sends out signals that induce the development of neuroectoderm stimulating the beginnings of our nervous system.
The notochord extends toward the cranial end of the embryo, through the entire length of what will be the future vertebral column, and reaches as far as the anterior end of the midbrain There it ends in a hook-like extremity in the region of the future dorsum sellæ of the sphenoid bone. Bonnie has said that the notochord continues up to the stalk of the pituitary. As you remember, the pituitary is seated in the sella turcica of the sphenoid bone.
As the notochord grows upward from the primitive node, the primitive streak pulls back down, again returning to what will later become the site of the perineal body. The rising notochord completes the differentiation into bilateral symmetry, with itself as the central channel. Our growing body organizes around the notochord. As center, it defines us both bilaterally and front to back. We are beginning to grow a gut tube in the front, and a nervous system at the back.
As we grow through gestation the notochord mostly dissolves. Remnants of it remain in our adult bodies within the nucleus pulposus of the intervertebral discs, as well as in some key spinal ligaments. In our yoga practice it is important to realize that these deep layers of support – that we think of as being way back in time – are actually present now, and are offering ongoing and real support throughout our lifetime. The willingness to accept past, present, and future as one current event is an important tool for honing awareness. The invitation is right here in your personal laboratory for discovery – your body-mind-awareness system. Its fullness is present. The depth of the reality of what is waiting to be perceived right here and now is often not noticed, because noticing requires strong curiosity and the development of inner sensitivity. This is just the kind of inquiry that yoga offers into the body-mind.
The notochord, which has developed between the opposing forces of prana and apana, forms our first embodiment of a central, vertical axis. Energetically, it remains as our youngest and most subtle physical expression of core. Its energy remains and is still felt in the memory and current situation of body-mind.
Notochord and Sushumna Nadi
The adult experience of notochord is available to the yogi as a tube of dense light through the center body from the perineal body to the stalk of the pituitary. In Embodyoga® we refer to this current experience of the radiance of notochord as the embodiment of sushumna nadi.
Keep in mind that sushumna nadi is a subtle nervous system structure, the pathway of kundalini, that it resides within the spinal cord, and it is an empty channel. However, what we experience in our embodied form is more multi layered. In embodiment, we can feel sushumna as the deepest core, subtle structure, of the body. The memory/ current experience of the notochord takes us very deeply into ourselves. It is quite close to the time of our initial personal creation. Way back then, the notochord was arising from the magnetic pull of the head and tail ends of our embryonic disc-self.
The experience of the notochord is one of awareness and structural integrity. It is light, glistening, and is our center in this very early and only partially formed state. We are at the edge of awareness manifesting into individual form. The radiance of the notochord expressing into form is a tangible reality to be experienced. It is through its radiance that we experience our physical, emotional, and spiritual integrity. We are in direct experiential contact, and consciously participating with Source. At this level we are in active relationship with spiritual core as it is just arising into form. Again, this is now. It is not something that happened to you long ago and is no longer true. It is present now and just waiting to be revealed so that you can gain from its support. Sushumna is the deepest experience of core for human awareness and the notochord is its corollary anatomical structure. This as an unshakable reality, when it is not just philosophy, but is front and center of our immediate perceptions. In sickness or in health, happiness or sadness, we know who we are.
Yoga and the Bandhas
In our adult form we contain the same pranic supports and patterns of movement that have supported our health and vitality from the very beginning. The energetic flows that were present and developing from our earliest moments continue to sustain and support us until death. When we learn yoga we learn first to feel prana and then to practice ways for containing and directing the flow of life force in ways that help to maintain health and refine our awareness.
Bandhas contain and direct life force. They are both physical actions and movements of intention and breath. The delicate application of the bandhas follows the shape and form of the very early templates of movement of life force from our earliest development. They harken back to our nearly undifferentiated selves when the early energetic flows of prana were choreographing their inner dance and sculpting our form. The prana and apana vayus created the polarity of a core through their magnetic communication with one another.
The use of pranayama and bandhas in yoga is to enhance, cultivate, and contain the flow of life force. Engagement of the bandhas requires a level of sensitivity to the natural movement of prana in the body so that clear and discerning intelligence can learn to experience, contain, and direct the life force for maximum efficiency and ease in body and mind. At the level of prana there should be no force. Prana is delicate and subtle. The use of excessive force in the endeavor to accomplish the bandhas is agitating and disruptive to prana flow. Sensitivity is required for effective and beneficial practice of the bandhas.
The bandhas are physical actions that we can feel in our current structural self, but obviously that is not all they are. You cannot contain and direct life force through purely physical means. You need to bring awareness to the deepest layers of action in order to make the bandhas effective. They are about cultivating and directing prana, so they need to be done from the level of prana. The templates of pranic movement are underneath and supportive of everything in yoga practice. Rather than thinking about them from the perspective of something to do, it might be more useful to explore them from the perspective of finding them; looking for them with curiosity and fascination. This method works very well. It can be extremely helpful to understand the embryological foundations of the bandhas so that you know where to look.
To feel the actions and effects of the bandhas, one needs to be able to feel prana flow. We have to start somewhere. For mulabandha we start by exploring the sensations of the pelvic floor. We balance muscular tone, learn to use the pelvic floor as support for our bones, muscles, and organs. We become aware of its landmarks, including the perineal and the coccygeal bodies. We learn its language and we enter a dialogue of sensation, feeling, and consciousness. We find the perineal body, sensorially and energetically. This all helps us to tune into more subtle sensations, which inevitably leads – if we don’t give up – to feeling prana. This is how we learn to “do” the bandhas. As we do so, we also refine our awareness of what the bandhas are and learn more about prana.
In mulabandha we are retracing the pathway of the primitive streak as it rises upward from the perineal body to the pelvic belly. In stimulating the perineal body we draw it upward along the exact path of the primitive streak. The lifting of the mulabandha is like a fine silken thread from the perineum right into the pit of the belly point. The pit of the belly is the place of the former primitive node, the place from which the notochord arose. This remains a powerful place in your adult body and it is the culminating point of mulabandha.
It feels as if the pelvic belly point (the primitive node) is actually drawing the apana of the perineal body up and into itself…even that the pelvic belly point may be initiating the mulabandha. Mulabandha causes prana to collect in the pelvic belly point. This pelvic bely point, the place of the primitive node and the site from which the notochord grew upward and the primitive streak pulled back down, becomes much more sensitive and aware. We begin to recognize the power of the life force here and it builds there. This becomes a power center in the body. It becomes a profoundly integrating hub for integration and movement as we explore it more deeply in practice.
With effective application of mulabandha the pelvic belly and the perineal body are acting together to draw life force into the body. The life force that is pulled in with the inhaling breath collects in the pelvic belly as the perineal body is drawn lightly and persistently upward. In the pelvic belly, the prana settles and condenses strongly into what was, and remains, the region of the primitive node.
Mulabandha itself ends at the pelvic belly, but it is not a static end-point. From the perineum to the pit of the belly there is constant communication – a rising and drawing back down of the primitive streak, keeping life force tethered into the root of the body.
When we embody mulabandha – practice it fully, on all of our levels of awareness and structure – we experience our beginnings, all the way to the movement of life force in the embryological time. Our inquiry takes us to that experience and we witness it happening. At our very early beginnings we find a profound sense of Unity. Differentiation in body-mind had barely gotten started. When we travel back to these levels within ourselves we touch in directly to the Unity of Awareness that was present then, and we see that it is still present.
An enlivened perineal body and an effective mulabandha seals the life force at the root and draws all aspects of self into the fullness of our personal form. It is the source of all effective action in the world. When we are not tethered into the perineal body, when the perineal body is not fully awake and functional, we do not have our maximum power and personal gravitas. Our personal density at the root, grounds all of our actions into life. It gives gravity and weight to our thoughts and actions. It is an unshakable drawing into life and existence in this body-mind-system. Without it, action is less than maximally effective. With it, action is grounded, strong, and clear. Mulabandha secures our dharma. It can only be experienced when we are fully committed to being alive. It is the primary support for all that we do in the field of action.