Sometimes I get a little lazy or distracted and I don’t pick up after myself. (Maybe this happens more than sometimes…) If I start to slack, that usually means the girls do too, and then we have a problem that grows by the exponent of 3. It doesn’t take long before dishes pile up and unintentional collections of clothes, toys, mail or schoolwork spread over most horizontal surfaces of our little house.
I’ve been reading a book about yoga and the mind. In it, there’s a few pages discussing yoga as a cleansing process. Even though there’s lots of good material in there, it’s this idea that captured my attention. Cleansing can happen at so many levels. There’s good self-care to keep the outer body clean. Self-awareness could lead us toward a cleaner diet or habits or even thoughts. Asana and pranayama might lead to a release of tension and this de-stressing can have the effect of cleansing you of something you don’t need. There are lots of practical and tangible ways that we cleanse, but there’s another aspect to yoga as cleansing which enters a more esoteric realm. I am still wondering if I’ll have a big, experiential a-ha about this one because I feel like I know it but don’t yet know it. I haven’t dismissed it because I’m a gal who likes metaphor and I can find theory rather enchanting, so I’m still rolling around with this one for now.
Theory says that we have a flame at the center of our being, somewhere behind our navel, called the jathara agni. Agni is a digestive fire. It isn’t just about digesting food—I think our organs do a pretty good job of that, but it does digest the more subtle “dirt” or mala that needs to be removed from our systems. I’ve heard it said that there’s the trash that you take out every day, this might be our visit to the bathroom, and then there’s the major spring clean trash removal. This is the digestion that might happen after dishes and clothes and stacks of paper build up for months or even years. This kind of cleansing might be required after someone betrays us or someone we love has died or old ideas that have served us for a long time no longer serve and we need to let them go. Childhood traumas, first break ups, accidents… it’s these hard feelings and experiences that stay with us long after they need to that call on agni. We’ve all seen how holding on to those kinds of things can make a person’s life very difficult. We’ve felt how painful and uncomfortable it can be to keep that stuff bottled up inside. This is the kind of dirt that the jathara agni takes care of.
It’s thought that every time we inhale, the wind of that breath directs agni’s flame downward, toward the mala in the abdomen. The abdomen is the place where apana resides, the energy that helps us to eliminate and release. This energy helps us at the physical level with bowel movements and child birth, and it also helps with the digestion and removal of more complicated dirt. At the base of the abdomen is the mula—and one of my teachers said that there’s a whooooole bunch, even a lifetime of stuff that is collecting there. When we start to work with lifting this mula, or the root of all of the mala, up to the flame, there can be so much to digest that the elimination of what’s no longer needed becomes difficult…*Heard of Mula Bandha? This is the theory behind reserving bandha practice for advanced practitioners.
I’ve had periods where this yoga as a cleansing process has been very intense (i.e. painful and extremely uncomfortable). I’ve had a more gradual experience of this, too, where over time, clarity is revealed and I am able to slowly let go of something I’ve been holding onto for a long time. So even though I’ve never really experienced it as a flame being directed and burning stuff, I kind of get this idea. The closest I’ve come to flames and cleansing of dirt comes during my pranayama practice. I don’t know if I have a sense of the metaphoric flame and rising dirt, but after I breathe intentionally for a few minutes in the morning, I feel cleaner on the inside. I feel more clear. The theory says that something subtle happens with every breath. Breathe in and the flame is directed downward. Exhale and draw the lower abdomen in raising the mula and the mala up toward the flame. I don’t even have to imagine this cleansing process happening and still at the end of my 8-12 minute practice, I feel it: cleaner, more open, more clear.
So whether the subtle anatomy ever fully reveals itself in a way that makes me say, “heh, yeah… now I get the business of agni as a flame burning stuff up,” or if I just go on experiencing this in a more quiet way, I guess it doesn’t matter. I know what it means to hear that “yoga is a cleansing process,” and I appreciate it. Because when the house is in order, it is much easier to enjoy, find what you need and respond from the present moment. And that makes life better.