Kurmanadyam sthairyam

While practicing samyama (concentration, meditation, and samadhi) on kurma nadi, one attains stability of mind and, thereby, stability of body

Yoga Sutra 3:32
Churning the Ocean for Nectar

In Indian mythology, there is a story that the two aspects of creation—the bright and dark, good and evil—both heard that there is a nectar or liquid that, if drunk, would provide immortality. There had been an ongoing war between the demonic forces and the divine forces for thousands of years; sometimes the constructive forces won, and sometimes the destructive forces won. Both were strong and wanted victory, so when each heard that there was a divine, immortal nectar, they went to the Creator, who was the father of both good and bad, and each said, “I pray to you, Father. Can you tell me how to get the nectar?”

“Yes,” the Creator replied, “Churn the ocean and you will obtain it.”

From Poison to Nectar

How would they churn up a huge ocean? Neither side could do it by themselves, so they formed an alliance and came up with an idea. They would use the Himalayas as the churning rod. Then the problem was to find something long enough to wrap around them that they would be able to pull back and forth. Together, they went to the cosmic snake called Vasuki, who is millions of miles long, and requested its help, and the snake agreed.

So the gods caught hold of the tail of the snake and the demons caught hold of the mouth of the snake; they wrapped it around the Himalayas and started to churn. But there was another problem: the Himalayas were sinking. Humbly, they approached the cosmic turtle and asked, “Will you please hold the Himalayas on your back and be steady so that we can churn?”

Just before you obtain the best and brightest, you sometimes go through the darkest phase of life.

Obtaining its assistance, they began again, and as a result of their effort, one by one, wonderful things appeared—the rarest jewels, the best horse, the greatest elephant, the wisest doctor (Dhanvantari), the goddess of wealth (Lakshmi). All these great things came out of that ocean. But the 13th thing to arise was a cosmic poison.

Just before you obtain the best and brightest, you sometimes go through the darkest phase of life; however, no one on either side was ready to accept that. The whole world was scorching, burning from the heat of that cosmic poison; people were dying. Together, they approached Shiva, who is above all pairs of opposites (pain and pleasure), and said, “We don’t know how to drink this. We are looking for the nectar, not this poison!”

So Shiva drank the poison; the great one knew how to drink it in such a skillful way that it did not go into the stomach but was held at the throat. The terrible poison was turned into a blue necklace, so one of Shiva’s names is now Nilakanta, “the Lord with a Blue Throat.” Shiva is the one who knows the art of drinking poison and converting the bad into good without swallowing—the one who can live skillfully in this world and yet remain unaffected.

And then the nectar arose from the ocean, and the story goes on from there.

Finding a Firm Foundation

In this story, the tortoise is the foundation, kurma nadi. If the tortoise moves, if the Himalayas move, then the serpent (kundalini) cannot help anymore. The inhalation and the exhalation, the gods and the demons, are both pulling the snake, and by pulling one after another—by taking turns—they move the Himalayas (the spine). They churn it constantly. By churning the Himalayas, held tightly on the tortoise, the sadhaka, or student, one day attains the nectar.

As we saw, although the gods and the demons expected nectar when they churned, at first they received the other things—the jewels, the horse, the elephant, and so on—the distractions. Then before the nectar—the best—came, there was the poison. You have to drink the poison. If you are not capable of assimilating it, or drinking it and making the best use of it, then you have to develop the greatest of all forces, called surrender. When you surrender, the great one, Shiva, can come and drink the poison on your behalf. Otherwise, you will be in trouble. It will be a very tough time!

Every student goes through this phase in sadhana, but when he is bewildered and frustrated and is almost ready to drop everything, he can call for help, just like Arjuna did in the Bhagavad Gita: “Please, Krishna, I can’t fight anymore!” Then Krishna has to come and help, or Shiva has to come. The Lord within has to come forward and help. That is called grace, the descending force. The Lord catches hold of your hand and says, “Walk with me, my child. I will help you.”

Kurma Nadi: The Tortoise Within

We can find our own firm foundation by understanding and gaining mastery over the tortoise within—kurma nadi. There are 15 main nadis: sushumna, ida, pingala, gandhari, hastijihva, kuhu, sarasvati, pusha, shankhini, payasvini, varuni, alambusa, vishvodara, yashasvini, and kurma. Kurma in Sanskrit means “tortoise or turtle.” Kurma nadi is related to kurma prana. In Yoga Sutra 3:32, it is said, “Kurmanadyam sthairyam”—that while practicing samyama (the threefold concentration, meditation, and samadhi) on kurma nadi, one attains stability of mind and, thereby, stability of body.

The first movement of kundalini begins at the bottom of the spine, at the kurma nadi.

Where is this kurma nadi and what does it do? There are differing opinions. According to several Yoga Sutra commentators, it is in the hollow of the throat. It is true that by concentrating here, one attains freedom from hunger and thirst. But attaining freedom from hunger and thirst doesn’t necessarily help to achieve stability of mind and body; there may still be other desires and urges to satisfy. Many other yoga manuals and commentators, however, say that the kurma nadi is at the bottom of the spine between the anus and the genital organs, the location for ashvini mudra. The problem we face is that in the scriptures we find so many contradictory interpretations that, ultimately, we have to go to an experienced teacher.

The kurma nadi doesn’t lead you anywhere; rather, it helps you stay steady, and it allows other nadis to function in their specific range, in their specific field. The other nadis originate from the top of the kurma nadi; the spine, ida, and pingala all start from there. One can say, “Well, I’ll concentrate on sushumna and forget all the other nadis, because my purpose will be accomplished just by having sushumna under my control.” That is certainly true, but sushumna also rests on the top of the kurma nadi, and if the kurma nadi is not stable, how can you expect the stability of sushumna, ida, or pingala to be stable? That is the point.

According to Swami Rama (Swamiji), the first movement of kundalini begins at the bottom of the spine, at the kurma nadi—that place which is the centermost part of your body when you are sitting comfortably with your head, neck, and trunk aligned. When your whole body is perfectly centered, then your entire center of gravity is at the kurma nadi. As long as that nadi is in good shape, stable, and doesn’t move, your mind is also steady.

Mastery over the Kurma Nadi

Theoretically, there is a much greater possibility of opening sushumna while sitting in either padmasana (lotus posture) or siddhasana (accomplished pose), because the whole body is centered in these poses. In siddhasana, one heel is on your perineum area. In padmasana, the body is perfectly centered; the nadis of both sides of the body are fully balanced. If you have a good padmasana, then the body is even better centered than in siddhasana. However, these two poses are very often done incorrectly. You can injure your knee or create hemorrhoids if you do siddhasana incorrectly; similarly, if you are too forceful in your padmasana and artificially impose a lock in this pose, you can create hemorrhoids. Swamiji used to discourage the use of padmasana as a meditative posture because the area of the kurma nadi tends to be too open and not under your control in that posture. So these practices are to be done mindfully and in moderation. If you can sit in these positions correctly, they can be beneficial. If not, they can cause more harm than good.

Control over the kurma nadi is more important than anything else in the practice of pranayama or meditation. To gain conscious control over both the kurma nadi and the kurma vayu (one of the subcategories of prana, which refers to stability in the body as well as the mind), it is important to practice ashvini mudra. Anatomically and physiologically, the area of the ashvini mudra is close to the colon, ovaries, uterus, and bladder. So each time you do ashvini mudra, pulling up and releasing, you are attaining conscious control over all these organs. This also speeds up the process of blood circulation throughout your system. In the process, you are also letting your kurma vayu move, creating heat. That heat is dispersed throughout your body from the kurma nadi, or kurma vayu, through ida, pingala, and sushumna to all the nadis. Although ashvini mudra doesn’t give stability of mind and body on its own, it does increase the proper circulation of energy throughout our system, so wherever there is a little bit of blockage, wherever there is a little bit of impurity here or there, that energy will touch it and the process of purification will begin.

In meditation, however, ashvini mudra is not used; mula bandha, the root lock, is pulled up and held. This creates stability in our physical body as well as energetically—the realm of kurma vayu. Kurma vayu holds all the other vayus; it is the “secretary of the interior.” Before you undertake any task or project, your internal situation has to be stable; otherwise, if you are disturbed, it will be necessary to deal with that situation, and all other projects will either go very slowly or have to be stopped.

Control over the kurma nadi is more important than anything in the practice of pranayama or meditation.

That is what holding mula bandha, the root lock, does. It should become so effortless that it is held by itself, leaving the mind entirely free, so that all of the mental energy can be fully directed toward the object of meditation. In mula bandha, heat is generated in a static way, and if the mind is concentrated and sushumna is open, the energy will only move upward. In that state, the heat—the fire, pranic force, or kundalini force—that wakes up from the kurma nadi moves along sushumna, becoming meditative energy and enhancing the beauty of your meditation. Ashvini mudra is for a physical benefit, whereas mula bandha is for a meditative benefit.

The people for whom Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutra did not know anatomy, so he did not describe the kurma nadi, how it works, or why it helps anatomically. He simply suggested that one sit on a flat seat that is neither too hard nor too soft, be steady, and focus on the breath. Swamiji has introduced this very systematically: sit with the head, neck, and trunk in a straight line; draw up the root lock; be comfortable and steady. In other words, the basic practices develop control over the kurma nadi, and thus you purify yourself to prepare for the rising of kundalini.

Are you working with your kurma nadi by practicing the usual Himalayan Institute method of meditation? If so, you are already doing it, whether you know the name of kurma nadi or not. If you are cooking your food with fire, whether you call it “fire” or not doesn’t matter; you are getting the same result. So observe how you sit and the way you allow your body to be still. Remember, by practicing samyama (concentration, meditation, and samadhi) on the kurma nadi while sitting and breathing in the correct way, you will gain control over kurma vayu, allowing you to attain stability of body and mind.

Source: Dawn Magazine, 1990

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