Editor’s Note: This post is part 6 in The Enchanted World of Tantra, a blog series by Sandra Anderson exploring the many dimensions of the tantric path.
The kanda (bulb) is a bulge in the lower part of the sushumna nadi, usually considered as the center from which issue and radiate in the body the 72,000 nadis in which prana circulates. It is also assimilated to the lower yogic center, the muladhara.—The Heart of the Yogini: The Yoginihrdaya, commentary by Andre Padoux
Consider your physical body for a moment. What are the three most vital areas? If you answered gut, heart, and brain (or pelvis, chest, and head), you would be in agreement with early yoga texts and the esoteric spiritual traditions that delve into the extraordinary powers of the body and mind. While we often look to the head and heart, we frequently overlook the gut, though it turns out to be of utmost importance in tantra yoga practice.
Early yoga texts describe the nadis (currents of life force) as emanating from the kanda (bulb)—a bluish-white, egg-shaped, subtle-body structure that in the physical body is associated with the gut, which sits in the bowl of the pelvis. The kanda loosely encompasses three energy centers you may already be familiar with as chakras linked to the pelvic floor, pelvis, and navel center. Like any bulb, the kanda is a reservoir of nurturance, a compressed potential for growth, and a blueprint for how that growth occurs. The immanent aspect of pure consciousness unfolds from the kanda through the flow of prana shakti, the life force.
The kanda is a reservoir of nurturance.
As the foundation of embodied life, prana shakti pulsating from the kanda governs the largely unconscious functions of staying alive—survival instincts like hunger, fear, sex, and sleep. Our innate nature, called svabhava in the yoga tradition, is shaped by these basic instincts combined with karma and our unique tendencies and desires arising from vasanas and samskaras (deeply ingrained habits and personal motivators). Our svabhava, interacting with the familial, cultural, and physical environments, shapes our place in the world—our livelihood and the relationships that allow us to grow and find fulfillment in life. Every experience of our worldly life—the work we do; our relationships; the joy we experience in the taste of chocolate, the smile of a child, or winning a coveted job; and the pain of loss and failure—all our desires, pleasures, and pains are shaped by the forces emanating from the kanda.
When Autopilot Goes Awry
Since the kanda is the pranic hub, when it is strong and healthy, all the functions of the body and mind benefit and hum along happily on autopilot without our conscious awareness. For example, the health and functioning of the endocrine, circulatory, and immune systems are linked to the vitality and health of our gut. The health of the gut obviously rests on good digestion, but on the subtle level, good digestion extends to life experiences, not just the digestive system. The ability to “digest” life experiences depends not only on overall vitality, but also on the vitality and resiliency of the nervous system, as well as our understanding of life.
The resiliency of the nervous system is partly physical and partly mental, related to both the conscious and unconscious mind. Our mind, propelled by karma, connected to our survival instincts, and shaped by the programming of our senses, all too often runs amok; we’re “under the influence” and snap at a friend who is late, share hurtful gossip at work, mindlessly eat three pieces of cake before bed, or cower in the face of a scolding from the boss. In short, we’re pulled hither and thither by the world around us and our own inner unrest.
For most of us, tension and inner unrest are so pervasive, and so easily or frequently triggered, that these states of dysfunctional arousal have become an intrinsic part of our personality. Our autopilot has been badly programmed! We don’t realize that states of ease and well-being can be sustained independently of whether life and the world are running as we would like. Constant or inappropriately recurring arousal of gut-level survival instincts like anger and fear not only hijacks the healthy functioning of our physiology and drains our vitality, but also precludes creative thinking, empathy, kindness, and contentment.
Our autopilot has been badly programmed!
For this reason, many tantric traditions start with practices that engage this level of our pranic energy—the fundamental-instinct life force—and the autopilot governing how it manifests. These are practices that boost our physical and mental well-being and develop resiliency in our nervous system, creating a new, more spacious and flexible way of being with ourselves in the world. It is this capacity to loosen the grip of the tyranny of the programmed mind and senses that makes practice targeted at the kanda so empowering. The resulting balanced flow of prana and even-mindedness, coupled with understanding and intention, fuel our inner spiritual growth as well as smoothing our journey through life.
Since the energies of the kanda are largely directed by the unconscious mind and the autonomic nervous system, the most effective practices are those that directly work to strengthen and balance the autonomic nervous system and help rewire the often faulty programming of the unconscious mind. Those practices may be physical, like working consciously with the breath in asana, or they may be more subtle, like pranayama practices such as bhastrika, or visualization practices involving agni, the fire element. The master practice of agni sara is a good example of a tantra yoga practice that links conscious awareness and the movement of the breath with strong engagement of the pelvic floor, abdomen, and diaphragm.
With practice, these techniques energize and activate the life force without activating defensive survival strategies like the stress response. When we can dial down habitual defensive states as well as pleasure-seeking ones, the inner mechanisms of well-being operate regardless of, or in spite of, external circumstances. In short, you can train yourself to be stable in chaotic or disturbing circumstances in life.
With this foundation, we may work with tantra yoga practices like maha bandha (the great lock), bhastrika, agni sara, and mantra meditation to tap even deeper potential energy in the kanda and infuse the pranic field with virya—an extraordinary level of vitality, courage, and determination.
You can train yourself to be stable in disturbing circumstances.
Our journey through life affords us opportunities for lasting fulfillment through the unfolding of prana, and offers the possibility of ultimate freedom with the awakening of that dormant potential in the body and mind. As the gateway to the pranic body, the kanda is the key to mastery of the mind and the awakening of a deeper level of awareness. When we are able to hitch the healthy exuberance of our biology to higher functions of mind, we experience fulfillment and freedom in life.