We all experience life’s sweet moments. These are so magical that you feel suffused with vitality and gratitude, slightly high.
These flashes may come after working hard pursuing your passion – you just did a hard yoga class perfectly matched to your skill level, and now you are on your mat happy and exhausted. You labored for a month to put in a garden and are standing in the morning light beholding a little world of green. There is a new baby in the home, and now you are watching her sleep. You have been dancing for hours and the music has carried you away into a realm of pure motion. You traveled to a yoga retreat, and after days of asana, it feels miraculous just to breathe. You are drinking in the juicy essence of life, and it’s holy.
We can call these elixir moments. After enduring, sweating, applying skill, and finding the right alignment, there is a gush of vitality. The universe doses you with a love potion, and now you are filled with vital energy and in love with life itself. One day during my meditation teacher training in 1969, I noticed that meditation encourages these moments to come more frequently and last longer. My teacher said, “Meditation gives the body the conditions it needs to produce its own inner elixirs – subtle hormones that nourish the senses and make the world seem delightful. Meditation is the practice of being in love with the essence of life, and you get better with practice.” After 47 years of practice I have found this to be true.
The yoga tradition has many names for the inner elixir produced by the body during practice. One of my favorites is amrita – “the nectar of immortality produced at the churning of the ocean of eternity.” According to scholars, amrita refers to the drink that confers immortality and also to vitality and vital energy. This Sanskrit word amrita is related to the beautiful Greek word ambrosia, “elixir of life.” Amrita, ambrosia. In meditation, you can rest so deeply within yourself that profound metabolic processes take place. The cells absorb infinity. The cells of your body metabolize eternity and drink the elixir of life.
Science also has names for the blissful chemicals the body produces during meditation. During the 60’s and throughout the 1970’s I was an experimental subject in physiological research at the University of California at Irvine and UCI Medical Center. Scientists there, in cooperation with others at UCLA and Harvard Medical School, found that during meditation, the body often enters a state of restfulness deeper than sleep, and this happens in just a few minutes. In this wonderful wakeful restfulness, the body can heal itself on a deep level and the mind can reboot its whole operating system. It’s an incredible blessing. There are profound changes throughout the brain and body which have measurable benefits for health. Physiologically, meditation is the mirror opposite of the stress response, and this shows up almost immediately in measurements of metabolism, blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate, muscle tension, and brain waves. I have to admit, though, that it was weird to be meditating in a physiology lab, with people in white coats running around sticking needles in my veins to take blood samples and putting wires all over my head and body to measure brain waves, heart rate, and electrical conductance of the skin.
More recent research indicates that meditation, yoga, and pranayama stimulate the brain to produce its own chemicals that are similar to the active ingredients in marijuana or cannabis. In honor of the plant, they gave these hormones the name endocannabinoids, from endo (internal, within) + cannabis. The brain has receptors for these types of molecules, called cannabis receptors, and it has lots of them – that is why an external substance such as cannabis has an effect on physiology. The brain also has the ability to produce its own happy hormones including the endocannabinoids, when stimulated by running (the runner’s high), yoga, music, meditation, and breathing exercises.
When I was a student at UCI in the 60s, many of the students and my professors assumed I was happily stoned, because I walked around laughing at everything. People would come up to me and ask where I got the stuff I was on, because it seemed to produce such a mellow buzz. I would patiently explain that I got up at 4 am, did two hours of yoga, pranayama and meditation, then went to the beach for a dawn patrol, caught a few waves, practiced Tai Chi on the beach as the sun rose, and then went to class. If we were in calculus class at 9 am, I already had five hours of delight in my body. What they were sensing was the effect of all that, not puffing on a weed.
You want to find the right mix of exercise and styles of yoga, meditation, and pranayama that excite your body to produce its own bliss hormones – your native endocannabinoids – and suffuse you with the elixir of happy vital energy. This brings its own challenges. Meditation is much wilder than you think, because intense relaxation leads to intense release of stress. This release of muscular and emotional tension is as hard to tolerate as running that last mile or staying in a difficult pose for another few minutes. When you let go of chronic muscle tension, you let down your guard, and whatever the tension has been holding at bay will be right there asking to be healed. Although more research on the biochemistry of meditation is needed, interviews indicate that the most powerful hormone rush comes from facing your deepest fears and letting go into profound states of ease in meditation.
This aspect of meditation is very muscular, and has some parallels to the physicality of sports. Meditators who are utterly at ease in their practice often experience tension release as extremely uncomfortable, like the “wall” that runners encounter, when they feel, “I can’t take one more step.” When you stay there and feel the wall, and then let it dissolve, there is a gush of joy as a reward. The fear is transmuted into excitement, and there is a liberation of shakti. A tangible, chemical satisfaction comes from within.
Life likes it when we are on our personal path of adventure, facing the inner obstacles and calling on our inner resources to handle them. This physical aspect of meditation also may help to deal with addictions to substances. Sometimes our bodies can become overly reliant on certain foods, drinks, or herbs in order to experience some blissful relief. Sanskrit has lots of words for addiction, such as rasikatva, “taste for, devotion to, addiction to.” In meditation, we can reconnect with the body’s natural bliss hormones, and this may help in recovery from relying on substances we have become addicted to.
The quest to find your personal practice is often perplexing, for we each have different elemental constitutions. To be truly at home and vibrantly alive in meditation, we need to customize the practice to suit our individual yearnings and preferences. For example, many people hate to sit still and close their eyes, “Why waste a minute stifling my energy when I could be dancing?” Other people detest being inside for one more minute, “Let’s go outside and sit with our eyes open and commune with the beauty of nature!” Others absolutely love to sit still, close their eyes, and surrender to the world within. Find the style of practice that suits your inner constitution, and meditation will feel like the most natural thing in the world.