Subtle Bodies: the anatomy of mindfulness

26 February 2016

Our ‘Tibet’s Secret Temple’ exhibition, exploring Tibetan Buddhist yogic and meditational practice and their connections to physical and mental wellbeing, closes on 28 February. Sarah Jaffray and Sarah Bentley reflect on the show and tap into the complexities of ancient Eastern medicine to better define the trendy term “mindfulness”.

Your heart beats; your muscles stretch; your lungs breathe. These are tangible, visible ways of knowing that your body is working, but there’s another function at play that many times goes unnoticed: the subtle anatomy.

 L0078928 The Interconnecting Blood Vessels: Back View (Thangka 10)
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The Interconnecting Blood Vessels: Back View. Medicine Thangka 10. (Image credit: Wellcome Library, London)

In Western medicine, gross anatomy refers to the structure of the body that can be ascertained through the dissection and separation of parts. Ancient Eastern medicine also acknowledges this anatomy, but adds something further to the complexity of the human body: the subtle anatomy or subtle body. The subtle body is comprised of an invisible energy that balances anatomical functions through consciousness; it is the basis of mindfulness.

As part of the Visitor Experience team at Wellcome Collection, we have been exploring mindfulness with visitors in relation to our ‘Tibet’s Secret Temple‘ exhibition. Mindfulness: a pop culture buzzword that is rarely explained. We know we should be mindful, but why? The exhibition’s emphasis on the subtle body as a route to mindfulness inspired us to use our personal knowledge of subtle anatomy to help visitors interpret this complex concept. As a long-term yoga practitioner and a former shiatsu masseuse respectively, we have used the subtle body to offer visitors a pathway into mindfulness.

Channels and Chakras

 L0072457 Two drawings: the easiest method how to practice pranayam by
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Illustration of the six chakras of tantric yoga in Sanskrit and Hindi. The left side of the image shows the subtle body, the right shows gross anatomy. (Image credit: Wellcome Library, London)

The ancient practice of Tantra, the foundation of both Indian yogic practice and Tibetan Buddhism, sought to understand the energy that circles within us. Being aware of this energy allows us to fully integrate mind and body. The result of this exploration allowed ancient yogis to map over 72,000 ‘nadis’, or flows, within the human body. Each nadi has its own character, just like the beat of the heart is louder than the flow of the liver, and the grumble of the stomach is more forceful than the rhythm of the kidneys.

 L0024647 Indic Manuscript 347, side a
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Unidentified, side a, ink, a large line drawing of a man showing the seven subtle centres (cakra) with the body and the main subtle veins (nadi). (Image credit: Wellcome Library, London)

There are three major nadis structuring the central axis of the yogic subtle body. The pingala (right channel) and ida (left channel) bring prana into the body through the nostrils and weave themselves down and up along the sushuma (central nadi) like the double helix strands of DNA. Along this central pathway sit the seven chakras (root, sacral, solar plexus, heart, throat, third eye, crown). The chakras are where the energy of the subtle body pools, flows, coagulates and radiates into the thousands of nadis running throughout the body.

In addition to structuring the major energy centres of the subtle body, these three nadis join forces at the third eye chakra – the point just between your eyes that signifies inner vision or the mind. It is no accident these important forces flow like a mighty river into this point. In tantric practice, the mind is harnessed as a tool to give us greater awareness of the physical body.

 L0026940 Tantrika painting, Sanskrit MS 511
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This colour Tantrika painting of this cross-legged meditating figure illustrates the chakras. Chakras are the nexus of metaphysical and biophysical energy that reside in the human body. (Image credit: Wellcome Library, London)

In Ayurveda/yogic medicine, imbalances and ill health are the result of too much or not enough life force in the chakras. Mindfulness asks us to give focus to our physicality, feeling the pressure or tension, the hyperactivity or lethargy happening within these spaces. It’s not just about noticing when the pain is extreme, but noticing the calm, the body’s normative state, whatever that means for the individual. The nadi/chakra system is one of many methods that can help you organise knowledge of the subtle body.

The energetic landscape

Chinese Medicine uses awareness and manipulation of the subtle body to achieve health and longevity, rather than to enable enlightenment or spiritual awakening – although this hasn’t always been the case in its long history.

Shiatsu, a Japanese bodywork technique that employs hands and thumbs rather than acupuncture needles, draws on Chinese Medicine’s older Daoist roots. Shiatsu observes and influences the patterns of Qi in the body, much like we can see in this landscape.

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Chinese Landscape 1748-49. (Walters Art Museum)

This mid 18th century painting contains features common to Chinese landscape art: high mountains, low valleys, diffuse mist and dense rock; water flowing peacefully or cascading down a cliff; parts of the paper heavily worked with ink or left empty. A microcosm of the universe, the forces of yin and yang in perfect balance. These way-markers of our own energetic landscape can be found in acupuncture points.

Points may be found using the body’s anatomical landmarks; the width of our own fingers and thumb are ideal tools for measuring a body (a thumb width is a ‘cun’). In Shiatsu specifically, we find points, and the channels they lie on, by trying to detect the behaviour of Qi.

It is best not to try to define the substance of Qi – often rather vaguely described as a universal energy – that forms, along with Yin and Yang, the basis of Chinese Medicine. It is better to try to understand how Qi behaves in particular places. In the human body, it behaves in particular, predictable ways that can be recognised as patterns and, therefore, treated.

 L0039975 Dumai (Governor Vessel), C17/18 Chinese book art
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Illustration from Renti jingmai tu manuscript created 1662 – 1722. (Image credit: Wellcome Library, London)

The Governing Vessel 20 or ‘Place of a Hundred Meetings’ is a ‘regulating’ point for Yang and, as such, helps us whether we are too much like Tigger: bouncy (too Yang); or more like Eeyore: slumped and lacking vitality.

The point GV20 coincides with the site of the Crown chakra and this Qing dynasty illustration from Wellcome Images shows the course of the channel or meridian on which the point lies – one of 14 paired meridians that web our body. The “Governing Vessel” is sometimes referred to as a reservoir of Yang that runs up the central back axis of the body over the high bony ‘Yang’ spine and crown of the head to the lips, where it meets its paired Yin channel, “Conception Vessel”, which completes the circuit down the softer, protected ‘Yin’ front seam of the body. Together the channels may be compared to the solar and lunar channels in Tibetan Medicine that flow around the central axis of the body.

Yang is of the heavens, Yin of the earth and, in Taoist philosophy, humans exist in a space between two. How we stand on that pole between heaven and earth can create patterns of health or disharmony. Placing mindful attention on the subtle body we can feel what it’s like at both polarities: too ‘head in the clouds’ with no sense of connection to the support or nourishment offered by the earth; or too heavy, slow, exhausted, with little sense of uplift.

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Zhao Mengfu Twin Pines, Level Distance, Ink on paper c1310.

In Shiatsu we look for what is hidden. Sometimes one part of the subtle body is being used to support, or compensate for, another part which isn’t working very well or has needs that can’t be met. The aspect doing the ‘supporting and compensating’ can appear to be the more obviously needy part (‘Jitsu’ is the term used in Shiatsu), but the aspect that is hidden or less obvious (‘Kyo’) should be treated first.

In the short term, this Kyo/Jitsu pattern is just part of being alive but, in the longer term, these patterns can manifest in more serious ways. We ignore our energetic landscape and its subtle clues only too easily. Perhaps we lack the vocabulary to describe mind and body interactions, seeing mind and body as different ‘stuffs’, whereas “subtle-body concepts and practices treat them as continuous. Consciousness, in this picture, has a material aspect, if often thought of as more ‘subtle’ (finer, less solidly material) than ordinary physical matter.” (Geoffrey Samuel and Jay Johnston, 2013)

A mindful body

The Western conception of mind over matter has complicated our relationship to the nuances of our anatomy and that is why so many people are in search of mindfulness. When we hear the word ‘mindful’ we focus on the mind, yet the whole point of mindfulness is using the mind to service the balancing of the body.

Mindfulness is constant work. It’s not a quick fix when something is wrong, but a fully integrated body/mind practice that must be maintained and sustained through a regular activity, whether it be yoga, meditation, shiatsu or your preferred technique. These systems allow us to organise the complexities of the human body and harness their power through the mind, making us more attune to physical and mental shifts in our individual, human experience.

The complexities of the subtle body and mindfulness are a major focus of ‘Tibet’s Secret Temple‘, on at Wellcome Collection until 28 February.

Sarah J and Sarah B are Visitor Experience Assistants at Wellcome Collection.