This nine-city model is my extrapolation and synthesis of teachings implicit in Upanishadic and Western models of the human system.
As the ancients recognized, human experience plays out on a vast multidimensional field characterized by change. These dimensions—thought, mood, behavior, the body’s physiology, the physical body itself, family, society, the physical environment, and the surrounding cosmos—can be thought of as “cities” and represented as spheres that overlap and interpenetrate one another. This nine-city model is my extrapolation and synthesis of teachings implicit in Upanishadic and Western models of the human system. Each sphere carries the potential to affect and be affected by each of the other spheres. The innermost essence of who we are—purusha, or pure undifferentiated awareness—dwells within and pervades each of these nine cities.
The first three overlapping cities constitute svabhava, our basic human character or personality, our sense of self. The ancients devised methods and a practice-based process, sadhana, to help us break our identification with changing experience, see things clearly as they are, and therefore gain the insight that leads to freedom. As our sadhana advances, svabhava becomes progressively purified and transparent until it becomes emptied, revealing svarupa, our true nature, the power of pure awareness.
Until then, our self-identity and our self-image is this interface, svabhava, formed by three interpenetrating aspects of our mind: thought, mood, and behavior. When an event triggers a reaction in one dimension, it can drive activity in another. This is understood clearly in Western psychotherapy.
Looking at each dimension separately, the thought sphere represents our self-concept, our values, our priorities, and all of our cognition about the world in which we live, including our relationship with those ideas. Our goal in yoga practice is to attain clarity of thought, which requires wisdom and discrimination. Traditional yogic methods of cultivating wisdom and the ability to discriminate include vichara (inquiry), svadhyaya (self-reflection), and the study of sacred texts.
The mood sphere represents our changing emotional responses in relation to internal and external changes. Our moods are also profoundly influenced by our conscious memories and, even more significantly, by our unconscious conditioning. This sphere of our emotions is further influenced by our changing thoughts and behavior and can, in turn, influence each of these spheres as well. Traditional yogic methods of working within the mood sphere include meditation, chanting, mantra japa (repetition of mantra) with an emphasis on artha (meaning) and bhava (feeling or attitude), and prayer; sanga (right relationships); andsatsanga (association with what is ultimately true). These methods help cultivateprema (love) and ananda (bliss).
The behavior sphere represents all of our habitual addictive patterns as well as intentional activity. As with the other spheres, our behavior is profoundly influenced by our conscious memories and unconscious conditioning. It is also influenced by our changing thoughts and moods and, in turn, influences our experience in each of these spheres. Intention and strength of will underlie behavior. Sankalpa, determination, implies the ability to strengthen our will and to set and activate an intention. Sankalpa is the foundation of all yogic practice. Determination is what helps us overcome our habits and develop our capacity for impulse control. Traditional methods of activating intention and strengthening the will involve practices that are done consciously through sustained effort with an emphasis on tapas (discipline) and self-restraint. This could involve, for example, giving something up that we are habituated to, such as a particular type of food. These methods may also include mantra japa and ritual.
One of the fundamental goals in yoga and yoga therapy is to become free from the twisted journey of our thoughts, feelings, desires, conflicts, distractions, and habitual and dysfunctional behavioral patterns, all of which dissipate our energy.
All three of these spheres interpenetrate and influence each other and each is profoundly affected and even driven by our conscious memories and unconscious conditioning. One of the fundamental goals in yoga and yoga therapy is to become free from the twisted journey of our thoughts, feelings, desires, conflicts, distractions, and habitual and dysfunctional behavioral patterns, all of which dissipate our energy. Toward this end, yoga places a great deal of importance on purifying our memory and elevating our unconscious conditioning to the level of the conscious mind. Making these unconscious impressions and impulses conscious is the first step toward freeing us from their influence. The integrated practice of linking breath, sound, meaning, and feeling through pranayama, meditation, and mantra japa powerfully helps us harness and direct the totality of our undissipated energy toward this deep transformation.
The dynamic interplay among the three internal spheres (thought, mood, behavior) influences and is influenced by the next sphere: physiology. The physiological sphere represents the various bodily systems, including, and of particular importance to yoga, the sympathetic/parasympathetic function of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS, along with the endocrine system, regulates the other physiological functions of the body, such as digestion, respiration, and cardiovascular rhythms. The sympathetic function is the “fight or flight” response, activated when we perceive danger. The parasympathetic function is the “rest and repose” response activated when we are at rest. The yogic insight about the mind-body relationship coincides with the modern field of psychoneuroimmunology and shows how our ANS responds profoundly to the inner spheres, which represent our changing thoughts, emotions, and behavior, as well as the outer spheres beyond our physiology.
The most potent traditional methods of working with the physiological sphere are controlled breath in asana and pranayama, and forms of relaxation, includingyoga nidra. In the dimension of physiology, breath work can, among other things, help to increase respiratory fitness, balance cardiovascular rhythm, stimulate immune function, and promote sympathetic/parasympathetic regulation. In addition, there are teachings and practices about the conscious use of dietary restrictions, as well as the use of cleansing techniques and herbal preparations.
The next sphere comprises our anatomy and represents our physical structure, encompassing the musculoskeletal and neuromuscular systems. This includes the somatic nervous system, also called the voluntary nervous system, which enables us to react consciously to environmental changes. As with the physiological sphere, the condition of our anatomical sphere is profoundly influenced by all of the inner spheres as well as the outer spheres beyond our anatomy.
Asana is the traditional primary yogic method of working with the anatomical sphere. Among other benefits, asana can help improve structural or skeletal alignment, increase structural stability, release chronic muscular contractions, strengthen what’s weak, and develop functional movement patterns.
The remaining four spheres represent increasingly external dimensions of human experience. These include:
- our most intimate family relationships;
- our social circle, including colleagues at work and political and economic cultures;
- the natural world, including the environment, climate, and changes in the weather; and
- the larger cosmos, encompassing the influence of the stars and planets.
Whereas the primary work in the inner spheres includes asana, pranayama, meditation, and mantra japa, work on the outer spheres includes:
- forms of svadhyaya, self-reflection, that help us understand svadharma, our deeper purpose in life;
- sanga, our right relationship to the people in our family and intimate society, as well as our relationship to the physical environment in which we live;
- study and contemplation that helps us set a direction for our future;
- personal and collective rituals to support our individual and collective intentions; and
- study of our relationship to the greater cosmic environment through the science of Jyotish and the use of gems, mantra, and ritual to support benefic planetary influences and reduce malefic planetary influences.
There is an ocean of teachings that come from Vedic sources that address the outer cities. However, the full elaboration of these methods is far beyond the scope of this article.
For most of us, the influences from these various spheres are all mixed together(sankirna), and we don’t realize their mutual influence on each other or how to separate them. The yoga tradition offers methods for helping us recognize and separate them, and understand and apply appropriate methods to influence the direction of change in each dimension.