Prana, chakras, blood, and nerves . . .
In yoga language Prana is the word for energy, it is a Sanskrit word that means moving always (pra means moving and na means always). There are many different ways energy or prana move in our body, some are very tangible and others more subtle—but very real nonetheless.
First lets start with the tangible, blood and nerves. Blood carries energy in our body, energy in the form of food and oxygen, food is energy and our body breaks down that energy and transports it via blood. Blood flow and this movement of energy is important to every cell in our body—the same with our network of nerves, motor neurons are the vehicle through which the energy flows through our body from brain to muscle (or organ, etc.) The blood transports healing nutrients while removing waste and the nerves deliver communications between body and brain so the body can tell the brain what it needs. So prana is constantly moving in our body one way or another—this is good. It is when energy flow is blocked that pain and disease develop.
Stress and tension are the major road blocks to energy movement in our body! Take notice if you have an area in your body that is achy or frequently injured, most likely you are tense in that area—literally tensing muscles. This tension could come from stress or even just your posture!, but it occludes blood flow and nerve impulses from getting to the area of pain, thus healing can not occur. For example, I used to get a pain in my left knee, I could not figure out what was causing the pain; one day while driving I noticed I keep my left knee tensed waiting to use the clutch. When I consciously made the effort to keep my left leg relaxed, the pain totally left my body.
So you do have some control over these systems in your body! Yoga asana is a tool to remove tension in your body allowing free movement of prana. But Yoga is not just postures, you have your yoga to increase your awareness about how you hold and move your body all day long. You have mind yoga, the power of your mind, visualize in your mind while in asana or rest pose that your painful area is relaxed and open, see in your minds eye blood flow all around the area and a nice clean network of nerves all sparkling like clean new rail road tracks allowing clear communications between brain and body.
Yoga can help with mind over matter.
Pranayama and moving energy (we do the postures for the breath, not the other way around)
Without focus on the breath we become “asana junkies” trying to get little relief from just asana. Mark Whitwell
In Yoga when you speak of prana and energy in the body most often it is related to pranayama. Pranayama in yoga terms means breath control. There are advanced pranayama exercises where you slow down the inhales and exhales, add retentions (after the inhale, the exhale, or both), these can be done through both nostrils or alternating nostrils. These types of pranayama need to be taught by a teacher you trust—Pattabhi Jois says incorrect pranayama will make you crazy! In the Ashtanga practice pranayama involving breath retentions are not taught until after you have been practicing full second series for sometime. The breath we do in our practice (loud rhythmic breathing) is also a form of pranayama. Both forms of pranayama move energy in your body. Many yogic texts explain how prana (or energy) moves in our body via the 5 prana vayus (or prana winds), however this can be hard to understand as it is not put into tangible terms. I am going to try to relate how breath moves energy in your body in more physiological terms.
Yoga regards the breath so highly because it affects every other system in the body. However let’s keep in mind that all the systems need to function synergistically, we can not say the breathing system is the most important in the body, as with out the nervous system, the breathing system can not work! So it is the same with all the other systems in our body—they need to work together synergistically.
You can feel the breath moving in your body, this alone is a tangible way to feel energy movement. Also tangible and easy to understand are how respiration effects the other systems; by taking deep inhales and exhales the lungs and diaphragm move—when the diaphragm moves it descends into the abdominal cavity where it puts pressure on the organs and digestive system stimulating movement of fluid and waste through our bodies, this is another form of energy movement. When the lungs expand they massage the heart helping to keep blood moving through the heart (especially the lower chambers of the heart). The circulation system is improved by pranayama exercises, pranayama does not bring more oxygen in our bodies, but it does improve how we utilize oxygen; it improves how much oxygen (aka energy) our blood can carry and it improves how much oxygen we can extract from the blood. Your diaphragm is attached to your vertebrae, during inspiration as the diaphragm descends it pulls up on the lower vertebrae of the spine and if you practice pranayama exercises where you hold your breath out and perform jalandhara bandha (chin lock) it pulls on the upper vertebrae of the spine. This pulling up of the vertebral column gives exercise to the spinal nerves which pass through it, thus cleaning and calming the nervous system.
The ancient yogis say that pranayama is the only exercise your body needs! Pranayama aids in the movement of energy through every system of your body. An ancient text says “A true yogi breathes through his feet!”
Bandhas and energy movement
Bandhas are the bridge from the outer work of yoga to our inner work with yoga. They are a physical practice—the outer part, and they also move energy in our body—the inner work, and this is their most important “job”.
Basically your bandhas are muscular contractions, a lifting of the pelvic floor (mula bandha) and an inward upward lift of the abdomen (uddiyana bandha). On a physiological level the pressure of the muscles on our organs help massage our organs and move blood and fluids (energy) through our body just as the movement of the diaphragm and lungs do as I spoke of above. The muscular contraction for your bandhas is very subtle—they require more mental effort than physical! You need to consciously pull away from your thinking mind and connect with your bandhas.
To take it a step further, when you combine bandha with pranayama you increase heat in the body. Yogic texts consider the place in our body where most obstructions settle is in the base of our body. Therefore attention given to strengthening and lifting the base of the body into the heat of the system, thus obstructions in our pranic system are burned and removed allow prana (energy) to flow freely through our bodies. (Asanas, specifically inversions and forward bends help with this movement). The place of fire in the body, according to the ancient yogis, is the 3rd chakra or solar plexus area. The bandhas and the exhalations move the obstructions up toward the “fire” while the inhale acts like a bellows and stoke the fire burning our impurities (of body and mind).
The bandha connection also gives you lightness—you can even feel it. Connect with your bandhas and move—feel the lightness in your step, the ease of movement. Your bandhas literally pick you up from the inside—or pick you up from your “boot straps” giving you energy. You want to focus on the uddiyana bandha during sun salutes and standing poses, focus on mula bandha during the seated poses.
Work toward staying connected with your bandhas throughout most of your day (not just on your mat!), until about 9pm . . . then just relax ;).
Chakras and energy movement
Now the fun side of energy movement in our bodies . . . the esoteric side 🙂
Chakras are energy systems in our body, in Sanskrit chakra means circle or vortex. You can not physically see a chakra (like a surgeon would not see one during surgery), however it is interesting to note that each chakra aligns with a nerve plexus—these nerve crossings create energy fields or circles of light according to yogic thought. In yoga tradition there are 7 chakras or energy centers in the body, they are points or vortices at which energy is filtered through our system. They act as data collectors, collecting and storing information through our lives. Each chakra relates to a particular area in our body, and certain aspects of our lives, among other things.
New age has given a lot of elaboration to the chakras, be careful not get too wrapped up in this—it is only busy-ness for the mind! Chakras are self sustaining support mechanisms of life, simply to feel them as locations of energy and enjoy their presence and function is sufficient. Do not get wrapped up in “balancing” your chakras or feeling you need to do something to fix them. However as you learn about the chakras if you notice one corresponds to a particular area in your body that is painful or a certain emotional state that you are challenged by then addressing your attitudes in that area would be helpful in not creating energy blocks in your chakra system.
While you are lying in rest pose this week I will read to you about your chakras. You will get the chance to practice Pratyahara while I read. Pratyahara is the pivotal point in the practice of yoga where the path leads from the exterior to the interior landscape of the body. Pratyahara translates directly as “sense withdrawal” and is the fifth limb of the 8 limbs of ashtanga yoga. By withdrawing our attention from the external environment and by focusing inward, we still the mind and increase awareness of our body. With this awareness and focus we can move deeper into the practice of yoga, learning to move through our limitations, fears and expectations.
The following “meditation” is excerpts on the chakras from Carolyn Myss’s book ‘Anatomy of the Spirit’.
The First Chakra
The first chakra is located at the base of your spine (coccyx). The first chakra is the root of foundation that supports our structure. It is our center of community, where you store energy about your family, culture, and social habits. Our first chakra grounds us it is our connection to traditional family beliefs. It supports the formation of our identity and sense of belonging to a group. The emphasis is on loyalty and physical survival.
As tribal beings we are designed to live together, to create together, to learn together, to be together, and to need one another.
Difficult family challenges cause us to lose power primarily from our first chakra, making us susceptible to immune related diseases from the common cold to lupus.
You reinforce energy at first chakra when you:
- Recognize and nurture your connection with the natural world.
- Maintain a sense of pride in your ancestry and family traditions
- Draw on your family for love and support.
The process of spiritual development challenges us to retain the family influences that are positive and discard those that are not.
The truth of the first chakra: ALL IS ONE
The Second Chakra
The second chakra is the partnership chakra. Location is the lower abdomen. This chakra is not only the source of our physical, sexual, and creative energy, but also our financial concerns. It is our center of control. It resonates our need for relationships with other people and our need to control, to some extent, our environment. It is the chakra we “work” out of during our days.
With the second chakra energy shifts from obeying tribal authority to discovering other relationships that satisfy personal or physical needs. Second chakra energy is enhanced when we nurture our relationships with each other.
You lose energy from your second Chakra when you:
- Try to control others in relationships
- Hold onto feelings like jealousy, anger, or promiscuous behaviors.
- If you have fears about making or losing money.
- Gossip and manipulation drain power from our second chakra.
The truth of the second chakra: HONOR ONE ANOTHER
The Third Chakra
The third chakra is located at the navel (solar plexus). This is our center of personal power, the magnetic core of our personality and ego. You house feelings of self esteem, confidence, and honor in your third chakra.
This is also where you house your fears of rejection, criticism, looking foolish, and all fears related to appearance such as obesity, baldness or aging.
Ways to reinforce energy in your third chakra are to:
- Take pride in your work
- Trust your intuition
- Keep your word.
The theme of the Third Chakra: Honor One-self
The Fourth Chakra
This chakra is situated at the heart. This is your center of compassion and unconditional love. Love for everyone, everything regardless of color, background, species, or form. It is your emotional center. This chakra stores information about harmony, love, and forgiveness.
The fourth chakra is the central powerhouse of the human energy system. The middle chakra, it mediates between body and spirit; between the chakras that deal with physical environment and the chakras that deal with our inner environment. Fourth chakra energy is emotional in nature and helps propel our emotional development. This chakra embodies the spiritual lesson that teaches us how to act out of love and compassion and recognize that the most powerful energy we have is love.
We are not born fluent in love but spend our life learning about it. Its energy is pure power. We are as attracted to love as we are intimidated by it. We are motivated by love, controlled by it, inspired by it, healed by it, and destroyed by it. Each of life’s challenges is a lesson in some aspect of love.
Everything in and about our lives runs off the fuel of our hearts. We will all have experiences meant to break our hearts, not in half, but wide open. Regardless of how your heart is broken, your choice is always the same: what will you do with your pain? Will you use it as an excuse? Or can you release the authority of the physical world over you through an act of forgiveness?
Ways to reinforce energy at the fourth chakra:
- Forgive others
- Love yourself
- Love others enough to let them experience the world in their own way
Truth of the fourth chakra: LOVE IS DIVINE POWER
The Fifth Chakra
Is located at your throat it embodies the challenges of surrendering our willpower. At the fifth chakra you learn how to generate the power to move yourself out of energetically stuck places—you do this by accepting your circumstances in life and moving forward with them or in spite of them! Your ability to speak up and define your own needs is housed at this level, this chakra is affected by what goes in and out of our mouth.
Our fifth chakra and its spiritual lessons show us that personal power lies in our thoughts and attitudes.
Our fears within this chakra lie within being out of control with regard to substances, food, money, power, and gossip. We fear divine will; the notion of releasing our power of choice to a Divine force remains the greatest struggle for the individual seeking to become conscious.
You reinforce energy here when you:
- Exercise self control
- Empower others
- Speak honestly.
The fifth chakra is the center of choice and consequence. Every choice we make, every thought and feeling we have is an act of power that has biological, environmental, social, personal, and global consequences. We are everywhere our thoughts are.
Truth of the fifth chakra: SURRENDER PERSONAL WILL TO DIVINE WILL
Surrender to Divine Will means liberation from physical illusions, not from the delights and comfort of physical life.
The Sixth Chakra
This is the chakra of wisdom. It is located at the center of the eyebrows and is said to control both incoming and outgoing thought. It is your center of intellect and reasoning, and involves your psychological skill at evaluating your beliefs and attitudes. A closed mind can jam your progress by insisting on rational reasons for your choices.
The challenges of the sixth chakra are opening your mind, developing an impersonal mind, retrieving your power from “false truths”, learning to act on internal direction, and discriminating between thoughts motivated by strength and those by fear or illusion.
You reinforce your sixth chakra when you:
- Take emotional risks
- Open your mind to extravagant possibilities
- Follow your hunches.
Search continually for the difference between truth and illusion, and for the ability to see through an illusion and grasp the deeper meaning behind the scenes. In becoming conscious one is able to detach from subjective perceptions and see the truth or symbolic meaning of a situation. Detachment does not mean ceasing to care. It means stilling your fear driven voices, not allowing external influences to negatively affect your consciousness. Detachment is the realization that no one person or group can determine your life’s path. Such clarity of mind and self is the essence of wisdom.
Truth of the sixth chakra: SEEK ONLY THE TRUTH
The Seventh Chakra
The Sanskrit name for the seventh chakra is sahasrara, which means a thousand petals. It is the highest chakra in terms of location and consciousness; it is located at the crown of the head. The seventh chakra is our connection to our spiritual nature and our capacity to allow our spirituality to guide us. It is your center of mysticism and grace. When you experience connection with the divine, it is at the level of the seventh chakra.
It is the energy center for spiritual insight, vision, and intuition far beyond ordinary human consciousness. It is the mystical realm, a dimension of conscious rapport with the divine.
Fears of this chakra are related to spiritual issues; loss of identity, and loss of connection with life and people around us.
You reinforce energy when you:
- Express gratitude
- Regard your life as a vehicle for spiritual development.
Seventh chakra energy motivates us to seek an intimate connection with the Divine. This is different from a connection to a religion. Religion is a group exercise; it is rooted in your first chakra. Spirituality on the other hand is an individual experience directed toward releasing fears of the physical world and pursuing a relationship with the Divine.
Truth of the seventh charka: LIVE IN THE PRESENT MOMENT