What Is A Chakra Anyway? An Introduction to the Sublte Body
Chakra Means Wheel or Disk in Sanskrit
In Yoga this term refers to wheels of energy throughout the body. There are seven main chakras, which align the spine. They start from the base of the spine moving up through to the crown of the head.
If you practice yoga, you’re probably at least a little familiar with the chakras. Aligning, clearing, and meditating on these esoteric centers is a common intention in yoga classes throughout the world. We do asanas that open certain chakras, chant mantras that make them vibrate, and call up colors to tap into their power. Yet, with all this chakra-talk ringing throughout the yoga world, how many of us can define what a chakra is?
Chakras don’t show up in an x-ray. You can’t feel them in a massage. They’re not of the physical world at all. In fact, chakras are part of our subtle body, the energetic anatomy of yoga. In yogic anatomy, we have not one, but rather five, bodies. These bodies, called the koshas, or “sheaths,” are layered inside each other like Russian dolls. You’re already familiar with the first, annamaya kosha, or the “food” sheath. This is the physical body we move about in each day. The next layer, pranamaya kosha, is made up of prana, the vital life force that powers us and the universe. It’s often referred to as the subtle or energetic body.
- annamaya kosha
- pranamaya kosha
- manomaya kosha
- vijnana kosha
- anandamay kosha
The next two koshas deal in our thinking, directly affecting the way we make decisions in our day-to-day lives. Manomaya kosha, the “mind-stuff sheath,” is generally considered to consist of the mind plus the five sense organs. It’s the body we activate when we act reflexively, in autopilot. The next layer, vijnanamaya kosha, takes us to more intentional behavior. Vijnana is discernment, intellect, conscience, and wisdom. This is the sheath we enter when we shape our environment with discernment and intention, rather than simply reacting to whatever it throws at us.
Finally, we have anandamaya kosha, the “bliss sheath.” This is the final Russian doll, the last, thin veil between unenlightened awareness and our higher Selves. For most, living in the anandamaya kosha is not a daily experience. Through yoga practice, however, we work our way towards this innermost sheath, involuting closer and closer towards the Self within.
The Subtle Body
When it comes to chakras, however, we’re working in the second sheath, the pranayama kosha. Also known as the astral body, the subtle body is distinct from our physical form. While the physical body consists of the material building blocks of bones, skin, and blood, the subtle body is purely energetic.
Prana, the vital life energy that flows throughout the body, travels through the subtle body through a network of channels called nadis. Like veins or nerves, this vast network of 72,000 pathways reaches every part of the subtle body. Blockages in these pathways restrict the flow of prana, affecting us on both the physical and energetic levels. Ashtanga yoga practice works to systematically purify these energetic channels, letting prana flow freely through the body.
Through the center of the body, along the length of the spinal chord, run three important channels. The first, the shushumna nadi, runs analogous to the spinal chord. On either side of it run the ida and pingala nadis, on the left and right, respectively. The ida nadi is the lunar channel, associated with feminine, intuitive aspects of being. The pingala nadi, on the other side, is the solar channel, associated with masculine, logical characteristics. As Sadhguru explains on the Isha Foundation’s blog, these two nadis “represent the basic duality in the existence.” “Bringing balance between the Ida and Pingala,” he explains, “will make you effective in the world, it will make you handle life aspects well,” easily navigating between masculine and feminine, logical and intuitive.
Enter the Chakras
Where do the chakras fit into all of this? The chakras are where the nadis intersect, converging into energetic plexuses. These seven “psychoenergetic vortices,” as they are described in Georg Feuerstein’s Shambala Encyclopedia of Yoga, run directly along the shushumna nadi. When they are clear of obstructions, energy can run from the muladhara chakra at the base all the way through the shushumna nadi to the sahasrara chakra at the top of the head.
These circles of intense energy have corresponding effects on the physical body, regulating its functions and emotions. Any blockages or dysfunction in the chakras, then, has an effect on or physical, psychological, and emotional life. Hatha yoga practice, like the Ashtanga yoga practice, removes blockages, clearing the chakras and allowing prana to circulate freely. Which, to sum it up, is all just one more good reason to get on the yoga mat.
Want to learn more about YOGA, CHAKRAS and the subtle energy of the body? We offer immersive yoga teacher trainings in Nicaragua. Next course starts in FEBRUARY 2016. February 200 hour yoga teacher training