The Nadis and Chakras
To understand Pranayama it is important to understand the Nadis and the Chakras. But first, even before beginning an exploration of how these systems work yogically, it is important to define on what level these truths are pitched. In the west we tend to have fairly simple views about truth, one popular model being the division between fact and fiction. ‘Fact’ is proven by scientific means and fiction? Well, it’s made up, fabricated somehow out of thin air.
It is this kind of pressure that has somewhat distorted many areas of yogic truth. The East → West and perhaps, more relevantly, the West → East exchange has had an enormous influence on interpretation and understanding of yogic terms. Hence it was deemed necessary for a whole host of reasons to make direct connections between western science and eastern yogic truth. Because of this, there are yogis who insist on emphasising the scientific factual side of yoga. This kind of insecurity is not necessary, and models like pranic energy and its conduits, the chakra and nadi systems, can return peacefully to where they belong as a guidance structure, using pointers aimed at a meditative experience, without feeling the need to find justification within the realms of scientific truth.
This, of course, is not to say that science doesn’t often make discoveries that run parallel with yogic truths, but to some extent science will always be catching up with yoga on this level, because Yoga is a system that encourages the transcendence of duality and so is not held back by some of the constraints that may slow science’s understanding in this field.
The truth of science and the truth of yoga do not need to be at odds, as they belong to two different levels of understanding. Chakras (literally wheels) and nadis (meaning energy channels-literally flowing water) are real experiences reflected through the use of these working models. It is not that the nadis and chakras are ‘objectively there’ so much as they are ‘effectively there’. If you like, they are poetic terms that equate to infinite webs of relationships between muscles, nerves, emotions, energy and the psyche. It is perhaps due to the complexity of the experience to which the nadis and the chakras point, that a more objective form of language could never accurately describe the experiences felt, not least because of the ‘living element’ that is involved.
So, a picture paints a thousand words, and the nadis and chakras are such effective imagery in terms of how they aid engagement, that they have been used by yogis for hundreds if not thousands of years, no doubt with some refinements and developments being added. To press home the point further, systems will vary from one school of yoga to another, citing the amounts of nadis and chakras with equal gusto but in different numbers. There is enough agreement on key issues to make these variants arbitrary, and this in fact further shows these systems to be pointers rather than objective facts, so that for instance 350,000 nadis (siva samitha) effectively really equals ‘a lot’. Most systems, for instance agree that there are more energy channels originating from the belly area (72,000 is one number cited) just below the navel, than from the heart (101 is common), but that from both these areas originate more nadis than from other chakra areas down the midline of the body.
Westerners have also felt sensations from these areas though have not studied them with anything like the depth. Even so, there are common expressions in the West that illustrate the universality of some of these experiences, for instance; ‘I’ve got butterflies in my tummy’; ‘I’ve got a gut feeling about this’; or , ‘I’ve got a knot in my stomach’. Further to this, it is not uncommon when asked about an painful emotional experience for people to point at the heart, sometimes describing a stabbing sensation. These, then, commonly describe a contracted or an energised feeling in a chakra area. The chakras and nadis are part of the same system, the nadis being the almost infinite network of tubular organs or channels of energy flow felt throughout the body, and the chakras being the epicentres and origins of this energy flow. Nadis follow the same lines as all the objective body systems like the nerves, lymph, and circulatory systems, but on top of this there are numerous extra lines of energy (sometimes expressed as extending to the tip of every hair on the body). It is important to retain an tone of spaciousness in order to experience nadis, and this is pointed to my the root ‘nad’ meaning resonance. While nadi itself means ‘a flowing river’, the common description of nadis is as ‘tubular organs’ through which this flow moves.
Of all the nadis three are most important; ida, pingala and susumana. Susumana which runs through the spine and terminates at the crown is made from a split of one of the ‘101’ nadis from the heart, that at one part rises to above the crown chakra towards the aperture (randhra) at the crown of the head and at the other towards the reproductive organs. The other two ida and pingala are of further interest to a pranayama practitioner as they terminate in the left and right nostrils respectively and follow to the left and right sides of the susumana. These are said to transport the energies of the moon, through ida, and the sun, through pingala, the former representing the negative force (consciousness-because it mirrors) and the latter the positive (the flow of vital energy) in a similar way to an electrical current. The susumana is supposed to carry the energy of fire.
According to some yogic teachings (particularly those of the Hatha yoga tradition) part of the practice of yoga is building and balancing the sun and moon energies, which correspond to the far Eastern yang and yin. If these energies are built up through asanas, mudras (seals), pranayamas and bandhas (locks) then they merge with the susumana at the ajna chakra between the eyebrows, this is one of the primary interests of the Hatha yogi, the susumana then builds up heat and creates a kind of steam (remember the nature of these truths) that pushes up opening the chakras like lotus flowers towards the crown, this is sometimes described as the arising of the kundalini a term linked to the Sanskrit word for coiled up.
This should be seen as a release so that energy can circulate again, and although this is not in itself a spiritual experience, the fact that energy is circulating freely points to consciousness doing the same (energy and consciousness are one and the same in some yogic traditions) and this implies that consciousness is fluid and flexible. This means that awareness has let go of gripping (aparigraha) memories, views, opinions and ideas that would have caused a resistance in the nerves and so in the energy systems. This less rigid consciousness is unable to create and believe a dualistic projection and hence gains deeper union with the way things are.
This opening is also supposed to connect Siva at the crown and Shakti at the base chakra in the pelvis, the pure consciousness and pure energy which both benefit from such a union. The final rising of this expanding energy principle pushes towards the crown chakra that then opens, this is sometimes called full or royal yoga (raja yoga) as this final opening implies a total merging of consciousness-as-energy with the energy all around and thus consciousness becomes inseparable from the realisation of the interdependent continuum and flow. This is ultimate self-transcendence.
The Chakras can be divide into eleven, nine or, as we will do here, seven (less commonly other systems may use less or more than this).
Starting from the lowest working up, the chakras are:
Muladhara - the root chakra associated with shakti energy situated in the pelvis above the anus. This chakra is often associated with the colour red.
Svadisthana - the seat of the vital energies corresponds to the kanda and is in close proximity to the sacral plexus nerve centre. It is associated with the colour orange.
Manipuraka - just above the navel, near to the adrenal glands. It is associated with the colour yellow.
Anahata - the heart chakra, near to the parathyroids. 101 nadis emanate into one hundred subtler nadis each of which branch of into another 72,000. It is associated with the colour green.
Visuddhi - the throat chakra, close to the thyroid gland. It is associated with the colour blue.
Ajna - between the eyebrows. Near to the pituitary gland. It is associated with the colour indigo.
Sahasrara - at the crown of the head. It is associated with the colour violet.
As we can see, although there is much that could be said, the principal purpose of all this is engagement (engagement with the experiences that these truths point us towards) and through this engagement we can create space, an ‘allowing’, an expansive way of relating universally, a mode of relating that feels total and not just of the intellect, using the whole body to ‘allow’ with.
Resulting from this ‘loosening’, consciousness, in the form of energy, flows through the whole system*. The net result of all this is that consciousness, as inseparable from energy, ‘recognises’ the ‘oneness’ of energy and the interdependence of it, directly. One sees that the energy flow in the body equally affects thoughts, feelings and well being, and that there are no distinguishable hard lines that could be described as definitive boundaries such as me or mine or you and yours. On an intellectual level this does not work and is a nonsense and can only lead to misunderstanding. This then is not a view or opinion; it is only valuable as an experience. When held in the right way the experience of interdependence then conspires to undermine a dualistic relationship to life that always divides, creating the polarities that underpin war, strife, violence and separation and all that creates doubt, confusion uncertainty and fear.
*It is worth noting that consciousness, as it is understood here, does not exist independently of something to be conscious of.