Checking out the Chakras

This autumn in the Tuesday class we are taking a look at the chakra system.  The chakras are part of the body’s energy system, pranamaya kosha.  Chakra means ‘wheel’ and in this case it refers to wheels of energy or prana at the conjunction of energy channels in the body.  There are said to 72,000 of these energy channels or nadis, and they can be considered as akin to the energy channels targeted by practitioners of acupuncture.  There are varying school of thought regarding the number of chakras, and as these are part of our energy body rather than the physical one, it’s not as if we can ask surgeons to dissect them out and do a definitive count!

The most commonly recognised ones are located along the central energy channel sushumna, which itself is aligned with the spine, at the pints where the two other main energy channels, ida and pingala, cross over.  Coincidentally, their locations correspond to nerve plexuses along the spine and also to the position of key endocrine glands, so there are some links to the workings of the physical body too.  Each chakra is associated with certain characteristics and may have an impact on our psychological make-up.

In yoga traditions the chakras are represented as lotus blossoms with varying numbers of petals and may be open, allowing the energy to flow freely, or closed, in which case the energy is blocked.  When this energy system is working well we are considered to be healthy and well-balanced.  In the same way the nerve plexuses of the body ensure communication between the different body parts and the endocrine glands serve to balance the body’s functions through the release of hormones into the bloodstream.

Whether or not you believe in this energy system is a matter of personal choice, but the chakras can be useful to us as a point of meditation, when we might visualise them using the colours of the rainbow, as glowing points of light in the body or through consideration of their associated elements. You might like to try this one at home:

Begin as usual, settling the body and breath.  The take your awareness to the base of the body and imagine this area being filled with the colour red, for muladhara chakra.  Spend a few breaths with this colour. Keep this in your mind as you work upwards, repeating this with each colour in turn.

  • Orange in the pelvis (swadisthana)
  • Yellow at the navel (manipura)
  • Green at the heart (anahata)
  • Blue at the throat (vishuddi)
  • Indigo between the eyebrows (ajna)
  • Violet at the crown of the head (sahasrara)

Maintain all the colours for as long as you wish before letting them fade away.

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Slow and steady does it

Pranayama is an important part of any yoga practice.  The word is a combination of two Sanskrit words; Prana refers to the energy or life force that embraces the body, whilst ayama means ‘to stretch or extend’.  Of course, we breathe every moment of each day, but pranayama is about extending the breath in a way that enhances the body’s energy levels.

Patanjali tells us in the yoga sutras that there should be two qualities which characterise the practice.  The first of these is dirga, which refers to a long and steady practice as well as mental focus.  The second is suksma, which means ‘fine’ or ‘smooth’.

In our asana practice we can focus on maintaining a healthy breathing pattern.  By relaxing the body around the breath we can encourage the breath and body to become one in the performance of the posture.  This unity is then extended to the mind, and we are really doing yoga!

In a seated, formal practice of pranayama we might concentrate on lengthening the exhalation.  The heart beats in time with our breathing, and it naturally beats more slowly during exhalation.  So, by lengthening the exhalation we can slow the overall heart rate and calm the nervous system.  This is an ideal practice if you are feeling stressed or just want a little calming time out.  Why not give it a try?

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Climate: a big fat zero

I was interested to read in the news this week of a study that had explored the relationship between where we live and cognitive ability.  Essentially, it was found that living near woodlands, parks, lakes or the sea had a profound effect on children’s development.  These children were a year ahead of those living in more developed urban areas.  The authors linked this difference in thinking ability to the higher level of air pollution in urban areas.

In addition, when considering the greening of our cities for good health, the University of Washington points to studies that have shown that time in a natural environment can restorative, boosting satisfaction and work performance.  The incorporation of natural spaces into urban environments may also help to improve our ability to learn and our memory.

This makes a lot of sense to me, considering the impact of negative ions on our health and well-being.  In his book entitled ‘Pranayama’, Andre van Lysebeth suggested that negative ions are part of the prana or life energy that is vital to our existence.  In areas of high pollution, such as towns and cities, these ions are severely reduced.  He refers to these as areas of ‘zero climate’.   In contrast, more natural environments, particularly open spaces such as hills and the sea side, have much higher levels of negative ions in the air.  As a result, we feel much more energised (literally!) from spending time in these places with ‘higher’ climate.

With the longest day almost upon us, it really makes sense to get out and appreciate the natural world around us in the fine weather.  Look after yourself by spending time in nature this weekend; walk through the park, relax in the garden or take a daytrip to the countryside.  It really is time well spent.

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A subtle energy

Having considered the outermost sheath of our existence, annamaya kosha, last week, it’s time to delve a little deeper with a look at the energy body or pranamaya kosha.   This layer is said to carry the vital energies that regulate the body’s physical functions in 72,000 channels or nadis.  These channel, and in fact the whole of the subtle energy body, are not something we can see nor dissect out of the physical body.  Rather, they are thought to be more akin to the energy meridians used in acupuncture or the aura visualised by Kirlian photography.

There are said to be three main nadis which run along the alignment of the spine.  The central one, sushumna, is bounded on either side by ida and pingala, which connect to the left and right nostrils respectively.  These represent the two opposites which our yoga practice seeks to bring into balance.  The word hatha itself refers to this balance.  Ha means the sun, the hot, outgoing energy linked to pingalaTha refers to the moon, and the cooling, reflective energy of ida.

To help us bring greater balance to our energies, yoga suggests a variety of things to consider;

  • A simple healthy diet avoiding chemical and additives
  • Reflection on our attitude to life, seeking greater tolerance
  • Tuning in to our natural rhythms and those of nature
  • Asana practice to stimulate and balance the body’s physical systems
  • Breathing practice such as nadi sodhana (alternate nostril breathing) to balance the body’s energy systems

At the root of our efforts is an increased awareness; of what we do and how we do it.  It is only from this place of initial awareness that we can set out to reject our bad habits and build new ones.  One step at a time!

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