Yogic Subtle Anatomy: Chakras, Bandhas, Koshas, Gunas and Prana Vayus
The Seven Chakras
There are seven chakras that run along the central axis of the spine in a channel called the sushumna nadi. In Sanskrit, “chakra” means “wheel” — the chakras are, essentially, wheels of our body’s energy that correlate to certain physical, mental and emotional attributes. They start at the base of the spine and run vertically all the way to the crown of the head. Chakras are considered part of yogic subtle anatomy.
Muladhara: This root chakra is connected to the earth element. Located at the base of the spine, it relates to the feet, legs and pelvic floor. Muladhara has to do with how we relate to the material world. Its color is red and its bija mantra is “Lam.” When our body’s energy is balanced around this chakra, we feel grounded and safe.
Swadhisthana: The second chakra is connected to the water element. Located in the pelvic basin, it relates to the reproductive organs and sexuality. Its color is orange and its bija mantra is “Vam.” When our body’s energy is balanced around this chakra, there is a healthy relationship to intimacy and sex.
Manipura: The third chakra is connected to the element of fire. It is located at the abdominal region and relates to our digestive system. Manipura has to do with our gut intuition, confidence and self-esteem. Its color is yellow and it is connected to the mantra “Ram.” Whenour body’s energy is balanced around this chakra, we have a strong, positive role within society.
Anahata: The fourth chakra is connected with the element of air. It is located in the heart region, and it relates to our emotional state. Its color is green and it is connected to the mantra “Yam.” When our body’s energy is balanced around this chakra, we have a great capacity for love and compassion.
Vishuddha: The fifth chakra is connected with the element of ether. Located in the throat region, it is our communication center. Its color is blue and it is connected to the mantra “Ham.” When our body’s energy is balanced around this chakra, we are able to freely express our feelings and truth to the world.
Ajna: The sixth chakra is also connected to ether. It is located at the third eye at the front of the brain. It is where we have the ability to transform through the use of intuition, dreams, visualization and imagination. Its color is purple and it is connected with the well-known mantra “Om.” When our body’s energy is balanced around this chakra, we are calm, centered and connected to our higher guiding force.
Sahasrara: The seventh chakra transcends all of the elements, colors and sounds. It is located at the crown of the head, the part of the head that is soft when we are newborns. When it is balanced, we are connected to the source of all life. Through the practice of asana, chanting the bija mantras and the use of visualization techniques, we can cultivate balance throughout all seven chakras and our whole body’s energy field.
the seven chakras are an integral part of your body’s energetic anatomy.
The Three Bandas
The bandhas are often used in pranayama and asana practice. Bandha means “to bind,” “to hold captive,” or “to contract.” They are locks or body energy seals that help control, contain and harness prana, amping up the potency of yoga techniques.
Mula (Root Lock): Mula bandha is activated by contracting the perineum, which causes the pelvic floor to lift upward. Apana vayu (downward energy) is then rebounded up toward the higher chakras in our body’s energy fields.
Uddiyana (Abdominal Lock): Uddiyana means “to fly up.” With this bandha, the abdominal organs are pulled up and in, facilitating a natural flow of upward body energy. This powerful bandha strengthens the diaphragm and respiratory muscles, and the processes of digestion, assimilation and elimination.
Jalandhara (Throat Lock): Jalandhara bandha is engaged by bringing the chin to the chest, causing the throat to contract. It is said to alleviate throat disorders such as inflammation, stuttering and tonsillitis, and to improve the overall quality of the voice.
When all three bandhas are engaged simultaneously, they are called the maha bandhas, the great seals.
Yoga says that there are five different koshas, or layers or sheaths, to our being. True health and well-being involves not just the physical body energy functioning effectively, but all of the subtle bodies as well. If the koshas are misaligned, there will be disharmony and fragmentation, leading to confusion and suffering. Ultimately, all of the koshas must be united and blended together to achieve complete wholeness and illumination.
Annamayakosha (The Sheath of Food): Consists of skin, bones, muscles and internal organs.
Pranamayakosha (The Sheath of Vital Air): Consists of breath, body energy and the chakras.
Manomayakosha (The Sheath of The Mind): Consists of thoughts, emotions and obsessions.
Vijnanamayakosha (The Sheath of Causal Intellect): Consists of intelligence and wisdom.
Anandamayakosha (The Sheath of Pure Bliss): Consists of Universal soul and our true, innermost nature.
It is important to note that the koshas are not really separate; they merge into each other like the colors of a rainbow and act alongside our body energy as well.
less well-known than the chakras, the koshas are another integral part of our external energetic anatomy. illustration: vashtushastri kushdeep bansal
The Three Gunas
Throughout all of nature exist three primal forces that are manifestations of Universal Intelligence.
They are called the “gunas,” or “subtle qualities,” and they underlie all of creation. Just as the doshas represent archetypes within our physical body, the gunas represent archetypes within our mind — both on the surface and deep within our consciousness.
Tamas: Characterized by inertia, stagnation, lack of movement, dullness, darkness and heaviness. It’s the energy that creates ignorance of the mind, stifling change and transformation. Think of people who are couch potatoes, and you understand tamas.
Rajas: The energy of change, motion, activity, evolution and growth. In the mind, it is the energy of desiring, of wanting to be successful, of wanting to be the best. When it is out of balance, rajasic people are overly competitive — inclined to sacrifice their integrity to get to the top, even if it causes pain and suffering. Type A personalities are prime examples of rajas.
Sattva: Characterized by balance, harmony, stability, clarity and lightness. A sattvic mind is a happy, content, awakened one, with great body energy.
Health is maintained by a sattvic lifestyle and is usually impeded by rajas and tamas. For example, eating spicy food, drinking alcohol, smoking and staying up late are all rajasic; they all can lead to a collapse in body energy, resulting in fatigue or tamas.
Prana is life force or vital energy. It’s what fuels all of life — from the body’s energy field that regulates our bodily systems to the energy that fuels the sun. It’s yoga’s aim to increase prana within our human form so that we have more energy to fuel the things that are important to us.
Vayu means “wind” or “direction of energy.” So the prana vayus are the directions of life force.
Udana Vayu: Body energy that moves upward. Centered in the diaphragm, it moves through the lungs, bronchi, trachea and throat and governs exhalation. Our verbal expression is connected to udana in the sense that we communicate from what we feel in our gut and in our heart. If it is healthy, we experience joy, but if it is suppressed, we feel depression. The Cobra and Cow poses are good examples of poses that stimulate udana, as the chest and heart draw upward.
Prana Vayu: The circulation of body energy. Prana is very much connected to the breath, lungs and diaphragm. It is responsible for inhalation, and an imbalance of prana vayu can cause heart palpitations, dyspnea, breathlessness and asthma. Other symptoms of imbalanced prana vayu are anxiety, fear and nervousness.
Samana Vayu: The inward flow of the body’s energy, it governs the digestion, absorption and assimilation of food, liquid and air that enters our bodies. Imbalanced samana may lead to loss of appetite, indigestion and bloating. The contracting movement of Boat Pose is a good example of samana vayu being activated.
Vyana Vayu: The outward flow of the body’s energy, moving life force from the core of the body’s energy field into the extremities.It is associated with the circulation of blood and lymph, and with the peripheral nervous system. Usually when this energy is blocked, people have circulation issues like cold feet and hands. We see vyana vayu in poses like Triangle Pose or Half Moon Pose, in which the limbs radiate outward from the torso.
Apana Vayu: The downward flow of the body’s energy. It can be found in the lower abdominal region and pelvic cavity. We see apana in the process of elimination, making love and giving birth. Garland Pose is a good example of a pose that stimulates apana. Disorders related to apana include constipation, diarrhea, sore lower back and sexual impairment.
The prana vayus provide a whole new way to look at the subtle energetics of the poses. Ultimately, we want all of the vayus to be free, unrestricted and balanced.
Ayurveda, the Five Elements and the Three Doshas
Ayurveda translates as “the science of life.” Said to be over 5,000 years old, it is the traditional healing system of India. It views the human being as an interplay of mind, body energy, and spirit.
Its purpose is to heal and maintain quality and longevity of life. According to Ayurveda, everyone is unique and treatments should be customized to each individual as opposed to a one-size-fits-all approach.
Unlike Western medicine, which commonly deals with symptoms, Ayurveda aims to treat the root cause, taking into account the whole, complete picture. It encompasses diet and nutrition, lifestyle, herbs, exercise, breathing and meditation techniques, and healing body treatments.
Our body’s energy field is the foundation of everything we do. It should be strong, vibrant and supple. The five senses are the instruments through which we interact with the external world. They should be clear and sharp. The mind is home to our consciousness; it should be calm, centered and at peace. The heart is the home of our soul; it should be open and free of anger and resentment.
The Five Elements: Maha Bhutas
The five elements, known as the Maha Bhutas, exist throughout all of creation. When they are in balance, they support life and maintain harmony, but when they are out of balance they threaten life. For example, somebody with too much fire could be highly acidic and inflammatory, a state that is the precursor to a wide range of diseases. It is said that from the subtle vibrations of the mantra Om, the element ether was created. As ether began to move, it turned into air. As air began to flow, it caused friction, creating heat, light and then fire. As the heat of fire began to dissolve, it liquefied into water, which then solidified into earth.
Earth: Solid, heavy, dense and foundational, it is present in the body as bones, nails and teeth, and in the first chakra (muladhara) and the physical sheath (annamayakosha).
Water: Liquid, flowing and dissolving, it is present in the body’s energy field as blood, water and lymph, and in the second chakra (swadhisthana) and the energy sheath (pranamayakosha).
Fire: Energy, heat, transformation, metabolism and creation. It is present in the body’s energy in the digestive system and with regulation of body temperature, as well as the third chakra (manipura) and the mental-emotional sheath (manomayakosha).
Air: Oxygen, breath, motion and lightness. It is present throughout the body’s respiration process and the movement of nerve impulses, as well as the fourth chakra (anahata) and the wisdom sheath (vijnanamayakosha).
Ether: Space, all-pervasiveness, omniscience, expansiveness and emptiness. It is present in the body’s energy field as the space between cells, and in the fifth and sixth chakras (vishuddha and ajna) and the bliss sheath (anandamayakosha).
The Three Doshas
From the Ayurvedic perspective, the whole universe is an interplay of the energies of the five elements — earth, water, fire, air and ether. Ayurveda groups the five elements into three basic types of functioning principles, which also are present everywhere, called the Three Doshas. When they are in balance, they support life, and when they are not, they cause the dissolution of life.
Vata (Air and Ether): This dosha is associated with movement, and it controls breathing, blinking and heart pulsation. People who are vata types tend to be light, taller and thinner. When their body’s energy field is in balance, they are creative and flexible; out of balance they are unstable, anxious and fearful, traits that can manifest in poor digestion, insomnia and psychological problems.
Pitta (Fire and Water): Pitta is associated with metabolism, digestion, assimilation and body temperature. People who are pitta types tend to have medium, muscular builds. When they are in balance, they are warm, outgoing, excellent decision makers and great leaders; when their body’s energy field is out of balance, they can be hot-headed, angry and hostile, which can result in high blood pressure, heart disease and inflammatory disorders.
Kapha (Water and Earth): Connected with physical structure, it is the “glue” that holds the cells together. Kapha types tend to have heavier builds with larger bones. When their body’s energy is in balance, they are stable, calm, loving and forgiving; if not, they can be overly attached, possessive and greedy, which can manifest in congestion, respiratory issues or obesity.
Each person is born with a unique constitution, and by harmonizing our own unique proportion of vata, pitta and kapha through diet, lifestyle and yoga practices, we can maintain homeostasis and health.
This piece on the body’s energy fields is excerpted with permission from Holistic Yoga Flow: The Path of Practice by Travis Eliot & Lauren Eckstrom.