Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Nadis: Rivers of Life Energy

There is an entire universe within the breath. To understand this and the transformative nature of Yoga, we need to
look deeply into the mysteries, and subtleties, of mind and body. We owe it to Tantra and its early practitioners who
pioneered the inner landscape of the subtle body. There they revealed the many wonders of our life energy. From that
discovery arose the many energetic practices of Yoga employed to awaken the most vital life force, Kundalini shakti,
laying dormant within us, that which connects us to the source.
In a way, we are all looking for the source of our life energy. The word itself, Yoga means “to join” or “to yoke”, the
essence of which evokes an integration of the many fragmented aspects of our life into a unified and conscious
whole. Similarly, within the subtle energetic field of our bodies, a vast network of streaming channels, known as nadis,
course their way quietly, integrating the vast spaces of the body, unifying them into one conscious and vital whole. It
begins with the breath and it ends with the breath. This is the playing field of Yoga.
The Sanskrit word nadi, derives from the root nad meaning “flow”, “motion” or “vibration”, suggesting that the
essential nature of the nadi is to flow as do the currents of water in a stream or river, finding the path of least
resistance, nourishing everything in its path. Nadis are our supply lines of prana, serving to both integrate and nourish
the body's field of life energy. In essence, they are what makes us alive. Two types of vital energy are said to flow
through the nadis: prana shakti, or vital force, and manas shakti, or mental force, suggesting the nadis to be channels
of consciousness as well as energy. Together the two forces are generically referred to in English as simply the life
force, and in Sanskrit as prana.
Asana and pranayama are effective Hatha Yoga practices because they serve two purposes: to nourish the prana,
and to gently invigorate the current, freeing the nadis and the subtle body of obstructions, or knots in the body-mind
that would hinder our growth. Such openings are cleansing to the nadis (nadishodhana) and eventually effect the
physical body resulting in greater flexibility and peace of mind. But why stop there?
Some schools traditionally describe the nadis as channels for the flow of consciousness distinct from the nervous
system, while others would include the nervous system as the most subtle aspect of the physical body and a part of
the nadi system. But if the nadis were simply the subjective sensation of the nervous system, then what
neurophysiologic change due to the practice of Yoga would explain the experience of liberation (moksha)?
Some of the more esoteric teachings of the Vedas suggest that channels of energy are not unique to human life.
From his well known title, “Yoga and Ayurveda”, Vedic scholar Dr. David Frawley expounds that, “Vayu, the great
cosmic air force, creates all the channels, which hold all things in the universe like gems on a string. Just as there are
channels in the body, so external nature is filled with various channels – from rivers and streams to currents of energy
in intergalactic space.”
One of the functions of the nadis is to receive and circulate Mahaprana, or the cosmic prana that exists in the world
around us. The nadis allow Mahaprana to penetrate deep within the body through the breath to nourish and stimulate
us. It could be said then, that the raison d’etre for the practice of Hatha Yoga is to more efficiently connect with,
acquire and organize Mahaprana into ourselves. Congested or weak in prana, the nadis stagnate, and the aspirant
would struggle with the distractions of poor health. And there are plenty of possible distractions.
The nadis, and prana in general, may have long been dismissed by medical science as metaphor, searched for under
microscopes and in pathology exams to no avail, but traditionalists believe that the nadis and the prana that runs
through them are more relevant than ever, and equally as important as the alignment and anatomy that predominates
the physical culture of Yoga today. The inner, subtle world of our life energy may seem an endangered paradigm
among western practitioners of Yoga, but the knowledge has not been lost.
Ayurveda and the Anatomy of a Yogi
Much of what Ayurveda knows about the nadis is borrowed from Tantra Yoga. But Ayurveda has contributed much to
the health and maintenance of the subtle body through several healing modalities such as marma point therapy,
mantra, Ayurvedic massage, panchakarma detoxification therapies, herbal therapies, and essential oils. Both
Ayurveda and Chinese Medicine recognize fourteen major nadis or meridians in the human body. Three are primary
to the practice of yoga, which we will review later.
To put the nadis into proper perspective, we need to review the anatomy of the yogic body. Ayurveda and Tantra Yoga
share the view that the human being is composed of three bodies: the gross physical body, the subtle or vital body,
and the causal body. The physical body (sthula sharira) is made of all things material, the physical body as we know
it. It is composed of the five elements (earth, water, fire, air and ether). The main energetic forces of the physical body
are the doshas Vata, Pitta and Kapha which are in constant flux in attempt to maintain equilibrium. The physical body
is created by and maintained by food.
The subtle or vital body (sukshma sharira) is made up of the network of nadis, the chakras with the latent Kundalini
energy at the base, and the primary elements of the mind-prana field: the ego (ahamkara), intelligence (buddhi), and
consciousness (chitta). The association of the subconscious mind with the chakras is popular and not unrealistic. The
nadis and the chakras are said to be found where psyche and soma meet, where consciousness and form find one
another. There they are the most tangible and palpable. These psychic points are linked together by the nadis, similar
to the acupoints of Chinese medicine. In Ayurveda they are known as marma points. This is the subtle body in its
purest energetic form.
The causal body (karana sharira) is even more subtle than the vital body. It is composed primarily of the three gunas
(Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas) or causal elements, as well as the causal forms of seeing (drishti) and hearing (shruti). It
is centered in the spiritual heart (not the heart chakra or the physical heart) and is the source of our highest spiritual
Ayurveda and Chinese medicine understand that the key to a vital healthy life is to maintain a fluid flow of energy
within the channels. But, as with any stream or flow of energy, the nadis are prone to imbalance. Certain nadis may
have an excess of prana in their flow while others may be deficient. Nadis may become blocked or even flow out of
their proper channels. Therapies address the nature of the imbalance as well as the location, often associated with
one of the apertures or orifices of the body. Ultimately, the best medicine for the health of the nadis is exercise,
including a daily practice of Hatha Yoga.
The Primary Channels
The Yoga Tantras mention 72,000 nadis in the body. The number may be relative, but there would have to be an
extraordinary number of them in order to feed prana to each cell in the body. Both Ayurveda and Chinese
acupuncturists recognize fourteen major channels. Three of which, however, are considered primary to the practices
of Yoga.
The size of the nadis is said to vary, some like super highways running from coast to coast, head to toe, others
smaller like residential streets or urban alleys. Were just the nadis visible to the eye, the shape or form of the human
body would appear pretty much the same.
The three primary channels are Sushumna nadi, Ida nadi and Pingala nadi. They are the super highways of nadis
and run vertically along the spine. The Sushumna, known as the central channel, originates below the Muladhara
(root) chakra at the base of the spine, flows through the spinal cord to Ajna chakra at the third eye. It governs all
functions of the subtle and physical body. The chakras are found along the spine on this great channel. Sushumna
nadi is said to be blue in color, a reference to its vibrational quality as used in tantric visualization practices than to an
actual visible color.
There are said to be three nadis within the Sushumna, like multiple currents of water within the same stream. Each is
progressively more subtle than the other. They are known as Vajrini, Chitrini, and Brahmani. It is through Brahmani
nadi that the Kundalini, and the higher spiritual consciousness it creates, is said to ascend to its true home in the
Sahasrara (crown) chakra. Otherwise, until the Kundalini is awakened, the Sushumna nadi remains closed.
Ida and Pingala nadis flank the Sushumna, running along either side of the spinal column. Both Ida and Pingala spiral
over the Sushumna nadi, forming an intensified energetic field, or chakra where they cross. The image of the
caduceus, the iconographic symbol of modern medicine, or the spiraling double helix of our DNA, helps to visualize
the Ida and Pingala. Eventually, Ida and Pingala meet each other and the Sushumna at Ajna chakra midway between
the eyebrows.
Generally stated, Ida nadi flows to the left of Sushumna. It is known as the “lunar” nadi, being cool, Yin and nurturing
by nature. Ida nadi is said to be white in color, control all mental processes and oversee the more feminine aspects of
our personality. Pingala nadi flows to the right of Sushumna. It is the “solar” nadi, being warm, Yang and stimulating
by nature. Pingala nadi is said to be red in color, control all vital somatic processes and oversee the more masculine
aspects of our personality.
Ida and Pingala are significant in that they contain within them the dualistic energies of prana and chitta, vital power
and consciousness, intuition and rationality, right brain and left brain. They are said to operate alternately, each being
dominant for a period of time, followed by the other. In most cases one of the two is dominant for longer periods than
the other, thus we tend to see trends in personality, behavior and our health that are Pingala-like or Ida-like by
Ida-like individuals will have the lunar or nurturing qualities of Ida, but may lack the verve to sustain advanced Yoga
practices. They are full of potential, but never manifest fully in the world or spiritually. Pingala-like individuals will have
solar, type-A or highly creative and vital qualities, but may lack the quietude, introspection or receptive nature needed
to yield to the grace of spiritual awakening.
Conventionally speaking, this is where the rubber hits the road. For as long as one of the two dualistic nadis are in
control the Sushumna is said to stay closed and the Kundalini asleep at the base, or we might say, asleep at the
Nadis and Yoga
Early Tantric masters termed the practice “Hatha Yoga” for good reason. The Sanskrit word Hatha is composed of a
combination of two bija mantras, ha and tha. The bija mantra ha represents the mind and the lunar qualities of the Ida
nadi. The bija mantra tha represents the vital prana and the solar qualities of the Pingala nadi. Hatha Yoga is then the
practice of unifying the pranic and mental forces of Ida and Pingala, prana shakti and manas shakti, sun and moon,
Yang and Yin. When this union occurs, dualities within our subtle body and consciousness disappear and very
interesting things begin to occur, much of which could fill many pages.
In short, with Ida and Pingala nadis in balance, the central Sushumna nadi comes to life. The union begins the
awakening of higher consciousness created by an awakening Kundalini energy found at the Muladhara (root) chakra.
Returning to the breath, pulmonary physiologists tell us that breathing accounts for up to 80% of our moment to
moment energy. Less than 20% come from our foods. The normal breath is adequate to provide Mahaprana to the
subtle body, but not deep or vigorous enough to reach the Kundalini. The traditional asana and pranayama breathing
practices of Hatha and Kundalini Yoga focus on this point. The deep intensified breathing of pranayama has a pulsing
effect upon the sleeping Kundalini shakti, causing her to awake and ascend the Sushumna to the Sahasrara (crown)
chakra, the seat of Shiva. There Shiva and Shakti unite to complete the yogic journey.
Ajit Mookerjee, in his epic “Kundalini: The Arousal of the Inner Energy” describes the effects of the ascending
Kundalini as a gradual “untying of the psychic knots that manifest along the Sushumna, and that which binds the
individual to the common order of knowledge and action are severed in the ascent to truth.”
In Closing

the breath within the breath.” The more we explore the nadis and the quietness of the subtle body, the more it seems
to draw us in, as if it were informing us of what to do in our practice, rather than us telling our bodies what to do.
When we breath or chant or meditate, we are more than just calming our nervous system, we are nourishing and
soothing the pranic field. Distinctions between the physical and the subtle begin to fade, and we begin to hear the
gentle streams of life energy that feed us, that connects us to the source, that makes the awakening possible.

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