Ever wonder to yourself, “What are the chakras?” The chakras are an ancient system of energy from the yoga system, that teach us how to listen to and heal our bodies.

There is evidence of the chakras throughout yoga philosophy and possibly the most salient reference is found in the text The Hatha Yoga Pradipika. This text describes the physical means through which a yoga practitioner might achieve a state of yoga, samadhi, or enlightenment.

As the practitioner works on this goal, the chakras must be addressed. Because the body is composed of several layers, the chakras can be tackled on a variety of levels, all of which result in strengthening, balancing or “unblocking” the energy center, ultimately resulting in a state of wholeness.

We can think of the chakras like platforms on a vertical subway where each stop represents a different very important destination. Even though chakras are ordered vertically, it is important to realize that this doesn’t represent a hierarchical structure. Just because one chakra is situated above another doesn’t make that level of existence “better” than the one below it. Each one supports the next, and ultimately, health and balance are required in all seven in order for us to feel as if we’re on top of the world, so to speak.

The chakras lie along a central channel of energy known as sushumnah nadi. Nadis are energetic pathways in the body that cover every arc and angle of our being, similar to our arterial and veinous structures. Being that nadis are purely energetic, however, means that instead of carrying blood, they carry energy, or what is referred to in the yogic system as prana. Prana is life force, or vital energy – it is the animating force in a body that differentiates it from a cadaver. We draw in prana primarily through breath, but also through things like good food and good company. When prana flows cleanly through our body, then it also flows cleanly through this central channel and through each of the seven chakras. But, this is often not the case. Energy gets blocked and stagnated, and the nadis become twisted and knotted. We feel this in our body as tightness, aches and pains. Through practices such as yoga asana, pranayama and meditation, we help to correct these gnarls so that energy runs more fluidly.

While there are rumored to be 72,000 nadis in the body, yoga practitioners focus their efforts on moving energy through three primary channels: the sushumnah, or central channel, and the ida and pingala nadis.

The ida nadi is the feminine, or lunar channel that originates and terminates on the left side of the body. The pingala is the masculine or solar channel that originates and terminates on the right side of the body. Each channel spirals around the sushumnah, and at each point they cross, we find a chakra. The end points are the left and right nostrils, which is why much of pranayama or breath practice is focused on moving prana through one or the other of the nostrils. This produces a heating or cooling effect depending on whether breath moves through the left or right nasal passage.

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This subtle anatomy sets the condition for the understanding of the chakras, because we must know how to move energy. Energy is moved in a variety of ways, and yogis have many tools – such as asana, meditation, pranayama, chanting – to direct the energy into healthy patterns that allow us to create health on every level.