Peeling back the layers
Yoga offers us the most amazing set of tools and practices to uncover and investigate our inner world.
The yogic model of our anatomy reveals that the body is made up of layers, like an onion, that become more and more subtle as we peel them back.
You have probably heard the terms: Prana, the life-force within the subtle body and possibly the Chakras (pronounced Cha-kra — not Shar-krar) mentioned in classes or during meditation. In yoga the physical body is made up of matter that feels solid and sometimes intense, we can feel it sitting or standing on the ground. The body that includes our bones, muscles, tissues and skin is simply the outer layer of our being. In terms of energy, matter is the densest form of energy with the particles vibrating at the lowest level. In the map of the Koshas (layers of the body) it is called the Gross Body or sometimes the Food Body or Annamaya Kosha as it is literally made up of the food and minerals that we take into ourselves.
We can of course move this body in our yoga practice, we stretch and strengthen the muscles and connective tissues and help bone density and stabilise posture. But anyone that has been to a few yoga classes has an inkling that this is not all that there is to the practice.
The Subtle Body
When we start to slow ourselves down, create more inner focus and pay more attention to the way that we breathe and move we start to connect more deeply with the subtle layers of our body.
In the Kosha system this is called the Causal Body and is made up of three separate layers: the Pranamaya Kosha (the breath body), the Manomaya kosha (the mental body) and the Vijnanamaya Kosha (the wisdom body). In this article I won’t go into too much depth on the separate layers although I plan to in a future blog post (and cover this in depth in my Exploration Inwards workshop) but I do want to explore the Causal or Subtle body as a whole because understanding its existence really helps to deepen your yoga practice.
The energy within this Subtle body is just that, more subtle than the gross energy of matter. Prana (sometimes called Chi or Qi) is the sense of aliveness that we feel when we draw in breath, it pulses through our veins and tingles in the palms of our hands. We can’t touch it but when we slow down and listen we can certainly feel it. This prana travels through channels in our bodies called Nadis of which there are thousands but the three main ones run straight up the spine (Shushumna) and coil around it (Ida and Pingala).
Underneath or within this life force layer sits our emotions and thoughts which have an even more subtle energy. Positive or negative, contracting or expanding. And underneath or within this layer lies our deeper wisdom or intellect. When we can bring some stillness and balance to the other layers we see more glimpses of this energy shining through.
I love that in the Kosha system these subtle layers are called the Causal Body because it highlights the concept of causality or the relationship between cause and effect in our bodies in a wholistic way. Our minds or mental states and emotions are very much connected with our breath and our life-force energy (or prana) and furthermore connected with our physical body. When something is weak, blocked or overactive in our lives it affects us on many different levels. Just as sound vibrates the particles in the air and this resonates through our bodies…and…often our hearts vibrate too with the emotion in a piece of music.
Another practical example (and on a personal note) of how the mind and body are connected is, when I have stress in my life or have taken on too much I don’t always have that showing up as anxious thoughts or emotions but I clench my jaw and start to get pain in my neck and shoulders. Subconsciously my body is holding the stress and anxiety in its tissues and through awareness of that I can notice it and make changes to bring balance to my whole system.
The Chakra System
Yoga offers us another really useful map of the body that provides some openings to see how these layers interrelate.There are seven major Chakras in the yogic system, although many other ancient cultures in the world also speak about Chakras in some way and some have 12 or more. The Chakras (or wheel of energy) are physical places in the body where more energy is centred and the layers seem to be connected more deeply. They are the areas where the three main Nadis converge along the central channel and physically also correlate to the main nerve plexi along the spine.
The Chakras span from the base of the body to the crown of the head and relate to different conditions that may be out of balance in the layers.
When we connect more deeply with these centres and feel the subtle energy located there we can gain deep insight into ways that we might be able to wake up or bring balance to those areas in our bodies and in our lives.
The seven Chakras in Yogic anatomy are:
1st Chakra: Muladhara (Root)
- Located: Base of the spine, associated with feet, legs. Coccygeal Plexus
- Colour: Red
- Seed sound: LAM
- Element: Earth
- Relates to: Physical family, security, tribal power
2nd Chakra: Svadhisthana (Sacral)
- Located: at the pelvic area, hips, genital region, Sacral Plexus
- Colour: Orange
- Seed sound: YAM
- Element: Water
- Relates to: Creativity, relationships, money, sex, ethics
3rd Chakra: Manipura (Solar Plexus)
- Located: Spanning from the diaphragm to navel, digestive system, Solar Plexus.
- Colour: Yellow
- Seed sound: RAM
- Element: Fire
- Relates to: Self esteem, personal power centre, responsibility of making decisions
4th Chakra: Anahata (Heart)
- Located: At your heart, chest, shoulders, arms; Cardiac Plexus
- Colour: Green
- Seed sound: YAM
- Element: Air
- Relates to: Love, open heartedness, to love & be loved, forgiveness & compassion, hope & trust
5th Chakra: Visuddha (Throat)
- Located: At your throat, Pharyngeal Plexus
- Colour: Blue
- Seed sound: Ham
- Element: Ether
- Relates to: Self expression, power of will, communication, ability to speak one’s truth, using personal power to create.
6th Chakra: Ajna (Third Eye)
- Located: At your third eye, between the eyebrows, Carotid Plexus
- Colour: Purple/Indigo
- Seed sound: Om
- Element: Light
- Relates to: Power of mind, open mindedness, seek only truth, emotional intelligence, symbolic sight, intuition.
7th Chakra: Sahasrara (Crown)
- Located: at the crown of your head, Cerebral Cortex
- Colour: Violet or white
- Seed sound: OM
- Element: Universal energy
- Relates to: Our spiritual connection, living in the moment/in flow, faith & inspiration, connection to something greater.
The Chakras are described as vibrating, spinning wheels of energy. These energy centres were discovered by the ancient yogis through years of dedicated practice and introspection. When we tap into these centres we can potentially feel the subtle body, the pranic layers more clearly and uncover the deeper wisdom that resides within us.
Through the food we eat, movement, breath, colour, the vibration of sound, smell, the direction and quality of our attention, through our relationship with others, we can learn to control this energy. To wake it up, to calm it down to bring it into a beautiful balance.
We may start to uncover a feeling of the body being one interrelated being of vibrating energy, intimately connected with the environment and other beings around us. We might be able to tap into the fifth and innermost layer of the Koshas, the Bliss Body — resting in the simple, open awareness, an ocean of consciousness.
We may simply find a space to just be, to be the observer of the way in which we are vibrating right now without any judgment. And to acknowledge that each of us are connected as beings made up of these interrelated layers of energy, from gross to subtle, subtle to gross. We each have a deep wisdom to uncover and we can utilise these bodies we have been born with to gain insight into the nature of reality.
Want to delve deep into the Subtle body in an experiential way?
Why not join a retreat where we have the time and space to go deep into the energetic layers of the body.