Whether you are a beginning or advanced student of yoga, it is important to understand how yoga works, why it works, and how to maintain an effective yoga practice. There is a relationship between the inner, subtle energy of the body (prana), the quality of your thoughts, and whether your energy centers (chakras) are blocked or open.
I would like to thank my teacher, Geshe Michael Roach, for sharing the teachings presented in this article, which has been adapted from his lecture, “Principles of Yoga: How Yoga Works” given in Tucson, Arizona in 2004.
To fully understand the purpose of yoga, we have to understand how yoga works. First, let’s explore how prana flows through our inner bodies. We have 3 main channels of energy in our bodies: (1) the central channel (sushumna nadi), (2) the left side channel (ida nadi), and (3) the right side channel (pingala nadi). According to the ancient Vedic text, Hatha Yoga Pradipika, there are 72,000 channels in the body, but these three are the major channels. Inside the central channel flows a subtle physical energy called prana, or inner wind. Your thoughts are riding on this energy called prana.
Your central channel (sushumna) starts between the eyes, goes right under the skull and down your back, inside the spine. The spinal cord has formed around your central channel, the ancient texts say, like ice forming around a twig, or like an ice cream cone that has been dipped in chocolate. The central channel goes down to your perineum, which is the base of your sexual organ, whether you’re a man or a woman. The central channel is translucent. It has a crystalline quality to it, and if you could hold it in front of you and see through it, you would see a fiery golden color inside the central channel.
In Sanskrit, the central channel is called sushumna. Su means good. When you repeat it, it means “really good,” so sushu means “really good”. And then mna is where we get the word “hymn”, which means “a holy sacred song”. So, sushumna means “beautiful song.” When prana is flowing freely through the central channel, you have pleasant, happy, healthy thoughts and feelings. You feel joy, generosity, kindness, love, etc. The central channel is the ecstasy channel, the joy channel.
When you have an orgasm, all the wind flows into the central channel and out from the side channels. That’s why an orgasm feels so good, and why it’s highly addictive: The entire world wants it! To have an orgasm is a profound, powerful desire. According to the ancient texts, The only other time you get all the winds collected into the central channel is when you die.
The two side channels of prana run alongside the spinal column, where the central channel is located. The left side channel, called ida nadi in Sanskrit, means “white as a sheep.” The right side channel, called pingala nadi in Sanskrit, came into English as “pink.” It means “a reddish-pink color.” The two side channels are the reason why we have two halves of our bodies: the left and the right side. That’s why we have two nostrils, two eyes, two hands, etc. Our physical bodies have formed around the two side channels of inner energy. The two side channels run down the left and right sides of your body. The two channels follow alongside the central channel except at the nose, where they extend down to the left and right nostrils. Then, they go under your skull, inside your spine, and go down, curve around, and come up at your perineum, at the base of your sexual organ.
Imagine three pipe cleaners side-by-side, representing the three inner channels where prana flows through your body. At certain areas in your body, the two side channels cross over the central channel and then cross back, creating a knot. This knot chokes the central channel (sushumna). Then, the prana cannot flow freely through the central channel and instead gets re-routed into one or both of the side channels.
When the prana is flowing through the side channels due to a knot in the central channel, then you have negative thoughts, feelings, and emotions. The central channel is then choked, and prana cannot flow freely through it. What happens then? You were being kind, nice, and feeling happy. Then there was a traffic jam. You started feeling angry and frustrated. Maybe you had thoughts about cutting the guy off or giving him the finger. Your prana started moving in the right side channel (pingala nadi), in which run our thoughts and emotions related to anger, sadness, and shame. This choked the central channel. Now you are not feeling kind and happy.
The worst place for this to happen is directly behind your heart, at the anahata chakra. Anahata means not struck, like the sound of a drum with no one beating the drum—the sound of your heart. There are three twists around this chakra. This is the only place in your body where the side channels twist around the central channel three times. It is the most difficult chakra to open for this reason. The most difficult thing to do is to love people and to be concerned about loving people.
When the side channels cross over the central channel, that’s called a knot—a granti. When you have your next positive, loving thought, it has nowhere to go, because the central channel is choked. Then, like a clogged pipe, the central channel gets “backed up” above and below the knot. This build-up of pressure inside the central channel causes it to burst! This is what creates a chakra, which means “wheel.” The chakras are caused by a knot in the central channel, resulting in a build-up of prana that spurts out as a wheel.
Let’s consider being in a traffic jam. You are now feeling angry and frustrated. Then, you start having thoughts about cutting people off so that you can get to work on time. Your prana starts flowing through the left side channel, which has to do with fear, greed, and craving. Every time you have a negative thought, it chokes the central channel. In your desire and your anger, you’ve ruined your day, because you can’t perceive anything as pleasant, because of the knot in your central channel. You arrive at work feeling angry and upset. You are easily frustrated and lose your patience easily. You feel especially annoyed with that irritating guy in the next cubicle. You have cravings for junk food. These are all disturbing, negative emotions that result from prana running through the left and right side channels. Your central channel, your joy and happiness channel, has a knot, and prana cannot flow freely through your central channel.
What would happen if you could untie these knots in your central channel before work? What if you could make sure that prana was flowing through your central channel? If you could avoid these knots, what would happen at work? You would have a better day. You would not get angry during the traffic jam. You would have patient, loving thoughts. You would arrive at work feeling happy and peaceful. You wouldn’t feel irritated by that guy in the next cubicle. You would feel creative, focused, fulfilled, and happy.
The purpose of yoga is to release the knots in your central channel so that you can have kind, loving thoughts. If you practice some exercises in the morning that loosen these knots, then your job will change. Your life will change. This is how yoga works: It changes the way you perceive your world, because it changes the flow of subtle, inner energy (prana) in your body.
The heart chakra is the most difficult place to loosen the knot in your central channel. The only place in your body where the side channels twist around the central channel three times is at your heart, where your spine is, where the central channel is coming down. That is why it is so challenging to love people and let people love us. You have to open the heart chakra in order to feel love for other people. How do open the heart chakra? You untwist the three knots! Thus, we practice twists in our hatha yoga (asana) postures. Granti moksha means “to free up the knot.” Twists open up the chakras by loosening the knots around the central channel.
In hatha yoga, there are specific postures (asanas) that twist and stretch the body in different ways. Each yoga posture is designed to open specific energy centers (chakras) in your body.
Classically, there are seven chakras located in front of the spine, from the base of your spine all the way up to the crown of your head. Stretches direct inner wind (prana) out of the side channels and into the central channel. When you practice locks (bandhas) in yoga, you pressurize and direct prana to flow up the central channel, from the bottom to the top of your spine. Linking one posture to the next with steady breathing (vinyasa) distributes the prana evenly throughout all the chakras.
In an effective hatha yoga practice, the yoga postures must be practiced in order. You open up the bottom chakras first, and that frees up prana to the middle chakras, and that lets prana flow to the top chakras. Moving from the bottom chakra gradually up to the heart, throat, 3rd eye, etc. is more powerful than moving down, because you are trying to get prana to flow up to the crown chakra, where you can experience feelings of bliss and ecstasy. But in order to get there, you have to first open up all the chakras underneath. That is the purpose of yoga.