By Cynthia Abulafia
We have all heard phrases like, “that person has really good energy,” or “that was a waste of my energy,” but what exactly is energy? We know that some situations drain us and other situations bring us intense waves of love and joy. Falling in love can give us huge waves of energy. When we are full of energy we may not even need a lot of food or sleep to keep the energy up, but when our energy is drained no amount of food or sleep actually helps to nourish our resources. If we are sad or depressed we may not even have the energy to get out of bed. Somehow energy is not only biological.
In yoga traditions energy is often referred to as prana. This translates as something like ‘life force,’ ‘that which is infinitely everywhere,’ ‘that which sustains us,’ or it can even be simply translated as ‘breath.’
Building energy as prana is actually the whole point of the physical practice of yoga. The practice is designed to move energy in very certain ways, to bundle our attention and our breath and deep dive that package into the body in order to clean out our inner channels of energy and feed whatever might be depleted in us.
This is why the breath is so important in yoga. This is why the final resting pose, lying still on our backs at the end of a physical movement yoga class, is so important. It helps to build and collect our energy after we have spent some time cleaning out the pathways and making space for something fresh and clean.
Some brilliant scholars today, most notably Dr. Daniel Keown (MD, TCM), argue that prana (Chi) is an actual electric spark produced in the body. We have a tissue that wraps around our muscles called fascia, or connective tissue. This is the same type of tissue that makes up our bones and our blood, interestingly. As collagen fibers align deep in the matrix of connective tissue bends it sends a spark of- yes- electric energy through our systems.
So it may actually turn out that prana, or Chi, or energy, is a real and measurable substance that moves in certain pathways through our bones, our blood, and our whole entire body, pulsing with information in the huge interwoven network of fascia just a couple layers below our skin. This gives us the glow of health and the glow of vibrancy that we see in our favorite teachers, in children, and in plants and animals.
Nadis Are the Pathways of Prana
Sometimes at the end of a yoga class I’ll place a fingertip gently at the top of someone’s head, or on their breast bone if I know them well. So many people can actually feel a buzzing, a sparking, or a flowing like liquid, in those places of the body. Maybe it’s because of the practice, the breath, and the movement, or maybe it’s because they are allowing themselves to be still for a moment and therefore can feel their layered self more completely.
If we would like to start paying attention to our deep life force- that electric spark that makes us move and breathe then we need to cultivate certain practices to support our prana. We naturally start to investigate the anatomy of that matrix of prana and, at some point, discover certain patterns of flow, movement, and impulse in the system.
The term nadi describes these very channels or pathways that prana moves through traditionally and in ancient yoga scripture, much like water moving through rivers, canals, and aqueducts or information moving through the nervous system of the body. Nadi means ‘tube’ or ‘pipe.’
Most pathways of energy are said to originate either at the low naval center or at the heart center.1 These pathways may very well cohabitate with the bands of fascia that move in certain directions throughout the entire physical form. The nervous system is only a part of this network of flowing information, which also includes the circulatory system, the endocrine system, the meridian lines, and other subtle body systems that the ancient adepts knew about and that we have yet to discover in the physical body through modern machines.
Places where the energy channels concentrate into grand terminals are called chakras, centers of energy that collect certain aspects of ourselves as further structure to the subtle form. The chakras are like bundles or nodal points where nadis meet, collect specific information, and then disperse out again.
The breathing and moving practices of yoga are designed to clean out our channels, kind of like flushing water through pipes, in order to remove blockages in any of the subtle channels so that life force can build and concentrate.
Here are some simple daily practices that can help to add to our energy:
Direct your attention toward breath and away from thought. Often at night I will say to my children as I tuck them in: “it’s time to turn your mind away from your thoughts and into your breath.”
I’ll tell you what- a child can fall asleep pretty fast when they actually follow this practice. It works on adults too! We immediately calm down when we allow the deep rhythms of the body to awaken. We also hear in this phrase the reminder that the mind is not synonymous with thought but has a certain agency of attention that taps from a deeper well than do the flighty and cyclical thought-forms.
Begin to breathe deeply and with a mind to natural anatomy. Even simple, natural breathing done well and done with intention can change our energy in a matter of the time it takes for the red light to change to green. We will investigate exactly how to realign the anatomy of the breath in the next chapter.
Practice gratitude. Every day write down or contemplate three things that you are grateful for. It can be simple: I am grateful that I have a body. I am grateful that I spoke to that person today. I am grateful for feeling the sun on my skin. I am grateful that I am able to feel the soles of my feet.
Do not underestimate a gratitude practice. Gratitude can help to build and support our relationships, reduce aggression, and even helps to build our physical and mental health. Gratitude practices actually change the most important functions of our life- one study even showed that gratitude practices before bedtime can improve the depth, duration, and quality of our sleep.
Take care of yourself by eating foods that nourish you and putting products on your skin, hair, and in your body that honor the sacred vessel of your body. Take care of yourself by walking or exercising in small, regular ways.
Notice what You Notice. Start to focus your attention on how you are feeling: the simple act of noticing what you notice is in fact the best way to build prana. Notice your mind when it’s chattery or upset. Stay with it. Notice your body- the parts that feel good, the parts that don’t feel good, the parts that you can’t really feel at all. Welcome your attention until it is always with you. After all, you are the only one that can build your energy- you are the one that can pay attention to your deep inner rivers. You are your own teacher.