To a physicist, energy is the capacity for work. Work is mathematically defined as the distance an object can travel because of a given force.
That seems a very boring definition. Far more interesting is how energy works in yoga. What is it used for and how do we get it to do its thing?
Well, here is a simple way to understand energy from a yogic perspective: Just remember “Energy 2-3-4.”
The benefits we obtain from our yoga practice physiologically can be traced to two things we do energetically:
We turn on the tap, and
We remove blockages to the flow.
A good analogy for this is a garden hose. Imagine you went off for a year’s retreat studying yoga and meditation at an ashram in a beautiful forest. When you came back home, your back yard was totally overgrown. After mindfully harvesting the hay, you go to water your lawn with your hose, which had been left out all year in the yard: You turn on the tap, but no water flows. Your hose has become blocked with mud and insects. So, you do some yoga on your hose: You twist and bend it until the blockages are loosened and the water flows.
To be useful, energy must be channeled. The hose channels the flow of water, as do the banks of a river. Wires channel the flow of electricity. And in our body, we also have many channels. There are nerves for electrical energy and blood vessels for chemical energy, but there are also more subtle pathways (called nadis by Indian yogis, or meridians by Daoists). If those channels are blocked, we need to open them up.
That is what we do in yoga: We turn on the tap, which stimulates energy to flow, and then we remove any blockages or impediments to the flow of energy. These blockages have a particular name in Sanskrit: They are called granthis (pronounced “gruntees”). You can tell from the sound of that word, you don’t want gruntees in your body! Fortunately, yoga destroys gruntees.
That is what we do in yoga: We turn on the tap, which stimulates energy to flow, and then we remove any blockages or impediments to the flow of energy.
In our yoga practice we use energy to do three kinds of work. These are:
Materials need to get from one place to another in the body: That is the transportation function of energy. From food being ingested and its remnants being ejected, to moving nutrients from the gut into the bloodstream (and from there to all the cells), to moving the limbs of the body—transportation requires a significant amount of energy.
Equally expensive in energetic terms is the work done via transformation: The body needs to transform the raw materials of food and air into glucose for fuel, as well as into a variety of tissues. Each cell is a miniature factory transforming nutrients into proteins, enzymes, and messenger molecules, which are then transported to where they are needed.
These messenger molecules are part of the physical communication system in the body. There are, however, more refined ways that messages are passed along—such as electrical signals. And the energy used for communication is far less than that used for transportation or transformation. In fact, it is so much less that we can call this use of energy “subtle”!
It is pretty easy to measure how much energy the body uses for transportation and transformation, as these are the basic energies of metabolism. Heat is a common byproduct of these energy expenditures and we can easily measure how much the body heats up—just use a thermometer. The degree of energy expended on communication, however, is quite a bit less, and thus harder to detect.
It is no wonder that an understanding of the varied communication systems within the body developed only after the other energy uses were mapped out. A whole new branch of medicine is devoted to just one aspect of this, called “cellular signaling.” The study of how physical stresses and pressures on our tissues create communication is called “mechanobiology.” Another branch is called “energy medicine.” These branches of medicine are discovering that cells communicate with each other through a variety of technologies: electricity, chemicals, PH levels, pressure, touch, sound, and even light and electromagnetic fields.
Through the movement and stresses we generate in our yoga asana practice, we both stimulate energy flow and reduce or remove blockages to that flow.
Movement and stress can create tiny electrical currents and magnetic fields in the body (through a process called piezoelectricity). Additionally, through a process called mechanotransduction, the physical stresses applied through our fascia to the cells embedded within the fascia create signals that stimulate the cells. Within the fascia, growth factors and enzymes are activated to help heal and nourish tissues, or to dissolve away scar tissue and adhesions.
Eastern maps of the body identify four ways we can turn on the tap and stimulate energy flow. These are:
I learned about these four methods through Sarah Powers. Unfortunately, neither Sarah nor I are licensed to stick students with sharp needles, and the acupuncture method is not used in yoga. The other three methods definitely are. Stress and pressure are forms of communication. As we practice, we are creating either tensile or compressive stresses to our tissues. This form of acupressure is another signal that our cells are responsive to. This is another reason for saying, “If you are feeling it, you are doing it!”
Directing awareness, a practice of mindfulness meditation often coupled with our yoga practice, also has measurable effects on the body. You can do a little experiment on your own: For one minute, direct your awareness to the tip of your thumb. After the minute, your thumb will be measurably warmer. Awareness will help dilate blood vessels, allowing more energy to flow to the attended area.
Breath, of course, is life—without it you die fairly quickly! Breath in many ancient languages meant both life and air: Spiritus in Latin is your spirit and your breath; prana has a similar connotation—it is life force as well as breath. Our breath not only brings oxygen into our system (which our cells use to burn their fuels and release energy), but the very act of breathing can also be stimulating. If we combine a slow, steady breath with an awareness of what that breath feels like in a targeted area, we can also enhance the flow of energy to that region. Of course, we don’t have lungs all over our body, but we do possess a body-wide fascial network. Each breath stresses that network, and if we are very attentive, we can feel this stress in the targeted area of each posture.
So, there you have it: the two ways yoga affects energy (turning on the tap and removing blockages); the three forms of energy we use in our body (transportation, transformation, and communication); and the four ways we can turn on the tap and stimulate energy to flow (acupuncture, acupressure, directed awareness, and the breath). An easy way to remember this? Just think: Energy 2-3-4.
Notes: 1. The drawing of the cell is from Dr. James Oschman’s book Energy Medicine, which is recommended for anyone wanting to learn more about how yoga and other practices affect us energetically.
2. See Demarzo MM et al “Mindfulness may both moderate and mediate the effect of physical fitness on cardiovascular responses to stress: a speculative hypothesis” in Front Physiol 2014 Mar 25;5:105. Download a PDF of this study here.