Article by Sinduja Krishnan
Chakras (wheel/s in Sanskrit) are the energy centers of the Prānic body or Prānamaya Kosha.
A chakra in Yoga and Tantra is synonymous with an energy center in the body. Chakras help transmit subtle energy or Prana through the energy body.
There are many energy centers, but for the purpose of this article, we will consider the main seven. They are from lowermost to highest, Moolādhara, Swādhishthāna, Manipura, Anāhata, Vishuddhi, Ājnā and Sahasrāra.
They stay connected to each other by a system of 3 interwoven channels or Nādis (nerves/channel).
Two of these nādis, Ida and Pingala are located on the left and right sides of the chakras, respectively, along the spine. The third nādi, Sushumna, runs straight up. The points where these three intersect are where the chakras are located.
The chakras lie in the Prānic body along the spine starting from the pelvic region and go up through to the area of the brain and beyond. “Prānic body” could be Aura, but ‘sheath’ is perhaps a better translation.
There are five sheaths of the body each more subtle than the last. These subtle sheaths lead us towards understanding the impermanence of the physical and move inwards towards the causal, where existence is Sat-chit-ananda (Truth-knowledge-bliss).
The sheaths from outermost to innermost or from gross to subtle are:
- (i) the physical sheath or the physical body Annamaya Kosha,
- (ii) the energy sheath or Prānamaya Kosha,
- (iii) the mental sheath or Manomaya Kosha,
- (iv) wisdom sheath or Vijnānamaya Kosha and
- (v) the sheath of bliss or Ānandamaya Kosha.
Chakras are like transformers (step up/ step down) that channel the subtle energy of the energy sheath. As calories are energy for the physical body, so is Prāna the energy of the Prānic body. These wheels or vortices of energy, Chakras, help to transmit the energy (Prāna) through the Prānic body (Prānamaya Kosha).
There are five main types of energy or Prana flowing through the Pranamaya Kosha.
Apāna or downward/outward flowing energy is concerned with expulsion of waste and is the force that expels the breath.
Prāna or upward/inward flowing energy provides energy for the respiratory organs, heart, and associated organs, and is the force that concerns inspiration of air.
Samāna or equalizing energy is concerned with assimilation and distribution of nutrients.
Udāna or uplifting energy governs the neck, head, legs, and arms and is concerned with posture, sensory awareness, and responses.
Vyāna or pervading energy is the reserve force that pervades all the other prānas coordinating and regulating them.
Once the chakras are activated/opened through spiritual practices of meditation, they are able to channel the high voltage energy referred to as Kundalini Shakti (serpent energy).
This Kundalini Shakti lies coiled and dormant at the base of the body in the Mooladhara Chakra. Kundalini is represented as a snake coiled around a Lingam three and a half times.
During a state of deep meditation, Prana and Apana reverse direction. They meet with the Samana at the center and the energy created by this fusion of energies creates a pull so strong that the Kundalini Shakti starts to rise up the Sushumna Nadi.
Once this state of union (Yoga) occurs, the Kundalini Shakti can rise: activating, purifying, cleansing and releasing the latent potential of the human consciousness.
The chakras are an inherent part of the process of union (Yoga). With the chakras purified and activated, the Kundalini Shakti energy flows upwards through the Sushumna Nādi, where it brings the practitioner to a state of oneness with the cosmic consciousness. This is one aspect of the state of Samādhi.
Understanding the seven chakras by elements
For the purposes of our pedagogy here, we will consider the six chakras along the spine and the seventh, which is not really a chakra but is the highest representation of our selves.
As we move upwards along the spine, the lowest chakra is Moolādhāra (the foundation), Swādhishthāna (one’s own abode), Manipura (the city of jewels), Anāhata (the centre of unstruck sound), Vishuddhi (centre of purification), Ājnā (command centre) and the highest representation of our selves Sahasrāra (thousand-petalled lotus).
The names of the chakras are in Sanskrit and are representations of an evolution of our selves.
We can also name the chakras from their elements or Tattva. Moolādhāra is Earth, Swādhishtāna is Water, Manipura is Fire, Anāhata is Air, Vishuddhi is Space, Ājnā is Guru and Sahasrāra is the whole of the cosmos.
If we go backwards, we go from the extremely subtle “cosmos” to the most stable and gross of elements, “earth”.
The chakras lie along the spine and correspond to nerve plexuses and important glands of the physical body.
For instance, Swadhishthana chakra lies in the area of the gonads while being often linked to sex and sexuality.
Texts on yoga and tantra and experience of the chakras will show that sexuality has very little to do with Swadhisthana.
The sexual organs are in proximity with the chakra, but the true opening of Swadhisthana chakra connects us with the cosmic element ‘water’, to fluidity, true creativity.
Characteristics of Chakras
To explain all the different aspects of chakras is difficult until we experience them for ourselves. Until then, we are only grasping at air, but not quite able to know the truth.
Realizing the chakras is a life-altering experience that takes many years of consistent spiritual practice and, some may argue, lifetimes of Sādhanā.
Yogis have given us a little hint of what to expect. Each chakra has a specific name, colour, associated number of petals, an associated geometric representation of this element (Yantra) and it’s (element’s) Bīja Mantra.
The petals are inscribed with letters from the Sanskrit alphabet. Within the centre of the chakra are archetypes of gods and goddesses with specific qualities related to the chakra.
Each chakra and its element is affiliated with an animal.
Reading about all these aspects makes chakras a complicated system of archetypes and representations that are not easy to understand in one sitting, which may be why not too many delve into the aspects of chakras.
For to do so means going deeper into ourselves, confronting aspects that we may not be prepared for.
Having said that, however, discovering the chakras and really becoming “one with” the practice and ultimately the understanding, is a truly fulfilling experience.
The table below will give us a starting point to understand the qualities of the chakras. With continued practice, adding first one layer, then another and another to the practice will enable you to become more and more accomplished.
This table is taken from “Kundalini Tantra” by Swami Satyananda.
Moving from outer to inner
It is far easier to understand spiritual experiences by our own subjective experiences. While we talk of chakras in their esoteric, spiritual and transcendental ways, we have to link them to our very own worldly experience of these wonderful concepts.
To understand the chakras, it is prudent to go from gross to subtle. For this, we will employ an approach that will link the chakras from their names and their locations in the body to the more subtle aspects of the chakras themselves.
The chakras stay connected to each other by a network of energy channels, or Nādis (translated as river from Sanskrit).
These energy channels are analogous with the nerve channels of the body.
In the book Prāna and Prānayama, Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati writes about the Mooladhara Chakra that “..(red) petals are seen in meditation because of electrical discharges, which emit light particles in this region.
The pattern of the (four-petalled) lotus is formed due to the relative proximity of the discharges.
So, the chakras are also known as lotuses.” The chakras visualized as flowers or lotuses are a representation of the nature of their energy.
The type of flower is irrelevant. When you come to realize the chakras, you will see them for what they truly are. Until then, it is all about practice.
Another important aspect of chakra studies is that different schools/systems of yoga describe the characteristics of chakras differently from one another.
This does not mean that one is right or the other wrong. It also does not mean that one is better than the other is.
It just means that when learning from one system, it is best to stick with that one until you have experience of the chakras for yourself.
What is the point in learning about the chakras if it remains as an intellectual exercise?
The idea is to prepare the body by practicing asanas and then bring the energy that we generate into our meditative practices – to better ourselves, or, if so inclined, direct it to a higher purpose.
Chakra Sādhana is the practice of meditating on the chakras. The simplest way to start is to sit in a meditative posture and connect with the divine power.
This helps us to learn humility while keeping us grounded. Opening ourselves to the energy of the universe can sometimes be daunting and having an anchor like a divine power may be necessary.
In some schools, symbols are prescribed as anchors for the mind to rest upon. These symbols could be a point of light, candle flame, gods/goddesses.
Tattwa Shuddhi is another aspect of the Chakra Sādhana exercise. The elements and their geometric figures are easier to focus on and remain a very important aspect of the Chakra.
While Tattwa Shuddhi is the purification of the elements within the body, which is a very crucial tantric meditation technique, a simplified preliminary technique may be used.
Print out or paint the pictures of the Yantras for each element. Take your time to focus on each picture for a few minutes, working your way up from the earth element up to the element of guru/mind and back down again until completely grounded.
If you are open to chanting, you can use the seed mantras or Bīja mantras while meditating on each element. Try to chant for each element at least nine times. This will give you time to become one with the meditation and the object of meditation.
Sit in a meditative posture and focus on the breath. When outside sounds drop away and you become one with the breath, bring your attention and focus it in the perineal area.
Here, try to envision a 4-petalled deep red lotus with a golden square at its centre. The Bīja mantra for the element earth is Lam.
Try and add as much detail to each aspect of the chakra. Chant the mantra for the earth element at least nine times. When you are ready, move upwards to the next chakra.
Take the awareness to the coccyx and imagine at this area a 6-petalled vermilion lotus. At its center is the symbol of the crescent moon reflected in a still lake.
The Bīja mantra for the water element is Vam. Chant the mantra nine times. When you are ready to move upwards. In this manner try to bring your mind all the way up to the Ājnā Chakra. At the crown of the head, envision a multi-colored thousand-petalled lotus.
This is the highest expression of yourself. Enjoy your connection with this aspect of yourself.
You can chant Aum nine times or enjoy the silence and the energy generated. Remember to breathe.
When you are ready, slowly bring your awareness down through each chakra again all the way down to Moolādhāra.
Become grounded, listen to the sounds around you and only when you are sure you are ready, open your eyes.
When starting to work with the Chakras, there are initial issues that you might face.
For instance, the location of the chakra may be unclear. I have found that a good teacher can help overcome that problem much more than any book.
Certain practices do help to open our perceptions and these preparatory practices go a long way to helping overcome initial barriers.
Breathing practices, Yoga Nidra and even simple techniques where we learn to chant mantras internally are all good starting points.
Remember that it is much better to start slow and add-on. What I have learned from practicing Chakra Sādhanā (Chakra practice) is not to let negative experiences get in the way of going through the process of experiencing the chakras.
Opening your heart completely means letting go of judgment and feeling truly complete love for everyone and everything.
When we love fully, there is no room for fear or judgment. In the beginning, all the different emotions that we experience can affect our view of the chakras.
The best way is to write down emotions, sift through them and learn from the experience. When we start functioning on the energy that we gain through Chakra Sādhana, we gain more focus and understanding.
Nothing can come in our way towards our true fulfillment!
Happy Chakra Sādhana!
Sinduja is a yoga-health therapist with interests in yoga, tantra, yoga philosophy and wellness. She believes that with conscious environmental awareness and yoga, the world can make a commitment to change for the better. Join her on surrenderyoga.wordpress.com.