Introduction to the Chakras (Excerpt from my book “Chakras”)

Virtually all human cultures have some kind of concept of mind, spirit and soul as distinct from the physical body. While it is a common notion to associate the Chakras with the Indian traditions, in reality all cultures and religions have their own interpretations on similar lines of energy systems in the body. References can be found in ancient Egyptian, Chinese and Japanese philosophies while the Kabbala, Celtic and Sufi traditions also contain information about bodily energies. Renee Skuban writes, “The Chakras, when viewed collectively, reflect unified consciousness, or soul. When viewed individually, they reflect different aspects of consciousness, including body, instinct, vital energy, emotions, communication and connection to the Divine.”

There is a single energy that pervades the entire Cosmos. This universal energy – found in everything from the tiniest grain of sand to the mightiest planet – is responsible for the creation and sustenance of life and forms the basis of all existence. Seen at its most fundamental level, matter is merely energy in a state of vibration. We perceive ourselves and the world around us to be made up of physical matter. In fact, it is very difficult for us to conceive that we (and everything around us) are not matter but pure energy. We find it hard to accept this view because we can see, touch and feel objects and so our reasoning mind asks – how can all of this be mere energy?

Matter is made up of atoms at its most fundamental level. Atoms are further made up of protons, neutrons and electrons. Looking deep into the atomic structure shows that everything inside an atom is in the form of waves or vibration. In short, studies in Quantum Physics clearly establish the fact that there is no matter inside of an atom; it is 99.9% empty space and energy is all there is. If the most basic element of creation is made up of only energy, then it stands to reason that everything in the Universe is just that – energy.

How then do we perceive differences in all forms of life? How do we differentiate between a solid object such as a rock, a liquid such as flowing water and gas such as the breeze that we undeniably can feel? The atoms in every form vibrate at a different speed and it is this speed or frequency that determines whether we perceive the energy as solid, liquid or gas. Atoms which vibrate at a slow speed are perceived as dense and tangible (such as the rock), those at a higher frequency are seen as liquid and at the highest speed, we perceive only the intangible such as light or the breeze.

The cells in our body also emit different energies based on where they are located and what functions they perform. These energies are called “prana” in Ayurveda and “chi” in Chinese medicine. In Ayurveda philosophy, prana is the Sanskrit word for “life-force” or vital principle that permeates all objects – animate and inanimate. Prana flows through several channels, criss-crossing the entire body through energy channels called Nadis. As it flows through the Nadis, prana collects in vortices at particular points in the body which are known as the Chakras. These key points operate like balls of energy interpenetrating the body.

We can use the analogy of a house to explain the Chakras better. Every house has several electrical connections and wires running throughout the building. Switches located at some key points help operate the electrical equipment and can be turned on or off at will. Similarly, we can see the Chakras as these switches that govern the energy systems in the body. Jayaram V writes, “The main function of the Chakras is to draw in the prana by spinning around their own axes and hold it in their respective sphere to maintain and balance the spiritual, mental, emotional and physical well-being of the mind and body.”

The Tantra texts suggest that the complex network of Nadis are made up of as many as 72,000 channels through which prana circulates in the body. “Nadi” means “stream” in Sanskrit and according to the Shiva Samhita, there are fourteen main Nadis that are spread throughout our subtle body. Out of these, the three most important Nadis are:

  • Sushumna – the central channel made up of three subtle channels: Vajra, Chitrini and Brahma, through which energy moves upwards from the Muladhara Chakra to Sahasrara Chakra and controls the central nervous system.
  • Ida – the feminine Nadi that is cooling in nature and is associated with the colour white and represents the moon. It journeys from the Muladhara Chakra to the left nostril and controls the parasympathetic nervous system.
  • Pingala – masculine in its characteristics, hot by nature and associated with the colour red and represents the sun. It journeys from the Muladhara Chakra to the right nostril and controls the sympathetic nervous system.

Most experts agree that the study of the three main Nadis and seven main Chakras gives a fairly clear idea of the entire energy system in the body. Ancient Indian scholars suggest that there are 114 Chakras (out of which two lie just above the head) in total, but the seven main Chakras lying between the base of the spine and the crown of the head following the curvature of the spine are the most vital. They are:

  • Muladhara or Root Chakra
  • Swadisthana or Sacral Chakra
  • Manipura or Navel Chakra
  • Anahata Chakra or the Heart Chakra
  • Vishuddha or Throat Chakra
  • Ajna Chakra or the Mid-eyebrow Chakra
  • Sahasrara Chakra or the Crown Chakra

The Nadis and Chakras are not physical attributes. They exist in the subtle body or the Sukshma Sharira. In the Hindu tradition, a living being is made up of mind, body and spirit. The Sharira Tatva (Doctrine of Three Bodies) describes the human body as consisting of three aspects and five sheaths.

The three aspects are:

  • Sthula Sharira or the gross physical body
  • Sukshma Sharira or the subtle body
  • Karana Sharira or the causal body

The Sthula Sharira is the gross physical body through which life or “jiva” is experienced. The main features of this body include birth, ageing and death. It is related to the waking state.

The Sukshma Sharira is the subtle body that houses the mind and vital energies (prana). The subtle body is said to be composed of the five elements (air, fire, water, earth and space) and is made up of the five sense organs (ear, eye, nose, tongue and skin), five organs of action (hand, foot, mouth, anus and genitalia) and the five-fold vital breath (respiration, elimination, circulation, digestion and actions such as sneezing, crying, etc.) along with Manas (mind) and Buddhi (intellect). The dream state is the distinct state of this Sharira. It is in this Sharira that the Chakras can be discerned.

The Karana Sharira is the causal body that merely contains the seed of the Sthula and Sukshma Sharira and it has no other function of its own. It is the most complex of the three bodies and is thought to be the portal to enter higher consciousness. It is identified with the deep sleeping state.

The gross body ceases to exist when death occurs and it then becomes one with Nature. The subtle body disintegrates when it is time to take a new birth, allowing us to develop a new personality in the new life. The causal body incarnates again and again with each rebirth and carries the imprints of the Karmas of our previous lives (samskaras), and disintegrates only at the time of moksha or liberation.

Each body has a dimension or a layer. In Vedanta, this layer is called a sheath or a kosha as it separates the body from the Atman (soul). Each sheath is made up of increasingly finer shades of energy, beginning from the outermost layer of the skin to the innermost spiritual core of our being. There are five such sheaths and it is in the Pranamaya Kosha that the Chakras operate.

Annamaya Kosha

This is the outermost layer or the physical or food sheath which includes skin, connective tissue, fat, muscle and bone. “Anna” comes from “food” which our bodies take from earth and eventually turn into food. This layer is possibly the one we find ourselves thinking about most of the time to pursue physical gratification and enjoyment.

Pranamaya Kosha

This is the sheath of subtle, vital energy (prana) and includes in it the movement of bodily fluids such as blood circulation, lymph and cerebral fluids and the circulation of breath through the respiratory system. We cannot see energy but can certainly feel it in our bodies. This layer is involved in our intuitions and impulses, and therefore, can be said to control our bodily and spirit rhythm. It is in this kosha that the Chakras operate.

Manomaya Kosha

This is the sheath of the mind and comprises our emotions, feelings and workings of the nervous system. It involves the processing of inputs through our five senses and responding to them reflexively without conscious application of focus. Our thoughts, fantasies and daydreams all constitute this kosha as they are all methods of making sense of the outside world. On the most basic level, we are talking about perceptions, images and emotions, but at a deeper level resides our prejudices, preconceived notions and beliefs that we absorb over a lifetime.

Vijnanamaya Kosha

This is the sheath of wisdom or the psyche. Sensory perceptions coming from the Manomaya Kosha are processed here and meaning is imbued into them with awareness, insight and consciousness. It is here that we make choices about every aspect of living/our lives based on our experiences. This sheath can be seen as the one housing our intelligence as we engage in activities that help us gather wisdom by way of conscious awareness.

Anandamaya Kosha

This is the sheath of bliss as we move from conscious awareness to pure bliss, which includes in it our unconscious mind, samskaras (impressions left behind by every life experience) and our individual consciousness called Chitta. In this sheath, there is nothing but sheer joy and utter contentment. There are no mortal fears or base emotions such as anger, jealousy and insecurities. Among the five sheaths, the Anandamaya Kosha reflects the Divine Consciousness and its state of Satchidananda (eternal bliss).

To understand the development of the process by which energy condenses from the unmanifest to the gross physical form of the human body, we can think of the Anandamaya Kosha as ether or space, Vijnanamaya Kosha as air, Manomaya Kosha as steam, Pranamaya Kosha as water and Annamaya Kosha as ice. Just as it is more difficult to give shape to ice than to water (as ice is solid and water as a liquid takes on the shape of its container more easily than ice), the various sheaths become more ephemeral as we move towards the higher realms.

Koshas and associated limb of Yoga and Chakras

Kosha Type of layer Chakra Related limb of Yoga
Annamaya Physical Muladhara Niyama Asana
Pranayama Energy Manipura Pranayama
Manomaya Mental and Emotional Swadisthana Pratyahara Dharana
Vijnanamaya Wisdom Anahata Dharana
Anandamaya Bliss Vishuddha Samadhi

All across Vedic literature, it is reiterated that the human body is a microcosm of the Universe. Whatever exists in the Universe is seen in the human body and vice versa. The human body is seen as comprising two portions – the top half beginning at the crown of the head and ending at the tailbone in the spine; the second half beginning at the tailbone and ending at the feet. The spine is the axis on which the body rests just as the Meru is the axis of the Universe. It is for this reason that the spine is called Meru-danda. We find that five of the Chakras lie along this Meru-danda and the final two at the top of the head. The inward journey of a practitioner begins at the base of the spine and moves upward till it reaches a point above the crown of the head.

There are many Chakras located along the hands and feet but these are minor in terms of the role that they play in the overall energy body. Some of the hand Chakras are located in the palms and are seen as an extension of the Anahata or Heart Chakra while some of the foot Chakras are found in the arch of the feet and are governed by the Muladhara or Root Chakra.

The Chakras, even though they are located in the subtle body, have a profound influence on our physical being. Each Chakra’s location corresponds to and is associated with organs that lie in its vicinity and with the plexus – a specific group of nerves. Each Chakra is also associated with a major endocrine gland – the gonads correspond to the Muladhara Chakra, the pancreas to the Swadisthana, adrenals to the Manipura, thymus to the Anahata, thyroid and parathyroid to the Vishuddha, the pineal and pituitary to the Ajna and the entire cerebrospinal region to the master Chakra – the Sahasrara.

The Chakras not only govern aspects of the physical body but they are also deeply and intrinsically connected to the conscious experience of life itself. All senses, perceptions and states of awareness can be separated in seven categories, which in turn are related to a specific Chakra. When we feel fear, for example, we feel a sensation in the sacral region along with an urge to urinate or defecate. When we feel hurt in relationships, we feel it as a pain or discomfort in the heart region. When we feel unable to communicate, we feel the tightness in our throat Chakra and when we feel stress, it invariably leads to a headache in the Third Eye Chakra. Any discomfort perceived by the sense organs is immediately relayed to the Chakras by way of the nerve plexus connecting the brain to that specific Chakra. Extended discomfort, pain, stress and fear have a way of lodging themselves deeply in the cellular memory of the Chakra, thereby giving rise to blockages, which then lead to illness and disease.

Another significant association of the Chakra system is with the Kundalini Shakti, which has been one of the most popular traditions of spiritual growth in India. Just as in most other traditions, its basic tenet is that Shakti resides within us and spiritual evolution is achieved by proper utilisation of this feminine principle. In the Kundalini tradition, Shakti is seen as residing at the base of the spine at the Muladhara Chakra, symbolised by a serpent coiled into three and a half circles around the central axis Svayambhu-linga at the base of the spine. The three and a half circles represent the three gunas (sattva, rajas and tamas) and the past, present and future while the half turn symbolises the ascent of the Kundalini Shakti to the crown Chakra.

Kundalini comes from the word “serpent” as this energy is shown as lying dormant like a coiled-up snake ready to spring into action. The goal of Kundalini is to open up all the Chakras of the body, thereby allowing the ascent of the energy from the Muladhara to the Sahasrara, traversing through the various Chakras. When the energy finally reaches the top of the head, it is said to bring about enlightenment and liberation of the soul. Vedic texts explain that from the Muladhara Chakra, Ida and Pingala alternate from the right to left sides at each Chakra until they reach Ajna Chakra where they meet again with Sushumna. The rising of the Kundalini is seen as the process of the awakening of spiritual consciousness and brings about liberation from illusion and ignorance, leading to the development of wisdom and ultimately a union with the Universal Consciousness.

“Like flowers, Chakras can be open or closed, dying or budding, depending on the state of consciousness within,” says Tiffany Luptak. Why do we need to work on them to ensure that they are open, active and effervescent at all times? All our life experiences, possibly even those from our previous lifetimes, influence our Chakras. We are told by Vedic seers that the state of our Chakras depends on our vasanas, Karma and samskaras. Our negative experiences, feelings and emotions and the low-frequency energy associated with them can bring about a blockage in any one of the energy centres. Blockage of energy leads to a stagnation, which then has a cumulative effect on all the other Chakras. An underactive Chakra may push the adjacent Chakra into excessive energy, thereby causing imbalances across the entire Chakra system. The reason why we need to bring about a balance of the Chakras is to enable us to clear old blocks and move into higher states of frequency, leading to the evolution of our higher consciousness. This again is in keeping with the philosophy of the Kundalini Shakti.

Like every other aspect of life, the Chakras continuously move from a state of balance to imbalance and vice versa. Disease and ill health are often an outcome of an energy blockage as prana cannot flow freely, thereby affecting the optimal functioning of the body part in question. Imbalances in the Chakras can occur as a result of poor diet, unhealthy lifestyle, lack of exercise, inadequate sleep, bad habits, performance pressure, physical and emotional trauma, stress, unfulfilled and purposeless life, and inability to maintain harmonious relationships with others.

Joy Gardner explains in Vibrational Healing through the Chakras, “As we journey through life, we respond to various events by opening up or closing down physically, emotionally, spiritually. Theoretically, a person who is fully enlightened is fully open at all the Chakras and is not susceptible to these kinds of fluctuations.”

The Chakras in the Indian tradition correspond to the five elements – Muladhara represents the Earth element, Swadisthana is the Water element, Manipura is the Fire element, Anahata is the Air element and Ajna is the Space element. The progression is from the grossest to the most subtle element, and this ascent can be understood as a spiritual pilgrimage undertaken, starting at the point of the gross self to culminating in the merging of this self with the Universal Consciousness.

In Tantric texts, each of the seven Chakras has a unique symbol represented by a mandala – a spiritual and ritual symbol in Hinduism which represents the Universe. The circular design symbolises the belief that the cycle of life and death is never ending and that everything in the Universe is connected, and even more profoundly that everything is derived from a single source.

The lotus is a common motif that is used to depict the seven Chakras. Each Chakra contains a specific number of lotus petals (starting from four petals in the Muladhara and ending with the glorious thousand-petalled lotus of the Sahasrara), with the unfolding of the petals seen as an expression of the expansion of the soul. Even though a lotus is rooted in muddy waters, the flower itself blooms above the water. The mud said to be symbolic of our own personal attachments and desires and how we are blinded by “maya”, while the flower stands as a shining example of beauty, emerging unaffected from an undesirable environment. “Just as the Lotus has its roots in the bottom of the lake, the world is the fertile soil from which we live and grow. But our consciousness is destined to raise itself above the clouded sphere of delusion to the clarity and freedom of Divine vision. The opening lotus blossom symbolises the unfolding of the consciousness and the awakening of wisdom within us. In Yoga literature the Chakras are also referred to as lotuses, for example the Muladhara Chakra is known as the Mula Kamala, the Manipura as Nabhi Kamala, the Vishudda as Kantha Kamala,” says Paramahans Swami Maheshwarananda.

In the ancient Indian texts, such as the Shat Chakra Nirupana, we do not find associations of the Chakras with colours in the way they are depicted in its present form following the ROYGIB scheme. This association of rainbow colours with the Chakras was first made in the 1970s in a book titled Nuclear Evolution: Discovery of the Rainbow Body by Christopher Hills. Chakras are also associated with scents (related to flowers) and gem stones in the Indian texts, but we do not find allusions to the use of crystals for Chakra healing. This is a New Age addition along with other products such as Chakra healing stones, music, bracelets, which present the possibility of commercial gain.

The symbolic representations contained in the mandalas illustrate the qualities of each Chakra, helping us to intuitively discover their attributes by making them relatable and more easily comprehensible to the rational mind. It is important to remember that these symbols are mere representations of the intangible, and therefore, it is always a good idea to use them as a loose guide and stay close to one’s perception of the Chakras in recognising and meditating upon them.

Recent studies have been undertaken to understand the Vagus nerve and its connection to the seven Chakras. The Vagus nerve is the 10th cranial ventricle, extending from the base of the spine to the brain. Its function is to gather information from the autonomous organs and glands of the body, such as the heart, intestines, thymus and thyroid, and bring this information to the brain for deduction. The Vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the human body and is often called the communication highway of the body. It does not transmit the chemicals but only the electrical signals to the brain. Yoga and Tantra experts state that there is a distinct possibility that Vagus Nerve could very well be what the sages of old saw “lit up” in deep Samadhi as the fiery serpent running up the spine to the brain. Here are some of the similarities between the Vagus nerve and the Kundalini:

  • It runs from the base of the spine to the brain
  • The Vagus Nerve is two nerves recognised as one, just as the Kundalini is seen as the intermingling of Ida and Pingala coming together as one in the Sushumna Nadi.
  • Both run through the spinal cord.
  • Both touch and interact with the organs and glands along the spine.

For those seeking proof that the Chakras exist on a physical level, the similarities between the Kundalini Shakti, as described by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras, and the Vagus nerve point to the possibility that the Vagus nerve is a physical manifestation of the primordial energy system outlined in the ancient Indian texts.

Swami Tadatmananda describes that whether we believe the Chakras exist or not is actually not a relevant matter to the practice of trying to bring our Chakras to a state of balance. The whole idea behind this wonderful concept is to bring attention and focus to all important parts of our body and meditate upon our feelings that arise there. Just as the goal of a pilgrimage is to get the blessings of a deity residing in a special place, the Chakras must be seen as divinity residing inside our own body which can be visited through a pilgrimage. This inner pilgrimage is a meditation practice in which we deliberately imagine sacred places within our body.

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