Wheels of Life
Understanding these vital energy centers gives us self-knowledge at every level of our being.
By Sandra Anderson
“Anatomy is destiny,” Freud famously said. If he had understood the subtle anatomy of the yoga tradition he might have said, “Destiny determines anatomy.” Yogis know that destiny arises from consciousness defining itself in us through seven major energy centers—the chakras. The story of the chakras is the story of how spirit manifests in human form, including our individual variations on the human theme, as well as the story of our spiritual destiny and how we can transform our lives through yoga practice.
The word chakra literally means a “spinning wheel”—an apt metaphor, as spirit uses the chakras to weave the fabric of life. The chakras govern our behavior, shape our emotional life, give expression to our deepest desires, and build the structure of our physical body and personality.
Understanding the chakras gives us self-knowledge at every level of our being. Luckily for us, the chakras also map out the journey to fulfillment and enlightenment. Yoga is designed to use the energy of the chakras to accelerate that journey.
The chakra model describes how the life force, prana, circulates between two poles, one in the physical world of the body and the other in the realm of pure consciousness. We humans, strung out between them with all our longings, joys, doubts, and desires, embody both the gross physical reality and the infinite potential of consciousness. Prana nurtures and sustains every aspect of our body and mind through the six energy centers arranged on an axis through the core of the body between the top pole, infinity at the crown (the seventh chakra), and the bottom one, at the pelvic floor (the first chakra). For easy reference, you can view the chakras in respect to their position along the spine, but keep in mind they are not physical structures; rather, they are the loci of subtle energy, which manifests on many different levels, not just the physical.
Located at the base of the spine (the pelvic floor), the root chakra gives us our individual toehold on physical life. As the foundation of earthly existence, physical well-being, and security, the muladhara gives rise to the instinctive urges—such as hunger, sex, sleep, and self-preservation—that fuel our activities as well as our passions.
On the physical level, the root chakra is associated with the earth element, the sense of smell, and the capacity of excretion. It is also where our individual potential lies sleeping in the depths of our unconscious mind. Our spiritual journey in the universe of the body is to awaken this divine potential (kundalini) and unite her with the infinite at the crown of the head.
In the elegant convention for conveying attributes of the chakras symbolically, the root chakra appears as a four-petaled lotus with a lingam, a symbol of creative potency, inside a square. The serpent coiled around the lingam is the dormant kundalini; the square conveys the sense of stability and security associated with this chakra. Asana practice in particular can ground and pacify the energies of this center, offering safe haven in the home of the body. Other practices—such as observing the yamas and the niyamas—help us regulate the urges and free ourselves from an excessive or inappropriate focus on survival issues.
The svadishthana chakra, associated with the sacrum, the water element, and the genitals, governs taste and reproduction, as well as desire and pleasure. Our zest for life has its origin here, but if mismanaged, the power of this center can result in cravings, attachments, and addictions of all kinds. The literal meaning of svadishthana—“her own abode”—implies that the goddess Kundalini, when awakened from her slumber in the muladhara, resides here, and our desire is one and the same as divine desire. We are no longer ruled by personal likes and dislikes, but rather are instruments in the hands of the Divine at the deepest level of our being.
This chakra is closely linked to the muladhara and related to many of the same issues and yoga practices. Many spiritual traditions, including yoga, make use of fasting and celibacy (or dietary and sexual moderation) as the means to manage the strong pleasure-driven desires associated with this center.
The manipura chakra, located at the navel, regulates the lumbar spine, the digestive organs, eyesight, and locomotion. As the pranic hub of the body, the navel chakra is associated with the fire element. Fire is transformative, and since yoga is a transformative process, many hatha yoga practices focus on the navel to strengthen this fire.
As the center of vitality, the manipura provides the easiest access to the pranic force in the physical body. Physical practices that activate this area of the body—including many asanas and more subtle practices, such as agni sara, nauli kriya, and bhastrika pranayama—improve digestion and mobilize healing energy throughout the other systems of the body. Glowing good health, courage, enthusiasm, vitality, and self-esteem are hallmarks of strong navel chakra energy. At the psychological level, issues of aggression, power, and ego-identity play out through this center.
At the intersection of the downward-descending divine force and the upward-ascending forces of instinct lies the fourth energy locus—the anahata chakra. Governing the heart and the lungs, the anahata is the seat of the Self, the very “heart of the matter.” It is associated with the air element, the thoracic spine, and the sense of touch.
Compassion, unconditional love, affinity, and connectedness—as well as grasping, manipulation, and feelings of abandonment, isolation, and despair—all surface through this chakra. The Star of David,
the symbol for the anahata, and the Christian emphasis on service and love are both familiar references for the heart center. As we move to higher chakras with more subtle energies, the application of yoga also becomes more subtle. Pranayama and breath work to enhance the intake of prana and quiet the mind, heart-centered meditation practices, and devotional practices of all kinds—from prayer to kirtan—work with the energies of the heart.
Located at the throat and associated with the element space, the vishuddhi chakra governs the cervical spine, the voice box, speech and hearing, and the thyroid and parathyroid endocrine glands, which regulate our metabolism. Creative expression, connection to the Divine, and the transmittal of consciousness are themes of the vishuddhi. Distortions of energy in this chakra can result in difficulties in authentic expression, and in taking in nourishment of all kinds. Many familiar yoga practices target the throat: the shoulderstand, plow pose, lion and fish poses; the chin lock, upper wash, ujjayi and bhramari pranayamas; and chanting the names of the Divine during kirtan.
The symbol of this chakra includes a 16-petaled lotus, one petal for each of the 16 vowels of the Sanskrit alphabet. Vowels give life to language, the most fundamental and refined creative act. Through them, we find the capacity for unique expression that in part defines the human existence and gives rise to the use of mantra as a means for transmitting divine consciousness.
The ajna (pronounced “ahgya”) is the command center, the seat of the mind, and the interface between body and mind. This sixth chakra, sometimes called “the third eye,” regulates growth and development at every level through the brain centers and the pituitary gland (the master gland). The two major aspects of the pranic force in the body, which operate as opposing forces in all the lower chakras, come together here, opening in the mind to deep inner stillness. The integration of intellect and feeling at the ajna results in divine sight, intuition, and profound self-knowledge. Without that integration, we stay trapped in the consciousness of ordinary reality and the realm of the senses.
Yoga practices, such as alternate nostril breathing (nadi shodhanam) and meditation on the breath or mantra at the ajna chakra, help us gain access to a deeper level of consciousness. Relaxation and meditation practices make use of this center to consciously reach beyond physical awareness into the compulsive responses in the psyche, reshaping both body and mind.
The crown chakra, the sahasrara, is beyond the individual; it is the gateway to the transpersonal matrix of pure consciousness and the source of all the chakras. With a thousand-petaled lotus as its symbol—which denotes the infinite number of attributes be-longing to primal unitary consciousness—the sahasrara reigns as the seventh and highest energy center. It exists beyond the realm of mental functioning and the personal level of consciousness, and yet, at the same time, is the field from which such mental functioning arises and the vantage point of enlightenment.
According to the tantric yoga tradition, each human is a miniature universe built on the same template as the cosmos, and the chakras connect the individual and the cosmic forces. Awakening kundalini—the latent energy in the chakras that lies coiled at the base of the spine—and leading her to unity with the energy at the crown center is the spiritual process by which we grow beyond the personal and into cosmic consciousness.
Thus, the chakra system describes the totality of a human being: physical, mental, and spiritual. Yoga practice is the practical application of the chakra model to achieve good health, self-understanding, and spiritual wisdom. The range of yoga practices can reshape our destiny by correcting physical, energetic, and mental/emotional imbalances, directing awareness to the more refined levels of consciousness, and mitigating and removing obstacles to self-realization. Yoga calls us to consciously experience the Divine in the chakra-built shrine of our own human self.
Senior editor Sandra Anderson is coauthor of Yoga: Mastering the Basics and has taught yoga and meditation for more than 25 years.