People who have studied yoga, have connections with new age spirituality, or who are familiar with Indian religious and philosophical traditions have probably heard about chakras before, but for those who haven’t, or who want a brief refresher, here are the basics (a fuller discussion appears here in Yoga Journal):
What are the Chakras?
Chakra is the Sanskrit word for wheel, and they are, for many in the yogic tradition, the crossroads for the main energy pathways in the body, known as the nadis. These pathways are not considered physical parts of the body, like veins or nerves, but are part of an immaterial, subtle body. For those who believe in chakras, being healthy is a function of keeping these crossroads clear so that energy can circulate through the body. Additionally, it is believed that each charka governs a particular physical, emotional, and spiritual sphere, and when the crossroads are blocked partially or completely, those physical, emotional and spiritual areas are negatively affected. For example, the Nabhi (or Manipura) Chakra, which sits just below the solar plexus, is associated with self-esteem, boundaries, and exerting our will, so problems there would be associated with being a doormat or having trouble achieving goals. In a similar vein, it is thought that exercising and activating that region would not only make the area more supple, but also yield benefits in terms of willpower, boundaries, and self-esteem.
Chakras as Areas of Inquiry
What interests me, personally, about chakras is the way in which I feel each of these areas in my own body. Whether the Heart Chakra really exists or not, or really governs love, grief, and kindness, it certainly is one of the areas that hurts when I lose a loved one and that feels full and light when I am feeling tenderness or compassion. I imagine that the yogis of the past probably felt these things too, and the cumulative investigation of the yogic tradition has likely yielded insights we can use as guideposts today.
Whether or not that means the yogis were able to identify universal truths about the mind/body, inquiring about the mind/body interrelationship is intrinsically valuable, paying attention to the chakras as areas of interest in this inquiry deepens our practice. Chakras exist as a location of attention and feeling, and part of the yogic tradition is to examine that location so that it may teach us. This doesn’t necessarily mean accepting the “truth” of them on a dogmatic level, but rather noticing what mind/body sensations and interactions we experience through the chakras. As modern practitioners, we can certainly choose to leave the chakras behind as a vestige of the past, but we risk losing some traditional wisdom, some insight into what yoga has to offer.