What’s up with the Chakras?
At first glance, it can be tempting to dismiss the chakra system as an esoteric, new age concept. During my last teacher-training course in Boston, a participant voiced her reservations. “In theory, the chakras are so compelling,” she said. “But out of all the things we study, they seem least connected to the actual practice of yoga.” The class agreed. “What, exactly, are we supposed to do with them?” they wondered.
While the chakras offer a rich conceptual framework for growth, they give less direction for putting that framework into practice. Over the past year of reflection on my students’ queries, I’ve begun to wonder whether there’s more to the chakras than meets the eye. Could it be that when we view them through the lenses of psychology, mindfulness, neuroscience, and yoga, the chakras become more than elegant vessels for self-understanding? Could they in fact be touchstones for practice, showing us how to integrate the emotional and energetic work we do into the field of the body? Let’s map out the journey from theory to practice, and see where the chakras can take us.
According to traditions such as classical yoga, the seven chakras are part of what’s called the energy body. Each chakra corresponds to a physical location; each also represents several qualities essential to our development. The first or root chakra, for example, is located at the base of the spine and symbolizes our most fundamental sense of grounding and stability in the world.
In one sense, the chakras connote an evolutionary journey: we need to cultivate the first chakra’s basic sense of grounding, for example, before moving on to the second or sacral chakra’s task of regulating our energy and emotions. And the tasks of the fourth chakra (heart), which include the development of compassion, help integrate the fifth chakra’s (throat) job of articulating our truth with grace. In another sense, the chakras aren’t linear at all: we don’t simply “fix” a chakra issue and move on, never to return. Instead, we revisit the same issues again and again throughout our lives, though perhaps in healthier ways. In this way, the chakras are a highly effective model for understanding our psychological journey as human beings.
The chakras mirror our emotional and relational lives. They illuminate our “signature” issues, revealing the places where we struggle and where we need more focus to evolve. As an example, conflicts in the first three chakras (root, navel, and solar plexus) indicate that we may have a tough time with boundaries.
The chakras also point to how a difficulty manifests. Our boundaries may be too rigid, which keeps us from connecting fully with others, understanding their needs, and integrating their response to us. In contrast, our boundaries may be too permeable, which makes it difficult to know where others end and we begin, to distinguish which emotions are ours, and which belong to someone else.
The chakra system is rich in psychology and symbolic meaning, and identifying our issues is an important first step. Yet a wide gap exists between mental understanding and the real-life experience of change; our next step, then, is to translate meaning into practice. And this is where the traditions of mindfulness, neuroscience, and yoga come into play.
Mindfulness and Neuroscience:
Mindfulness is a wonderful bridge to the body. To be mindful means that we’re awake: we’re able to cultivate and sustain a moment-to-moment awareness of our own direct experience. Neuroscientists have demonstrated through numerous studies that mindfulness has profound physical and emotional benefits. It can rewire our brains and reshape our lives. Yet here’s the dilemma: the more adept we are at the first step of chakra work—the mental processing part—the more difficulty we may have with present moment awareness. This is because we’re more in our minds, immersed in a whirlwind of thought and emotion, than we are embedded in our own, direct and embodied experience in the moment. With a little practice, however, we can use the chakras as anchors for mindfulness. Let’s take a closer look.
Imagine, for example, that you’re prone to anxiety. You’re likely to leave your body, or dissociate, frequently. We could say that this is a root chakra issue. Yet anxiety isn’t limited to just one chakra. Because it involves chronic overdrive in the autonomic nervous system, anxiety encompasses several chakras, including: the root, solar plexus (home of the enteric nervous system or belly brain, which is intimately connected to the autonomic nervous system), and sixth or third eye chakra (which is dialed into our emotional brain). Instead of working on the first, third, and sixth chakras independently, you can make your chakra-balancing practice holistic and integrative. Using mindfulness, you can become exquisitely aware of the physical sensations of anxiety: a disconnection with the soles of your feet, an acidic churning in the pit of your stomach, the lightning strike of adrenaline in your solar plexus, and the Nascar-circuit looping of your thoughts. You can bring your hands onto your body at any of these chakra points; this grounds your awareness and connects you to the experience you’re having right now, beneath your hands.
These two tools—placing your hands on your body and directing awareness there—support interoception, the capacity to attend to momentary bodily sensations as they occur and fluctuate. And the practice of interoception has been shown by neuroscientists to activate the mindfulness centers of the brain and alleviate the symptoms of anxiety and depression. To add some breathwork to this anxiety-balancing practice, You can also breathe through your nose, lengthening your exhale until it’s a little longer than your inhale, which helps to slow your heart and calm your nervous system. And you can add in the practice of self-compassion, which has four steps:
1. Acknowledge that this is a moment (just a moment) of suffering or challenge
2. Recognize that everyone has these moments of challenge
3. Use your awareness to locate the place in your body where you feel this challenge most strongly, such as the belly
4. Bring your hands into that part of your body, and nourish that part with breath for as long as you like
(Adapted from the Self-Compassion Break by Kristin Neff, Ph.D. and Christopher Germer, Ph.D., www.self-compassion.org)
Through these mindfulness tools, we employ the chakra system not just for energetic purposes. We use it as a vehicle to help us pay attention in a deeper way. And yet, our chakra-balancing work is at its best when we embody it, when we mine the body’s potential as a vessel for metabolizing and ultimately transforming our issues. But how, exactly, do we engage with the body?
Yoga brings us into deep contact with the body. It provides a set of therapeutic, body-based interventions which jump-start embodied insight and thus, lasting change. An effective chakra-based yoga practice can certainly begin with a set of poses that correspond to each chakra. Yet we can take this practice to the next level by creating a menu of poses that embody the qualities we seek to develop. What might this look like?
Using the example of anxiety above, we can create a yoga practice to help develop the grounding and stability needed in our root, solar plexus, and third eye chakras. It’s not just the poses we practice, however, but the way we practice them that has greatest influence. Most grounding postures depend on the feet, so we can learn to use our feet differently, as a more solid foundation. A powerful therapeutic tool for doing so is the Foot Lift, a “two-minute tool” that involves lifting through the soles of the feet in four places: the inner ankles, the area where the heel merges into the arch, the center of the arch, and just before the base of the big toe. To keep the muscles on the tops of our feet working, we might lift our toes a centimeter or two off the ground and spread them laterally. The Foot Lift helps us to feel more grounded, yet at the same time energized. It also acts as a support system for the spine and core body. Once we integrate it, we can use the Foot Lift as a therapeutic springboard to deeper practice by weaving it into a series of standing postures (such as Warrior II or Tree Pose), and then linking this stable foundation with the other chakra areas on the body. These poses are inherently stabilizing and help us feel rooted, connected to, and supported by the earth beneath us as well as the world around us.
Advanced yoga practitioners, teachers, and bodyworkers can take this anxiety-balancing yoga practice to an even deeper level by working with the cohesiveness of the fascial web, the connective tissue matrix that links every cell in our body. We can examine the way we practice and teach as it relates to the stability of our fascia. Do we exploit flexibility in our yoga practice? Could pulling back from the “edge” in our practice be beneficial in helping us develop the strength and stability that nourishes our connective tissue? And we can ask ourselves: are we actually practicing interoception? Is our awareness at home in the body, being with sensation from moment to moment, or are we on auto-pilot much of the time?
A chakra-based yoga practice is flexible: we can take it as far as we want. When we infuse this practice with psychology, mindfulness, yoga, and neuroscience, it becomes integrative right down to the cellular level. The bonus: the inner work we do reverberates outward. It enhances our physical, emotional, and energetic connection to ourselves, and to everyone and everything around us.
This is the original version of an article written for Aura Cacia in June, 2014. View the abridged version here.