If you’re wondering what chakras are, it’s probably because you have heard them mentioned in a yoga class. Or, perhaps, you’ve seen colorful icons that are meant to represent what chakras are in the newest popular meditation app. And you have almost definitely heard the stereotypical “New Age” character on television explaining what chakras are, truly.
As a matter of fact, today, there are numerous misconceptions and myths surrounding the chakras. Many people, including yoga teachers, have only a surface-level understanding of them. If you want to know what chakras are, what (most definitely!) chakras are not, and how to utilize them in your yoga practice, keep reading.
If you’re looking for a detailed analysis of each one of the seven chakras, their meanings, location, mantras, and symbols, we further recommend reading our post What are the 7 chakras?
What is the Origin of Chakras?
Before delving into the energy body and what chakras are, let’s explore their ancient roots. These energy centers have been an integral part of Eastern spirituality and healing practices for millennia. The concept of chakras is believed to have originated in India, with the earliest mentions found in the Vedas, ancient sacred texts written around 1500 – 500 BCE.
The Upanishads, another set of sacred Hindu scriptures composed around 600 BCE, also discuss the concept. The idea of chakras was further developed and adopted into various Eastern religious and spiritual traditions, including Buddhism and Jainism.
In the traditional Indian medicine system, Ayurveda, chakras represent vital energy centers for physical, mental, and spiritual health. The concept of chakras became more prominent with the development of Tantra, a range of spiritual practices that focus on inner energies.
Despite their diffusion in the Eastern world, chakras remained relatively unknown in the West until the early 20th century. It was Sir John Woodroffe, an English Orientalist, who played a significant role in introducing the concept to Western audiences. Through his translations and writings, chakras gained popularity, though often with a more Westernized interpretation that sometimes diverged from the original concepts.
What is the Energy Body?
To understand what chakras are, we first have to understand the yogic concept of energy, called prana. This term is used in yogic philosophy to refer to all the manifest energy in the universe – present in both living beings and inanimate objects. Prana can also be translated as “life force” or “vital principle”.
In humans, prana flows through channels called nadis. These energy pathways make up what’s commonly referred to as the subtle or energy body. There are thousands of nadis within the energy body. Among them, three are of prime importance. Let’s examine them briefly.
Ida Nadi – The Cooling Channel
Ida Nadi is often referred to as the “lunar” energy channel due to its association with feminine qualities. This nadi has a cooling and soothing effect on the body and mind. Projected on the physical body, Ida Nadi is located to the left of the spine.
It is believed to control mental processes and is linked with emotions and intuition. In a balanced state, Ida Nadi promotes calmness and creativity, but an imbalance can lead to depression and lethargy.
Pingala Nadi – The Energizing Channel
Pingala Nadi, known as the “solar” energy channel, is associated with masculine qualities. It is stimulating and has a heating effect on the body. Projected on the physical body, Pingala Nadi is located to the right of the spine.
It is associated with the rational mind, physical activity, and analytical thinking. When balanced, it brings about vitality and focus, but an imbalance may lead to aggression or burnout.
Sushumna Nadi – The Harmonizing Channel
Sushumna Nadi is the central channel that is associated with energy in its non-dual state, free from masculine and feminine qualities. Projected on the physical body, Sushumna Nadi is located along the center of the spine.
This channel is essential for spiritual awakening and is the path through which the Kundalini energy rises. Unless it is consciously activated through specific practices, the central channel remains dormant as most people live their lives through the duality of Ida and Pingala.
What are the Chakras?
Now that we have gained a better understanding of the energy body, it’s easier to understand what chakras are. In a few words, chakras are points where different channels connect within the energy body. They are often referred to as energy centers.
The word chakra literally translates to “wheel” or “disk,” alluding to the vortex of energy believed to reside in each chakra’s location. In this sense, chakras are like the powerhouses of the energy body; they regulate the flow of energy through our energy system.
Chakras’ Role in Kundalini Awakening
Ancient yogis discovered that the mind is intricately linked to the energy body. Wishing to experience higher states of consciousness, they utilized various techniques – such as pranayama, visualization, and meditation – to expand and direct the flow of prana.
First, prana is forced from Ida and Pingala into Sushumna Nadi where it takes a special form called Kundalini – this process is sometimes referred to as a “Kundalini awakening”. Once prana is accumulated in the central channel, it is directed upwards – from the lower to the higher energy centers. Following this expansion of energy, the individual consciousness would rise and be liberated from its limited dual state.
Thus, the chakras started being used as focal points in a variety of meditation practices. Yogis would visualize or mentally place a symbol, deity, or mantra in the area of a specific chakra in order to attract the corresponding energy. Subsequently, the yogi would progress from lower chakras to the highest chakra, internalizing the journey of spiritual ascent.
In this process of awakening and flow of energy, chakras play an essential role. Each chakra is associated with specific aspects of our being. For example, while one may be linked to emotions and fluidity, another might be connected to communication and expression. Understanding what chakras are allows us to work on these various aspects of our being, with the ultimate goal of balancing our inner energies.
Ultimately, chakras are an integral part of the fabric that constitutes our spiritual, mental, and emotional selves. They are the nexus points of energy flow which can offer insights into how to bring about greater health, understanding, and spiritual awakening.
What Chakras are Not
In the realm of modern yoga and spirituality, the chakras have been widely embraced but often misunderstood. And what’s worse, in today’s world, this term has become a buzzword, and their representation is often sensationalized and commercialized. The complexity of this ancient energy system has led to a myriad of interpretations, many of which do not reflect the chakras’ true essence, to the very least.
In this context, the ancient wisdom and the subtle spiritual practices connected to the chakras and energy manipulation are at risk of being lost or misinterpreted. Therefore, understanding what chakras are not is just as important as understanding what they are, as it aids in eliminating common misconceptions and brings us closer to the true wisdom of this ancient system.
To start with, we must remember that the chakras are an integral part of our energy body. They are not tangible physical entities that can be touched or seen with the naked eye. They don’t have fixed shapes, sizes, or colors, and their number can vary depending on the tradition.
Furthermore, it’s essential to note that understanding the chakras’ importance is not just about wearing crystals or focusing on colors. On the other hand, chakras’ exploration involves deep introspection, meditation, and sometimes guidance from experienced practitioners.
Let’s now debunk some of the prevalent myths that have emerged around these energy centers.
Common Misconceptions About the Chakras
Myth #1: There Are Exactly Seven Chakras.
This is probably the most common misconception about chakras in modern yoga. As we have seen above, the seven-chakra system was popularized in the West in the 20th century based on a Sanskrit text translated into English by Sir John Woodroffe. Nowadays, you will find that almost all the information available online covers only the seven chakras.
However, different yogic and tantric traditions have used a variety of chakra systems, ranging from 3 to 114 chakras. As there are many points where energy channels connect within the body, the number of possible chakras is unlimited. Usually, yogis were most interested in working with chakras along the central channel in order to expand their consciousness.
Depending on the practice and the desired outcome, yogis would utilize different chakra systems. For example, to align the body with the five elements they would use a five-chakra system. To internalize the energies of six different deities, a six-chakra system would be used. And so on.
Myth #2: Chakras Are Located in the Physical Body.
Although the physical and energetic bodies influence and interact with each other, they have to be differentiated. Chakras, as well as nadis, are part of the energetic body. Therefore, they are not like organs in the physical body and can’t be studied in the way doctors study our lungs or liver.
Unlike the system of meridians (also translated as energy channels) in traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture, the nadis and chakras in the yogic tradition are subtle and have no precise physical location.
The energy body is envisioned as continually present and extremely fluid. Thus, the number and location of chakras can’t be fixed and varies depending on the person and the practice one is performing.
Myth #3: Every Chakra Has a Specific Shape and Color.
In modern illustrations, you often see the chakras depicted in the seven colors of the rainbow. This, as well as associations of the chakras with psychological states (like shyness, depression, fear, desire, creativity, and so on), shapes, endocrine glands, crystals, planets, or musical notes, is another invention of the 20th century.
The color scheme that is popular today was largely introduced by Christopher Hills, a British-born author and spiritual teacher. Ancient Indian texts did not explicitly mention colors associated with chakras. The attribution of colors can be a helpful tool for visualization and understanding, but it is essential to recognize that this is a contemporary addition and not grounded in ancient tradition.
Understanding what chakras are is an incredible journey into the ancient wisdom and practices of yoga. Along with the nadi system, they offer a valuable map of the energy body – which is an integral part of the human system.
Utilizing the techniques developed by tantra yogis, we can work with prana – through the nadis and chakras – to expand our individual consciousness and, ultimately, attain spiritual awakening. As we have seen, it is crucial to recognize the difference between traditional teachings and modern interpretations.
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