The Complete Guide to Understanding the Chakras

The chakras are an ancient concept, found in the early traditions of Hinduism. You have probably heard them mentioned in various yoga classes. You have almost definitely heard the stereotypical “new age” character on television talk about somebody’s chakras being blocked.

Today, there are numerous misconceptions and myths surrounding the chakras. Many people, including yoga teachers, have only a surface-level understanding of the chakras. If you want to know what the chakras really are and how to utilize them in your practice, keep reading.

What is the Energy Body?

To understand the chakras, 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. They 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:

  • Ida Nadi – This is the “lunar” energy channel associated with feminine qualities. It has a cooling and soothing effect. Projected on the physical body, Ida Nadi is located to the left of the spine.
  • Pingala Nadi – This is the “solar” energy channel associated with masculine qualities. It has a stimulating and heating effect. Projected on the physical body, Pingala Nadi is located to the right of the spine. 
  • Sushumna Nadi – This 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. Unless it is consciously activated, the central channel stays dormant as most people live their lives through the duality of Ida and Pingala only.

What are Chakras?

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. 

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 were 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. The yogi would progress from lower chakras to the highest chakra, internalizing the journey of spiritual ascent.

Common Misconceptions about the Chakras

In modern yoga, there are many misconceptions and myths surrounding the chakras. Keep reading to clear up any confusion and find more clarity about the ancient system of the chakras.

Myth #1: There are exactly seven chakras.

This is probably the most common misconception about chakras in modern yoga. The seven-chakra system was popularized in the West in the 20th century based on a Sanskrit text which was translated to 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, chakras 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 will vary depending on the person and the practice one is performing.

Myth #3: Every chakra has a specific shape and color.

In modern illustrations, you will 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), endocrine glands, crystals, planets, or musical notes, is another invention of the 20th century.

While these associations might be helpful for some, they are not found in any ancient Indian systems and cannot be considered traditional.

We hope this guide helped you understand the chakras on a deeper level. 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.

Did this guide clear up any misconceptions you had around the chakras? Did any of your questions remain unanswered? Please leave your thoughts in the comments!

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