What Is a Chakra?
Chakra is a Sanskrit word literally meaning wheel or circle. In a deeper sense the word describes the whirlpools or vortices of energy located along the central axis of our bodies, in the "deep" or astral spine. The chakras are a part of what might be called our spiritual anatomy. Just as there is an anatomy to the physical body and maps to the physical world, so also there is a definite anatomy of our spiritual beings, as well as maps and guideposts to follow along the path of inner awakening. If we understand this spiritual anatomy, then we will find it much easier to advance in our search for God.
For example, the point between the eyebrows (the sixth chakra) is that part of the body where the mind becomes focused automatically in ecstasy or just in concentration. Perhaps you’ve noticed the unconscious tendency people have to knit their brows, or frown, when engrossed in a project or making an important point in conversation. Understanding this truth, and consciously putting our attention at that point, we discover that the mind actually does become focused there. This is one of the central teachings of yoga.
Yoga is a continuous tradition of teachings and techniques that help the ascending soul to understand that there are higher levels of consciousness that transcend lower levels of awareness. Generally speaking, information about the chakras comes from India and from the ancient science of yoga. Yoga is a true and universal teaching, yet yoga does not have a corner on truth. Anyone who finds spiritual freedom or oneness with God, no matter whether they are from an Eastern or Western background, discovers the same truths. Yoga’s unique value lies in its scientific approach to finding God, based on an ancient tradition of experimentation. It offers nonsectarian guidance and wisdom for those seeking higher awareness, based on centuries of experience.
Spiritual awakening is not a vague, mystical experience. All true teachings, although some less specifically than yoga, point to very particular realities. As an example of this, we find statements in every scripture that say that heaven is "above" and hell is "below." But no telescope has ever shown us angels flying around in outer space. Nor has any deep well-drilling equipment brought up screaming and protesting demons. Heaven and hell are not "up" and "down" objectively speaking-what is up for us is down for people in Australia. This concept has no cosmic relevance, but it does have infinite relevance for the individual.
We can easily see this relevance in our instinctive responses to life. When we feel uplifted or high, or downcast or low, we use expressions which reflect these feelings. Spiritual awakening implies raising of energy and consciousness in the body. And hellish consciousness, materialistic consciousness-that which takes us away from joy and down into suffering and pain-is always a descent. Isn’t it true that every time we feel wonderful, we experience a rising energy inside ourselves, and we look up?
You never see people smiling and looking upward, saying, "I feel so depressed." Likewise, you don’t see people slumping, looking down and droopy, saying "I feel so happy." Quite the contrary, for these physical reactions are manifestations of universal truths, based on the way we are made. What yoga does is particularize these truths by showing that outer experiences of joy or sadness are caused by energy moving in the deep spine. But yoga doesn’t teach this concept as a dogma. It says: "Try it! Experience it!" For everyone who has tried it, has experienced it.
When our energy is uplifted in the spine we begin to approach divine consciousness. But in the beginning of our spiritual quest, we encounter what might be called "gates" or "doors" (words often used to describe the seven chakras) that need to be unlocked.
Locating the Chakras
The spinal centers, or chakras, are found at the points where tributary streams of energy (prana or life force) from the body join the upward flow of energy in the deep or astral spine. The astral, or energy, spine is not the backbone (those knobs that can be felt along the back), but runs more or less through the center of the body. Energy flows through the central nervous system and through the astral spine. In our un-awakened state, the main energy-flow is downward, away from the brain, and outward to the organs and limbs.
The chakras correspond to the spinal plexuses in the physical body, from which nerves branch out to provide energy to the different body parts. As we go deeper in meditation and prayer, uplifting our consciousness, the energy begins to flow upward in the spine. Try to feel this internal "river of life" at your center as the location of the chakras.
First Chakra: The first chakra is located at the base of the spine. It is also called the muladhara, or coccyx center. From this center radiate the nerves that go to the lower parts of the body: the anus, and the legs.
Second Chakra: An inch and a half above the first chakra is the swadisthana, or sacral center. The nerves from this center operate the reproductive system. Third Chakra: Opposite the navel in the astral spine is the manipura, or lumbar center, the nerves from which operate the digestive system and all the internal organs and glands in the abdominal cavity (spleen, liver, kidneys, adrenals, etc.).
Fourth Chakra: At the region of the heart in the spine is the anahata, or dorsal center, from which nerves radiate out to the heart, lungs, and chest, and into the arms and hands.
Fifth Chakra: The vishudha, or cervical center, from which nerves radiate to the throat, neck, and vocal chords, is opposite the throat in the spine.
Sixth Chakra: The highest spinal center is located in the medulla oblongata, at the base of the brain just above the place where the skull connects with the neck. Its positive pole is the ajna chakra, at the point between the eyebrows. The medulla oblongata is the center through which cosmic energy feeds the entire body with prana (life force or conscious cosmic energy).
Seventh Chakra: The sahasrara chakra, is located in the cranium, at the top of the head. This center is traditionally known as the thousand-petaled lotus, or crown chakra.
Functions of the Chakras
In addition to their physical functions, the chakras store and distribute energy and information. They also serve as the location of our psychological or mental tendencies, habits, and desires. In fact, the astral spine is a long, downward extension of the subconscious mind. Our inner struggle to grow and change spiritually takes place between the pull of the soul from above and the pull of matter and material involvement from below.
Every unfulfilled desire, every wave of like or dislike, every karmic action, creates a subtle vortex of energy. These energy vortices are held together by centripetal thoughts, such as: "I want this; I reject that; I like this; I don’t like that; this is what I have done; that is what I failed to accomplish." The ego hugs these thoughts and impulses to itself until they gain release outwardly in action, or inwardly in self-realization. To work out all desires or karma in the outer world is, ultimately, not feasible, for out of every fulfilled desire there arise two, or twenty, or a hundred other new desires.
These vortices of desire, also called vrittis, enter the subconscious and sink to their respective levels in the spine in the area of a specific chakra, according to the relative grossness or refinement of the energy they express. Their location in the spine depends on the chakra with which their vibrations are in harmony ("like attracts like"). The more spiritual a vortex, the higher the center around which it settles; the more materialistic a vortex, the lower the center. Very old vortices, as yet unresolved, are submerged, so to speak, by more recently created vortices, and have little or no effect on the waking consciousness. They continue, however, like little ripples on the surface of larger waves, to obscure the clear reflection of the Eternal Spirit, long after the larger waves of the initial desire or feeling have subsided.
The energy of these vortices, when released to flow upward, combines to produce a mighty river of energy before which no obstacle can stand. A strong upward flow of energy in the spine dissolves those vortices automatically, just as a strong flow of water in a river dissolves the little eddies along its banks. Thus an increase of the flow of energy inward and upward through the astral spine is a major tool for awakening and unlocking the chakra "gates."