(Artwork by Anna Jay)
In the increasingly socially pervasive worlds of yoga, meditation, healing, spirituality et al, the word ‘chakra’ pops up quite a bit. Great, if you know what it means; less so, perhaps, if you’re not sure (it might easily be a new superfood or trendy gym class).
So here’s a beginner’s guide to the chakras. I hope it enables you to navigate those crystal-infused water-cooler conversations with greater ease…
Everything in the universe is made of the same energy: the sun, the moon, your iPhone (your sun and moon) and, of course, us. Energy is our basic life force.
In traditional Chinese medicine and Indian yogic traditions there are thought to be lines that carry this energy around the body. Referred to as ‘nadis’ or ‘meridians’, there are thousands upon thousands of these invisible pathways – 72,000, according to my yogic lineage – traversing the physical form.
Much like busy energetic intersections (picture Oxford Circus at 9am), chakras occur where the highest numbers of these lines converge and so are the energy ‘centres’ of the body. “A chakra is a centre that coordinates energy for the system as a whole, much like an office coordinates energy for a business,” explains author, therapist, and chakra yoga teacher Anodea Judith. Chakras serve as storehouses and behave in a vortex-esque manner (chakra literally translates as ‘spinning wheel’ in Sanskrit), drawing energy and information towards us.
According to various esoteric teachings – including yoga – we have ‘planes’ of existence, ranging from the physical body to higher consciousness. The chakras are thought to be located on the ‘subtle plane’, which is itself a gateway between the physical and ethereal realms. Chakras therefore function as our connection point between the mind and the body, between the manifest and un-manifest.
Still with me?
There are contending views on the number of chakras in the body, but general consensus is seven major and many more minor. The major seven (sounds like a superhero film, right?) run in ascending order from the base of the spine to the crown of the head. Each of the chakras governs a specific function within the body, and is associated with elements of our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing.
The seven major chakras and their associated characteristics are:
Also known as: Root chakra
Location: Base of the spine near the perineum
Body functions: Legs, feet, bones, large intestine and adrenal glands
Represents: Stability, grounding, foundation, family, your connection to the earth, survival, financial and physical security
Excessive: Heavy, sluggish, stagnant
Deficient: Ungrounded, ‘head in the clouds’, fearful, anxious
Also known as: Sacral chakra
Location: Lower abdomen, two inches below the naval
Body functions: Kidneys, bladder, circulatory system, reproductive organs and glands
Represents: Emotions, desire, pleasure, sexuality, procreation and creativity
Excessive: Addicted to pleasure, restless, indulgent, overly emotional
Deficient: Depressed, impotent, joyless, rigid, numb
Also known as: Solar plexus chakra
Location: Upper abdomen, two inches above the naval
Body functions: Digestive system, muscles, pancreas and adrenals
Represents: Power, transformation, self-will
Excessive: Quick to anger, aggressive, dominating, controlling, lack of compassion
Deficient: Indecisive, insecure, timid, needy, passive, poor self-esteem
Also known as: Heart chakra
Location: Centre of chest
Body functions: Lungs, heart, arms, hands, and thymus gland
Represents: Love, relationships, joy, peace, forgiveness, trust
Excessive: Loss of personal boundaries, needy, co-dependent, narcissistic
Deficient: Closed, shy, lonely, isolated
Also known as: Throat chakra
Body functions: Neck, shoulders, arms, hands, thyroid and parathyroid glands
Represents: Communication, voice, self-expression, judgement
Excessive: Overuse of voice, loud, inability to listen
Deficient: Shy, quiet, scared to speak up, unable to express emotions
Also known as: Third eye chakra
Location: Between the eyebrows
Body functions: Visual perception, pituitary gland, neurological function
Represents: Intuitive wisdom, discriminating, decision-making
Excessive: Delusional, paranoid, difficulty concentrating
Deficient: Poor memory, denial
Also known as: Crown chakra
Location: Top of head
Body functions: Cerebral cortex, central nervous system and the pituitary gland
Represents: Connection to source, ultimate truth, awareness
Excessive: Overly intellectual, spiritual addiction, dissociation from body
Deficient: Disconnection, depression, spiritual cynicism
In a healthy, balanced person (I dare you to find me one), the seven chakras spin in harmony, and provide precisely the right amount of energy to the body, mind and spirit. But the majority of us experience energetic imbalance – i.e. deficiency or excess – in one or more of our chakras at various stages of our lives. Our physical, mental or emotional states may trigger energetic inequity or blockages in our chakras, and vice versa.
“An excessive chakra results from a defensive pattern in life that is trying to compensate for something we didn’t get enough of, such as safety, pleasure, attention, power, or love,” explains Anodea in her book Chakra Yoga. “We become overly attached, fixated at that level, still trying to obtain fulfilment or healing. However if we release or express more energy than we take in, we become depleted, which leads to a deficient chakra. [It’s] the result of an avoidance strategy, avoiding something we might not have the tools or desire to deal with.”
The chakras are innately connected to one another and when one becomes unbalanced, the others may overcompensate. “Someone who is not very grounded in their lower chakras may live in their head or try to balance their disembodiment with excessive spirituality,” says Anodea. “Or someone who is emotionally insecure may be excessive in their throat chakra and talk too much.”
By engaging with the chakras you can tune into the natural energies of the body and harness them to further your personal wellbeing, wants and needs (which are, hopefully, not mutually exclusive).
This can be done in a variety of ways but as a yoga teacher, I – unsurprisingly – recommend yoga. A well-composed asana and pranayama practice can alert you to the presence of your chakras, and help you begin to work through any imbalances. For example, if you’re feeling anxious or lacking in stability, then grounding poses for the root chakra – such as tree and warriors 1 & 2 – may be of benefit. If you’re lacking in energy or willpower, a few rounds of uddiyana bandha will help ignite the fire in your naval chakra. Or if you’re finding it difficult to speak up at work, then working with shoulder stand or fish may give you the throat chakra strength to find your voice.
And if you don’t believe in any of this chakra stuff, your body and mind will most likely thank you for the yoga anyway.
Original feature on Refinery29UK.