“Before we can find peace among nations, we have to find peace inside that small nation which is our own being.” — B.K.S. Iyengar
This question generally starts with a disclaimer: “You’re an educated person. You don’t believe in all that woowoo, do you? Crystals, clearings, chakras?” As a yoga teacher, I hear the chakra question most frequently, so let’s start there.
Our bodies are our personal homes, like the earth is our collective home. In Western culture, we often think of our minds and bodies as separate entities, and we spend countless compensatory hours training the analytical functions of our minds, often judging our bodies for not submitting to the mind’s agenda. Most of us spend decades in a formal educational system designed to discipline and govern the mind quantitatively, linguistically and spatially. As an academic, I taught critical thinking for many years, systemizing and labeling complex elements of the reasoning process. When we become adept at this, it’s easy to forget that the inherent laws of logic and science exist in the natural world, with or without our codification. The way we choose to methodize these systems is simply a matter of cultural values and prioritization.
Chakras are an ancient system we can use to visualize and organize our lives through a model of integration rather than domination. While in the past few years, you may have seen Chakra iconography ubiquitously as hipster decor, this system of thought isn’t new agey, or even new. Chakras (translated from Sanskrit as “wheel” or “cycle”) aren’t part of a new religion or even a unified belief system, but arise from a larger field of metaphysical study that centers around our understanding of energy, where its stored in the body and how it manifests itself. The concept can be found in texts from numerous Indian religions, dating from the Upanishads roughly 3,000 years ago, to more detailed references in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism 1300 years ago, to diverse traditions now practiced globally through yoga.
The chakras are seven visual areas of focus through which we can consciously work to balance, awaken and energize various aspects of our being, helping us recognize and develop strength and agency. The chakras are more philosophical than poetic, but as Ariel Gore says, “magic is a way of cultivating personal power and remembering our inherent divinity.” Conceptually, I think we can access chakras as embodied metaphor.
Chakra one, the root chakra, is a pulsating red vortex of primal energy situated at the base of the spine. Whether you believe this specific energy is actually stored in your coccyx, the symbolism of the base, or starting point, is significant. As with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, this root chakra helps us recognize our primary physicality, acknowledging that we reside in the container of a specific human body, that we have foundational needs we must meet to feel secure and rooted enough to branch out effectively in more relational, intellectual, or spiritual realms. If our first chakra is imbalanced, we may feel persistent fear or anxiety, whether that’s fear for our safety or fear of our place in the world.
At the beginning of our chakra journey, we benefit from sitting, creating a physical space to drop into the awareness of our bodies, to drop down and feel our sit bones on the earth, feel gravity weighting us to the earth, accepting the physical constraints and limitations of our body, rooting into the recognition of our body’s basic form and needs.
So this is where I begin my own practice. At chakra one. Sitting in stillness, feeling the base of my spine, knowing I am grounded in my physical form, supported by mother earth and the energy that unites us.
What I’ve gleaned in my decade of practicing, studying and teaching yoga is that our brains are only one region of our bodies we can benefit from developing. The chakra system has helped me recognize when I’m unbalanced, or when there’s an unmet need I might want to fill before I take on another challenge–in any area of my life. Awareness of my chakras and of my subtle body keep me curious about and kind to myself, and enables me to extend this empathically to others. This isn’t the only system that can help regulate our choices, but its a useful tool for shaping an integral life, for seeking wholeness, and for participating in nonviolent social change.
If you want to read more on any of this, I’ve found clarity and pleasure in:
Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance: embracing your life with the heart of a buddha
Red Hawk, Self Observation: the awakening of conscience
Anodea Judith, Wheels of LIfe
Judith Lasater, Living Your Yoga: finding the spiritual in everyday life
Kristin Neff, Self-Compassion: the proven power of being kind to yourself
Michael W. Taft, The Mindful Geek