The chakras have become a popular topic in New Age thinking, alternative medicine, and yoga, as has kundalini, the serpent power which energizes them. But there is a growing gap between how the chakras are viewed today and how they are regarded in traditional yogic literature. Today the chakras are used mainly for physical healing. This is different from, and at best preliminary to, the yogic process of Self-realization, which is concerned with going beyond the body and mind. Opening the chakras requires a radical change in consciousness, which usually occurs only after years of meditation. It is not a simple matter of emotional opening or physical cleansing.
Today, the chakras, like yoga, are defined in physical terms, which obscures their real purpose and function.
What has happened with the chakras is analogous to what has happened to yoga itself. Yoga means meditation, defined as “the negation of the dualistic thought processes of the mind” (Yoga Sutra 1.2). But today yoga has come to mean primarily asana (yogic postures), which is only an aid to the attainment of yoga. Chakra (not “shakra” as many people pronounce it) means “wheel,” literally “that which revolves.” In yogic literature it refers to the seven vital centers in the subtle or astral body, the body of life energy underlying the physical body. Their opening allows for the unfoldment of higher states of consciousness leading to the awareness of the Supreme Self. Yet today, the chakras, like yoga, are defined in physical terms, which obscures their real purpose and function.
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In much New Age thinking, imbalances or blockages of the chakras are regarded as the root of disease, which is then treated by correcting the function of the affected chakra. This misconception has spawned a whole group of practitioners who claim to heal our chakras for us. Others claim to be able to energize our chakras and thereby not only cure what ails us but also give us inner knowledge and experience. Some of these procedures can be very expensive and many are highly speculative.
Most chakra healing today emphasizes external measures such as gems, herbs, bodywork, sound or color therapy, and vibrational healing; often various machines are used to treat the chakras. In addition, psychic healers claim to work on the chakras directly through their mental or occult powers. Working on the chakras with such methods is supposed to open or awaken them, or to induce higher states of consciousness in the person being treated.
The yogic approach is aimed at opening the chakras, not for healing purposes or to gain occult powers, but as a part of the process of Self-knowledge. For this yoga employs internal practices of mantra, pranayama, and meditation, which we must do for ourselves; external means, such as diet or herbs, are only secondary aids.
According to the yoga system, in the ordinary human state, which is rarely transcended except by sustained spiritual practice, the chakras are closed; that is, they do not truly function. The result of this is not disease, but ignorance. This ignorance consists of regarding the external world as the true reality and living without awareness of one’s true Self, which is neither body nor mind but thought-free awareness. One’s chakras can be closed and yet one can be healthy, emotionally balanced, mentally creative, and successful in many areas of life. The purpose of opening the chakras is not to improve one’s capacity in the ordinary domains of human life but to go beyond our mortal and transient seeking to the immortal essence.
Traditional yoga views the chakras as influencing physical functions only in a secondary way.
Today, the chakras are generally described as force centers within the physical body, with the sushumna nadi or central channel being identified with the spine. The chakras are related to various spinal centers and the physiological processes they govern, such as digestion, respiration, or reproduction. However, traditional yoga views the chakras as influencing physical functions only in a secondary way.
The current tendency to confuse the chakras with their corresponding functions in the physical body is based on a lack of understanding of the nature and function of the subtle body. The subtle body is the subtle counterpart of the physical body, and has a similar form. Yet it is composed of a finer matter than space in the physical world, and cannot be perceived by the physical senses. It belongs to another plane of existence, which we normally access only in dream states or after death. The subtle body allows the life force to enter into the physical body; without it the body could not even move. The subtle body is always active within the physical body, as the source of its vitality, though its activity is obscured by the veil of physical conditions.
The chakras are not part of the ordinary functioning of the subtle body. They take on a significant role only in states of heightened awareness or spiritual awakening. They represent the opening up or the mergence of the subtle body with the consciousness beyond it. While we can correlate physical and subtle body components and functions, we should realize that the two are not the same, and the spiritually opened astral or subtle body is something else entirely.
If the chakras are to come into function, they need another, much higher source of energy than what the physical body can provide. This is the role of the kundalini or serpent power, which lies dormant in the subtle body. Kundalini is not a physical force, nor is it an energy that one can manipulate with personal power. Kundalini is the concentrated energy of awareness or attention. It is not an energy apart from consciousness, but rather the energy that manifests with consciousness when it becomes free from thought. Only if a person has one-pointedness of mind can kundalini truly come into action, because only then does one have the possibility of moving beyond thought.
The awakening of kundalini requires that prana or life force enter into the sushumna or central channel. This occurs when the prana is withdrawn from its fixation through the thought process on the external world. As long as our life energy is identified with the physical body and its functions, it cannot be withdrawn into the central channel. For this reason, arousing kundalini and opening the chakras involves a state of samadhi in which we leave ordinary consciousness. In the beginning this usually involves a state of trance wherein we become unconscious of the physical body. Later it can be done in the waking state, without any impairment of physical action, but at that stage, the physical body is no longer experienced as one’s true identity.
A more accurate yet simple way to name the chakras is after the elements they rule.
Because the Sanskrit terms for the chakras are cumbersome, there has been a tendency to name them after their corresponding physical location: crown chakra, brow chakra, throat chakra, heart chakra, navel chakra, sex chakra, and root chakra. While this is convenient, it also heightens the tendency to confuse the chakras with the physical body. A more accurate yet simple way to name the chakras is after the elements they rule: earth for the base of the spine, water for the urino-genital region, fire for the navel, air for the heart, ether for the throat, mind for the third eye, and consciousness for the crown chakra.
However, it is the cosmic functions of these elements that the opened chakras give access to, not their ordinary roles as components of our personal existence. The opened chakras provide knowledge of the unity of the objective constituents of the universe (elements), along with the instruments of cognition (sense organs) and the instruments of action (organs of action), which are the subjective constituents of the universe. When the chakras are opened we experience the cosmic nature of these elements within our own deeper awareness.
To bring the subtle centers into function, the gross or physical centers must be put in a state of rest or equilibrium. That is why the practices of yoga develop stillness of body, breath, senses, and mind (asana, pranayama, pratyahara, and dharana). To properly open the water chakra, for example, is different than having a heightened sexual drive. On the contrary, it requires that the physical sexual organ go into a state of latency and that the sexual drive be sublimated.
Similarly, to open the air chakra is quite different than to be in a heightened, vulnerable, or overly emotional state. To awaken this fourth chakra we must go beyond mere personal emotions and understand the cosmic energy behind all emotional fluctuations. This requires an opening to the universal feelings of compassion and devotion, and contact with the universal life force.
Strictly speaking, therefore, there is no such chakra as the sex center, or heart center, or any other chakra as a mere physical function. There is a chakra located in the subtle body in an area that corresponds to the region of the sex organs in the physical body and which is its subtle counterpart. However, the properly opened chakra is not concerned with the functions of the physical sexual organs but with the cosmic element of water and its corresponding activities. To call it a sex center invites misinterpretation.
The signs of opened chakras include a corresponding control over and detachment from the physical elements and organs. As long as one is attached to the physical organs and their functions, the subtle organs cannot come into play. The awakening of the consciousness behind the subtle body involves being able to take off the gross body and its functions like a heavy overcoat which is no longer necessary on a warm summer day.
To give a sense of what occurs when the chakras are opened, let us examine the signs of opening, chakra by chakra. Note that these signs are general. Experience is variable, particularly as to phenomena or powers. The main experience is a deepening sense of the unity of the universe with one’s own Self-nature.
Let us examine the signs of opening, chakra by chakra.
When the first chakra is opened, one becomes cognizant of the cosmic earth element and aware of the underlying unity of all solid states of matter as a crystallization of the energy of consciousness. One comes to experience the qualities of the cosmic earth element—like hardness, roughness, density, and texture—as various vibratory conditions of one’s own consciousness. One may perceive various subtle or celestial fragrances. Similarly, one understands all formative acts in the universe as different workings of the cosmic earth energy in its capacity to produce and sustain form.
When the water chakra is opened, one becomes cognizant of the cosmic water element and aware of the underlying unity of all liquid states of matter as a crystallization of the energy of consciousness. One comes to experience the qualities of the water element—like softness, wetness, coolness, and flowing nature—as various vibratory conditions of one’s own consciousness. One may perceive various subtle or celestial tastes as an essence (rasa) that emanates from all experiences. Similarly, one understands all purificatory acts in the universe as different workings of the cosmic water energy in its purificatory role.
When the third chakra is opened, one becomes cognizant of the cosmic fire element and aware of the underlying unity of all radiant states of matter as a crystallization of the energy of consciousness. One experiences the qualities of the fire element—like light, color, heat, and illumination—as various vibratory conditions of one’s own consciousness. One may also experience subtle sights and visions, and perceive the radiance or aura behind things. Similarly, one understands behind all appearances in the universe the workings of the cosmic fire energy in its power of illumination.
When the fourth chakra is opened, one becomes cognizant of the cosmic air element and aware of the underlying unity of all gaseous states of matter as a crystallization of the energy of consciousness. One experiences the qualities of the air element—like motion, changeability, subtlety, and penetration—as various vibratory conditions of one’s own consciousness. One may also perceive subtle energy contacts, and feel the underlying vibratory energies of the cosmic life-force. Similarly, one understands behind all contacts in the universe the workings of the cosmic air energy in its energizing role.
When the fifth chakra is opened, one becomes cognizant of the cosmic ether element and aware of the underlying unity of all space in the universe as a crystallization of the energy of consciousness. One experiences the qualities of space—like lightness, subtlety, pervasiveness, and clarity—as various vibratory conditions of one’s own consciousness. One may also perceive subtle sounds, and recognize the underlying spatial structure of the universe. Similarly, one understands behind all vibrations in the universe the working of the cosmic ether element as their matrix.
When the sixth chakra is opened, one becomes cognizant of cosmic mind and aware of the underlying unity of all minds in the universe as a crystallization of the energy of consciousness. One experiences the qualities of mind—like perceptiveness, creativity, discrimination, and detachment—as various vibratory conditions of one’s own consciousness. One gains the ability to integrate all the cosmic elements and their respective organs and functions through the activity of the awakened mind. One gains mastery over the mind and comes to have a continual stream of divine perceptions. One realizes that all we think is a manifestation of the cosmic principle of mind.
When the seventh chakra is opened, one becomes cognizant of the Self or pure consciousness as the sole reality and underlying substance of the universe. One experiences the qualities of consciousness—like infinity, immortality, peace, and bliss—as one’s own nature and the underlying nature of the universe. One gains mastery over consciousness and comes to abide in a state of Self-realization, seeing oneself in all beings and all beings in oneself. One realizes that all things are manifestations of the Supreme Self, which is the sole reality.
There are also general signs of the awakening of subtle energies and faculties, like the experiencing of subtle sounds, lights, visions of deities, and so on, generally in the region of the third eye. But such experiences may come long before any particular chakra is opened.
Each chakra can give an awareness of corresponding levels of the universe or different worlds beyond the physical. The corresponding sub-planes of the astral universe, which are quite marvelous beyond anything in the physical world, may become available to our experience. We may similarly gain insights into the subtle workings of nature, the senses, the life force, and the process of cosmic creation and powers over them.
Each chakra can give an awareness of corresponding levels of the universe or different worlds beyond the physical.
Yet not all yogis choose to explore the worlds or the faculties that relate to the chakras. Many great jnanis, or yogis of the path of knowledge, strive to merge directly into pure unity or the Absolute. In their awakening they may hardly note the distinctions of the chakras and their functions. Ramana Maharshi typifies this view. For him there was only one chakra or center, the Self, from which all the phenomena of the gross and subtle worlds and bodies appeared like the images seen in a mirror or bubbles on the waves of the sea.
Opening the chakras requires purity of body, heart, and mind. It cannot be done willfully or forcefully, nor can it be done in a state of emotional disturbance. Attempts to awaken kundalini without having first purified the body and mind often lead to side effects in which the mind or the pranic force becomes disturbed, which results in various illusory experiences. For this reason, traditional yogic literature has always stressed right living (like a vegetarian diet and control of sexual energy), and right attitude (such as non-violence, non-possessiveness, and the other observances and restraints embodied in the yamas and niyamas).
It is possible to have aberrant kundalini or chakra experiences, although most of the experiences labeled as premature kundalini awakening are actually nervous or mental disturbances of a more ordinary nature. If the mind is not purified, there still can be a heightened activity of the lower chakras, which is accompanied by an increase in corresponding physical urges. That is why yoga texts state that beings of asuric or highly egotistical natures can open the chakras up to the navel, but their experiences will be tainted, and the functioning of the chakras will be deranged.
Certain healers may be able to affect the physical counterparts of the chakras with external aids or with psychic energies—which may be helpful for treating various physical or emotional imbalances—but the true awakening of the chakras cannot be accomplished for us by an external person. No external person, machine, or object can open your chakras for you on their yogic level of functioning. The use of certain diets, herbs, or gems can be helpful in preparing the way for the opening of the chakras but these are only external supports. They can no more open the chakras than can asanas of themselves produce meditation. A guru, or one in whom the inner consciousness is awakened, can provide guidance or initiatory experience but cannot do the work for us. The real opening of the chakras requires the adept practice of yoga, which may take years, sometimes lifetimes, to accomplish and which stems from deeper yogic practices of pranayama, mantra, and meditation along with a disciplined lifestyle.
No external person, machine, or object can open your chakras for you on their yogic level of functioning.
Above all we should understand that opening the chakras is not an end in itself, but part of the process of Self-realization, which occurs primarily either through surrender to the Divine (bhakti or devotion) or inquiry into one’s true nature (jnana or knowledge). The current tendency to focus on the technicalities of the chakras rather than developing devotion or wisdom shows that we have not understood what spiritual practice is really about. It is analogous to being more concerned with the physiology of the stomach than with the quality of the food that we eat. The chakras are maps. They show the road and indicate the side paths where one can go astray. What is important is to connect to that Goal wherein one goes beyond all seeking.
Yogic literature speaks of various siddhis, or yogic powers, like the power to levitate, or the power to become as large or small as one likes. As the chakras open, these corresponding powers in the subtle body may be experienced. These siddhis relate primarily to the subtle body, which as subtle matter is totally malleable. It is almost impossible to translate these siddhis into the physical body, gross and dense as it is, and in any case, this is not the aim of yogic practices.
In addition, there are many subtle energies that exist between ordinary physical consciousness and the true awakening of the kundalini and the chakras. We should not regard any extraordinary experience as an enlightenment or a kundalini experience. Visions, out of the body experiences, trances, channeling, mystical dreams, genius, inspiration of various sorts and other such states often originate in other parts of the mind and are not necessarily spiritual experiences. Even when they are legitimate, such spiritual experiences may still fall short of the real awakening of kundalini, and certainly should not be confused with Self-realization, which requires the full development of our awareness, not giving ourselves over to some entity or experience outside ourselves.