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What Are the Chakras?

Perhaps one of Yoga's most interesting notions, Chakras are a perfect synthesis of elements from Yogic philosophy and psychology, Ayurvedic thought, ancient poetry and Esoterism at large.

In our blog entries we make frequent reference to them; yet, so far we've only devoted a very basic entry to dealing with the Chakras proper. It's time to remedy that! So here's a very condensed but comprehensive view of what Chakras represent and what they actually are.

Spinning Wheels of Human Self-Actualization

As both Yogic and Ayurvedic texts span, human beings are more than a mere sack of flesh and bones. Central to these two disciplines' philosophies is the fact that we humans are actually centres of consciousness clouded in different layers of both subtle and gross matter. Ayurveda can be said to centre its work on easing the ailments of the least subtle of those layers ––namely, the ailmensts of the physical body and also the sorrows of the mind. Yoga, on its part, deals with the ailments of our energy body more than with those of the physical body proper ––even if modern misrepresentations of Yoga may make it seem otherwise.

Indeed, when properly practiced, Yoga and Ayurveda work at the level of the main energies of our body, which means they engage not just with such subtle elements as the nadis but also with our chakras and with conscious energy at large. Now, to say they are subtle does not amount to saying they are imaginary, and anyone familiar with the practice of traditional Yoga and Ayurveda will surely know the difference.

Still, what are the chakras, you may be wondering? You can think of them as any nucleus or centre where three or more Nadis intersect. These big intersections have ramifications at an energetic level that infiltrate every layer, and thus, every level of our being; while at the same time serving to connect us to cosmic energy or universal Prana and all the innate wisdom emanating from it.

Now, this is a rather loose definition of what a chakra is and we must admit this is purposefully so; for, by their very essence, chakras defy categorization, being elements that 'exist' or function at different levels all at once. But for clarity's sake, we can simply argue that chakras are subtle energy centres in the subtler realms of the human mind that must be ascended much like an invisible ladder leading to self-realisation.

Major Chakras

Though most systems speak of seven or nine main chakras or 'spinning wheels' placed along our physical spine, the truth is that we humans have a lot more chakras than just seven or nine and that the most relevant of these are not exactly located 'along our spine.' To be precise, chakras reside within Sushumna Nadi, which is, per definition, one of the most important subtle channels of our extended subtle anatomy and which does, to some degree, mirror our spine. For simplicity's sake, most systems single out five or seven (sometimes even thirteen) chakras alluding to the seven main nerve ganglia emanating from our spinal column as their physical point of reference. But as is the case with the nadis, this does not amount to saying that chakras are material, even though they are as every bit as real as any other element in our body.

Regardless of how many we choose to pay attention to, what's important to remember is that each of these main chakras reflects the different and unique frequencies of vibration, but also densities, at which the main five elements of Ayurveda (those of earth, water, fire, air and ether) 'crystallize.' Indeed, each of the main chakras (we will be referring to seven in this entry) represents a different state of awareness and thus a different aspect of consciousness. That is, each chakra is like a door into a certain way of being in the world with tendencies that will manifest at a physical, mental and spiritual level both in positive and negative ways. Knowing where we stand in relation to these tendencies can be a key factor when choosing, for example, the type of Yoga practice we should focus on, but also in outlining possible pathways for self-growth.

Elements, Chakras, Energies and the Senses

According to Yoga and Ayurveda, the main chakras are often represented as either spinning wheels or lotuses with a very specific number of petals. Still, the petals alluded to are never literal but metaphoric: a way to symbolically represent how each of these chakras corresponds to a certain natural element, a certain physical sense, a certain color, sound, psychological trait, tendencies, as well as a certain frequency or rate of vibration. The higher the number of petals in a chakra the higher its rate of vibration and, as a consequence of this, the subtler and more spiritual the plane of existence it represents. This means that, though we cannot choose which energies (or chakras) are more naturally predominant in our lives, we can choose which energies and attitudes we want to enhance and which we want to let go off so that we may 'climb up' the ladder of spiritual self-actualisation that the chakra system outlines.

And so, when we hear speak of chakras as lotuses or flowers, we are essentially speaking of how they function as centres of creativity and energy. Because, if we want certain energies to flourish, our lives and our hearts must do so too.

The progression of energies and petals goes from the lowest human level of Muladhara chakra (where the earth element dominates, Lam bija mantra is the master sound, where Apana Vayu reigns, a chakra connected to the nose and anus and to the sense of smell, with only four petals); to Swadhisthana chakra (where water element rules, Vam mantra is sound, Apana Vayu reigns, connected to our tongue and genitals and our sense of taste, with six petals); to Manipura chakra (the house of the fire element, Ram mantra, ruled by Samana Vayu, and centred around the navel, with ten petals); to Anahata chakra (the house of the Air element, Yam bija mantra, ruled by Vyana Vayu, connected to our heart, hands and skin and to the sense of touch with twelve petals); to Vishuddhi Chakra (the realm of ether, Ham mantra, Udana vayu, connected to our throat, vocal chords and ears, with sixteen petals); to Ajna Chakra (the realm of the mind where all elements and sense modalities merge, ruled by the sound of Ksham and Prana Vayu and connected to our third eye, with two petals meant to simplify a vibratory frequency of more than a hundred petals); ending in Sahasrara Chakra (the centre of pure consciousness, house of the mantra Om, where all the energies and Vayus merge and emanate from, corresponding to the crown of the head and the space above, with more than one thousand petals).

What the chakras represent is a roadmap for the evolution of human consciousness where each consecutive level grants us the opportunity to sublimate the negative tendencies inherent in doing life from each specific level of awareness or chakra, into their spiritual counterparts. The goal is for us to progressively purify body, mind, and spirit throughout however many lives the process will require, so our atman or soul may finally be able rejoice in universal oneness and, bit by bit, grow out off the vicious cycle of human reincarnation and suffering.