I believe it is safe to assume that everyone reading this article knows what yoga is; however, as yoga teachers, it is easy to lose sight of the ultimate goal of yoga, and fall into a primarily physical focus. After all, our primary medium for teaching is the body, and our primary method is teaching postures. That being so, our students (as we, as well) often forget that the body is merely a vehicle for reaching the state of yoga, which is union, Oneness, and bliss.
Our true nature is divine; that is what we are. We are not bodies sheltering spirit; we are spirit embodied. Our bodies are nothing more and nothing less than gateways to remembering our true divine nature. Yoga asanas help us tune in so that we can penetrate through the seeming solidity of our bodies, and understand, in an immediate and experiential way, our truest, most free, most blissful essence.
Though mere vehicles, our bodies are much more complex and subtle than we realize. We are not merely skin, bone and fibers; we are also beings of energy, and just as our physical bodies can be out of tune, our energy bodies can be blocked and constricted. We are dynamic beings, and there is constant interplay between our breath and our energy bodies, our energy bodies and our minds, our minds and our physical bodies, our physical bodies and our energy bodies . . . One aspect of our embodied beingness is always dynamically affecting and being affected by another aspect.
The chakras are part of the energy body. Chakra is a Sanskrit word which means wheel, and these wheels operate in the body like spinning vortices through which consciousness both ascends and descends. Though the chakras can be associated with physical structures of the body—namely, the base of the spine, the sacrum, the solar plexus, the heart, the throat, the third eye (between the eyebrows), and the crown and just above the head—they are actually invisible whirling energy centers, localizing and then moving consciousness up and down our spines. In Tantra Yoga, our divine consciousness is understood as Kundalini, a snake coiled three and half times at the base of our spines, laying dormant until awakened by our intentions, our breath and our physical postures. Once awakened, she ascends through the spinning vortices of the chakras, each one the seat of a certain stage of consciousness, until she reaches the abode of Shiva, at the Crown Chakra, the place of consciousness where our egos fall completely away and we are once again returned to our Oneness. If the chakra centers are stifled, however, or the energy is blocked or constricted, Kundalini may not be able to pass through, and we will become stuck at a certain restricted level of freedom and awareness.
In her workshop, Energizing Your Life: Exploring the Chakras With Jivamukti Yoga, Alanna Estes, president of Yoga Teachers of Colorado and Jivamukti yoga teacher, inspired a vital awareness between our energy bodies and our physical bodies through the experiential stimulation of the seven chakras. Emphasizing that ALL forms of yoga are, in essence, practices of raising consciousness, Alanna cut through the surface emphasis on physical poses, using the chakras as points of conscious energy awareness. In this way, she transformed a physical asana practice into a vehicle for raising the energy from the base concerns of the body and the ego to the higher concerns of loving kindness, purity, truthfulness, and intuitive perception of our true natures.
The first chakra is the Muladhara or Root Chakra. The consciousness at this level is concerned with basic survival such as food and shelter, and the basic preservation of our lives. It is essential that we feel safe and grounded in the world in order to move into higher states of consciousness. Standing poses, such as Mountain Pose, Warrior I and II, and Triangle help us feel rooted, harvesting energy from the earth, developing a deep connection to the Great Mother. The legs and feet are extensions of the root chakra, so bringing awareness and strength to these lower extremities activates the Root Chakra. First chakra consciousness is also concerned with balance, so poses such as Tree Pose, Standing Forward Bend, and Crow Pose are also helpful in reaching a stable connection with the root source of our being.
The second chakra is Svadisthana Chakra, located just below the navel at the front of the body, and at the sacrum at the back of the body. This is the seat of our sexuality, our emotionality, and our creativity. Hip opening poses, such as Janusirsasana and Hanumanasana help open this seat of consciousness, although it is important to do some rooting poses as well, such as Downward Dog. There is no ascension into higher realms of freedom and consciousness without a strong initial groundedness.
The third chakra is Manipura Chakra, located at the solar plexus . This is the seat of our personality and individuality, the power of our egos. The goal in activating this chakra is to be able to let go of the grip on our egos, so that we might finally realize that we are not actually competitive creatures by nature, striving in our individual lives to get and achieve great things; but, rather, that we are all already divine, and it is precisely our egos that blind us to this reality. Twisting postures help us towards this realization by wringing out our egos. It is important as we twist, however, to stay connected to the ground—first chakra, and open in our hips—second chakra—twisting deeply from the solar plexus, the seat of the ego, consciously wringing out that sense of self that keeps us locked in our own urges, fears and desires.
Most Westerners live primarily in the consciousness of these first three chakras. Our culture and society reinforces the notions of individuality and competitive striving, while bombarding us with suggestions that we are not enough, that we need to buy more and strive more to compensate, and furthermore, we are losing our power day by day as we age. In reality, when we finally activate, understand, and ascend through the first three chakras (and remember, we cannot move on until we’ve activated each chakra successively), we come into the consciousness where yogis strive to be—the consciousness of the heart.
The fourth chakra is Anahata Chakra, or the heart chakra. In order to activate this seat of consciousness, we must open our chests through backbends such as Locust Pose, Cobra Pose, Bow Pose, Camel Pose, Bridge Pose and Upward Bow, remembering to let go of expectations in each pose, and allowing ourselves simply to be the pose. When we are finally able to be instead of do or perform, we are moving fully into the consciousness of the heart chakra, for love itself is a reality, not an activity.
The fifth chakra is Vishudha Chakra, located at the throat. Once we are pure in our actions, which is the consciousness of the heart chakra, we are able to speak purely and truthfully. We speak though the heart with the voice. Poses such as Plow and Shoulderstand help us clarify and purify our throat chakras, enabling us to speak clearly and truthfully. It is only by coming to this place of consciousness as a result of the strengthening and purifying journey through the other chakras that we actually have something to say. Otherwise, we are liable to speak through the confusion of our desires and fears, which often produce the noise of gossip, pointless chatter, and hurtful or manipulative words. The ability to speak clearly hinges upon the ability to hear clearly, to be receptive, to know that everyone and everything around you is a teacher. This receptivity opens the awareness of the sixth chakra, which is direct receptivity to the divine.
The sixth chakra is Ajna Chakra, located between the eyebrows, a physical location understood as the third eye, the eye that sees all things as One. This is the seat of highest intuition, the seat of knowing that all divisions are false, and everyone and everything is divine. Child’s Pose presses the third eye into the ground, establishing a deep and tender connection with all manifestation, reminding us to realize the true, undivided nature of all that is.
The seventh chakra is Sahasrara Chakra, or the Thousand-Petaled Lotus, which is located just above the crown of the head. This is the seat of pure being, the place where everything just is. This is the place of bliss. Headstand helps us feel the divinity at the crown of the head. More powerful yet is to lift slightly off the ground in headstand, bringing consciousness to that divine space between the crown and the earth, that place that is both empty and absolutely full, where all has been relinquished but the desire for union, and then, even that desire has been released.
This is the briefest introduction to “tuning” or activing the chakras through asana practice. This was merely a tribute to the richness of Alanna’s workshop and, I hope, a seed planted. For more instruction and radiant insight, contact Alanna Estes at her website, www.jivadiva.com, and watch out for upcoming workshops.
This post was originally published in 2010.