A Brief, Horrible, Introduction to Chakra Theory & Energetics


I'm going to just write like I actually know something here. It's a big topic and I've just barely gotten started.


So chakra theory is a convenient way to model the how the spirit and body come together in creating the human experience. Before I get started though, it is important to realize that the theory comes is derived from a hodgepodge of individual experiences collected over the centuries. I like to think that a lot of the theory came from people interpreting visionary moments. This means that there are actually many different chakra systems. Even though they all share common features, it seems a bit much to call any of them "true" in the same way that we might regard the Standard Model of quantum physics. Still as a matter of practical experience the chakra model seems to work fairly well.

Another important detail to remember is that, even though we will be talking about mind and matter as separate things, Hindu Tantra does not consider them truly separate. The same principle applies when the contrast of masculine and feminine is used: the concrete terminology is being used to suggest structure within a vast wholeness. Both are present at once, at all times. In new-age terms, this whole subject is frequently called "energetics" in analogy with the Einsteinian matter/energy equivalence. Also because there is a connection between the vitality felt in life and the order (or disorder) of the "energetic" systems of the body.

Chakras and Nadis

Analogy alert: almost everything here is used as an analogy. A basic premise of most spiritual thought is "as above, so below". This assumes that the universe has a fundamentally fractal structure where phenomena are repeated at all different dimensional scales. The dragon curve, Sierpinski's triangle, and of course the famous Mandelbrot set are easily visualized examples of this fundamental philosophical notion.

If you think of pouring the stillness of the universal mind into the swirling activity of differentiated matter, we can think of the human experience as arising from the boundary effects between the two fluids. Some part of that boundary corresponds to the limits of what each entity considers its idea of "self". Perhaps the smallest scale of that boundary corresponds to string theory; as we look at larger scales we see increasingly complex systems. Since we are ego-identified with humanity, we very naturally direct most of our attention to that scale of complexity. Chakras and Nadis form some of the high-level internal structure of humans when viewed from the "mind fluid".

The analogy is horrible but I'll keep working with it for a while. However, I am going to shift my terminology slightly and use the technical term for "mind fluid", which is "prana". "Prana" literally translates as "breath", but in much the same way that the greek "pneuma" translates as "breath", it can also be translated as "spirit" or possibly "life force". For the moment I am going to ignore "kundalini" energy and treat it as a special case of prana. There is an entire school of yoga built around kundalini energy, so if you end up talking to any of those people they may well cringe, I am just intentionally glossing over it.

Anyway, in the literature there are many versions of the chakra system discussed; however they all share a common structure with fairly clear correspondences to major neurological structures. The most common version of the chakra system proposes the existence of 7 major chakras aligned with the cerebro-spinal system. Now "chakra" literally means "disk" and they are usually visualized as spinning vortices of light. The chakras are connected by the three main nadis (often translated as "channel") which distribute prana throughout the body. The nadis are then further divided, sending prana to minor chakras throughout the body.

Which, finally, brings us to the "brief, horrible" part of this document: this incredibly short tabulation of the seven main chakras.

Chakra English Sanskrit Location Function
1 root muladhara anus grounding, safety, basic life function
2 sacral svadhsthana the pelvic region sex, creativity, emotion
3 solar manipura the gut, digestive tract digestion, will power
4 heart anahata heart connection to others, love
5 throat vishuddha thymus, vocal chords expression, creativity
6 brow ajna pineal gland thoughts, including psychic powers
7 crown sahasrara top of the skull spiritual awareness, divine consciousness

Entire books have been written on this topic. Personally, I recommend Anodea Judith's Wheels of Life as a fairly approachable text that also contains some really great meditations and exercises to help connect all the theory to your actual experience.

Yoga & the Chakras

Sometimes it seems like everybody knows yoga has something to do with the chakras. There have even been books written about how various asanas relate to the chakras. That's all a little too magical for me: I believe that attention and intention are far more important than the specifics of any physical act. Since yoga is all about attention and intention, the connection to the chakras gets made, whether you directly target the energetic system of not.

But I get a little ahead of myself. The main purpose of asana back to antiquity is to prepare the body for the rest of the practices of yoga. This particularly pertains to meditation: it is plain hard to sit truly still for an hour while remaining comfortable the whole time. The chakra system also ties in to this purpose. For example there is a Tibetan meditation which is used to generate such intense heat from the "solar" chakra that its practitioners can remain meditating outdoors through apalling conditions.

I am not personally working on that level, so I can't speak to how effective it might be. But as I have been working deeper into this I am finding space between sensations arising from the different chakras (and their bodily manifestation) and mental states with which I am (at long last) coming to grips. I also find that bringing attention to the chakras can help bridge gaps in my understanding relationship dynamics. In short, I really do find this material, for all it's unscientific "woo-woo," to be useful.

Now prana does get "stuck" in the body-mind. Sometimes this happens through physical injury when the body decides on its own to put extra energy into healing and (over the long term) protection. But we live at the boundary between mind & matter and similar patterns exist for emotional, mental and spiritual "injury". And just like physical injuries spill over into our mental awareness, injuries from the energetic side of life can spill over into the physical. These are most commonly seen in the lower chakras (1-3), but energetic injuries certainly aren't restricted to them.

In these cases where there is prana connects to physical experience in an uncomfortable way, untangling the threads of cause and effect can be very tricky. It takes patience and discernment. It requires grace and discipline with existing tendencies. It may require professional help, be it cognitive, chemical, or surgical. By expanding our understanding of the human existence to including prana, we are not disregarding the physical aspects that our culture understands so well!

And yoga asana practice can help, especially if you work with a teacher that brings energetics as part of her teaching and has the patience and skills to help individuals discover how their own body/mind systems are working. You'll know her (or him) when you find her. I have been blessed in that both of my major teachers (Sibylle Dallmann and Meghan Currie) are exactly this way, and I knew that within minutes of my first class with each of them.

In Conclusion

Good luck, and have fun with it all. Seriously. It doesn't matter how many layers of meaning and reality there may be. We all dance the same dance to the drum-beat of our hearts in time. Winning and losing aren't even a part of the game, so you might as well have as much fun along the way as you can stand.