When I was in undergrad, I was on course overload and under financial distress when my best friend decided to move out of the apartment we shared with no warning, leaving me stunned, heartbroken, and suddenly responsible for double my rent.
So, with a heavy heart and a daunting financial burden, I found a job as personal assistant to my physics professor.
One day soon after I started, I had plans to meet my professor and go over some research, but I just couldn’t focus. My astute teacher took one look at me and asked me what was wrong.
I gave her the short version, but then she asked a question that caught me off guard: “How do you feel?”
I immediately started digging into how my roommate had turned on me, had left me in the lurch with bills and rent by not giving me time to find another roommate, and so on. When I stopped to take a breath, she repeated her question: “How do you feel?”
I was at a loss. I couldn’t remember ever being asked that question before. Maybe I hadn’t; or maybe I just hadn’t been able to hear it. Ask me to discuss calculus, cosmogony, or Newton’s Laws of Motion and I’ll give as good as I get, but emotions? Feelings? Forget it.
She was patient with me and eventually I was able to start accessing and describing the sensations I felt. I told her my stomach was tied in knots, that I had pain in my chest, that it was hard to breathe, and that my throat felt tight. She looked at me and said, very matter of factly: “Well, those are your chakras.”
That was the last thing I expected to hear from my pragmatic physics professor. But she went on to explain how the chakras worked, where they were located, and how emotional input can be manifested as physical symptoms. I was incredulous, but fascinated.
That conversation was the impetus for me to learn everything I could about the chakras. Not just to understand my own health and well-being, but, if what I learned was helpful and empowering, to share it with others seeking greater understanding.
It turns out everyone has personally experienced their chakras at work.
When a heart breaks and pain blossoms in the chest, it’s the anahata (heart) chakra responding to that emotional distress. Anyone who travels extensively knows being continuously ungrounded results in digestive issues, which are governed by the muladhara (root) chakra.
These reactions are understood best through the subtle workings of energy within our body.
Demystifying the chakra system is like learning a new language. As you become more comfortable with the vocabulary and syntax of the language, you’ll experience fewer and fewer miscommunications.
I believe our bodies carry the full expression of the truth we hold inside. The chakra system empowers us to identify the emotional forces that influence our physical selves. Only then can we understand and address them. Only then do we have a chance at effecting holistic transformation.
What do the chakras actually have to do with yoga?
The concept of the chakras is deeply rooted in yoga philosophy. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika describes the physical means through which a practitioner might achieve a state of yoga, samadhi, or enlightenment.
Alignment of the chakras is a step in that process.
The chakras lie along a central channel of energy traveling the same path as the spine. It’s known as sushumnah nadi. A nadi is an energetic pathway. Nadis cover every arc and angle of our being, like veins and arteries. Instead of carrying blood, they carry prana. Prana is life force, or vital energy—our animating force.
When prana flows smoothly through our body, it also flows through this central channel and each of the seven chakras. But when energy gets blocked and stagnates, the nadis tighten and coil. This is frequently the cause of our seemingly random aches and pains.
When it comes to addressing those knotted nadis, yoga asana, pranayama, and meditation are our best tools. Of the rumored 72,000(!) nadis in the body, yoga practitioners focus on three main channels: the sushumnah (central channel), the ida (feminine), and the pingala (masculine).
Ida and pingala.
The ida is a lunar channel, originating and terminating on the left side of the body. The pingala is the solar channel, beginning and ending on the right side of the body.
Both these channels spiral around the sushumnah all the way to the nose where prana can be invited or expelled through the breath. The intersection points of these channels are the chakras.
The role of kundalini.
Before we clear our energy channels, a serpent (kundalini) lies coiled at the base of the central channel, preventing energy from prematurely rising. Kundalini only begins her ascent when we’ve cultivated enough heat and focus that we can meet her with heightened awareness.
This is where asana practice comes in. The practice naturally builds focus in the mind and heat in the body, which propels kundalini up the shushumnah nadi. Understanding this relationship lays the groundwork for a truly transformative asana practice, which starts with a simple sun salutation.
The sun salutation is a staple of asana practice, known to generate heat in the body. We now know that that burning, or tapas, awakens kundalini and empowers us to fully participate in a dialogue with our bodies.
Sun salutations are a complete yoga practice—a vinyasa—a conscious movement that coincides with breath and uplifted intention. So, both breath and movement flow consistently, with no pauses or stutters. Building this consistency will be challenging, but the relationship you’ll cultivate between mind, body, and spirit is a cathartic, life-changing reward.
Aim to do one more sun salutation every day, until you can do, say, 10 without stopping. Then, block out a certain amount of time to perform your vinyasa, and reconnect with your chakras every day. Follow the sequence with a long Shavasana to gain the greatest benefits.
Try to sustain this sense of heightened awareness outside of your asana practice—stay tuned in to your body. Exercise the focus you’ve cultivated to quiet the mind and reaffirm your dialogue with the chakras.
The more you do it, the easier it will become, until listening to your body and your mind isn’t a struggle anymore—it’s second nature.