Chakras are focal energy points within and without the body. Depending on the tradition, there are varying numbers, but most commonly we now recognize seven main body chakras corresponding to specific colors: root (red), sacral (orange), solar plexus (yellow), heart (green), throat (blue), third eye (lavender), and crown (white). Sanskrit tradition speaks of them as both meditation visuals—combining flowers with mantras—and physical entities within the body. Kundalini yoga works to manipulate the flow of energies through these chakra points in order to reach alignment and higher states of consciousness.

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An Introduction to the Chakras

By Anodea Judith, PhD 

The chakras are concentrations of life force energy occurring within general locations in the physical body. The word chakra comes from the Sanskrit language of ancient India (cakra, pronounced chuckra with a hard ch) and means wheel or disc. In addition to their physical location, each of the chakras has numerous correlations with elements, symbols, colors, sounds, and deities, as well as physical and psychological properties and states of consciousness.

Sanskrit scholar Christopher Wallace defines the chakras as “focal points for meditation within the human body, visualized as structures of energy resembling discs or flowers made of light at those points where a number of nadis [subtle energy channels] converge.”

Allow me to offer a more modern definition: “Chakras are centers of organization for the reception, assimilation, storage, and expression of life force energy.“

There are typically seven major chakras, though various systems posit more or less than seven, with minor sub-chakras in the heart or third eye, and some positing chakras above or below the body, or in the hands and feet.

The chakras also represent various states of consciousness, such as instinctual, emotional, egoic, relational, creative, visionary, or blissful.

Together the seven chakras provide a holistic system of representing the full spectrum of human potential, from our earthly survival instincts to our highest states of consciousness. This is called the chakra system.

What is the recognized history of the chakras?

The chakra system originated within the yogic teachings of India. While the chakras may have been an oral tradition prior to that, there is no specific written mention of the chakras as a system of energy centers until around the tenth century CE, during the Tantric period of yoga philosophy.

The first book about the chakras that came to the West is called The Serpent Power, published in 1919 by the Englishman Arthur Avalon (aka Sir John Woodroffe). This is based on a translation of the texts the Sat-Cakra-Nirupana, written by Swami Purnananda in 1577, and the Paduka-Pancaka, written in the tenth century, which contain descriptions of the centers and related practices. It must be noted that only six chakras were described in the Serpent Power, leaving out the crown chakra.

The modern interpretation of the chakras originated from theosophists Madame Helena Blavatsky, Annie Besant, and C. W. Leadbeater in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Later, more modern writers—such as Barbara Brennan, me, and others—brought in the correlations to healing and psychological states, which were not part of the original doctrines.

Chakras have become popularized today largely because of the proliferation of yoga, Reiki, and energy medicine techniques.

How do the chakras work?

Just as a car needs to be able to shift gears for different kinds of driving, the chakras act as metaphorical gears for the human psyche. Energy can move up the chakra column in the current of liberation, or downward from top to bottom in the current of manifestation.

Like an airport, where people switch from land travel to air travel and back to land again, the chakras also transform energy within the body-mind system from one level to another, both upward and downward. In this way, the chakras “condense” the energy of consciousness into various levels of manifestations, such as seeing, hearing, or feeling, as well as “liberate” us from fixed patterns by accessing realms of higher consciousness.

As an example, instinctual energy in the first chakra can become emotional energy in the second chakra, or the energy of love can stimulate creativity and greater awareness in the chakras above. In the downward current, upper chakra awareness can release or contain the emotions of the lower chakras, or visualizing a healing process may affect the physical body.

The ancient texts saw the chakras primarily as focal points for visualization and meditation, places where subtle energy channels (nadis) converge. Various breathing and visualization practices were used to make contact with these centers.

In modern understanding, chakras are energy centers located in the core of the body that process the energy between the inner and the outer world. In a healthy person, living in a healthy environment, the life force energy flows through the chakras with little impediment. In a spiritually adept person, energies can be channeled into specific chakras for specific purposes.

Blockages in the body and psyche, due to past trauma or difficulties, can interfere with the optimal flow of energy, creating body armor, psychological defenses, and obstacles along the path of spiritual awakening. In the old texts, the blockages that occurred within the chakras were called granthis, which means knots. Tools for addressing blockages include practices of meditation, breathing, and yoga, as well as psychological and physical therapies.

Blockages restrict energy because psychological and neuromuscular programming may constrict one’s ability to appropriately receive, assimilate, store, and/or express life force energy within any of the chakras. These defensive patterns may constrict certain areas of the body, such as the legs, sexual organs, belly, chest, or jaw, eyes, or brain—areas that correspond by location to the major chakras. By understanding the correspondences of the chakras in these areas, one can address the constriction or imbalance by using various tools, such as sound, visualization, breathing exercises, or physical postures.

Chakras also facilitate the subtle movement of energy within the body, much like capacitors and resistors in electronics equipment. When chakras are “open,” they conduct a free flow of energy; when “blocked,” they inhibit that flow. For example, defenses in the heart chakra may limit our ability to process love, as well as make it difficult to take a deep breath. Defense patterns that restrict energy in the third chakra may negatively influence our digestion as well as our vitality and sense of personal power.

How is this system different from other models or modalities?

It must be understood that the chakra system is not a modality but a symbolic model for human consciousness. Within this model, there are many modalities that work with the chakras, from yoga to chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation, including massage, acupuncture, meditation, visualization, pranayama, Reiki, or distant healing.

As a model, however, the chakras are unique in that they map onto the physical body as well as states of consciousness, helping to better integrate the mind and body through their energetic processes. The chakra system is one of the few systems that include virtually all aspects of the human experience within one comprehensive integrative system.

What does one experience through the chakras?

Like the wheels on your car, the chakras function best when open and balanced. When the entire chakra system is in balance, a person can feel a full and even flow of energy through their body, better managing their emotional and physical states, sharpening their mind, and experiencing higher states of awareness.

When out of balance, a person may be inclined to do too much of something (excessive chakra) or too little (a deficient chakra). Examples of excess are being overly emotional (second chakra), dominating others (third chakra), or “living in one’s head” (sixth and seventh chakras).

By contrast, a deficient chakra would produce too little of something, such as flat or numb emotions in the second chakra, or passivity and powerlessness in the third chakra; while a deficient sixth chakra might make it hard to visualize or imagine and a deficient seventh chakra could result in someone feeling spiritually disconnected from the greater source of life.

In chakra theory, there is a powerful energy called Kundalini, which can awaken the chakras through an intense experience of energy working its way through blockages and rising up the core. Such an experience may be blissful, but it also may be intense, destabilizing, or frightening. Kundalini is seen as a healing and awakening force, attributed to the serpent form of the goddess Shakti, whose movement up the spine can produce shaking and sinuous movements that resemble the movement of a serpent. As Kundalini rises from where she is wrapped three and a half times around the first chakra, she is said to pierce each chakra on her journey to the crown. Her full name is Kundalini Shakti, and she is the goddess counterpart to the god, Shiva, who represents pure consciousness.

Ideally, opening and balancing the chakras can reduce the possibility of a dangerous Kundalini awakening, in a similar way that fixing the circuitry in a piece of electronics can help it better sustain a strong flow of current.

Therefore, one manages this experience by working on their psychological and emotional material, by conditioning the body through practices such as yoga and pranayama (breathing exercises) and balancing the mind through meditation. These practices invite a better flow of energy and increase the probability that a Kundalini experience will be more manageable should it occur.

What are the benefits of working with the chakra system?

The chakra system provides a person with a map to the human spiritual journey of healing and awakening. This map helps them better navigate the challenges of life and maintain their health, well-being, and spiritual growth.

By working with your chakras, you will come to know yourself better, manage yourself more effectively, and expand your consciousness to higher states.

Excessive chakras (too much of something or a compensation strategy) are addressed by letting go of fixations in a particular area to come into balance. Deficient chakras (too little) suggest a stronger focus in those areas in order to balance. As a general rule, deficient chakras need to charge up, while excessive chakras need to discharge.

Ideally, balancing your chakras between excess and deficiency, as well as balancing all seven chakras with each other, creates an even distribution throughout the body-mind system, leading to optimal health and functioning.

As a holistic system, the chakras provide a formula for wholeness in body, mind, and spirit.

What does a chakra feel like?

There are common experiences that could be correlated to the activity of a chakra, both positive or negative. Examples include the feeling in the heart when one falls in love (fourth chakra), butterflies in the stomach (third chakra), constriction in the throat when one tries to speak (fifth chakra), or feeling an emotion or experiencing orgasm in the second chakra.

A simple exercise to feel the minor chakras in your hands is to rapidly open and close your palms several times with arms outstretched, then slowly bring your palms toward each other. When your palms are six to eight inches apart, you can usually feel a subtle ball of energy between the palms that has a spinning quality.

When a chakra is stimulated by physical practice, meditation, or life situations, one experiences an increase of energy in that part of the body, possibly with accompanying emotions, memories, or insights. In the upward, liberating current, one may experience greater freedom by access to higher chakras. In the downward current of manifestation, one may experience a condensation of energy, or of “things coming together.”

However, the experiences people have in their own bodies, and especially in their chakras, can vary widely, depending on their programming, their level of healing and awareness, and their skill at using tools such as yoga and meditation. Ideally, experiencing the chakras leads you to unity with the Divine or supreme consciousness.

Are there contraindications or side effects?

The chakras are neither a modality nor a drug, so using this model is unlikely to have any side effects. However, many modern users simply want to label their experiences in terms of pigeonholing them into a particular chakra, rather than fully embracing their experience.

In addition, there are warnings about invoking the Kundalini energy without the guidance of a guru or teacher who is experienced in these matters. Kundalini risings may release past traumas or uncomfortable energies and leave one in a less balanced state until the blocks have been resolved. Given that there are now countless Kundalini yoga studios without deleterious effects, this warning may be overly cautious. However, some people do have difficulty with Kundalini, even those who did have their awakening as a result of contact with a guru.

About the Author

Anodea Judith, PhD, is a spiritual teacher whose books and workshops are followed throughout the world. She is the author of nine books on chakras, psychology, yoga, social change, and manifestation, which have been translated into twenty-eight languages. As a yoga teacher and body-oriented psychotherapist with trauma specialization, her work is a unique combination of techniques useful to yogis, therapists, coaches, and those on their own healing journey. She is the founder and director of the teaching organization Sacred Centers. She holds a master’s degree in clinical psychology and a doctorate in mind-body health, with advanced yoga certifications and numerous therapy trainings.  

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