chakras, elements, Yoga

Frank Answers About Opening Chakras

I would like to ask some questions about “chakra opening.”  I understand there are 8 points of chakra. Some say that if we open the “Third Eye” chakra, we would be able to see the spiritual world. Is it true?  I know a woman who has specialized in music for healing. I have learned from her that our body parts are resonating with certain frequencies. She also said that by meditation our brain can function more optimally. Is perhaps the third eye only the expansion of frequency reception?”

Frank Answers: The person who submitted this question is a Christian friend of mine from Indonesia. He’s a jazz musician and teacher. He knew I introduced yoga in a course I taught at his university in 2014. I’m interested in the Tantra subtle body because it gives us a conception of the body that is more than a biological machine but does not ignore our basic physicality.

I should say at the outset that opening the chakras is esoteric yoga. One does not need to know about the chakras and the subtle body in order to practice yoga. On the other hand, the cosmology of the subtle body and its psychological implications lies behind the practice of Hatha (Sun-Moon) yoga that is the basis of most modern yoga practice. So it doesn’t hurt to know the theory behind the practice.

I think the larger question, reflecting the concern of some Christians, has to do with what we are opening ourselves to if we practice a yoga that opens the chakras. Is it a spirit world? This would be something Christians would NOT want to dabble with and, for some, it is a main objection to the practice of yoga.

Before I answer this question, I need to say something about the chakras in yoga cosmology for my general readers before I deal with my friend’s concerns. Those who don’t need this information may scroll down to the section, “How Are the Chakras Opened?” Or, you may be interested in my understanding of this cosmology.

The Yoga Subtle Body

The word “chakra” (or cakra) means “wheel.” Actually, the chakras were originally the chariot wheels associated with the earlier warrior yogis. The nadis are the axles that yoke the wheels together. (The word “yoga” itself means “yoke.”) So the chakras, as they have been reflected on in yoga tantra philosophy, are internalizations of the ancient chariot wheels seen in reliefs on the walls of ancient temples.

In the medieval tantra cosmology the chakras were seen as spinning vortices of psychoenergy located within and beyond the human body along energetic lines or circuits called nadis. The seven (not eight) primary chakras were codified from earlier writings by Pūrṇānanda Yati in a chapter on “Explanation of the Six Chakras” in a larger work completed in 1577. They are lined up along a central axis or nadi called the sushumna that extends from the perineum to the crown of the head, passing through the sacrum, the solar plexus, the heart, the base of the throat, and the middle of the forehead (the “third eye”).  The crown is not always considered a chakra because its lies beyond the body. In older texts there are actually many more than seven chakras, but these seven are the main ones.

These vortices are created by the criss-crossing or spiraling of two main nadis (circuits) that extend from the right and left sides of the brain to the base of the perineum. The ida nadi on the left side represents the downward flow of lunar or feminine energy relates to the parasympathetic nervous system. The pingala nadi on the right side represents the upward flow of solar or masculine energy and relates to the sympathetic nervous system.

The following drawing is an attempt to diagram these invisible conduits of energy and showing the positions of the chakras with their lotus symbols. The nadis are shown as intersecting around the chakras, setting them in motion. Other maps show the nadis intersecting at the chakras. Some maps just show the nadis running parallel to the sushumna, The maps should not be taken as showing actual locations. They are symbolic representations.

Mythologically, Tantra envisioned the goddess Shakti at the base of the perineum coiled up like a serpent (kundalini) and the god Shiva at or above the crown of the head. Shakti represents energy and Shiva represents consciousness. The object of Hatha yoga, that is based in Tantra philosophy, is to awaken the kundalini (serpent) at the base of the perineum (the root chakra) and send Shakti (energy) up through the chakras (awakening each one in turn) until the union of Shakti with Shiva (energy and consciousness) is achieved. At this point, it is said, enlightenment occurs.

Moreover, the chakras relate to the five cosmic elements in yoga cosmology (earth, water, fire, air, and ether or space) and to various aspects of our physical and spiritual lives.

The root chakra (maladhara) is located at the perineum and is related to the earth element and deals with issues of survival and security.

The sacral chakra (sradhishthana) is located at the sacrum and is related to the water element and deals with issues of pleasure and sexuality.

The solar plexus chakra (manipura) is located at the navel and is related to the fire element and deals with emotional issues such as will power and self-confidence.

The heart chakra (anahata) is located at the heart and is related to the wind element and deals with issues of devotion and service to others.

The throat chakra (vishuddha) is located at the throat and is related to the space element and deals with issues of communication and truth-telling.

The third eye chakra (ajna) is located in the center of the brain (but is pictured between the eyes) and is related to issues in the mind and processing sensory input.

The crown chakra (sahasrara) is located at or just above the crown of the head. It is not really a part of the chakra system because it transcends the body. The object of chakra work is to awaken consciousness.

How Are the Chakras Opened?

In the foregoing I have laid out the basic yoga cosmology of the subtle body. In what follows I am also explaining esoteric yoga practice. Again, I reiterate, one does not need to know this esoteric practice in order to practice yoga. On the other hand, it could explain why strange things sometimes happen to yogis and yoginis.

How are the chakras opened or awakened? Through vibration, which the yoga tradition coming out of Kashmir Shaivism called spanda. The ecstatic throbbing of Shiva-consciousness is described in the 10th century Spanda-Sutra or Spanda-Karika. Practices that aim at opening the chakras include breath work (pranayama), movement and poses (asanas), and chanting (mantra), all of which create vibrations.

My friend mentions music therapy used for healing.  Music is produced by vibrating air columns. These vibrations may be produced by the human vocal cords or by musical instruments that are an extension of the human body. Musical sound waves affect us in various ways, not least by increasing the intensity of the vibrations that we feel from the universe itself, but which we don’t usually notice. The whole universe is vibrating, from the electrons spinning around the nucleus of an atom to the planets spinning around suns in the galaxy. These vibrations were called “the music of the spheres” in antiquity. Everything in the universe and in our bodies is vibrating, and vibrations can be mathematically reckoned as frequencies.

The question raises the issue of whether the different chakras are opened or awakened by different frequencies. As vibrating vortices they would certainly produce a frequency. I don’t know whether there is a different frequency for each chakra. But keeping our chakra frequencies balanced and in harmony is essential in order for us to function properly as physical and spiritual beings. When our chakra frequencies are in harmony, we feel connected with ourselves as well as with others and with the cosmos itself. The object of yoga chakra work is to maintain or restore this harmony.

The great contribution of Tantra was to see a connection between the cosmos and our bodies. Tantra taught that whatever is in the universe is also within our bodies. Whatever divinity there is in the universe is also within our bodies. In fact, the tantric adepts believed that our bodies contain the divine feminine because Shakti resides in our bodies whereas Shiva transcends our bodies.  Therefore, opening the chakras is not a matter of cosmic or spiritual stuff entering our body, as if it weren’t there in the first place. It is a matter of becoming aware of what is already within us.

Modern cosmology affirms with Tantra—as well as the creation story in Genesis 2— that there is nothing in the material composition of our bodies that is not in the universe. Genesis 2 says that we are creatures of the earth, made from the chemical elements of the earth, and enlivened by the breath or spirit (ruach, pneuma, prana) of God.

Modern cosmology sees life on earth emerging from the sea. Genesis 2 tells us that the Lord God created Adam from the ground, but it had been watered by a spring that gushed up in the desert. Physiologically, our bodies are containers of H2O (we are 65% water). Interestingly, one of the basic yoga breathing techniques is called ujjayi breathing. Ujjayi literally means “ocean” and the pranayama mimicks the ocean sound.  It does this by inhaling and exhaling deeply with the mouth slightly opened. The throat is constricted so that the air passing into and out of the nostrils is similar to the sound of the waves.  Many yoga practices begin with this pranayama.

Alternate nostril breathing (anuloma viloma pranayama) is another pranayama that yogis use to activate the nadis. This is like clearing the pipelines of debris so that the energy can flow through them. In this technique the right nostril is closed by the thumb of the right hand and you inhale through the left nostil. Then the left nostril is closed by the little and fourth finger and the thumb comes off the right nostril. You exhale through the right nostril, then inhale through the right nostril. Close the right nostril with the thumb and open the left nostril to exhale. Keep repeating this left-right nostril breathing 27 times. You can take a break and do it again.

In chakra work alternate nostril breathing is followed by strong poses (asanas) combined with chanting mantras. Sounds are associated with each chakra—or actually with the element associated with each chakra. Thus:

root/earth – chant lum while moving in and out of standing (grounding) poses;

sacrum/water – chant vum while moving in and out of belly poses;

solar plexus/fire – chant rum while moving in and out of poses on one’s back that create abdominal fire;

heart/air – chant yum while moving in and out of back bends that open the chest;

throat/ether – chant hum while moving in and out of poses that move the neck up and down and sideways;

third-eye – chant Om (sounded A-U-M) while scanning the body from the perineum to the head sensing the vibrations. Poses that place the forehead on ground could be used (e.g. child, pigeon)

The crown of the head is not a place we can go to intentionally since it is really out of the body.

Chanting while moving into and out of the poses is very vigorous. The so-called Kundalini Yoga is a very vigorous practice that joins strenuous movement even apart from poses with chanting. But chanting has also been done in classical Hatha Yoga classes. For example, in workshops offered by Rod Stryker, a couple of which I have taken, we chanted while moving into asanas. My teacher, Nick Beem, who has been a student of Rod Stryker, sometimes includes chanting into the poses (which requires strong breath control).

The combined breathing, moving, chanting creates strong vibrations in our bodies. Sensing the connection between the vibrations of the universe and the vibrations of our own bodies (for example, the heart and its pulse) can be a form of enlightenment that helps us “see” the connections between ourselves and the cosmos.  We are a part of something bigger than ourselves. But whatever is “out there” is also within us. The practice of meditation can give us awareness of the spiritual world within ourselves, not some other spiritual world outside of ourselves.

Now About That Third Eye

There has been a New Age fascination with the so-called third eye chakra.  This may be, in part, because the duality represented  by the ida/pingala nadis ends (or begins) at this chakra.  Does opening the third eye  enable one to “see” the spiritual world?  Of course, one doesn’t literally “see” spiritual stuff; nor is there physically a third eye in the middle of the forehead.  It is simply a way to imagine the brain receiving information. However, in the Tantra understanding, spiritual awakening is inseparable from the awakening of the rest of the physical body. The point of Hatha Yoga has been to join together mind and body in a unity, not leave the body behind. Moreover, the energy (kundalini) located in the lower regions of the body must be released to enable it to soar through the lower psychoenergetic centers that deal with all the basic issues of life before reaching the upper psychoenergetic centers that deal with love of the other, truth-telling, and insight.

This system comes out of the experiences of more than a thousand years of practice. Experience has also concluded that one should not do the work of opening the chakras except under the guidance of a guru or master teacher.  Students have been known to get stuck at a chakra that doesn’t open easily and they get messed up mentally. Teachers are also advised, I think, to be cautious with students who may have physical or psychological issues that the teacher is not prepared to deal with should such issues be affected by the practice.

Modern psychological interpretations have been added to the understandings of the chakras, especially from the influence of the Swiss psychiatrist Carl-Gustav Jung. When we work on opening the chakras, in the modern understanding, we’re dealing with all the various issues of life, both physical and spiritual, and none, including the third eye, is more important than the others.

One could practice the Kundalini Yoga brand and work on all the chakras at once in each yoga class session. I did a complete Kundalini Yoga class once and it was really vigorous. But my experience in a course my teacher offered in experiential yoga philosophy several years ago was to work on one chakra at a time, using breathing techniques and asanas related to that psychoenergetic center and then engaging in a concluding meditation that focuses only on the issues of that one center. Meditation helps to sort out issues and to provide clarity or insight.

I hope this answer gives my friend and others some clues about the work of opening the chakras. I will say a third time that one doesn’t need to know about the subtle body to practice yoga. But I think the value of engaging in this work is to gain insight about body-mind connections and move toward the harmonious function of one’s own body and mind, balancing the physical and the spiritual aspects of one’s life. I don’t think it has to do with seeing a spiritual world as much as coming to an understanding of oneself as a whole person. But wholeness includes being connected to others, to the cosmos, and not least to the God who created us and whose breath or Spirit is within us. I certainly invite any yoga teachers out there to comment on and add to my understanding.

Yogi Pastor Frank

Kundalini Yoga pose

The image above this article is the lotus symbol for the third eye chakra with the sanskrit character for Om.

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