The Chakra system
Understanding the Chakra System and how to incorporate it into your teaching methodologies. Some insights and suggestions.
The Chakra system was first taught to me during my Shiatsu practitioner’s training course. Up until then they had only ever elicited that typical image of a floating colour wheel imprinted over a faceless person seated in lotus.
Learning about them it was never a concept I naturally grasped. The names wouldn’t stick, let alone the colours, location or emotions.
When the term “third eye” often came up in Tai chi and martial arts classes, that was at least a concept I could grasp. Although I never felt the need to delve any deeper.
Even during my Yoga London teachers training course I was so relieved that we would only be tested on the concept of Ida, Pingala and Sashumna, the names and locations.
So what was different this time around?
Two years into teaching Yoga those concepts frequently crept in to lessons despite my reluctance. Statements like: “ I don’t feel grounded, my balance postures are off.” Even that throat irritation that starts without fail for some students as they move into Savasana. Many a conversation around a students continuous battle with insomnia, digestive problems and even some reluctant to let their hearts lead them forward.
I also began to notice how certain asanas were less comfortable in my own self practice. With time I grew more and more self aware as to how my experience in certain postures started to change. Recognising that I was at risk of allowing my personal bias to trickle into my teaching methodologies.
With so many aspects and approaches to the Chakra system I decided to use this blog post as a tool I could revisit in the future. An outline of concepts both familiar and unfamiliar. With the overall intention to introduce new methods to insert these concepts into my class themes and/sequences. And the added intention to deepen my own self practice.
An overview of the Chakra system
The best description I could find regarding the Chakra system was according to the Advanced Yoga Practices Ebook.
They describe the system as “functioning under the hood.” Much like when drive our cars, we need not pay attention to the mechanics of the engine, the electronic systems or other functions.
Instead we can monitor the petrol gauge, remember to take the handbrake off and that late breaking is never a good thing. The engine continues to tick over in much the same way as the smooth muscles in our body that fire and work automatically. Likewise with our nervous system, so much happens without our full awareness. In that same way, the energy wheel is churning and circling with our other internal mechanisms.
Chakras form components of our internal energy system.
Each Chakra has an anatomical location that corresponds to various aspects of our nervous system. A Chakra can be described as a spinning vortex of energy created within ourselves by both internal and external influencers.
The word Chakra comes from the Sanskrit word for “wheel” or “disk.” The tantric systems talk of seven major chakras. I will refer to eight major chakras as suggested by the model of Transformational Yoga.
The Chakras are arranged vertically along the spine. Starting at the base and moving all the way to the top of the head. Each chakra corresponds to a major nerve ganglia, glands of the endocrine system and various bodily processes such as the digestive system and breathing. It is important to keep in mind that they are not made of any physical components themselves.
In the psychological realm (meaning mental, emotional and spiritual) the chakras relate to major areas of our lives such as survival, sex, power, love, communication, perception and understanding.
Philosophically we can correspond the chakras to major archetypal concepts within the elements of earth, water, fire, air and ether. Other tools to access the chakras include colour, sounds, herbs, food groups and certain gemstones.
There are many smaller chakras throughout the body. As in our hands and feet. The eight chakras that work up and down the primary Sashumna nadi are the most familiar. The nadis (or channels) of prana (vital life force) thread throughout the body and link the chakras. Ida nadi spirals from the left, descending the life force energy. Pingala nadi, ascending life force energy, spirals from the right. The smaller chakras are responsible for regulating the flow of energy back to the major chakras. The minor chakras are much more subtle.
For a kundalini awakening to take place dormant energy rises from the base chakra through the nadis. This energy rises through the centre of the body awakening each chakra. Once it reaches the highest crown chakra, a state of oneness with God or enlightenment has been achieved. This can be triggered by a combination of Yoga practice, meditation, pranayama and body cleanses.
A Basic description of each Chakra
The lower/ ‘untransformed’ Chakra’s
These chakra’s relate to our overall sense of power and identity in the world. They govern more of our physical body and systems.
Root chakra is located at the perineum in men and at the cervix for women. The lowest of the chakras it is associated with the earth element. It is considered the seat of our primal energy referred to as Kundalini shakti. Kundalini is the serpent coiled in a deep slumber, the source of all our prana. The aim of regular Yoga practice is to awaken this ‘sleeping serpent’ through self purification and concentration of the mind to encourage energy to flow up through the chakras to sahasrara.
The sacral chakra is located roughly two fingers’ width above the mooladhara chakra, in the spine. Most loosely translated it means ‘dwelling place’. This chakra is associated with seeking pleasure and security. The emphasis here is on excitement, pleasurable sensations, sexual desire and overcoming fear. When over active it can create and excess of desires and/or cravings. It correlates with the water element.
Solar plexus chakra is situated in the spine behind the belly button. Manipura translated means ‘city of jewels.’ Being considered the fire centre it should radiate with vitality and energy. This chakra is the home to self assertion, dominance and ego. It is largely focused on the digestive system and metabolism. It also relates to the adrenal glands, in particular our fight or flight responses when under ‘threat.’
In transformational Yoga the heart chakra is divided into two parts, the lower and the higher. The lower chakra dealing with emotions such as conditional love, attachment and jealousy.
Situated in the spine, behind the sternum level with the heart, the word anahata literally translated means ‘unstruck.’ Anahata on a physical level is associated with the heart and lungs, the circulatory and respiratory systems. It is also our shock absorber.
The Upper/ ‘transformed’ Chakra’s
These four chakras relate to our higher levels of consciousness and are not always accessible until our lower four chakras are free from blockages and toxins.
Once this chakra has become purified, feelings of universal fellowship and tolerance begin to develop. Conditional love becomes unconditional, we become free from attachment and expectations. The heart centre is also where the anahata nada, unstruck sound manifests. Where our intuition is most strongly felt in connection with the pulse of the universe. For me this is the hardest chakra to “feel” or relate back to myself. (interrelated to the lower Anahata Chakra)
Throat Chakra represents purity of expression. It is located in the middle of the throat, between C7 and the first thoracic vertebrae. The throat chakra is about the communication of sound and how authentically we express ourselves. By both listening and speaking. Vishuddha means purification. It also attributes to sound, vibration and creativity. (interrelated to the Manipura chakra)
Third eye Chakra is located between the brows at the level of the forehead, connects to the pituitary gland. Ajna means both to perceive and to command. It lends itself to more of a state of ‘witnessing’ or drawing our attention inwards. It allows us to develop our intuition, our ability to visualise and use our imagination. The skill of recognising what images we perceive versus what we create. In a tai chi class after a new move or part of the form has been taught, you are instructed to stand still, close your eyes if preferable, and visualise from your third eye your self moving through the exercises. This is used as a tool to memorise the movements and further internalise your practice. (interrelated to the Svadhisthana chakra)
Crown Chakra is the chakra of thought, consciousness and information. It is by far the most abstract of all the chakras. This is the final gateway to “higher consciousness” or samadhi. And also represents our belief systems, our awareness, how we shape and shift or reorganise the patterns in our lives. (interrelated to the Mooladhara chakra)
How to incorporate the Chakras into your teaching methodologies
Yoga practice will in essence benefit the chakras because the asanas are designed to free up prana. While bending, twisting and stretching you are allowing prana to flow freely throughout the body. Yoga is particularly beneficial to the release of kundalini energy.
Like all Yoga class themes there are a variety of ways to build and/or incorporate Chakras into your teaching methodologies.
Some teachers will base an entire class on one specific chakra. For example choosing a backbend as the peak asana and then using dialogue to integrate the theme of the heart chakra. Others might thread an aspect of all the chakras throughout the class. Perhaps mentioning each colour or sound for all eight chakras as the class progresses. Or at the very end of a class, during Savasana, the teacher may give a guided meditation encouraging each student to scan the chakras in their body.
But given that not everyone is aware of the chakras or may not be very interested in them, what could be more unique ways to introduce people to the concepts and the benefits of building an awareness of these unique spinning wheels that help shift our prana?
Other questions such as should we really be focusing on the upper four chakra’s in a large group setting where we are unsure of each individuals current physical and emotional well-being? Given that our upper four chakras cannot in theory be activated without preparing the pathways in our lower four, should classes not rather focus primarily on the lower four?
1. Opening the hand chakras
While researching for this assignment I came across this playful technique to open the hand chakras. I mentioned above that there are several chakras other than the eight I discussed in more detail. This exercise is a great tool to access the sensations of a chakra. I would definitely use this at the beginning of a class.
Sit comfortably with your arms extended straight out in front of you, with one palm facing upwards and the other palm facing downwards. Quickly and with repeated motions, open and close the fists tightly for as long and as often as you can before switching the position of the palms. Repeat until your hands are tired.
Then lower your arms, release your fist and very slowly bring your hands together, moving them in and out. Can you feel a ball of energy between your hands? This sensation is coming from your hand chakras, a smaller version of your spinal chakras.
2. Colour Themes
When relating to colour themes I would encourage students to reflect on a colour throughout the class or perhaps ask them to notice the colours they see when they close their eyes in an asana or during Savasana.
There are also several yantra meditations you can follow to ‘breathe in’ a certain colour that corresponds to a specific chakra. Then allowing the colour to remove toxins or blockages from the body on the exhale.
Visuddha: Bright Blue
3. Possible overall class themes for each Chakra
When designing your class it can be useful to introduce a focus for the overall class theme. Using your dialogue to reinforce this focus while moving through your warm-up, standing sequence, seated sequence and even in your final Savasana. You need not always reference the chakra depending on the level of interest of your students. Alternatively when you make your introduction at the beginning of the class you could mention the chakra you have chosen without going into to much detail. Rather reinforce the focus by using some of the suggestions below.
Incorporate concepts such as noticing gravity and to transition slowly between asanas. This could be very beneficial for those who are used to more dynamic Vinaysa classes. Connect to the feet and reference Mula Bandha. This could be useful in balancing postures, or when seated to focus on the base of the tail bone “grounding”to your mat. Other words to use could be stability, security and belonging which relate to the earth element present in this chakra.
It is fun to use the focus on being playful and aware of sensations in the body when working on the sacral chakra. I would make suggestions like move like water from down dog through chatturanga. Or flow like a water from one posture to another. Include positive reinforcements for students to feel good in their bodies. You could even bring awareness to this chakra being focused on desire and cravings, making playful appropriate references to how we are all guilty of over indulgence at times, our needs and wants.
The focus of a class for this chakra should be on moving with will and purpose, energising limbs and the abdominals. Any of the twisting asanas are well suited since they stimulate the digestive system and metabolism. Remind students to stay fully present. Encourage confidence, strength and discipline in power asanas such as Virabhadrasana 2. This chakra is related to the fire element so good for a winter class theme to generate heat in the body!
Ananhata 4th & 5th:
This is a very popular theme for many teachers. I often attend classes where teachers constantly encourage students to open their hearts, move through their heart centre.
Keywords to focus on could be air, feelings, compassion, love and joy. Moving following the breath and focus on deep breathing.
Perhaps as a result of my own personal reluctance I immediately feel uncomfortable. Not all of us are ready to open our hearts and I think perhaps more encouragement and awareness on the lower three chakras is a better, more beneficial starting point. Again I often hear from clients that friends of their’s attended a Yoga class focused on heart openers and never went back to Yoga since they left in such an unsettled emotional state.
Chest openers should always be taught with modifications building up to the full pose. Group classes can often lend themselves to strong competitive themes. As teachers we should be mindful of this and discourage students from hurting themselves physically and even emotionally. Forcing yourself into postures such as Dhanurasana, Ustrana or Chakrasana too soon in your practice can cause injuries. Or worse discourage you from your Yoga practice.
Strong chest openers and backbends can sometimes release stored emotions: frustration, fear, anger, sadness as well as joy and love, so it’s not unusual to feel some of this again as it works through your body. Make sure that your students are aware of this and that you give them enough time at the end of a class to reflect on any of these emotions.
Much like the physical aspects of these asanas, without a strong core, you are at risk of seriously injuring your lower back, so similarly be gentle with grounding your emotional core.
Since this chakra is related to sound and vibration it is a good option to introduce chanting and mantras in the class. Chant at the start of the class and again at the end, reflecting on the different sounds and sensations at the beginning of your practice compared to the end of a class. Several back bending asanas such as Ustrasana, Matsyasana and shoulder stands can assist in opening the throat chakra. Again be mindful that these asanas can increase a students’ sense of vulnerability and always be sure to educate and hold a safe space for your students to explore these sensations and emotions.
The focus for a class theme of Ajna should include visualisations and use of imagination. For example in Warrior 3 you could ask students to imagine they are flying with their arms stretched out in front of them, or in a Vrksana variation imagine they are a tree blowing in the wind. You can begin and end the class with a short meditation, perhaps visualising each colour of the chakras working up the spine as mentioned above. Closing their eyes and repeating a sequence might encourage them to learn to move with their natural intuition guiding them from one asana to the next. Forward folds can also be useful since they are contemplative and draw attention inwards. Nadi Sodhana is also a great tool to add to the class since it governs the overall nervous systems and all prank bodies.
It is useful for this class theme to focus on the interrelatedness of the Mooladhara chakra with the crown chakra. Especially to make sure students are grounded in the physical body again at the end of the class. Meditation is a great way to develop the witness consciousness and harness a deeper connection to ourselves. Techniques such as Yoga Nidra and Nadi Sodhana will also compliment a class theme of the crown chakra. Even verbal cues during the class such as extend the crown of your head to the ceiling etc. will reinforce the focus of the class.
I did a chakra themed Yoga class in London and it started with 10min of dancing around the classroom. Initially I was caught off guard but then started to enjoy myself. Since there can sometimes be such an intense energy in a Yoga studio before class begins, it is such a relief when everyone is moving and dancing.
Dancing is a great way to open up your root chakra and let your own natural rhythm guide you. When we allow the body to be free and to move uninhibited it helps to dispel negativity, open and balance the first chakra. By awakening the root chakra it is a catalyst to shift prana upwards.
Dancing can awaken and energise all the chakras. Experiment with different types of music to change your mood or frame of mind to a more positive space.
There is so much information out there regarding the Chakras. Like all holistic concepts it can be framed and reframed in an Ayurvedic concept, in Traditional Chinese medicine, in crystal therapies and even bad tie dye t-shirts.
For me the most important learning is their relevance, whether as a teacher or in my own self practice. I realise it is of great benefit to have a heightened awareness of verbal cues and general information that might compliment the overall experience of a Yoga class.
Understanding little by little the role of the Chakra’s in anything from the physical body to a Kundalini awakening is an essential factor of Yoga.
I do think that until I am more familiar with the ‘bigger picture’ I will stick to working with the untransformed chakra’s and include a pranayama such as Nadi Sodhana in my group classes. This way the ‘untransformed’ chakras will prepare and feed back into their reciprocal ‘higher chakra’. The Nadi Sodhana over time will help to balance the overall nervous system and overall flow of prana in the students body.
Not to say I will avoid teaching backbends, inversions or chest openers. But first ensure that there is sufficient core strength, flexibility in the shoulders and hips. Allowing the physical body to compliment the prana body, then the mental body and finally the psychic and spiritual body.