THE WORD CHAKRA means "wheel" in Sanskrit, and the idea of the human chakra system entered India's sacred texts between 1800 and 800 B.C. According to the yogic sages who first described the system, a set of seven invisible energy centers animates each person's physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual body. These vortexes aren't physiological, though they correspond to specific locations along the spine and are associated with particular physical as well as emotional functions.
Each chakra represents an aspect of living, and is arranged in a progression that mirrors human evolution: The lower chakras are concerned with primal issues such as survival, procreation, and power; the upper centers deal with phenomena like love, creativity, and insight. The first chakra encompasses our most basic needs: food, shelter, and safety. The second addresses sexual energy and reproduction. The third governs personal power and assertiveness. The fourth, or heart, chakra is about love, compassion, and kindness; it's at the center of all the chakras. The fifth chakra affects communication and personal expression. The sixth? Intuition. And the seventh is about spiritual connection and enlightenment. Thus, as we "move up" through the chakras, our consciousness advances.
Working with the chakras can be beneficial to anyone striving for a truly unified life, in which a strong foundation anchors the more elevated achievements. "Each chakra is about integrating upward and downward currents of energy--and the heart is all about integration, including the integration of spirit and matter," says clinical psychologist Anodea Judith, Ph.D., author of Eastern Body, Western Mind: Psychology and the Chakra System as a Path to the Self. "We've pulled away from the earth, repressed our sexuality, become submissive, and blocked the heart. We've suppressed these qualities of the lower chakras in order to get to the upper chakras and higher consciousness, which we've done with technology And now our work is to reconnect to the lower chakras and integrate them, at the heart, with the upper chakras."
The chakra framework represents "the sacred architecture of the soul," she continues. "It's an archetype for wholeness, a template from which we can address our lives."
WHEN ALL THE CHAKRAS are open and functioning optimally, they allow energy to flow unimpeded from the base of the spine to the tip of the head in an expression of the boundless power of life. When they're not functioning properly--when they're over-or underactive--the chakras present "blockages" to that energy flow, or manifest imbalances in our health and in our lives.
Think of each chakra as the juncture of a tree trunk and one of its limbs, suggests spiritual trainer and psychotherapist Joan Harrigan, Ph.D., author of Kundalini Vidya: The Science of Spiritual Transformation. When a chakra is balanced, she says, "you're at the center, in the trunk, so you can move upward." But if it's blocked or imbalanced, you "go out on a limb." For example, in the third chakra--located in the solar plexus and associated with power, assertiveness, and will--an excess of energy leads to aggression, bossiness, and ultra-competitiveness, while a deficiency manifests as passivity, submissiveness, and avoidance. Those whose third chakra is balanced, Harrigan notes, are forthrightly assertive: "They clearly and directly state what their needs and opinions are, and are able to dialogue thoughtfully and peaceably about them."
This balance, then, can be seen as a model for the importance of virtue. "In the chakra system, 'virtue' is an integration of the two poles of personality at each chakra's themes. It indicates a healthy, aware, balanced personality that can deal with a variety of circumstances in a calm, effective way," says Harrigan. "It's how to keep your cool!"
Maintaining the equilibrium of the chakras also has health benefits. Each chakra is linked with certain organ systems: For example, that solar plexus chakra is associated with digestion, and imbalance can lead to a host of problems, from indigestion to irritable bowel syndrome. Could an excess of third-chakra energy be why Type A personalities suffer so much digestive distress? Certainly a little chakra-balancing offers an attractive alternative to a lifelong dependence on Zantac or Tums.