With the disillusionment with organized religion that many people feel currently in western culture, there has come a need to fulfill the same roles that churches and other places of organized worship still fill for some but not for many and certainly not for many of those in the generations that have followed the first part of the 20th century. When I talk to people of any age, I hear a theme that runs over and under everything else, stemming from suffering and sadness when there is any sense of loneliness, of loss or lack of deep companionship: whether it is a desire to find a soul-mate, a spouse, good friendship, a spiritual family, a good cause and like-minded people, it all leads to a longing for a sense of connection, of belonging, of community and finally of communion and oneness.
What’s interesting is that in the yogic teachings stemming from thousands of years ago, we can look at this from the point of view of the chakras. Chakras are spinning vortices of energy that “breathe” the cosmic energies, the life force, the “prana” into our nervous system and “breathe” out the by-products of that “energy metabolism”. There are different schools of thought throughout all Eastern teachings but the West has synthesized these into some general understandings that help the Western mind incorporate this wisdom into the current way of life. One of these teachings concerns the chakras. In the basic view of most at this time, there can be identified seven chakras (even though there are in some philosophies more major chakras and many more minor chakras).
The first chakra is active at the base of the spine and as each chakra has a connection with our other energy fields that I will talk about later, this first chakra is resonant with our feelings of rootedness, as it is at the root of the spine. This includes our sense of belonging, our sense of connection with or dissociation from who we think of as our tribe, whether it is the one we are born into or the one we choose later on, as well as our sense of safety and balance between the pull of the earth and the vastness of the heavens, however we perceive these forces, even if it is just as the pull of gravity and the desire to stand upright.
The chakras then proceed located at major nerve plexuses including the solar plexus up the spine to the “crown” which resonates with our sense of spiritual connection with however we perceive the divine, whether it is a sense of bliss, openness and freedom during what some call a “spiritual opening” or a sense of being absorbed in the whole and a feeling of non-separation and oneness. What is interesting is that these two chakras at the base and at the crown both have to do with a sense of connection. And having that sense only in the crown and not at the root will lead eventually to feelings that are disconcerting, causing a person to feel unrooted or ungrounded. Focusing only at the root and with little awareness of the crown leaves a person feeling territorial and empty spiritually. This is a simple way of looking at something very complex that varies infinitely. But it demonstrates the wisdom inherent in the yogic teachings that we have inherited in the West from the Eastern traditions.
These chakras also correspond to major centers in the endocrine system. The sixth chakra, or “third eye” is located just behind the area above the bridge of the nose, at the site of the pituitary gland, the master gland that oversees the functioning of all the other glands. When a person is constantly in stress, this “third eye” function is constantly on red alert looking out for danger and signaling the other glands to produce secretions to help with fight or flight or freeze responses. If a person has, on the other hand, a life in rhythm with rest and action, where the mind is not in constant anxiety, but can use all its faculties for creativity (the realm of the second chakra), for expression (the realm of the fifth chakra) or for empathic resonance (the realm of the heart chakra) then this sixth chakra becomes the station of intuitive insight, foresight and even projection. Here we see how the chakra at the third eye becomes a bridge between the physical (chemical, electro-magnetic), the emotional, psychic and spiritual realms.
So we begin to see how the balance and healthy functioning of the chakras as they breathe the prana into the physical body via the various energy systems or “bodies” is important for the overall health a person experiences. There are other energy systems as well such as the meridians, energy pathways along which energy flows in a daily rhythm nourishing the organs and their energetic functions which include, for example the ability to make decisions lying in the realm of the small intestines. And since these subtle energy pathways and vortices are supported and protected by the spine and the skeleton, we begin to feel the intricate interconnection between muscles and joints and bones with these energy systems. Muscles and joints house and remember feelings. Feelings create conditions that support the manifestation of health or of uncomfortable symptoms.
And here is where yoga usually comes into a person’s life. But here, let me say what is usually said first in any discussion of yoga, that the word yoga comes from the root that means to yoke leading people to say that yoga means union. Which leads us back to the root chakra and the crown chakra and people’s need for connection, and ultimately a longing for union.
If that longing is felt mostly in the root chakra they will search for their tribe and if there is no input from other chakras like the heart or the third eye, this tribe may not be a healthy choice in the long run. If this desire is felt in the second chakra, the drive for procreativity or sexuality may overpower any sense of fulfilling creativity. Any exclusive focus on the lower chakras leads to an over-identification with the physical body, whether it manifests in a desire for power, sex, territory or possessions.
A person’s psyche speaks to them through the language that person will most readily listen to, the language that they have engaged in due to inclination or due to upbringing and if that language is the language of the body, their psyche will speak to them through physical sensations. When a person’s mind and spirit and body are rhythmically harmonious this can be experienced as peace when the heart is beating at a steady, easy pace, the breath is full and rhythmic, the body functions at its peak of graceful efficiency. The psyche now can elaborate through imagination and the endless creativity of the mind the eternal longing of the soul.
The lower three chakras (root, second chakra and solar plexus) form the lower triangle, the higher three (crown, third eye and throat) form the upper triangle while the fourth chakra sits at the center where these two triangles overlap and oversees the balance between the lower and higher. The mistake that is sometimes made is to think of the higher as better and the lower as worse. We can see how this puritanical view led our society to repress lower urges and then find them pushing back up into expression through ways that are unhealthy morally and spiritually. Spiritual practices, basically and at their best, balance the lower and the higher triangles and center this balance in the heart center.
So, the practice of yoga can be seen as a way to find this balance, to find this graceful efficiency that supports the spiritual unfolding that is ultimately the purpose of life. Yoga, as we know it in the West, is a combination of physical practices, of asanas or poses and movements, and breathing practices to prepare for the mental and ultimately the spiritual practices of meditation. When a person’s longing for wholeness speaks to the psyche through the physical body in the form of malfunction or disease, the physical practice of yoga poses and breathing exercises brings increased flexibility that leads to release of tension in the muscles, which leads to less constriction of the nerves, which lessens the pain, and which also gives space for the organs to function more efficiently. Yoga also increases muscle strength and tone to increase the ease of the functions of the joints and the organs. Yoga poses also increase circulation of blood to bring nutrients to the cells and carry away toxins, and circulation of lymph which is very important considering the fact that the lymphatic system does not have an organ like the heart to circulate the lymph, its primary form of transportation being through the massage of the lymphatic pathways by means of rhythmic physical movement combined with breath (something yoga does really well!)
All of this allows the nervous system to relax and regenerate. The parasympathetic nervous system is the part of the system responsible for this regeneration but rarely gets a chance in our modern lives to fully fulfill its role as the sympathetic nervous system is most of the time in alarm mode and must take charge to take care of the vital organs.
Now, to the specific practices of yoga. There is a lot of research being done on the benefits of yoga, from the change in brain waves to the lessening and elimination of physical ailments. Some research proved that just one session of silent meditation created changes in the brain wave patterns that were still discernible six months later without any further meditation sessions in the interim. This is a realm of research that excites both the scientifically minded as well as the practitioners because it proves the efficacy of ancient practices in modern scientific terms.
There are different branches of yoga that have developed in the West sprouting from the teachings of Eastern teachers who migrated to the West. Some of these yoga lineages or schools focus on the physical practice primarily, some on the metaphysical ultimately. Some have caused a stir in the sensationalist world because of the herding instinct of people to gather around celebrity. Some have lost their reason and discernment. Some deteriorated into cults. As amazing as the understanding of our human energy anatomy is becoming, it even helps to understand these deeply imbalanced responses to the promptings of the psyche through the chakras.
But, for all that we hear in the news, there has been benefit to many people and in the end the opening up of the sacred and exclusive teachings, that used to be passed to the elect few in order to keep the traditions intact, has allowed everyone access to ways to evolve spiritually by means of taking care of the physical body, not just mechanically but in harmony with the universal laws of nature, emotionally and mentally as well.