What Are Chakras?

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New Age books and popular literature have been abuzz with talk of the seven chakras for at least twenty years, if not longer, but what are the chakras, really?

The word ‘chakra’ literally means ‘wheel’ in Sanskrit (the written language of the Hindu faith), and the wheel in question was the sun. Although much has been written about chakras from a modern, New Age perspective, chakras are actually part of a very ancient Indian religious tradition and are best understood as part of that tradition.  

Chakras are seven subtle energy centers that correspond with seven major nerve ganglia located in the spinal column of the human body. The chakras are not physical organs, but rather are energy patterns that overlay specific bodily organs.

Most Eastern medical traditions recognize that energy flows through the human body and that the proper flow of energy is essential to health and general well-being. Regulating the flow of subtle energy is the idea behind Chinese acupuncture, for example, a technique that has been studied by Western science and found to be so effective it is often covered by insurance.

In a similar way, the chakras can be understood as centers that regulate healthy energy flow as well, but the chakras also have a spiritual dimension.

The process of awakening and balancing the seven chakras is called kundalini yoga. Kundalini yoga is itself part of a broader Indian tradition called tantra.

Although most Westerners associate tantra with exotic sexual practice, that incredibly narrow understanding distorts and misrepresents tantra, which actually includes a broad range of physical and spiritual practices.

Tantra concerns itself with the integration of polarized forces of the universe. By balancing the opposing forces that power the chakras, the physical and conscious dimensions of human beings are brought into balance with the world around them.

In future articles, I’ll take a look at the history of the chakras, the meaning and symbolism of each, practices that can help awaken and balance the chakras, and much more.

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