Most people who practice yoga, and many more who don’t, will have heard of the word chakra. The earliest mentions of this word can be found in Indian Vedas, among the oldest sacred texts, dating back to over three millennia ago. The Sanskrit word chakra, meaning wheel or disk is said to originally refer to the chariot wheels of the Aryans, the Indo-European tribe that migrated to India in the second millennium BC. Chakra is also meant to be a metaphor for the sun, the luminous wheel that travels across the sky, indicating the circular cycle of daily time, referring to the wheel of cosmic order and balance, which yogic tradition also associates to wheels of energy flows within and around the body. Chakras are also described as lotus flowers, drawing a parallel between the opening of the lotus flower petals and the opening of the chakra through the practice of yoga. The lotus flower, considered sacred in India, grows from the mud into its bloom representing the path of development of human consciousness towards full awareness that is achieved through the opening of the chakras themselves. This indicates that chakras have petals too, and they number from four at the first chakra to one thousand at the seventh chakra, passing through two petals at the sixth chakra
My intention here is to not look at chakras as parts of the body, not as symbolic wheels superimposed on an anatomical model, but to look at them from a purely poetic context, to see what images, metaphors and associations derive from the tradition of the chakras themselves. I would like to consider them them as wheels of poetry which can guide the heart and mind towards self knowledge through images and associations.
In kundalini yoga it is believed that to achieve bliss or enlightenment through the opening of the chakras a coiled serpent, known as Kundalini-Shakti (kundala meaning coiled and Shakti meaning vital feminine energy that creates life) unfolds and rises towards the crown chakra at the top of the head to meet Shiva, the pure yet unmanifest masculine divine consciousness, opening all the chakras along her rising journey.
The first chakra’s element is earth and the colour is red. The Sanskrit name is Muladhara, or root support. It connects us to the support of our feet and legs resting on the surface of earth, or the earth plane, and in this way it grounds us. This grounding creates an analogy between ourselves and a tree with deep and long roots reaching into the earth so it can become nourished, stable and endure the occasional storm. This association goes beyond the tree and embraces the entirety of nature and how we feel grounded by experiencing the natural world through our body. The nourishment we take from nature through eating is an extension of this image associated to the first chakra, as is both the physical and the metaphorical regular elimination of aspects and elements that we do not need in order to purify ourselves. This is the chakra associated to the sense of smell. The first chakra is where the kundalini serpent is coiled before its ascent to open all other chakras on its way to the seventh chakra. The lotus symbol of this chakra consist of a square with four lotus petals pointing in four different directions. An arrow, symbolising the sushumna, or axis of the chakras points downwards to a seven trunked elephant called Airavata, almost as if the elephant is supporting the entire axis above it. The seven trunks symbolise the seven chakras. Another metaphor is the role of the foundation for the stability of an entire house.
The second chakra’s element is water and the colour is orange. This is the chakra associated to the sexual or reproductive organs. The Sanskrit name Svadhisthana indicates this is the chakra where being is created, symbolised by the womb. The flow of water as a metaphor for ever shifting emotions and passions is the main image associated to the second chakra. This fluidity allows one to connect to others and to the world beyond oneself. The moon, due to its effect on emotions as well as on tides of water is also a symbol of the second chakra. This is the chakra of taste, of the beginning of a possible merging with others, of the initial journey of unification with the infinite. It is also the chakra of polarity, and the release of energies between different polarities which transforms both polarities into a more unified whole, the way towards the final unification with the infinite polarity all around us. This is the chakra of bridging differences. The lotus symbol has six petals, and contains two more lotuses within the larger one. At the base of the middle lotus we find the makara, a creature with a coiled fish tail, hooves, sharp teeth and a serpent like tongue. This is a water creature which represents the danger of uncontrolled desire which can devour oneself and others. The analogy here is of a personal journey over the sea of the unconscious of feelings in a small boat. This small boat can be capsized any moment by a single powerful wave of emotions. This is what the makara is there to warn us about: if we don’t enter a relationship of mastery towards our emotions and passions, the journey on the boat of life can be easily overturned, leading to confusion and pain instead of the joy and creativity which bind us to a fulfilling passionate relation to the world outside of ourselves.
The third chakra’s element is fire and the colour is yellow. We associate this chakra to the navel area. The Sanskrit name is Manipura, meaning lustrous gem, indicates the inherent luminosity of this radiant wheel. This chakra represents the fire of life, burning its way through time. The Mahabharata includes an analogy of the fire of life burning through one’s body being like molten iron ready to pour into a cold that needs to be chosen by each person individually. This indicates a process of transformation, which is also one of the main aspects of the symbolism of the third chakra. As the fluidity of molten iron can transform into the shaped solidity of the iron cast, the transformative and constantly transforming element of fire which by burning matter and oxygen creates light is a guiding visual image for the third chakra. Every fire can be started by a single spark, indicating the transition from a previous balance too quick and almost unstoppable transformation. The movement of this fire is upwards, it destroys and creates at the same time by burning pre-existing forms into the energy of heat and light, moving up from the ground plane towards the cosmos which is in itself imbued by burning spheres of energy that we call stars. Fire indicates upwards towards other fires, beaming signals across the darkness, void and vacuum of the universes in between. Another important symbol of this chakra is the burning Sun. It is associated to the archetype of the spiritual warrior, the person who can both initiate and complete their spiritual journey. The third chakra’s lotus has ten petals. A jumping ram is depicted at the bottom of the chakra’s inner circle, associated with Agni, the Hindu god of fire. The image is of powerful movement and direction.
The fourth chakra’s element is air, and the colour is green. The Sanskrit name is Anahata meaning the sound that is made without any two things striking, indicating a sound emanating without any impact, the sound of pure acceptance. We know this as the heart chakra. The heart chakra signifies the centre, the meeting point between upper and lower. A person with outstretched arms forms two axes which will cross in the centre of the heart chakra, this is in chakra terms the true balanced centre of the body. The element of air indicates openness, freshness, knowledge, spirit and freedom. Air also represents breath, or prana, the vital energy flowing through the body. It is deep breathing which opens up the heart chakra. Hindus locate in the breath the gateway between mind and body. This is the chakra of kindness in communication, identified by being fully present towards others and their feelings when communicating with them. It is this manifestation of care for the other through communication which is associated with feelings of intimacy. The lotus symbol has twelve petals, enclosing a six pointed star created by two intersecting triangles, one pointing upwards and one pointing downwards. The downward pointing triangle represents the spirit finding presence within the body, and the upward pouting one represents the body elevating itself to join with spirit. The resulting star symbolises the Sacred Marriage between masculine and feminine. The six points can be seen to be indicating outwards from this middle chakra to the other six ones below and above it. At the bottom of the star there is a running antelope running, symbolising the freedom required for love to take hold.
The fifth chakra’s element is ether, spirit or sound and the colour is bright blue. The Sanskrit name is Visuddha meaning purification, referring to the purity of truth. We consider this the throat chakra, and associate it to sound, words and vibrations of all kinds, indicating a wide spectrum of possible forms of communication. This is also the chakra of poetry and symbolic creativity. The transcendent level of this chakra is when communication happens without any visible vibrations themselves, we call this telepathy, and this happens when we reach a level of silence in which we can hear the furthest vibrations that are in resonance with ourselves. Hindus believe all matter was created from vibration, specifically the syllable Om. Sound, as a manifestation of the divine, creates the first vibration of the world, and all other vibrational rhythms follow this initial divine vibration, sound, syllable or word. It is this universal rhythm of vibrations, stemming from the beginning of time, that we seek to reconnect to through this chakra. Our inner vibrations may already have their own individual rhythm, and finding ourselves also means uncovering and rediscovering this inner rhythm of our vibrations. This is the chakra of mantras, from ‘man’ as in mind and ‘tra’ as in instrument protection. The mantra is like a tool for the mind, to awaken and protect it. The lotus symbol for the fifth chakra has sixteen petals which contain all the vowels of Sanskrit. Within it is a downward pointing triangle, and within it is a white circle, believed to symbolise the full moon. At the bottom of the circle is Airavata, the seven tusked white elephant.
The sixth chakra’s element is light and the colour is indigo. The Sanskrit name is Ajna meaning to perceive or to command. This is known as the third eye chakra, which controls seeing and intuition. This is the chakra associated with the inner light. The more open this chakra is the more of its element light it lets in and out, allowing a clearer picture of the world and of oneself to be perceived. This seeing is not the seeing of the eyes, but the seeing of the soul. The visualization happens within, and then is projected onto an internal screen in order to then be transformed into action in the outside world and this is how vision shapes one’s destiny. This clarity of vision is based on looking at fields and not objects, at relationships and not things. This is achieved by creating emptiness within by clearing the mind of existing images through meditation. When this emptiness is achieved, it becomes easier to allow new images to guide our inner vision, and this is why it is important to let images flow through one’s intuition in order to be be able to select the best image for the new task at hand and let go of images or visualisations that have already served their purpose and now belong to the past. The lotus symbol consists of a circle with two white petals on either side, the circle could represent the internal pupil of the third eye, the white petals could represent the white parts of the third eye, or the two sides of any thought. Within the circle is a golden triangle pointing downwards, and an upward pointing crescent moon above it holds another small circle, with what looks like a flag above it.
The seventh chakra’s element is thought and the colour is violet. The Sanskrit name is Sahasrara, meaning thousandfold, referring to the thousand petals of this chakra’s lotus symbol. The seventh chakra is associated with cosmic sound, made manifest most clearly by the sound of the gong used in yoga practice. This sound invites us to surrender to its multitudes and vibrant crescendos, indicating the sense of inner humility towards the infinite. This is known as the crown chakra, located at the top of the head. It is one reason why in order to demonstrate humility towards others or the world we choose to bow, showing and offering the part of the head associated to the crown chakra. It is meant to symbolise our connection to the divine. In yoga, this chakra represents enlightenment, a state of awareness beyond both reason and the senses. It is the place of both ultimate stillness and ultimate consciousness. This is the chakra of knowing, of the awareness we experience as mind. Awareness requires a focused field of attention. Attention signifies directed presence. This state of consciousness is also known as the witness within, the meta-cognitive silent bystander who experiences everything without judging, rationalising or feeling enough to be swayed and transported within the action itself. This is where we locate the self, that changing set of beliefs which ascribes meaning to our daily lives, connecting the personal within us to the wider structure of the universal which we all can share and find meaning within. Once this state of enlightenment is experienced, and the seventh chakra tunes into this state of divine consciousness, it starts its descent bringing this awareness to all the six chakras below it. This is the transcendence of consciousness into a state of emptiness where there is no more separation between the inner self and the outside world. This is also called immanence, or the awareness of the divine within, whereas transcendence is the awareness of the divine without, in the outside world. Transcendence and immanence complement each other, as the inner and outer worlds ultimately join into a single world through enlightenment and the opening of the seventh chakra. It is this linking of the personal to the universal, or the finite with the infinite, which is the meaning that is found within the practice of yoga itself and has its ultimate manifestation in the opening of the lotus of the seventh chakra. The lotus symbol of the seventh chakra is meant to have a thousand lustrous white petals, which in Hindu belief is a metaphor for infinity. Within the inner circle, which is said to represent a radiant moon, is a triangle, and within the triangle a smaller circle, representing the Great Void.
In Kundalini yoga it is believed that there is also an eighth chakra, known as the aura. It is associated to the sense of being and its colour is white. It can be visualised as a circle or oval of light around the body when seen from above the person, a luminescent set of waves surrounding and containing a body when seen in profile. This circumvent field of radiance weaves our presence with the universe outside of us, joining us to the cosmos. When all chakras, symbolised by their respective lotus flowers are open this radiant field will be strong and perceived by others as a presence filling the entire space around the person. This is the yogic aura that is the ultimate result of yoga practice.