The traditional Hindu system of belief encompasses energy centers known as chakras, which serve to accumulate, assimilate, and transmit psychological, physical, and spiritual energies. When these areas of interconnection between body and spirit are purified or opened up through the process of yoga (sometimes called raja yoga or kundalini yoga), the adept may experience an enormous infusion of energy, and, in some cases, enlightenment. The chakras are often pictured as lotus blossoms or spinning wheels (in Sanskrit, chakra means “wheel”; the English words “cycle” and “cyclone” are derived from the same root), and each chakra corresponds to a location in the physical body. (A similar system, with different terminologies, is employed by some schools of Buddhism and Taoism.)
The chakras are aligned along a central subtle energy channel called the sushumna, which is connected to two crisscrossing channels called the ida and pingala in a pattern that is strikingly similar to the double helix of DNA. Together they carry the life force, or prana, to various places in the body. Neither the chakras nor these channels (or nadis) are visible but work in the sheathes of subtle energy that surround and interpenetrate the body. The ida, or left channel, carries the breath from the left nostril to the base of the spine and is associated with lunar, cooling, feminine energy. The pingala, or right channel, carries the breath from the right nostril to the base and is associated with solar, fiery, masculine energy.
The first, or muladhara, chakra lies at the base of the spine, where the kundalini energy is pictured as a serpent coiled between the anus and the genitals (kundalin is Sanskrit for “she who lies coiled,” and kundalini yoga is a process of raising the serpent power). The second, or svadhisthana, chakra corresponds to the genitals; the third (manipura) corresponds to the navel and solar plexus; the fourth (anahata) is located near the heart (although usually placed either in the middle of the chest or closer to the right side); the fifth (vishuddha) corresponds to the throat region; the sixth (ajna) is located slightly behind and above the space between the eyebrows, or cavernous plexus (the so-called “third eye”) and corresponds to the pineal gland; and the seventh chakra is located just above the crown of the head, although it corresponds to the pituitary gland. It is called the sahasrara chakra, from the Sanskrit word for “thousand,” referring to the “thousand-petaled lotus of enlightenment.” In addition, there are six minor chakras which are rarely mentioned.
Western teachers have developed elaborate theories of the chakras and practices for cleansing them to unblock the flow of vital energy within the body, and some teachers, including Caroline Myss, posit an 8th chakra located an arm’s length above the head.