In last week’s post, I talked about the vital importance of emotional intelligence. Medical professionals are learning that a huge, overlooked reason many North Americans get sick with terminal illnesses is our cultural tendency to repress emotions.
Perhaps one of the reasons yoga is so lauded for its apparently miraculous health benefits is that it helps us to feel: to break the cycle of emotional repression. The chakra system is one of the languages yoga often uses to explore emotional intelligence. Below I offer a chakra practice you can try at home. Just make sure you check with your doctor before trying anything for the first time. Be willing to get a bit uncomfortable, but never ever go to a place of feeling pain. Have a box of tissues nearby: energetic work can be deep work, and physical and emotional releases often go hand in hand. If you start to want to cry, just let it out. A journal can also come in handy, so you can write down any insights that come up.
The chakras are centers of energy, or “wheels” that relate to certain parts of the body and have specific emotional and energetic resonances. As you go through them, notice how you feel about each part of your body and what lives there physically and emotionally. We start at the beginning:
Chakra One: Muladhara
Connect with this energy center in Malasana, or squat pose. Breathe deep into the base of your pelvis as your inner thighs gently open.
Now we will add Kapalabhati breath, which, when done in this pose, helps blast through the fear that might be blocking you in this area. Kapalabhati means “skull shining breath,” and it cleanses your sinus cavities as well as stimulates all your organs for detoxification (like I said, have a box of tissues nearby). Use short, sharp exhales, pumping your belly, breathing in and out through your nose. End with a huge inhale, and then a huge lion’s breath, sticking your tongue way out and roaring with your breath like you were laughing in the face of your fear. [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uIwYbjxrRYI] It feels silly, and it works.
Chakra Two: Svadisthana
This is your sacral chakra, in the low belly. This chakra is related to sexuality and sensuality, desire, physical experience, emotions, intimate relationships, and creativity. Our culture’s not huge on this one: the wildness of emotion here is taught to be quiet, to stay low, so we have absorbed a lot of shame into this area. Women especially hold a lot of tension in the hips and glutes; for men it’s often the hip flexors and quadriceps. Svadisthana is stimulated through self care, loving touch, massage, delicious food (yes to chocolate, no to guilt about eating said chocolate), and sexual intimacy. Sexual intimacy: sex can help release what’s blocked in this chakra, but it has to be loving, trusting, intimate, safe sex. Svadisthana is all about two becoming one. It’s a cheesy chakra, but such a delicious one.
The best way I know to access this chakra through yoga is a good long pigeon pose. Bring your right shin forward, knee a little wide of your right hip, toes pointing out to the left. Do the folded forward version: Allow your right hip to rest on a block or pillow, and rest your forearms, chest, or head on another prop. Breathe deeply and allow emotion to arise: rage, anger, fear, bad memories, sadness, joy, elation, whatever. Try for five minutes each side. Tissue box and journal close by, please.
Chakra Three: Manipura
Manipura means “the lustrous gem.” This is your chakra of willpower, courage, your ability to stand up for yourself and to manifest the desires that the second chakra creates. This is also where the ego lives, and where anger, frustration, and humiliation get stuck. If you’ve ever had butterflies in the stomach, this is where you’d feel it. When this chakra is stuck, it acts like a black hole: the shoulders roll forward, the chest collapses, the lower back starts to hurt, and digestion is disrupted. Courage and humility are both required to clear this area.
Have you ever noticed that core exercises are the absolute worst experience in a fitness class? That’s partly because abdominal work accesses our deepest feelings of anger and powerlessness. If we burn through that, we can get to courage and strength.
This is my favorite core exercise for Manipura chakra: Lie on your back, legs extended towards the sky, fingers interlaced behind your head. Lift your shoulder blades and your tailbone off the mat. Exhale while bringing your straight right leg towards the earth to any degree at all, keeping your pelvis steady, while you draw your right elbow towards your left knee. Inhale back to center, keeping the shoulder blades up, and exhale to switch. You can keep going at this pace, or start to scissor your legs really really fast, keeping your breath steady, until you feel a burn right in your solar plexus. The element of this chakra is fire: It burns the coal away from the diamond, leaving behind the “lustrous gem:” that’s you.
Chakra Four: Anahata
The heart chakra has to do with love: your community, your family, your feelings of trust and acceptance, grief and loss. This includes your lungs and runs out through your arms and hands: organs for embrace and expression. It’s great to open your heart, but be careful: the heart needs protection, too. As a friend of mine put it recently: “Trusting the universe is not the same as trusting every human.” Always putting other people’s needs before your own is a symptom of a too-open heart; conversely, a closed heart is overwhelmed with grief and loss or, worse, cannot feel at all.
One way you can care for your heart is to curl up alone with a cup of tea (or a glass of whiskey) and a good book. No whiskey in the middle of a yoga practice though, please.
There are lots of heart-opening poses in yoga, but there’s something about Camel pose that just gets in there and makes you cry (I’m serious about those tissues). Stand on your knees and place your hands on your lower back near your hips. Guide your tailbone down with your hands as you lift your heart up. If it feels safe, bring your hands to your heels. Open your throat without crunching the back of your neck. Breathe right into your heart. Come out of the pose slowly and sit on your knees. Cry. Refill your tissue box.
Chakra Five: Vishuddha
Fish pose is a great one for throat opening. Lie on your back with your feet on the floor and your palms down under your bum. Squeeze your shoulder blades to lengthen your arms; you’ll be sitting almost on your forearms. Legs are extended straight out on the floor. Press into your forearms and hands to slide your heart up and come onto the top of your head. Inhale, then exhale with a humming sound, as loud as you want. Repeat three times. Tuck your chin into your chest to come down. This is a good time to roll over, grab your journal, and write down anything at all that may have dislodged itself from your throat. Don’t worry about whether it makes sense or is any good, just write it down.
Chakra Six: Ajna
Your third eye is your intuition: Located in the center of your brain, this is your ability to see what you can’t physically see. Honing this chakra allows you to awaken your “buddhi” mind: the mind that observes the mind. The best thing to stimulate Ajna chakra is seated meditation. Sit in the silence and let your brain talk to you. Breathe deeply and focus on your breath, allowing the thoughts to come and go as they will. Don’t worry about making your thoughts stop, they won’t; just let ‘em run til they get tired and slow down. Just try not to grip onto any single one of them. Set a timer so you don’t run away: Five minutes is good to start.
Chakra Seven: Sahasrara
This is the most fun chakra to try to say out loud. It’s your crown chakra, located just above your head, and it connects you to everything that is not you: every other being in the universe, and the divine. This chakra helps you to get out of your ego and your thinking mind, and reminds you that you are a part of something bigger.
Experience this through savasana. Lie on your back and let everything completely relax. Soften the boundaries of your skin and release any conscious thought, breath, or movement. Stay as long as you’d like.
My partner wanted me to write an article called The Hair In My Nose. He was sitting in meditation one day, lost in thought, until a hair tickling the inside of his nose disturbed his reverie. He tried to ignore it, to go back to wandering the universe, but the hair just got ticklier and ticklier. Finally he remembered to come back to his body and that darn hair in his nose. It pulled him back to the present, back to reality, back home to his body. Good thing about that hair in his nose.
When you’ve completed your exploration of the chakras, come back home to the root, your physical experience on the ground. Rub your hands together briskly until you feel heat in between them. Channel anything you want to let go of between your hands. Take a deep breath in, then exhale and press your hands into the earth, allowing the ground itself to take whatever is left over that you don’t need. Repeat as many times as you’d like, until you are home again, in your beautiful, intelligent, perfect body.
If you want to learn more about the chakras, I recommend Wheels of Life by Anodea Judith.