The word chakra literally means 'wheel' or 'circle. In the context of yoga a better translation is 'vortex' or 'whirl pool'. The chakras are vortices of pranic energy at specific areas in the body which control the circulation of prana permeating the entire human structure.
In each person there are myriads of chakras, but in yogic practices only a few principal ones are utilized. These are mooladhara, swadhisthana, manipura, anahata, vishuddhi, ajna and bindu. We utilize sahasrara which is not really a chakra for it transcends and contains them all within itself.
Each chakra is a switch which turns on or opens up specific levels of the mind, for manipulation and control of prana in any of the centres will induce a corresponding state of awareness. Conversely, a specific state of awareness will induce prana or predominate at the corresponding chakra. Physical or mental stimulation of the psychic centres can lead to change the consciousness. As an outcome, man's psychic potential blossoms forth and enables him to realize his own higher self.
For the purpose of practising kriya yoga or some of the more advanced forms of meditation it is important to develop knowledge and awareness of the chakras and to be able to locate them all accurately.
If your aims is to awaken kundalini, your mind must be purified and you must be completely familiar with all the chakras. They must be fully realized and purified. The purpose of awakening kundalini is to bring the dormant centres of the brain into action. Every chakra is directly connected to the brain and by awakening any of the chakras a message is communicated to its particular portion of the brain and the whole process of awakening and activation sets into motion. Although you can commence the procedure with manipura, anahata or any other chakras, it is easier for the gross mind to concentrate on and manipulate mooladhara chakra.
The chakras can be divided into three approximate classes. Mooladhara and swadhisthana, the two lower chakras, are predominantly tamasic in nature. Actions tend to be adharmic, disharmonious and not in accordance with one's individual nature. Manipura and anahata, the two middle chakras, are a mixture of positive and negative qualities. Here rajas predominates, where actions and thoughts are a combination of dharama and adharma. Vishuddhi and ajna, the two higher chakras are predominantly positive and sattwic. One tends to follow dharma and one's actions and thoughts are in accordance with one's individual nature.
Chakras in religions and other traditions
The use of chakras as a means of spiritual awakening is widely recognized by most religious and spiritual societies of the world: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Egyptian, Kobbalist, Rosicrucian and so on. There are exists an interesting and exact correlation between the chakras and the kyo shos or pressure points in one branch of esoteric Japanese judo. They also correspond exactly to acupuncture points in the spine and acupressure points massaged in shiatzu, a form of therapy from Japan.
The chakras have been known in all parts of the world and throughout history by illumined and psychic people. They are not confined to one system, for they constitute the fundamental make-up of man. People of the so-called 'primitive' societies knew the chakras from their own experiences.
A more complex societies began to develop, the chakras were symbolized according to social codes of language, art and convention. Due to these different symbols, many people regard the chakras to be more fanciful concepts of the mind, instead of realizing that the experience of the chakra cannot be represented in a concrete words and diagrams.
Whereas the Rosicrucians use roses to symbolize the chakras, in yoga and most other systems the major chakras are represented by lotus flowers, each with a specific colour and number of petals.
The lotus symbolizes man's spiritual growth from the lower to the higher states of consciousness. It starts its growth in the mud (ignorance), grows up through the water in an effort to reach the surface (endeavour and aspiration) and eventually reaches the air and sunlight (illumination).
The meaning of each chakra can never be fully explained in words. They must be experienced to be understood but, at the same time, there are general attributes associated with each chakra. There is a great deal of symbology to be found in the ancient yogic texts which should not be misunderstood to represent the actual experience of the chakra. They symbolize and express the experiences one feels when the chakras are stimulated and awakened.
In the following articles, we shall give brief description and the sadhana for each chakra that will enable you to locate the chakra accurately. We shall also give meditation practices to further develop your understanding and awareness of each chakra. Teachers might adopt the visualization section of the chakra, meditations and introduce them to their students as visualization sequence in yoga nidra.
Source: Excerpts from the book on "Sure Ways to Self-Realization" by Swami Satyananda Saraswati.