The chakras, mystical components of subtle body anatomy, have become so popular as to belie their esoteric origins. The bija (seed) mantras, symbolism, and elemental associations used to express and define these subtle centers are rich sources of inquiry and thematic inspiration for practice. But as a component of the subtle body, the chakras are traditionally thought to be nearly inaccessible except for those with highly developed and nuanced meditative capacities.
In Yoga & Ayurveda David Frawley writes:
“The purpose of opening one’s chakras is not to improve one’s capacity in the ordinary domains of human life, but to go beyond our mortal and transient seeking to the immortal essence.”
Frawley goes on to remind us that:
“According to the yoga system, in the ordinary human state, which is rarely transcended except by sustained spiritual practice, the chakras are closed; that is, they do not truly function. The result of this is not disease, but ignorance.”
The ignorance that results from being unable to access these energy centers is self-identification with things that are constantly in flux—our physical bodies, thoughts and opinions, relationships, or even our preferences.
While asana can be a magnificent opportunity to observe our own tendencies toward the erratic mental behavior that accompanies attachment, we yoga practitioners often fixate on “The Pose” as a meaningful end in itself. Thus, we continue to toil in avidya (ignorance).
In their book Yoga Anatomy, Leslie Kaminoff and Amy Matthews have a beautiful way of putting asana into perspective for a subtle-body-focused practice:
An asana, or yoga pose, is a container for an experience. An asana is not an exercise for strengthening or stretching a particular muscle or muscle group, although it might have that effect. It is a form that we inhabit for a moment, a shape that we move into and out of, a place where we might choose to pause in the continuously flowing movement of life. In yoga poses, we experience a cross-section of a never-ending progression of movement and breath, extending infinitely forward and backward in time.
With a chakra-focused asana practice, this notion of an asana being a “container for an experience” is a crucial qualification. While we cannot engage any of the chakras directly through our physical efforts, the yoga tradition holds that we can affect the flow of prana (vital energy) and direct our awareness toward a single, stable point. This focus is one of the ways Patanjali suggests that practitioners attain yoga, the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.
While it may not be accurate to say that I can effect change in my root, or muladhara chakra, I can inquire into the quality of earth (the element associated with that chakra) and my relationship to stability, and I can concentrate on the gross (physical) body as a kind of structural sheath for my mind.
The Crown Chakra
The crown chakra, aka sahasrara (the thousand-petaled lotus), is where the masculine and feminine forces, Shiva and Shakti, are said to unite and imbue the meditator with tremendous clarity and awakening.
The crown chakra is described as being just above the crown of the head, beyond the physical body itself.
The way to access any of the chakras is through sushumna nadi, the central channel, along which the chakras are oriented. Sushumna is fed by side channels, called ida (on the left) and pingala (on the right), associated with Shakti and Shiva, respectively. Shiva is associated with the right half of the body and Shakti with the left.
The esoteric dynamic of push and pull, up and down, masculine and feminine, is embodied by each of us in the breath through exhalation (Shiva) and inhalation (Shakti).
Understanding this, when we engage asana deliberately, we can use our physical capability to redirect potentially scattered prana into the sushumna nadi, which may (over time, through dedicated practice) initiate a profound and lasting sense of oneness between body and mind, self and Self, the finite and the infinite. This is the union of yoga.
In The Meaning and Purpose of Yoga, Bhole Prabhu writes:
The very word “yoga” makes reference to this. The root, yuj (meaning "unity" or "yoke"), indicates that the purpose of yoga is to unite ourselves with our highest nature. This re-integration is accomplished through the practices of the various yoga disciplines. Until this re-integration takes place, we identify ourselves with the limitations of our body, mind, and senses. Thus we feel incomplete and limited, and are subject to feelings of sorrow, insecurity, fear, and separation, because we have separated ourselves from the experience of the whole.
The following practice is not to open or cleanse the chakras, nor in any way to align them. It is instead to align our awareness to the infinite, through the merging of Shiva and Shakti.
Sahasrara, the crown chakra, represents a kind of rising out of our embodied existence until that physical energy joins with universal consciousness. This transcendence is not intended to undermine or negate the physical form, but to include the entirety of our being in our awareness, from the gross to the most subtle expression.
This crown chakra sequence is designed to open the side channels (ida and pingala) in order to steer prana toward the central channel, so that the body can be stabilized—and perhaps one day transcended. It may be interesting to notice as you practice which side of the body experiences more dominance, flexibility, ease, or sensation.
By tuning into the subtleties of the gross form, we begin to deepen our powers of observation and objectivity, which creates even subtler openings of awareness. Feel yourself ebbing and flowing continuously between the experience of your physical presence—body structure, weight, and the play of the five senses—and the formless, expansive nature of your awareness. These dynamics form and inform each other, as Shakti gives expression to the consciousness that is Shiva, and he provides the awareness to channel her power.
Crown Chakra Sequence
Makarasana (crocodile pose)
Lie on your belly with your feet mat-width apart and turned out. Clasp opposite elbows and rest your forehead on your forearms. Use the feedback from your abdomen pressing against the ground to gradually smooth out your breath into a continuous wave of motion.
Begin to sense where there is asymmetry or congestion in your inhale/exhale and throughout the body. Establish a seamlessness in the breath, smoothing out the transition between inhale and exhale. This is the Shiva/Shakti focus.
Supta Padangusthasana (supine hand-to-big-toe) series
Roll onto your back and either clasp your right big toe with the first two fingers of your right hand or use a strap to lasso the ball of your foot. Extend your left leg onto the mat.
Draw your right leg toward your torso while keeping the right pelvic half on the floor, and maintain the lumbar curve by keeping easy space between your lower spine and the mat. Spend five breaths here, feeling the seamless quality of the breath
Next, open your right leg to the right a few inches and externally rotate the thigh, so that the kneecap and toes point away from the body. The distance between your leg and the floor should be determined by the steadiness of the breath—once the breath becomes choppy or labored, it’s an indicator that you have gone too far. Remain here for five more breaths.
Then bring your right leg back to the starting position and hold the outer edge of your foot or the strap with your left hand. Cross your right leg just over the midline of the body, keeping the right pelvic half on the floor, focusing on sensation in the outer line of the leg rather than a twist. Spend five breaths here, then return to center and repeat on the other side.
Chakravakasana (ruddy goose pose) with toes tucked
Come onto hands and knees and tuck your toes under. Inhale and soften your belly, lifting your head and tail to the ceiling for a cow stretch.
On your exhale round your spine for a cat-like stretch, and then sit back onto your heels.
Inhale, return to cow, and repeat five to ten times. As with the breath, establish a seamlessness in this movement sequence—rather than two distinct shapes, let them form and inform each other.
From table pose, inhale and lift your head while circling your right knee to the side (think doggie at a fire hydrant) and back behind you; then exhale and curl your knee into your chest while rounding your spine. Repeat five times, and then change sides. Focus on the circular quality of your breath and physical body movement.
As you move into more static postures, spend eight to ten breaths in each pose.
Ardha Ustrasana (half camel pose)
Sit on your heels (or it may feel better for your knees to place a block underneath your seat and sit between your heels); place your fingertips behind your feet, with fingers pointing forward and in line with your toes. Keep your hips heavy, and avoid gripping in your lower back. Press your hands down into the mat, firm your triceps, and lift your chest to your chin, gazing forward instead of up or back. This head position will assist you in keeping the breath steady and even.
Malasana (garland pose) variation
Make your way into a squat at the back of your mat, with your heels supported by a blanket. This additional lift can ease pressure off the hip sockets, and it helps in maintaining smooth breathing during the sequence.
Hold your outer right shin with your left hand and lean into your left inner thigh (left shoulder inside left knee). Place your right hand on top of your right thigh above the knee to keep weight in the foot (being careful not to push onto your knee joint). Relax your head to the left.
Parivrtta Adho Mukha Svanasana (revolved downward facing dog)
From malasana, walk your hands forward on the mat into down dog (leaving your blanket at the back of your mat, and inching forward away from it). Widen your feet and narrow your hands slightly.
Bend your left knee and pivot your right heel in and down (like a warrior I foot), and let your pelvis twist slightly to the right. If the right shoulder is injury-free and feels stable, hold your outer right shin with your left hand and turn your chest to the right.
The seamlessness of your breath is also a good gauge in determining when to take the bind—if your breath is jagged, keep your left hand on the mat. Breathe in and out along the right hemisphere of the body. Repeat on the second side, noticing asymmetries in strength, sensation, and experience from right to left.
Parsvakonasana (side angle pose)
From downward facing dog, step your left foot forward outside your left hand, and spin your back heel down to set up for side angle pose. Bring your left forearm to rest on your left thigh, and turn your chest toward the right. With this slightly wider-than-usual base, your pelvis may turn slightly toward the mat. This encourages movement in the thoracic spine (middle back). Press your right heel firmly into the mat and lengthen your leg, reaching your right arm alongside your head.
Move through down dog and back into malasana with your heels on the blanket to repeat the series on the second side.
Anjaneyasana (low lunge)
From down dog, step your right foot between your hands, and lower your left knee to the mat. Inhale and reach your arms up alongside your head, and then clasp opposite elbows and rest the back of your head against your forearms. Exhale and press down into both feet to stabilize the pelvis and lengthen the spine. Use the weight of your arms on your head as a reason to keep the back of your neck long, and use the downward press of your legs to lift your chest (rather than pushing your pelvis to the floor).
This is a great embodiment of the Shiva/Shakti dynamic—inhale down and into the lungs, softening your chest, and exhale up and out to lengthen the spine. Give equal time and importance to each of the actions until they become one action.
Return to downward facing dog, and repeat on the second side. Finish in down dog.
Gomukhasana (cow face pose)
From down dog, come to hands and knees facing one of the short edges of your mat. Cross your left knee behind and to the outside of your right knee, move your feet apart, and sit in the space between your feet. Your right knee should be stacked on top of your left, with your toes pointing out to the sides. If your spine is rounding, you can elevate your seat with a blanket or a block. Press the pinkie toe edges of your feet into the mat.
Reach your left arm up alongside your head and bend your elbow to touch the space between your shoulder blades. Reaching your right arm out to the side, point your thumb down and bend your elbow to reach up your back between your shoulders, clasping your hands together if accessible. If your hands do not reach each other, use a strap to connect them. Gently pull your hands in opposite directions while stabilizing your shoulder blades onto your back.
If the body feels sluggish, your exhale may bring some necessary heat and clarity. If you are struggling, be deliberate with your inhale. Sense how the two halves of the breath support each other. Slowly release after eight to ten breaths, and repeat on the other side.
Come to kneeling with your knees touching and your feet apart, and then press your calf muscles away from your knees (toward your ankles). Sit in the space between your feet. The tops of your feet should be flat on the floor so that even your pinky toes touch the mat. If your pinkies are curling up off the floor, or if your pelvis is not resting on the mat, sit on a block or a blanket.
If you are seated on a prop, lean back onto your hands as in ardha ustrasana. With a blanket (which has more give than a block) you may be able to lower onto your forearms.
If you are seated comfortably without propping, you can lower your spine to the mat or over a bolster. If you’re lying back, clasp opposite elbows overhead. Smooth out the breath over eight to ten cycles. Exit this posture very slowly, coming up on an inhale as you press your hands on the floor.
Come to all fours, and lower your elbows to the mat. Reach for opposite elbows to establish a balanced space between your arms, keeping elbows shoulder-width apart; then interlace your fingers with your bottom pinky finger curled into the hand, and press your outer wrists into the mat.
Place the crown of your head lightly on the floor with the back of the head lightly pressing against the heels of the hands. Tuck your toes, and press your hips to the ceiling as in down dog. If your lower back rounds, widen your feet and keep a slight bend in the knees to elongate the spine.
If you are able to walk your feet close enough to your elbows to shift your hips over your head, you may bend your knees into your chest and extend your legs to the ceiling.
Many modifications are possible here, including practicing dolphin pose, or abstaining from the inversion.
Please do not practice sirsasana if there is any injury present in the neck, spine, or shoulders, and do not practice if your breath is labored or choppy. Lower as you entered, and rest in balasana (child’s pose) until the breath is smooth again.
Vajrasana (thunderbolt pose) + Shiva Linga Mudra
Sit on your heels and place your left palm, face up, in front of your solar plexus (the area of the abdomen just below your sternum).
Make a fist with your right hand, and stick your thumb out. Place the right fist on top of the left palm so that your thumb points up. Press the hands softly into one another, sensing the relationship between the upward and the downward force in order to hold center.
To set the effect of this mudra, stay for a little longer here, sitting on a block if necessary. Enjoy 16 to 20 rounds of breath.
Stay for eight to ten minutes. If you like, you can support your body with an extra cushion under your head or knees to give the spine total ease.
Hands-Free Nadi Shodhana (alternate nostril breathing)
Sit up in sukhasana (easy pose) or siddhasana (accomplished pose), and rest your hands on your knees. Bring awareness to the touch of air at your nostrils. Once focused on this sensation, concentrate an exhale out the left nostril. Then inhale through the left nostril and exhale out the right. Inhale through the right nostril and exhale left.
Continue with this pattern, using your concentration (rather than your hand) to direct the flow of breath. Spend five to ten minutes here.
Thousand-Petaled Lotus Meditation
(Setting a timer for meditation can be useful. For this particular meditation you may want to record yourself slowly speaking the instructions. Allow ten minutes for the process.)
• Concentrate on the inhale entering the body from the base of the spine, expanding the awareness of your pelvis. Exhale and release any tension that may be held in the perineum, hip flexors, or glutes.
• Inhale from the base of the spine up into the belly. Exhale and release any tension from the belly and low back.
• Inhale from the base of the spine up into the heart. Exhale and release any tension around your chest, shoulders, and upper back.
• Inhale from the base of the spine up into the throat. Exhale and release any tension from your neck and jaw, and even your tongue.
• Inhale from the base of the spine up into the head behind the eyebrows. Exhale and release any tension from your forehead and your scalp.
• Inhale from the base of the spine all the way up to the crown of your head and slightly higher. Exhale all the way down to the base of the spine.
As you continue to breathe up and down the entire length of the spine, visualize a luminous lotus suspended above you. You may sense its petals continuously opening above the crown of your head, or undulating in the breeze of your breath.
Concentrate on the lotus as the merging of your inhale and exhale. Inhale as if the lotus were drawing life force from the earth beneath you. Exhale any scent or color or texture that may make its presence known to you. Allow your breath to be soft and rhythmic.
By letting go of effort, you become receptive to the creative and subtle energies of the merging masculine and the feminine. Allow yourself to experience yourself as the container of this merging energy.
After five to ten minutes, enjoy a few rounds of natural breath, exhaling out an open mouth. Finish by chanting Om three times—once for Shiva, once for Shakti, and once for their union.