Nischala Joy Devi is a physician’s assistant. She spent 18 years as a monk and is also the teacher of my teacher. So when I knew she’d be speaking in Austin to a group of yoga therapists, I wanted to learn from her.
The first chakra, yoga teachers will frequently talk about. It’s the root chakra. Devi suggests to balance the first chakra, you need to ground yourself. Walk barefoot in the mud. I prefer the sand. Or, get in a bath with Epsom salts. I try to wear shoes as little as possible or wear shoes with the least amount of division between my feet and the earth. I live in warm climates, so I can take advantage of this grounding.
The second chakra is svadhisthana. This relates to our sexual organs and liquids. From tears to the waters in the ocean. The second chakra is creation and emotion. We all need balance with creativity. Yet, many of us lose our creative powers as we approach adolescence. Devi ponders the state of arts and creativity as school budget cuts attack this area. “Here we find there’s an imbalance. Our lack of ability to create things and go with the flow. Many countries live by the water. It’s life itself. When someone has an imbalance (menstrual cramps, fibroids) … look at your life.”
Devi suggests sun salutations and three-part breathing to regain balance. Or, the part I like, getting into a body of water. Even listening to the sounds of the ocean’s waves seems to center me. “It used to be, in certain mental institutions, they put them in a tub of water” as part of their therapy, she adds. Today, people refer to hydro-therapy and relax in the hot tub. Many times, we’re just listening to our inner body telling us what we need.
The next chakra that we refer to frequently in yoga classes is the solar plexus. This represents the sun and intellect. It also is important to understand thinking from the belly, or, honoring your gut feeling. The solar plexus chakra is also related to our ego and identification in the world. “If it’s overstimulated, we get digestive issues,” Devi says, pointing out the business lunch that may not sit well. “If you are talking about a contract, there’s no energy in your digestive system. Look what’s sitting on the table? There’s a $2 million dollar contract there.” At my ashram in India, where I studied Ayurveda, there was a clear rule. No talking at mealtimes. Food was meant to be digested, and relished, in silence.
I also learned in India that the digestive fire (agni) is responsible for much of our health and well-being. Devi questions the connection between eating disorders and overall well-being. “How much does it have to do with food, and how much does it have to do with feeling powerless?”
Most of us feel powerless at times, Devi says. Unfortunately, that can result in abusing ourselves and others, in every sense of the word: Sexual, physical, verbal, and mental.
“If you feel powerless, you’re going to go to someone else that’s less powerful. This fire has to be fed. If it’s not fed by food, it’ll be fed in other ways. Fire is great if it’s contained.” It can be devastating when it gets out of control, though. No wonder the emotion tied to this fire is anger. “Fire is one of those things we want just right. Like in the Goldilocks tales,” adds Devi.
Beyond the obvious digestive issues that get out of whack when our fire is not just right, it creates issues for the gall bladder, pancreas, and other organs.
The heart chakra is an important one to me, as I feel we often need to try to open our heart chakra more. Anahatha represents the balance between sun and the moon. The heart is the middle chakra, with three above and three below. “The heart chakra is the most vulnerable of all. If it has love, it opens. If it gets hurt, it closes.” The heart chakra governs the lungs, heart and circulatory system, and sense of touch.
“As the fire gets stronger and stronger, it needs air, so it reaches up and depletes the heart chakra. This is why our major disease is heart disease, and autoimmune diseases, including cancer, AIDS, fibromyalgia, and MS.”
In her book, The Secret Power of Yoga, Devi discusses the benefit of bhakti yoga, or devotion. Bhakti is the most practiced branch of yoga in the world. “From our outward devotion, we discover the Divine also dwells within. For prayer to reach its full power, the heart must be the main speaker.” Language or religion do not matter. “Sitting in a temple or church causes our minds and hearts to be uplifted.”
“The expanded heart is like a flower in bloom.” She explains that babies are born with an open heart, and open to devotion. However, as we are taught, or witness less positive things in life, our hearts close.
Breathwork, or pranayama, is essential for the heart chakra, as are backbends. “We’re doers,” says Devi. “We have to stop and be still. Without forgiveness, healing is impossible. It’s not about them. It’s about us. MY heart needs to be healed.”
The throat chakra correlates to the thyroid gland. Many of us seem to have lost our voice. We don’t say what we think or feel, for fear of antagonizing or not being popular. Chanting is an excellent tool to balance the throat chakra. “With mantra, the cells of our body vibrate with the sacred sounds. Om. Shalom.”
Those vibrations, also help to activate the fifth chakra. I love the attention that women in India give to their third eye. I love bindi, the colorful decorations that help me to remember Ajna chakra. This is associated with knowledge, spirituality, and clairvoyance. When I meditate, I tend to focus on my third eye and love to see colors and shapes appear there.
Gina Sala, a bhakti singer raised in India, says, “When you nasalize Om, it activates the pineal gland at the third eye. Three Oms can do so much. Like in traffic, you can do Oms, and everything changes.”
Kundalini and Ashtanga yoga seek to raise the energy (kundalini) from the muladhara to the crown chakra. Some forms of meditation, such as Sahaja Yoga, also bring about an opening of the chakras all the way to the crown chakra. “At the crown chakra is our constant connection with the heavens and the cosmos,” she says. “We are rooted directly into the heavens while our branches reach toward the earth.”
In an attempt to connect with both heaven and earth, in my Yoga Nidra sessions, and at times during savasana, I will guide my students to feel both the grounding and the floating toward the heavens. In my reiki practices, I frequently will try to open the chakras and pull the forces between them, from the solar plexus to the heart to the third eye, in particular.
“When our chakras are in harmonious pairs — heaven and earth — they allow us to live a balanced and healthy life.” Balance. That’s what many of us may be lacking.