I was raised Catholic. When I was growing up, my family went to church every. Single. Sunday. It did become monotonous at times. I always adored singing during mass, but I struggled against the unquestioned line that I was expected to agree with in my Catholicism classes. (Somehow that didn’t stop me from going through confirmation, the Catholic rite of confirming adulthood in the Church.) For a long time I was extremely cynical about the Church, its interpretation of the bible, and its incessant hierarchy and focus on power. And I am still wary of the Church as an organization–the Christ-esque-ence of the new pope aside, there’s really no way to erase the horrendous, heart-jarring history of child abuse. Still, this time of year, as life begins to emerge in its chartreuse glory, I am drawn back to Portland’s Catholic churches to celebrate the mystery of rebirth.
I don’t see this as an exclusively Catholic story. In fact, as I’ve been absorbing plenty of Joseph Campbell and Ram Dass lately, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing the same event–spring!–through multiple myths. God sacrificing his son for his people–it’s an idea that’s rippled down through the millennia. Egyptian myths tell the same story. And the idea of some form of personal death–going into a cave, a mountain, a grave–and emerging back into the light is also universal across our species. Campbell’s work has allowed me to appreciate the common threads tying together all religions, and Ram Dass’ lecture series on the Bhagavad Gita has given me hope that we can start seeing what we all have in common–an inner ability to recreate ourselves, which mirrors the universal human hero story behind all myths. (I’m drawing heavily on J. Campbell here.) This age-old story of spring, of beauty arising from death, is something that we can all marvel at.
During this regenerative time of the year, we also have a chance to renew our relationship with ourselves through Svadyaya. This is one of eight core ethical guidelines in yoga called the Yamas and Niyamas. They are personal and social observances or disciplines that yogis follow in order to live a righteous life. In classical Indian yoga, students were not taught asana (physical yoga postures) until they had mastered the Yamas and Niyamas. The personal discipline of Svadyaya is self-study. The idea is that by understanding ourselves–including the darker parts that we don’t like to look at–we can better understand others and live kinder, fuller, more compassionate lives. And my own experience is that self-study is a sure-fire way to discover personal rebirth, something light from within ourselves taking the place of something dark.
Examining oneself through the lens of the chakras is a great way to practice Svadyaya. I think of the chakras as highway interchanges for energy. Just as traffic tends to get caught up where highways cross, energy tends to get stuck in these zones of the body. Or, in the case of an overactive chakra, energy can flow too fast, akin to the higher incidence of highway accidents at interchanges. In most yogic systems there are seven chakras, each with its own color, location in the body, and pyschological theme. (If you’re as obsessive about knowledge as I am you can go bonkers with the level of detail about the chakras. Each energetic center is associated with its own seed mantra, gemstones, scents, yoga postures… believe me, the list goes on and on.)
To give you a taste of how the system works, the first chakra, often called the root chakra, describes our relationship with stability. In this part of the body–the very bottom of the torso, often specified as the perineum–we tend to store issues around abundance. Do we believe that we will and can get what we need? If so, our first chakra is likely balanced. This is also the part of the body where we eliminate our waste, and so a blocked first chakra can manifest as an inability to let go of the “trash” in our lives– the people, ideas, and mental habits that do not serve us. In the body, the first chakra is associated with the perineum, the large intestine (see: elimination), the teeth, and the bones. Just as we need strong bones to act as a strong foundational structure, we need personal habits that keep us mentally and physically healthy. You begin to appreciate, I hope, what a huge influence this mind/body energetic system that can have on our physical, mental, and emotional experiences.
For the past couple of weeks, I have been teaching mostly chakra-centered classes. My classes at East West Yoga PDX, West Side Athletic Club, and CorePower Yoga SE are going through the chakras, examining each energetic center at a time. I have felt incredible gratitude at the opportunity to examine the chakras in my own life at the same time as I share this powerful tool for self-wisdom with others. (For instance, after teaching one first chakra class at WSAC, I got really sick, a major alert from my own root chakra.) As I’ve been teaching chakra series for several years now, I am able to draw on notes from past series and layer asana (physical yoga practice) with mantra (yogic hand postures) and pranayama (yogic breathing techniques). Altogether, it makes for an abosorbing, focused class to teach–and to take, judging from the shifts I perceive in my students.
If you’re interested in diving deep into the chakras–a challenging and rewarding journey to be sure!–I recommend reading Judith Anodea’s comprehensive book The Wheels of Life. If you just want a taste of the chakras, come to one of my classes in the next week or two. And by the way, I am starting a new chakra series in my Monday night prenatal yoga class at Zenana Spa. If you’re with child, come join me on March 24, the first Monday of spring break, for a free examination of the root chakra, at our regular class time, 5:30-6:45pm. And please do spread the word to your prenatal friends! 🙂 Then continue coming on Mondays, April 1-May 7, for chakras two through seven.