I’ve always been a bit skeptical of the chakra system. This skepticism was confirmed a few years back when one of my yoga teachers pointed out that it was only recently (as in the 20th century) that this 7-point energetic framework became associated with colors, sounds, crystals, and poses. “Aha. I knew it!” I thought to myself, pleased that a respected, knowledgeable person from India was confirming my suspicions.
What I didn’t account for was the fact that because of its spiritual context and the difficulty of translating Sanskrit to English, it is hard for the Western mind to grapple with the significance of this energetic healing framework. It’s even harder for modern yogis (like me) to engage with a system they don’t quite understand.
What I realize now, after reading Ely’s book, is that a lack of understanding doesn’t mean I get to discard a system outright. It just means I need to find a different way to engage with it and spend more time studying it. It also means that I can build my own awareness, not only of the chakra system, but of my Self. The Modern Yogi’s Guide to Self-Exploration offers the modern yogi that opportunity.
My skepticism of the chakras left me feeling inauthentic when I included them in my asana classes. I lacked personal experience with the intricacies of the subtle body, but I also knew enough to understand that accessing chakras wasn’t as simple as moving the body in a specific way.
When the Shut Up & Yoga team suggested we read Ely’s book for our book club, I was indifferent. I have Anodea Judith’s Wheels of Life on my bookshelf and refer to it anytime I’m speaking about the chakras. I felt like I had a pretty nuanced understanding of what they were and how to work with them despite lacking that personal connection. Alas, book knowledge can’t stand in for experience. Then, I started reading The Modern Yogi’s Guide to Self-Exploration.
You know a book is good when, after reading the first couple of chapters, you sing its praises to family members and suggest they absolutely buy this book to work through their own challenges. Ely approaches the chakras in the most practical way I’ve seen.
She honors the chakra system as an energetic framework by including practices for contemplation in addition to movement and suggests specific actions you can take in your life to get in touch with these enigmatic energy centers. Nowhere will you find Ely prescribing Camel or Wheel to open the heart chakra, nor does she rely on crystals, essential oils, or other external tools for energetic cleansing. Instead, this journey is about going within.
By approaching the chakras through a contemplative lens, Ely manages to tie in relevant, global issues that we as a society are collectively dealing with right now, like climate change and social justice. Figuring out how to reconcile your own thoughts and beliefs around your concept of home (first chakra) or exploring how censorship plays out in your community (fifth chakra) feels much more productive and impactful than getting into Warrior II.
Working with the chakras in this way feels liberating and solution-oriented, even when finding solutions isn’t the point. Ely’s unique approach encourages you to go within in order to better show up as a participant in our global community. She encourages you to tackle tough challenges as they manifest in your life, not ignore or hide from them. This type of practice is about as yogic as it gets.
As Ely says:
“So instead of finding essential oils to heal, say, your sacral chakra, you’ll be invited to look at the social experiences we have all been through and how they’ve impacted the way you relate to your emotions.”
I appreciated that Ely acknowledges that she, too, struggled at first to integrate the chakra framework into her own life and practice and had her own initial doubts. I’m glad she kept exploring despite those doubts, as I immediately found myself experiencing big aha moments reading about the first chakra (and here I thought I had the first chakra all figured out…).
The reflection questions Ely offers throughout the book to help you engage with each chakra’s energy are especially powerful. These questions for the third chakra resonated:
“If you could have more power, what would it mean? If you had less power, how would it impact your life?”
Another exercise Ely offers that works with the third eye chakra involves asking about the words you use to talk about something, and then examining your biases. That leads into an inquiry about how others talk about that same thing. I couldn’t help but think how a variation of this exercise might be useful for yoga teachers in developing a unique and expanded cue bank for talking about postures, leading visualizations, or instructing pranayama.
There were a few places throughout the book where I got a bit lost, but then again it’s hard to talk about the chakra system, let alone tie them into the ills of the world. Overall Ely does a really good job of making sense of it all, and I know that this is one of those books that I’ll benefit from revisiting over and over again throughout my life. One criticism was that I would have loved a little more exploration on the nine spiritual temperaments that Ely adapted from Gary Thomas’ work. It seemed like a missed opportunity to tie in the four paths of yoga, thus strengthening the inclusion of the chakra framework in the modern evolution of how to approach, practice, and teach yoga.
At the end of the book, Ely offers a wonderful list of resources for learning more about the chakras, life, and yoga in general. If you love learning, asking questions, contemplating life’s many challenges (and the world around us) and appreciate looking at things from different angles, you’ll love this approach to working with the chakras, even if you don’t feel drawn to the chakras in the first place.