Chakras as a totem

What are chakras?

We are all familiar with the concept of the human nervous system: channels of control information and commands that are pervasive throughout the body. The spinal cord runs down the spine; nerves branch out from each vertebra to convey signals to the different limbs and organs.


There are 33 vertebrae, and so there are 33 “levels” of experience in the nervous system. These “levels” represent very visceral events like the function of organs, contraction of muscles, etc. The final sum of what’s happening in each organ, how hard each muscle is working is how your body feels in this moment. We would say that how we feel is based on what’s happening around us perhaps – but how we are inside reflects and affects what’s happening outside. External events are a colour wash that affects the tone of experience, and that experience is very much rooted in how the body is, right now.


Think a bit more about how you experience your life. It’s awash with feeling, from happiness and fullness to sadness and emptiness. These feelings are summaries of the many hundreds of things that are happening in the body moment by moment, coloured by what’s going on in the wider world. In the chakra model, there are six broad categories or groups of feelings, each related to one of the chakras. 

Each category or group is a force of its own in our lives, for good or bad. The energy or drive of each is the output of its related chakra. Feelings interact with each other: the chakras relate to one another and in so doing, behaviours arise. 


The chakras are possibly just a model, somewhat like a terrain map. Thinking about the qualities of each chakra can help one understand one’s motives and behaviours. Like a map, they can help one navigate life experiences. Of course, the map is never the terrain.


The chakras are possibly “real” energy centres, existing in an energy body that underlies the physical body. If this is true then this type of energy cannot yet be measured by scientific instruments. However, it’s probably detectable by the body itself – or at least seems to be: have you not had the experience of looking up from a task, and right into the eyes of some stranger who happened to be looking at you for no reason?


It’s up to each practitioner to understand for themselves the qualities of the chakras and feel for chakra influences in their own lives. Then one can make one’s own decision about the nature of the chakras.

The most significant chakras


Sahasrara means thousand petalled. It’s believed to be situated at the crown of the head. Strictly speaking, it’s not a chakra: it’s an interface allowing cosmic consciousness to connect to the human form.

Sahasrara represents a plane of truth and reality, in the way that Yoga would define truth (as knowledge of one-as-many and many-as-one), and reality (that which is timeless). The heart has a connection to Sahasrara to receive grace. What is grace? Grace is the cosmos opening to the practitioner. Practice is how a person opens to the cosmos.


Since sahasrara can unveil the deepest mysteries, it parallels the guru concept. The guru of course is ultimately the profound truth that can be realised through practice. Guru is one’s own heart in those moments of conscience: we all know the truth when we see it. The practice methods are “guru” too – as long as we use the ones appropriate to our state of development. The guru can be a person as well – if that person lives the truth of their practice of course.


Ajna means command. It’s associated with mental clarity in processing and making sense of sensory input. This is more than simply labelling sights and categorising sounds: ajna contextualises external events, against the backdrop of how the body feels in the moment, as a chapter in the personal narrative and offers scope for wise choices. 


We’ve seen that ajna is “the sense that makes sense of the senses” – using the word “senses” very broadly. Whatever choice is made will be actioned on ajna’s directive. Clearly, life will be easier if ajna is more or less right most of the time. However, one of the ”senses” ajna reads is the input from the internal body, ie, the other chakras. Ajna’s choices are profoundly influenced by the quality of information it receives. Instability, poor internal communication, fatigue or overactivity anywhere in the chakra network will degrade ajna’s responses. But ajna is also where these negative cycles can be seen and witnessed in mindfulness.


Vishuddhi means special purity and is linked with the throat. In Hinduism, the throat is associated with transformation of poison. This is because there is a legend in which a great poison once came forth that could have consumed and destroyed the whole world. The God Shiva swallowed it to protect creation but did not take it into his stomach: it’s suspended forever in his throat. We transform the poison of lies into truth whenever we stand and speak out for something that needs to be addressed. This can be the day we finally admit that some aspect of lifestyle has to change; or when we decide to live or love openly in the way we’ve always wanted to; etc.

Vishuddhi represents the space element in the body. There is a great deal of space within us. We are made of atoms, but each atom itself has a lot of “empty” space in it. Some estimates suggest that if all space within people were to be removed, the entire human population would fit into the volume of a sugar cube. And space isn’t empty: it seems to be made of energy. Even more bizarre is the suggestion that when space is compressed, it becomes matter as we know it. If this turns out to be true, then everything is actually made out of space – exactly as Yoga has always taught, in fact.

The curious thing about energy is that simply observing it will change it. There is some kind of interaction between energy and consciousness. But things happen even when we are not looking, as if an ever-present awareness observes all . Space is all there is, and space is sentient…again, as Yoga has always said.

If everything is made of knowing space, then nothing is pure or impure. Things can be functional or dysfunctional in a human context, but in itself, everything is an expression of One that presents first as two (consciousness and energetic space) and from there are many. Recognising this is (possibly) the special purity referred to in the name of the chakra.


Anahata means unstruck sound. What is the sound that did not begin, no banging or strumming to initiate it? This is probably the wrong question to ask. Instead, what is the name trying to tell us? The name unstuck sound implies vibration emanating inherently – what we might call radiance.


Anahata is linked to the sense of touch. Touch is a physical sense, but “touch” can occur in other ways also – we can be touched by words or acts of kindness for instance. Touch is the foundation of relationship, and anahata is where empathy can arise. Anahata is where we can see others as having the same needs as ourselves, and the same right to satiety of need. We can begin to share consciously, a decision to make things as good for others as they are for us. Touch is the keystone of human sharing because it’s the first thing we all knew as babies. Skin to skin contact at this time drives something incredible in the human relational dynamic: the parent appears. That is, the loving other, more powerful, protective, dedicated to our welfare. If this works well then the child grows up able to parent themselves – able to guide themselves successfully through life’s dramas.


Manipura, meaning jewelled city, is related to the navel (or solar plexus in some sources). It represents the fire element. 


The fire element is energy, kinesis, transformation of all kinds because all transformation requires movement and all movement is driven by energy. Even stationary solid objects exhibit the fire element. For instance, consider a stone on the ground. We know that it’s made of atoms, but those atoms are in a rigid structure that gives the stone hardness and weight. However, those atoms are oscillating. They are fixed in position, but within that position they move endlessly. If I had a very sensitive radio, I could tune into the stone I’m holding and hear its atoms moving.


All of the food we eat is transformed in the belly. What we can use is retained; the rest jettisoned. Assimilation is a key skill and it’s manipura in action. Assimilation occurs at other levels too – we assimilate knowledge and ideas. The quality of assimilation makes all the difference. If the environment can’t be “digested” then we suffer “indigestion”…things are stuck.


If all is well, manipura bestows personal power and capacity, the ability to make things happen. It’s the power of will and manifestation. Being power hungry, or domineering signifies a manipura issue, as do the opposites: submission or slotting into the role of disempowered victim.


Svadhisthana means abode of the self or one’s own abode. Svadhisthana is one’s unfiltered emotions: the immediate truth of how you feel at the time, all the time. If you’ve ever had children, then this is the infant who knows only their own feelings. It’s the emotional logic of the pre-verbal state. 


It’s tempting to think we all left that state behind with our childhood, but not so. It’s here, now, with us all as svadhisthana and the information it has for us should not be ignored.


Our emotions can be hard to experience – feeling, by definition, requires that experiences be felt and some experiences are deeply uncomfortable. If we can understand our emotions as information about us in the context of our lives right now, then we can appreciate their  deep intelligence and benefit by letting them help guide us onwards. Then, emotive power gives rise to raw creativity. These are moments of emotional inspiration, even if they are hard moments to feel. Being dominated by, or refusing to deal with/ hiding from one’s own emotive power are signs that svadhisthana needs attention.


Muladhara means root support. It’s connected to solidity and stability, grounding and physicality. Solidity, physicality, real-and-here-ness all make sense for muladhara because it represents the earth element as and in the body. The square was seen as a stable shape by previous cultures: it’s the shape of the bricks used in buildings for instance. Earth is associated with the square. This features in the symbol for muladhara, which comprises a square surrounded by four petals in the cardinal directions.


Muladhara is associated with the base of the pelvis, around the perineum or cervix for women. However, should you wish to meditate on muladhara, start by taking your awareness to the lower pelvis and see if there is a point your attention rests naturally at. Chakras are like muscles in the sense that, if they are not worked, they will be weak, floppy and a little diffuse. Practices which develop the chakras will lead you to more clarity as to where they are in your body.

Chakras as a totem

Each chakra is associated with an animal.





Black antelope

The vehicle of the moon god, Chandra.


White elephant

Clarity and pure strength.



The swiftness and virility of pure love.



Potency, direct energy.



Relentlessly emotional unconscious mind.



A symbol of great strength.


Arranging animal representations in a specific order resembles the form of the totem pole. 

About totem poles

Totem poles served several purposes for Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast:

  1. Cultural Identity and Heritage: Totem poles are a way to represent and preserve the stories, myths, and legends of a particular clan or family. They often depict animals, supernatural beings, and ancestors that hold cultural significance.
  2. Social Status and Clan Lineage: Totem poles can serve to illustrate the social status and lineage of the family or clan that owns the pole. The figures on the pole might depict ancestors, historical events, and significant achievements, thereby demonstrating the clan’s heritage and history.
  3. Commemoration: Totem poles are sometimes erected to commemorate significant events or individuals. Memorial poles honour deceased chiefs, warriors, or respected members of the community, serving as a lasting tribute to their memory and contributions.
  4. Storytelling: Many totem poles tell stories, often of creation myths, moral tales, or significant events. These stories are conveyed through the symbolic meanings of the animals and figures carved into the poles.
  5. Spiritual Significance: Totem poles can have spiritual importance, embodying the clan’s connection to the spiritual world. The carvings may represent spiritual guides, ancestors who watch over the clan, or beings that are believed to have spiritual power.
  6. Welcoming Figures: Some totem poles, known as welcome poles, are placed at the entrance of a village or house to greet visitors. They often serve as a symbol of hospitality and respect.
  7. Boundary Markers: In some cases, totem poles are used to mark the boundaries of a clan’s territory. These poles serve as a visible declaration of the land owned or occupied by the clan.

Asian peoples have various traditions involving symbolic or spiritual representations, but they do not typically have totem poles in the same form as those mentioned above. However, various Asian cultures have used symbols, objects, and carvings to represent and teach about spiritual archetypes and deity energies.

It’s worth noting that early religions and spiritual systems would have evolved from Shamanic practices. The forms and practices of Shamanism vary from culture to culture and continent to continent, but all emerged from forest-dweller communities and honoured the spirits of the forest, in whatever form they were perceived locally. 

A generic totem-style image, not representative of chakras. For illustrative purposes only.

Arranging the chakra animal images vertically brings forth the likeness of a totem pole, as shown in the colour image at the start of this section. In this arrangement, we can think of our work on our chakras as a kind of personal evolution. Establishing a firm, secure base provides a stable container for emotions; the power centre balanced on this will be confident but not brash; the heart above will have the right foundation to establish boundaries and to share; the truth of the identity can emerge safely; ultimately, balance will be found and the mind can direct to further progress, beyond ajna (this will be the subject of a future blog).

Remember that chakras are not there in a clear and powerful form unless they are developed explicitly. Not paying attention to chakras is the same as leaving it to fate to determine how they grow. And we must be careful that knowledge of the chakras doesn’t become the excuse for not evolving oneself. Go with me on this one – I’m saying that knowledge of the Sun Signs can almost be a reason not to try to be a better person. “Oh yes, of course I <made some mistake>. I’m a Pisces/Leo/<substitute your sign here>, that’s what we’re like.” The Sun Signs are useful models for different personalities and the chakras can provide personality models also. But Yoga offers us the practice tools to make changes: learning about the chakras really must be paired with getting to work on them.

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