“Life shrinks or expands according to one’s courage.” – Anaïs Nin, Mirages: The Unexpurgated Diary of Anaïs Nin, 1939–1947.
“No heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams.” – Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist.
What are you most afraid of? Be honest with yourself. Think about the thing that scares you the most and imagine that happening. What happens in your body? Do your palms get sweaty? Does your mouth get dry? Do you feel your heart beating faster? Does your stomach begin to tighten and swirl?
The energy produced in our bodies in relation to fear is extremely powerful. This is for a very good reason. We were designed to avoid danger at all costs. This is how we as living beings have survived and evolved.
Say you have your headphones on and you step into the street thinking it’s your turn to walk, only to see a bus barreling toward you – you’d want the parasympathetic nervous system, which creates this “fight-or-flight” response of fear, to turn on so you can jump out of the way before the bus mows you down.
The thing is, we are only meant to experience this powerful biochemical response to fear when we are in true danger. And yet many of us are living with our fear response idling at all times, just waiting for the next bus to activate it. This low-level fear experience is most commonly known as anxiety. The fear of what might happen.
Anaïs Nin said that our life shrinks or expands according to our courage. If we allow the fear of what might happen to stop us from doing the things we long to do, our life shrinks. If we do those things anyway, not only does the fear eventually dissipate, our life expands in ways we wouldn’t have thought possible.
Working with the opposing energies of fear and courage is an essential practice of Manipura, the third chakra. Manipura chakra, also called the solar chakra or the fire chakra, is one of the seven brilliant energy centers located along the sushumna nadi, which is the central channel of the energy body. Sushumna runs through the center of the spinal cord, the way electricity runs through a wire. It connects Sahastra, the crown chakra, which is our portal to the non-physical world of pure energy, through each of the seven chakras, as it makes its way down to Muladhara, the root chakra, which connects us firmly to the earth and the physical plane.
In the Tantric yoga tradition, Manipura chakra relates to the element of fire; more specifically to the digestive fire in the belly, called agni, which transforms the energy of food into fuel for our bodies and minds. Like the sun is at the center of our solar system, the third chakra is associated with the color yellow and located at the center of our bodies. The bija mantra, or seed sound, of the third chakra is RAM, a powerful sound that vibrates in alignment with our inherent strength.
Ram is also one of the gods in the Hindu religion. The progenitor of Krishna, Ram is depicted in the Ramayana, an ancient Hindu text, as the ideal father, brother, husband, and ruler. He wields the power of the third chakra with love and devotion, integrity and wisdom. It is said that when Gandhi was shot, he was chanting “Ram, Ram, Ram, Ram.” Some even see Gandhi as an incarnation of Ram, using his worldly power for the sole purpose of bringing benefit to others. Chanting RAM continuously is one of the ways to ignite the energy of Manipura chakra.
The third chakra is related to the physical organs of the liver, stomach, gall bladder, and spleen. These organs are responsible for our digestion, turning food into energy and filtering out toxins before they enter our blood stream. It has a similar function energetically. Like a magnet, the third chakra takes in all the energy involved with personal power. A healthy third chakra filters out toxic energy, offering us pure vital energy that we can ignite to fulfill our purpose.
In our modern culture, which applauds individualism and the accumulation of material wealth as the highest measures of success, we often think of power as dominance over others. But think about the Hoover Dam. This incredibly strong structure transforms the rushing water from the Colorado River into hydroelectric power for millions of homes and businesses. The power is used in service of the highest good.
When the Manipura chakra is functioning optimally, we have immense energy available to us. We feel powerful and strong, connected to our purpose, and believe in our capabilities. From this place, we can use our power to achieve our purpose and bring benefit to others.
Like a magnet, the third chakra takes in all the energy involved with personal power. A healthy third chakra filters out toxic energy, offering us pure vital energy that we can ignite to fulfill our purpose.
When the third chakra is depleted or blocked, we feel stagnant, weak, and scared. We doubt ourselves and our abilities. We may have dreams, but we don’t have the belief or energy to pursue them. When the chakra is very depleted, we don’t even have the energy to dream. This may be the result of illness, trauma, or repeated violations of our personal power, such as being undermined by a domineering parent, partner, or boss. This is the archetypal energy of the victim: a person who feels that the struggles of life are beyond their control and that life is happening to them instead of for them.
Manipura can also be out of balance when the flow is too strong. Imagine the Hoover Dam opening up and too much water rushing through. When there is too much energy moving through the third chakra, we feel aggressive and territorial. Our goals and desires become more important than benefiting others. This is the archetypal energy of the dictator: ruling without concern for the people.
Many of us live in a perpetual state of Manipura imbalance due to the constant pressures in our modern culture, to achieve success and accumulate wealth and power, as well as the continual flow of stimulation from the outer world. The chakras are part of a complex energy system that makes up the subtle body. We can liken it to the circulatory system, which is part of the complex system that makes up the physical body. The good news is, it is so much easier to rebalance than the physical body, because it is less dense, more ethereal. Think of pushing air aside rather than a boulder.
Certain yoga postures, mantra, breathing practices, self-inquiry, and meditation can restore the flow of energy through the third chakra. If Manipura is weak, we can find relief from unnecessary fear and gain the boost we need to move forward. If it is too strong, we can reign in aggressive, greedy energy and tap into our natural magnanimity.
To work with Manipura on your yoga mat, abdominal strengthening poses such as ardha chatturanga dandasana (plank pose) and navasana (boat pose) will help to light the fire in the belly. Once this agni is lit, postures such as bakasana (crow pose) and adho mukha vrksasana (handstand) help us to move past our fears and into our power.
The mantra “Ram”, chanted powerfully, nine times per breath for twenty cycles equals the auspicious number of 108. This chant vibrates the cells of the physical body and the filaments of the subtle body in alignment with our true power.
Many yogic breathing techniques associated with the third chakra are quite powerful, so if you’re new I recommend exploring them with a trained teacher. Kapalabhati is one such pranayama; popularly referred to as “breath of fire,” another meaning is “shining skull.” Try it by placing one hand on the seat of Manipura, the solar plexus, and exhaling forcefully to contract the abdomen (the inhalation will happen naturally in between). Try doing this 20 to 30 times, and then come back to normal breathing. If you feel light-headed or agitated at all, stop there and focus on deep breathing. If you feel well you can try another round, increasing the number of breaths per round over time from 20 or 30 to 50 or 60. If you are pregnant or have any severe stomach issues it is best to avoid this practice. Instead you may practice slow deep breathing, relaxing the belly as you inhale and gently contracting as you exhale.
As we work with our thoughts, empowering questions can be very useful. When you find yourself stuck in fear or worry, ask yourself:
1. What is the worst thing that could happen here?
2. What is the best thing that could happen here?
3. What can I actually control?
4. What is out of my control?
5. How do I want to be and feel in this situation?
6. How can I work in this situation for the highest outcome/to bring benefit to others?
Answering these questions will help us align with the healthiest version of our Manipura chakra grounded in personal confidence, positive expectation and magnanimity.
Finally, this meditation can be especially helpful for balancing the third chakra. Begin by following the flow of breath in and out of the solar plexus for 2–3 minutes. Then imagine a small fire in the center of your solar plexus. Bring to mind a mildly fearful or worried thought that you frequently have, such as, “What will they think of me?”. Imagine throwing the thought into the fire and watching the flame grow brighter within you. When you notice the need or desire to control arising, do the same. Then revisit the answers from the questions you asked yourself prior to the meditation. Perhaps you now have more clarity or more powerful answers.
As you work with Manipura chakra in these ways you may begin to feel a greater sense of ease. You may become more comfortable with your own power. You may even discover that the greatest use of your power is show up for your own life fully and completely, to create the intention to live in service of the highest good. And, like Gandhi, to believe that with faith and determination we can change the world for the better.
Elizabeth Flint is a yoga and meditation teacher in New York City and author of “Total Transformation: Seven Sacred Steps to Freedom.”