The Psychophysiology of The Yogic Chakra System - Part 1

Dr S. M. Roney-Dougal, UK

Over the past few years there has been increasing interest in 'translating' the knowledge of one system into the language of another. For example, 20th century Western scientists, especially physicists, have been comparing quantum mechanics with mystical knowledge as exemplified by Fritjof Capra in The Tao of Physics.*1 This same process has been occurring in psychology with Charles Tart's Transpersonal Psychologies*3 and Paranjpe's Theoretical Psychology*3, both examining Eastern philosophies and religions from a Western psychological standpoint. Much of this translation has, of necessity, been in very general terms, since we have to clarify the overall picture first. By chance, I seem to be involved in this process from a rather different perspective. I have been researching a specific topic, the pineal gland, which seems to be generalising to a whole system, the chakras, I must stress that what follows is in an early speculative and exploratory stage as I have been gathering together the information for only ten years and neurochemistry is such a complex science.

The yogic chakra system

The yogic chakra system as explained by Swami Satyananda*4, consists of seven chakras which are normally depicted as a sort of 'spinal column' with three channels which interweave, the crossing points at the sites of the chakras. The root chakra (Mooladhara) is situated at the tip end of the tail bone in the perineum and is linked with certain aspects of the urino-genital system. The second chakra (Swadhisthana) is sited at the root of the spinal cord which is just below the small of the back, and is linked with other aspects of the genital system. The third chakra (Manipura) is sited behind the navel and is linked with the solar plexus. The fourth chakra (Anahata) is sited behind the heart and is linked with the cardiac plexus. The fifth chakra (Vishuddhi) is sited in the neck and is linked with the throat. The sixth chakra (Ajna) is sited in the pineal gland and is considered to be the 'command' chakra; and the seventh chakra (Sahasrara) is the crown chakra at the crown of the head. These chakras are considered to be important points for the channelling of consciousness, energy nodes linking the physical with the spiritual. They have been adopted quite widely into popular usage in the West, partly through the Theosophists, partly because of their obvious correspondence with the Tree of Life, and partly because of the intense interest in Eastern spirituality which has arisen since the sixties.

Pineal gland: Ajna chakra

As a para-psychologtst I am naturally very interested in the lore surrounding Ajna chakra which is held to be the centre of psychic activity. This corresponds very closely with out Western lore which considers the pineal gland to be the, 'third eye' or the 'seat of second sight'. Satyananda*5 states that: "The name ajna comes from the root 'to know and to obey and to follow'. " Literally the word ajna means 'command'-Yogis, who are scientists of the subtle mind, have spoken of telepathy as a 'siddhi', a psychic power for thought-communication and clairaudience.

The medium of such siddhis is Ajna chakra, and its physical terminus is the pineal gland." I have found that his concept of the pineal gland as the psychic chakra and as the 'command' chakra has a sound neurochemical basis.

The pineal gland is a strange little gland in that it is situated in the centre of the brain and yet it is outside the blood-brain barrier, so it is not part of the brain! Its main function is to make hormones which affect the brain and the endocrine glands. Melatonin is the best studied of these and is implicated in a wide range of functions. Most people have heard of the pituitary gland, which is often known as the 'master gland' in that the hormones it makes exert a controlling effect on many other systems. We can think of the pituitary as being an 'on switch' and the pineal as being an 'off switch' in that it works with the pituitary in keeping the body running.*1

The most important function of the pineal gland is maintaining the biological clock, on a daily basis according to the sun, on an annual basis according to length of day, and in women on a lunar bask as well, (a) This is achieved principally through the actions of two chemicals catted serotonin and melatonin.*3 Serotonin is made during the day and melatonin at night. Serotonin is a very important neurotransmitter in the brain and its action has been linked with mental states Such as psychosis, and also with psychedelics. Melatonin is linked with sleep and possibly also with dreams. Its main site of action appears to be the hypothalamus, which is that part of the brain involved in mediating the effects of various hormones to keep the body and our emotions running harmoniously.*8 I have discovered, however, that the pineal gland also makes another chemical known as a beta-carboline, and beta-carbolines are hallucinogenic if taken in sufficient quantities.*8,*9

These beta-carbolines are found mainly in the pineal gland and it is speculated that they are the chemical trigger for our dreams. However, they are also found in the retina of the eyes, in the adrenal glands and in the gut. An important fact about these beta-carbolines is that they are structurally very similar to a chemical called harmaline extracted from a vine used by shamans and elders in Amazonian Indian tribes specifically for psychic purposes. The Amazon has a huge variety of psychotropic plants, yet all the tribes throughout the vast area use this same vine for heating, clairvoyance and divination.*10,*11,*12

In the 1960's a Chilean psychotherapist, Claudio Naranjo, used a variety of hallucinogens including harmaline in the psychotherapeutic setting and came to the conclusion that: "Harmaline may be said to be more hallucinogenic than mescaline... both in terms of images reported and their realistic quality. In fact, some subjects felt that certain scenes which they saw had really happened and that they had been as disembodied witnesses of them in a different time and place. This matches the experience of South American shamans." There is extensive evidence from many anthropologists which suggests that this vine is a psi-conducive drug. Thus, the anthropological evidence suggests that harmaline stimulates psychic ability; the neurochemical evidence suggests that harmaline is an analogue of a beta-carboline which is produced in the pineal gland. The Yogic and occult teachings and common folk lore all say that the pineal gland is the psychic centre.

The thyroid gland: Vishuddhi chakra

According to Satyananda, the Vishuddhi chakra is located in the throat and is the centre of the nectar of immortality. It is connected with the sense of hearing and thus with the ears, and of course with the vocal cords and with self-expression.

Neurochemically, the thyroid is under the inhibitory control of the pineal gland, so that removal of the pineal results in thyroid enlargement and increased hormonal secretion rate.*13 The thyroid takes up more iodine than any other part of the body and the pineal takes up the second largest quantity of iodine.*14 Synthetic melatonin has the effect of inhibiting iodine uptake and the secretion of thyroid hormones, and given at the correct times, can produce the daily and annual light-dark cycles, or circadian rhythms, since iodine uptake naturally decreases during the night. Thus, evening injections of melatonin are more effective than morning ones, showing that the time of day when hormone supplementation is given is a significant factor. The effect of synthetic melatonin on the secretion of thyroid hormones decreases after puberty.

Experimental evidence indicates that the pineal is under feedback control by the glands which it influences. Pineal cells respond to thyroxine, which is one of the hormones made by the thyroid, the response being particularly strong at night, showing the influence of the circadian rhythm once again.

The thyroid regulates the metabolic rate via thyroxine, which means that it controls how fast the body runs. Thus an overactive thyroid means that the heart beats fast, one becomes thin, sexual desire increases, the mind works overtime; whilst an underactive thyroid has the opposite effect. Thyrotrophin, a thyroid regulator made by the pituitary, together with melatonin is involved in coping with long-term stress.

Stress is intimately connected with metabolic rate, heart rate, an overactive mind and also with age, as an older person cannot cope with stress as well as a younger person. Long-term stress is very different from short-term stress (which is dealt with by the adrenals), and it is interesting that Ajna, Vishuddhi and Manipura are all concerned with stress, which also affects the heart. Relaxation is the first step in meditation: slowing down, letting go, releasing the stress, stilling the endless internal chatter (the beta-rhythm mental chatter) which is one of the worst aspects of long-term stress. These are all the negative aspects of Vishuddhi and we learn through meditation to overcome these aspects and so to become peaceful, still, calm, and to live to a ripe old age. To me this is merely another way of saying that the thyroid is connected with immortality because, as exemplified so well by the Chinese symbol of immortality, the tortoise, the slower you go, the longer you live. The yogis say that it is perfectly possible to regulate the functioning of the endocrine system, thus learning how to control ones metabolic rate.

The heart centre: Anahata chakra

According to Satyananda, the Anahata chakra is concerned with will, feeling, touch and the skin, especially of the hands, all manifesting in arts such as painting, poetry and music, which, he says, are all aspects of heart energy. He also states: 'In the present age, at this moment, we, the people of this world, are passing through a phase of Anahata chakra. This means that this chakra is beginning to awaken in us, whether we are working on it or not. Anahata chakra is the lowest of the three non-earthly or spiritual chakras - Anahata, Vishuddhi and Ajna.' (For a discussion of the Heart chakra see Lilla Bek: The Heart of the Matter, by Robert Holden in Caduceus issue 4, page 22).

For me, the feeding of a new born baby is the essence of the meaning of the heart chakra, the nurturing, giving, loving element. Such blessed joy to love, to give, to care, to share with others - that wonderful soaring emotion of the heart. Prana, the breath of life, is love. When the heart centre is open then you can do no harm to others anymore, because love is the basis of all your actions. It is very important at this time to learn to love yourself, because then you no longer feel depressed and negative, and, because you love yourself you love the earth and all upon her. So, the negativity of the three lowest chakras can be fully transmuted.

Some have suggested that the endocrine gland connected with this heart energy is the thymus, but what I have noticed in my research is that the pineal is linked with a hormone called prolactin which is connected with pregnancy, the mammary gland and the mother's production of milk. Most of the research with prolactin has been with animals. All ruminants show a marked seasonal fluctuation in plasma prolactin concentration, high in summer and low in winter, this fluctuation being controlled by the pineal gland even though prolactin is made by the pituitary. Prolactin secretion is also controlled by the ovarian steroids, its level being modified by the fluctuating oestradiol levels, which in women is a lunar cycle. So if you have tender breasts once a month this is possibly the reason why.

The inhibition of prolactin secretion in ruminants inhibits implantation of the blastocyst during the winter, so that the foetus does not implant into the womb until spring time, even though mating and fertilisation occurred in autumn.

Thus, from my own observation, heart energy-love, fluctuates with the seasons and is intimately linked with our sexuality, not just in terms of actual lovemaking, but more particularly in relation to the lunar menstrual cycle and to pregnancy. I know that during my pregnancy, after the sixth month I became more soft, open and flowing with pure heart energy.

Most of the above-mentioned connections are more related to melatonin than to the beta-carbolines, since melatonin inhibits prolactin secretion. However, the finding that pineal beta-carboline increases plasma production levels may support the hypothesis that this chemical acts as a psychic agent in our system.*8

Prolactin appears to be made in men as well, but I have not yet discovered its function, although it is linked both with puberty and the circadian system. Hormones act not only at the physical level, but also at emotional and psychological levels, and if their physical actions appear irrelevant, perhaps we should explore the psycho and neurological aspects further.