Over the past hundred-plus years, the concept of the chakras, or subtle energy centers within the body, has seized the Western imagination more than virtually any other teaching from the yoga tradition.
Yet, as with most other concepts deriving from Sanskrit sources, the West (barring a handful of scholars) has almost totally failed to come to grips with what the chakras meant in their original context and how one is supposed to practice with them. This post seeks to rectify that situation to some extent.
Here are the 4 most important things you never knew about the chakras:
1. There’s not just one chakra system in the original tradition, there are many
So many! The theory of the subtle body and its energy centers called chakras (or padmas, ādhāras, lakṣyas, etc.) comes from the tradition of Tantrik Yoga, which flourished from 600-1300 CE, and is still alive today. In mature Tantrik Yoga (after the year 900 or so), every one of the many branches of the tradition articulated a different chakra system, and some branches articulated more than one.
Five-chakra systems, six-chakra systems, seven, nine, ten, fifteen, twenty-one, twenty-eight and more chakras are taught, depending on what text you’re looking at. The seven- (or, technically, 6 + 1) chakra system that Western yogis know about is just one of many, and it became dominant around the 16th century (see point #4 below).
Now, I know what you’re thinking—’But which system is right? How many chakras are there really?’
And that brings us to our first major misunderstanding. The chakras aren’t like organs in the physical body; they aren’t fixed facts that we can study like doctors study neural ganglia. The energy body is an extraordinarily fluid reality, as we should expect of anything nonphysical and supersensuous. The energy body can present, experientially speaking, with any number of energy centers, depending on the person and the yogic practice they’re performing.
Having said that, there are a few centers which are found in all systems—specifically, chakras in the lower belly, the heart, and the crown of the head, since these are three places in the body where humans all over the world experience both emotional and spiritual phenomena. But apart from those three, there’s huge variety in the chakra systems we find in the original literature.
One is not more ‘right’ than another, except relative to a specific practice. For example, if you’re doing a five-element practice, you use a five-chakra system (see point #6 below). If you’re internalizing the energy of six different deities, you use a six-chakra system. Duh, right? But this crucial bit of information has not yet reached Western yoga.
We’ve only just started down this rabbit hole, Alice. Wanna learn more?
2. The chakra systems are prescriptive, not descriptive
This might be the most important point. English sources tend to present the chakra system as an existential fact, using descriptive language (like ‘the mūlādhāra chakra is at the base of the spine. it has four petals,’ and so on). But in most of the original Sanskrit sources, we are not being taught about the way things are, we are being given a specific yogic practice: we are to visualize a subtle object made of colored light, shaped like a lotus or a spinning wheel, at a specific point in the body, and then activate mantric syllables in it, for a specific purpose.
When you understand this, point #1 above makes more sense. The texts are prescriptive — they tell what you ought to do to achieve a specific goal by mystical means. When the literal Sanskrit reads, in its elliptical fashion, ‘four-petaled lotus at the base of the body’ we are supposed to understand ‘The yogī ought to visualize a four-petaled lotus…’ See point #5 for more on this.
3. The psychological states associated with the chakras are completely modern and western
On countless websites and in countless books, we read that the mūlādhāra chakra is associated with survival & safety, that maṇipūra chakra is associated with willpower & self-esteem, and so on. The educated yogi should know that all associations of the chakras with psychological states is a modern Western innovation that started with Jung. Perhaps such associations represent experiential realities for some people (though usually not without priming).
We certainly don’t find them in the Sanskrit sources. There’s only one exception I’m aware of, and that is the 10-chakra system for yogi-musicians that I’ve done a blog post on. But in that 13th-century system, we do not find each chakra associated with a specific emotion or psychological state; rather, each petal of each lotus-chakra is associated with a distinct emotion or state, and there seems to be no pattern by which we could create a label for the chakra as a whole.
But that’s not all. Nearly all the many associations found in popular books like Anodea Judith’s Wheels of Life have no basis in the Indian sources. Each chakra, Judith tells us, is associated with a certain bodily gland, certain bodily malfunctions, certain foods, a certain metal, a mineral, an herb, a planet, a path of yoga, a suit of the tarot, a sephira of Jewish mysticism (!), and an archangel of Christianity (!!).
None of these associations are found in the original sources. Judith or her teachers created them based on perceived similarities. That goes also for the essential oils and crystals that other books and websites claim to correspond to each chakra. (I should note that Judith does feature information from an original Sanskrit source [that is, the Ṣhat-chakra–nirūpaṇa, see below] under the label ‘Lotus Symbols’ for each chakra. I should also note that Anodea is a really lovely person whose work has benefited many. This isn’t personal.)
This is not to say that putting a certain kind of crystal on your belly when you’re having self-esteem issues and imagining it purifying your maṇipūra chakra might not help you feel better. Maybe it will, depending on the person. While this practice is certainly not traditional and has not been tested over generations (which is the whole point of tradition, really), god knows there’s more on heaven and earth than is dreamt of in my rational brain.
But, in my view, people should know when the pedigree of a practice is a few decades, not centuries. If a practice has value, then you don’t need to falsify its provenance, right?
4. The seven-chakra system popular today derives not from scripture, but from a treatise written in 1577
The chakra system Western yogis follow is that found in a Sanskrit text written by a guy named Pūrṇānanda Yati. He completed his text (the Ṣhaṭ-chakra-nirūpaṇa or ‘Explanation of the six chakras’, actually chapter six of a larger work) in the year 1577.
In an earlier version of this post, I called the 7-chakra system ‘late and somewhat atypical’. But after a few days, I realized that I was mistaken—a simpler version of the same 7-chakra system is found in a 13th-century post scriptural text called the Śāradā-tilaka (‘Sarasvatī’s Ornament’), though that text does plainly acknowledge that there are multiple chakra systems (such as systems of 12 or 16 chakras).
However, most yogis (both Indian and Western) know the 7-chakra system only through Pūrṇānanda’s 16th-century work, or rather, through a relatively incoherent and confusing translation of it, done by John Woodroffe in 1918. Still, the text is important to many lineages in India today. Would it have been without the Woodroffe translation? I doubt it since there are very few people in modern India who read Sanskrit fluently.