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The Real Truth about the Chakras

By Christopher Wallis on Saturday February 13th, 2016

The real truth about chakras

Does the modern chakra system actually have ancient roots?

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 six 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 cakras (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).

Alt text hereThe rainbow color-scheme, however, has a late 20th-century Californian origin

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?

Alt text hereExample of a five-chakra system for deity-yoga

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.

Alt text hereThe chakra system as found on modern websites does not appear in traditional Sanskrit sources

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 correspond to each chakra. (I should note that Judith does feature information from an original Sanskrit source [that is, the Ṣhat-cakra-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?

Alt text hereHow long has the seven chakra system actually been in use?

4. The seven-chakra system popular today derives not from a 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 postscriptural 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.

More important, however, is the fact that the tradition itself regards scriptural texts as infallible and human authors as fallible, so it’s ironic that modern yogis functionally treat Pūrṇānanda’s 7-chakra system as divinely revealed. Personally, I’m not sure that anything written in words can be considered infallible, but if you want to revere a yogic teaching as divinely revealed, it makes more sense to do it with a text that actually claims to be such — like the original Tantrik scriptures (composed prior to 1300).

Alt text hereJohn Woodroffe, author of the 1918 translation of Pūrṇānanda’s 16th-century work

Of course, Pūrṇānanda does base his work on earlier, scriptural sources — but that doesn’t mean that he perfectly understood them (see point #6 below). In summary, then, the seven-chakra system that you know is based on a flawed translation of a nonscriptural source. This by no means invalidates it, just problematizes its hegemony.

Note that Tantric Buddhism (e.g., of Tibet) often preserves older forms, and indeed the five-chakra system is dominant in that tradition (as well as the fundamental three-bindu system). For a typical five-chakra system as found in classical Tantra, see page 387 of my book, Tantra Illuminated.

5. The purpose of a chakra system is to function as a template for nyāsa

As far as the original authors were concerned, the main purpose of any chakra system was to function as a template for nyāsa, which means the installation of mantras and deity-energies at specific points of the subtle body. So, though millions of people are fascinated with the chakras today, almost none of them are using them for their intended purpose. That’s okay. Again, I’m not here to make anyone wrong, just to educate the folks who are interested.

The most outstanding features of the chakra systems in the original sources are these two: 1) that the mystical sounds of the Sanskrit alphabet are distributed across the ‘petals’ of all the chakras in the system, and 2) that each chakra is associated with a specific Hindu deity. This is because the chakra system is, as I said, primarily a template for nyāsa. In nyāsa, you visualize a specific mantric syllable in a specific location in a specific chakra in your energy body while silently intoning its sound.

Alt text hereMantric syllables for the heart chakra

Clearly, this practice is embedded in a culturally-specific context in which the sounds of the Sanskrit language are seen as uniquely powerful vibrations that can form an effective part of a mystical practice that brings about spiritual liberation or worldly benefits through magical means. Invoking the image and energy of a specific deity into a specific chakra is also culturally-specific, though if Western yogis come to understand what those deities stand for, the practice could potentially be meaningful for them as well, though probably never as meaningful as for someone who grew up with those deities as paradigmatic icons emblazoned on their subconscious minds.

6. The seed-mantras that you think go with the chakras actually go with the elements that happen to be installed in those chakras

This is simpler than it sounds. You’ve been told that the seed-mantra (bīja or single-syllable mantra) of the mūlādhāra chakra is LAM. It’s not. Not in any Sanskrit source, not even Pūrṇānanda’s somewhat garbled syncretic account. And the mantra of svādhiṣṭhāna chakra is not VAM. Wait, what? It’s simple: LAM (rhymes with ‘thumb’) is the seed-mantra of the Earth element, which in most chakra visualization practices is installed in the mūlādhāra. VAM is the seed-mantra of the water element, which is installed in svādhiṣṭhāna (at least, in the seven-chakra system you know about). And so on: RAM is the syllable for Fire, YAM for Wind, and HAM for Space. (All these bījas rhyme with ‘thumb’; though I should note in passing that in esoteric Tantrik Yoga, the elemental bījas actually have different vowel sounds which are thought to be much more powerful.)

Alt text hereThe seed-mantras commonly associated with the first five chakras are actually associated with the Elements

So the main point is that the fundamental mantras associated with the first five chakras on every website you can Google actually do not belong to those chakras, but rather to the five elements installed in them. This is important to know if you ever want to install one of those elements in a different place. ‘Gasp! I can do that?’ Totally. What do you think might be the effect on your relationships of always installing the Wind element in the heart center? (Remember, YAM is the mantra of Air/Wind, not of the anāhata chakra.)

D’you ever notice that modern American yogis have really unstable relationships? Could that be connected to repeatedly invoking Wind on the level of the heart? Nahhh….. (I can be funny now because only a small percentage of my readers have made it down this far.) So maybe you want to install some Earth in the heart sometime, cuz grounding is good for your heart. In that case, it’s kinda handy to know that LAM is the Earth element mantra, not the mūlādhāra-chakra mantra. (Note that, traditionally, though the elements can be installed in different places in the body, they can’t change their set sequence. That is, they can telescope up or down depending on the given practice, but Earth is always lowest, then Water, etc.)

Furthermore, some of the geometric figures associated with the chakras today also properly belong to the Elements. Earth is traditionally represented by a (yellow) square, Water by a (silvery) crescent, Fire by a downward-pointing (red) triangle, Wind by a hexagram or six-pointed star, and Space by a circle. So when you see those figures inscribed in illustrations of the chakras, know that they actually are representations of those Elements, not of a geometry inherent in the chakra itself.

Alt text hereGeometric figures have more to do with elements contained within the chakras

Being open to the real truth about chakras

This is still mostly uncharted territory. So when it comes to the chakras, don’t claim you know. Tell your yoga students that every book on the chakras presents only one possible model. Nothing written in English is really authoritative for practitioners of yoga. So why not hold more gently the beliefs you’ve acquired about yoga, even while you keep learning? Let’s admit we really don’t understand these ancient yoga practices yet; and instead of seeking to be an authority on some oversimplified version of them, you can invite yourself and your students to look more clearly, more honestly, more carefully, and more non-judgmentally at their own inner experience.

After all, everything that every yoga master ever experienced is in you, too.
This post is an excerpt from Tantrik Studies. You can read the full article here.

How do you feel about this article? Join the conversation.

 

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13 Responses to The Real Truth about the Chakras

  1. So much information is available on CHAKRAS that its confusing and this article has added to the confusion. Everybody is going by what they read and interpreted. Most important is to figure out why these Chakras or the Energy Centers exist.
    They exist because we are energy bodies representing the activity of our organs and glands, hence in 7 major Chakra system 6 of them are represented in the Torso and head because thats where we have all our major organs and glands. The seventh one the Crown Chakra is depicted a little above the head as its our connection to the source or higher self. If people are talking or visualizing more and less they are all correct, since we call others as minor Chakras.
    Our mental and emotional state do affect the Chakra energy and affect our health.
    Most of the Yoga Exercises were devised to balance Mind Body & the spirit leading to Chakra balancing. a simple breathing exercise like Anulom-Vilom (alernate Nostrils Breathing) can balance your Sacral and Solar plexus Chakra and regulate your bodys bio chemistry.
    Even Hindu deities and spiritual practices are associated with Chakras. Read more about it in our book- JOURNEY THROUGH CHAKRAS

  2. So all theories aside, what do you actually experience within your body? That is the truth I think. When breathing for instance; how does one experience the energy flow and what is the consciousness-content of this flow? Experience the energy bodies and you know your energy system without using a theoretic system from some book. Theoretic knowledge can help but it can also hinder.

  3. Hello, Thank you very much for this article, that goes beyond all the new age chakra discourse – I will be a little judgmental in expressing my opinion here- that you find everywhere, from leaflets to books to workshops “open and balance your chakras”; personnally I have always looked at these affirmations concerning the chakras perplexically. I practice yoga since 1999, teach it very modestly since 2006 -a few classes a week- ,but with much freedom and coherence with what I feel or experience, not being yoga my main career. My experience in practicing asanas, meditation, pranayama has never let me feel anything like an energy vortex or center in my body. No tingling sensations in mulhadara or anahata. So I have been very cautious into talking others, specially my students about the chakras. The insight you bring in are very interesting for me, I will read the whole article again and take notes, and the idea of bringing elements into certain areas od the body could be used nicely when creating balancing asanas practice.

  4. Hello Christopher. I would like to thank you and congratulate for sharing really good content about such a complex (and often non relevant, or worse, misconceived) subject. I always look for serious resources on Chakras to support somehow my practices. At the same time, I agree with other comments here, the practice is a moment that goes beyond any theory, be it traditional or modern. I studied in India, in Kaivalyadhama, and since than I have the reference of Ṣhaṭ-chakra-nirūpaṇa for this subject. And this, is the first time I read something on internet that mention it and doesn’t give just the common presentation of 7 rainbow chakras, with its common associations. Once again, thank you, for your work is a seva for sadhakas like me. I am surely looking for more content from you.

  5. It’s a pitty you left out the part where you explain which deity is associated with each chakra, because I did grow up with those deities and I do know what they stand for. I practice nyasa, apparently. It was just something I did and it felt right, not knowing exactly what I was doing or how it was called. But now I know. Thanks for sharing and thanks for the link to the original article. There I found what I was looking for.

  6. “(I can be funny now because only a small percentage of my readers have made it down this far.)” with this you made my day!
    Now seriously, I really appreciate your effort and your time spent to reveal the truth and remove the veil of the illusion around this topic. I found all the information very interesting and I will implement this into my personal practice and also share it with my colleagues and students.
    Thank you very much <3

  7. I feel wonderfully vindicated by reading this article. Some of the energy points like hands and feet, are missing from the seven. When I studied both Usui and Karuna styles of reiki, I was taught to work with these seven holy energy centres. My experience was of the patient’s pain body and how it was One energy. Even for people who had no complaints, but wanted to experience a healing or relaxation, a “massage of the soul”, my experience was of One energy body. Kudos!

  8. …..So! We get started right in the first paragraph. While this author may know a lot about Tantra and Yoga, he seems not to know anything about the Golden Dawn, or the Scientific Method. In the first paragraph he says that “the West 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”. Well, first off, I don’t handle ‘supposed to’ very well. The Golden Dawn did go through the metaphysical traditions of the world, taking the parts that worked for them, and associating them in a system of correspondence, all of which is the Scientific Method applied to mysticism. If we take each part from a Golden Dawn Sephiroth of the Tree of Life figure, and put it into its original context, we’re back to having 7- or 8-year apprenticeships just to start being able to converse in these subjects, much less do any works.

    …..Tantrik Yoga builds on an intensely cultural system developed in its past, and is not just dealing with the energy-body as is, but learning to re-program your energy-body to have the results you want to have in life. So of course there are a whole bunch of possibilities and differing traditions!!

    The author saying he knows what we are thinking “But which one is right?”

    Except that I am not thinking that, I am not a One True Way-believer, I don’t even really care that any of them are right, I am not a Yogi, I’m not trying to reprogram reality using that system.

    He says that “the chakras aren’t like organs in the physical body…” So he goes from saying that there were a bunch of systems and no-one knows if any of them are ‘right’, to ‘the right way to believe is that chakras aren’t like physical organs’. Sorry, can’t have it both ways.

    “The chakra systems are prescriptive, not descriptive.” Maybe in the original, maybe for Yogis. For those of us using them in different ways than energy-body reprogramming, we have to have a foundation to start with. Imagine being taught a card-game where the card-values changed every 1d6 minutes. How long woould it take you to learn it?

    “The psychological states associated with the chakras are completely modern and western.”

    Finally, something I agree with!! Those never really worked for me. I could cleanse and energize my root-chakra day and night for a week, and still not be any better at or more connected-to survival issues. I think this is a wolrd-reprogramming hold-over.

    Goes on to discuss “Wheels of Life” and the correspondences, which had no basis in India or Yoga. Right. Golden Dawn, system of correspondence.

    “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?”

    Now that’s just insulting! I never taught where my practice comes from or how long it has been in existence, so why are you assuming that every mystic teacher does things that way?

    Talks about history and where the 7-chakra system comes from. Doesn’t mention Reiki once.

    ‘The seed-mantras are actually about elements associated w chakras, not directly w chakras.’

    Again, I agree!! I have tried a variety of chants, and never gotten any energetic responses from my chakras.

    “This is still mostly uncharted territory. So when it comes to the chakras, don’t claim you know.”

    I don’t. I claim: “this is what I am teaching.” I have to start somewhere. Speaks as if chakra-usage is only about Yoga. Limited perspective.

  9. This was really interesting and developed research. I appreciate it. I do want to say that, when talking of the 7chakras linked to the 15th century instead of earlier, you act as if that alone dismisses their importance. Then in the last paragraph, you say we still have much to learn. What I am pointing out is that in life there are always more findings and more knowledge attained as life progresses. Look at science. I feel it is definitely bias and going against the pursuit of knowledge to act like something attained in the fifteenth is less than other findings obtained earlier. We all have our paths to explore and perhaps that knowledge was his to bring out. Also what if someone, say you finds a level of spirit that you obtain and you gain knowledge of some element. Would yours be less true or important bc it’s modern? I don’t believe so and I hope you don’t think the possibility is not out there. I mean no offense in this I just think we need to be open to all possible learnings and teachings. Thanks

  10. I have always been thinking the same thing about chakras : they are a late comer to say the least in Indian tradition. My opinion is that they don’t exist, or at least that they don’t exist the way people think they do, that is to say as organs of an alleged subtle body. I am not even condemning the people who use that concept to do yoga, all I ask of them is to make a less flatulent show of their lore. My opinion, as a student of Sanskrit (by the way, not the most ancient language of the Indo-European world, nor the most perfect at all, though for sure the most perfected of all classical languages, as the very name of the language indicates : more a kind of better-devised Esperanto that has succeeded than a real sacred language) is that people like Patanjali, the originator of yoga literature (I won’t say of yoga) had no need for such a concept as chakras as invisible turning wheels or opening flowers along the human body. The word comes only once under Patanjali’s pen, in the compound “nabhi-chakra” (generally rendered as solar plexus or navel chakra by yoga textbooks) saying that concentrating and meditating upon that thing is the way to achieve control over one’s bodily functions, and lo all new age esotericists see one proof their lore is eternal without attempting any other search : you manage to visualize a flower while you gaze upon your navel day after day and you get supernatural knowledge of the functioning of all your organs. That was not the meaning intended by Patanjali if you do an accurate and thoughtful Sanskrit version in the same way classical languages used to be studied. Chakra-nabhi more prosaically means the centre of a circle or the axis of a wheel. Therefore nabhi-chakra, as a logical consequence by the rules of Sanskrit semantics governing compounds, means the axis of circular kinetic momentum. What Patanjali told about was concentrating on one’s axis of kinetic equilibrium while dancing and practicing martial arts so as to really learn about the control of your own body, as the practitioners of Japanese martial arts teach, because the author besides being a yogi happened also, contrary to his modern counterparts who are generally full time gurus, to be an expert dancer and ring fighter. Nothing to do with anything esoteric : you know around which axes your body turns when you practice sport, you know your points and axes of balance and you become a perfect athlete : it happens that the main centre of gravity is about the lower belly but that has nothing to do with any invisible organ there. But that detail may suggest why India which used to be a scientific superpower ended up being a more and more impoverished colony of so many empires after it got entranced by quite a few new-age-like fads from the late Middle Ages onwards, which made them conclude that magic was superior to science. My opinion is that human bodies and souls have no chakras, period. If you want to show me where my chakras are and what harm I may experience if I don’t care for them, check for the rainbow I am seeing now, and go there where the golden stripe touches ground to fetch the pot o’ gold. There is no pot o’ gold because the rainbow exists only in the beholder’s eye so that the position where it touches ground varies depending on where the beholder is : no matter how hard you pursue it with magic boots of otherwise, the distance at which it seems to glow keeps being the same if the rain drops are uniformly falling and lit by the sun at the same angle. Same thing for the chakras : for sure the human body is traversed by waves of all sorts that seem to dispose themselves in patterns at the body resonates, but the patterns that comprise nodes and troughs have nothing to do with the body resonating proper, but only with the mathematical property of waves (about which the yogis generally know nothing about even at high school physics level : in the same way they are interested in astrology and not so much in astronomy, they are interested in magic not in physics) : at some points the energy seems to be more concentrated but you don’t possess that point as a personal property : as soon as the waves are gone as is the normal case the chakras are gone like a rainbow gone with the wind together with the rain and clouds.

  11. i want to learn more about chakra. and i want to open my chakras. i need some guidance on how and what to do.

  12. I love this article I was thinking the same thing. I have more thoughts on it but am still doing more research thank you for such great content.

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