Does the modern chakra system really have ancient roots? Over the past hundred years, the concept of chakras, or centers of subtle energy in the body, has captured the Western imagination more than virtually any other teaching in the yoga tradition.
Yet, as with most other concepts derived from Sanskrit sources, the West (with the exception of a handful of scholars) has almost completely failed to understand what the chakras meant in their original context and how you supposed to practice with them. This article seeks to rectify this situation to some extent.
1. The original tradition doesn’t have just one chakra system, it has way more than one:
A lot. 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 to 1300 CE, and is still alive today. In mature Tantrik Yoga (after about 900), each of the many branches of tradition articulated a different chakra system, and certain branches articulated more than one.
Five-chakra systems, six-chakra systems, seven, nine, ten, fifteen, twenty-one, twenty-eight chakras, and more are taught, depending on the text you are looking at. The seven (or, technically, 6 + 1) chakra system that Western yogis know is only one of many, and it became dominant around the 16th century (see number 4 below).
Now I know what you’re thinking: “But which system is the right one?” How many chakras are there really?”. And that brings us to our first major misconception. The chakras are not like organs in the physical body; these are not fixed facts that we can study as doctors study neural ganglia.
The energetic body is an extraordinarily fluid reality, as we should expect anything that is not physical and supersensitive. The energetic body can present itself, by experience, with a certain number of energetic centers, according to the person and the yogic practice which they practice.
That said, there are a few centers that are found in all systems, especially the lower abdomen, heart, and crown chakras, as these are three places in the body where humans all over the world experience both emotional and spiritual phenomena. But apart from these three, there is a wide variety of chakra systems that we find in the original literature.
One is no more “right” than another, except in relation to a specific practice. For example, if you practice five elements, you use a system with five chakras (see number 6 below). If you internalize the energy of six different deities, you are using a six chakra system. Duh, right? But this crucial information has not yet reached Western yoga. We have just started down this rabbit hole, Alice. Want to know more?
2. Chakra systems are not descriptive, they are prescriptive:
This could be the most important point. English sources tend to present the chakra system as an existential fact, using descriptive language (like “the chakra mūlādhāra is at the base of the spine. It has four petals”, etc.).
But in most of the original Sanskrit sources, we are not taught how things are, we are given a specific yogic practice: we have to visualize a subtle object made of colored light, in the shape of a lotus or a spinning wheel, at a specific point in the body, then activate mantric syllables there, for a specific purpose.
When you understand this, number 1 above makes more sense. Texts are prescriptive, they say what you need to do to achieve a specific goal by mystical means. When the literal Sanskrit reads, in its elliptical manner, “four-petalled lotus at the base of the body,” we are supposed to understand “The yogi should visualize a four-petal lotus …”. See number 5 for more.
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 and security, that the maṇipūra chakra is associated with willpower and self-esteem, etc. The educated yogi should know that all of the associations of chakras with psychological states are a modern Western innovation that began with Jung. Such associations may represent experiential realities for some people (although generally not without priming).
We certainly do not find them in Sanskrit sources. But that’s not all. Almost all of the many associations found in popular books like Anodea Judith’s Wheels of Life have no basis in Indian sources. Each chakra, Judith tells us, is associated with a certain body gland, certain bodily dysfunctions, certain foods, a certain metal, a mineral, an herb, a planet, a yoga path, 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 on the basis of perceived similarities. This also applies to the essential oils and crystals that other books and websites claim to match each chakra. (I should note that Judith contains information from an original Sanskrit source [ie Ṣhat-chakra – nirūpaṇa, see below] under the label “Lotus Symbols” for each chakra. (I also note that Anodea Judith is a really lovely person whose work has benefited many. It is not personal.)
This is not to say that putting a certain type of crystal on your stomach when you have self-esteem issues and imagining it purifying your maṇipūra chakra might not help you feel better. Maybe, depending on the person. Although this practice is certainly not traditional and has not been tested over the generations (which is really the point of the tradition), God knows that there is more on heaven and earth than what my rational brain thinks.
But, in my opinion, people should know when the pedigree of a practice is a few decades, not centuries. If a practice has value, you don’t need to falsify its provenance, right?
4. The 7 Chakra system of today derives from a treatise written in 1577, not from scripture:
The chakra system that 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”, in fact, chapter six of a larger work) in 1577.
A simpler version of the same 7-chakra system is found in a 13th-century post-scripture text called centuryāradā-tilaka (‘Sarasvati’s ornament’), although this text makes it clear that there are several chakra systems (such as systems of 12 or 16 chakras).
However, most yogis (Indian and Western) only know the 7 chakra system through the 16th-century work of Pūrthānanda, or rather, through a relatively inconsistent and confusing translation made by John Woodroffe in 1918. Yet the text is important to many lineages in India today. Would it have been without the Woodroffe translation? I doubt it because there are very few people in modern India who read Sanskrit fluently.
More importantly, however, is the fact that tradition itself considers scriptural texts to be infallible and human authors to be fallible, so it is ironic that modern yogis functionally treat the Pūrṇānanda 7-chakra system as divinely revealed.
Personally, I’m not sure that everything written with words can be considered infallible, but if you want to worship yogic teaching as divinely revealed, it makes more sense to do it with text that claims to be such, like the original Tantrik Scriptures (composed before 1300).
Of course, Pūrṇānanda bases his work on earlier scriptural sources but that does not mean that he understood them perfectly (see number 6 below). In summary, the seven chakra system that you know is based on an incorrect translation from a nonscriptural source. This does not invalidate it, only problematizes its hegemony.
Note that Tantric Buddhism (for example from Tibet) often preserves older forms, and indeed the five chakra system is dominant in this tradition (as well as the basic three Bindu system).
5. A chakra system’s purpose is to function as a template for nyāsa:
As far as the original authors are concerned, the main objective of any chakra system was to function as a model for nyāsa, which means installing mantras and energies of divinity at specific points in the subtle body.
So while millions of people are fascinated by chakras today, almost none use them for their intended purpose. It’s fine. Again, I’m not here to harm someone, just to educate people who are interested. The most remarkable features of the chakra systems in the original sources are both:
1) that the mystical sounds of the Sanskrit alphabet are distributed across the “petals” of all the chakras of the system, and
2) that each chakra is associated with a specific Hindu deity. This is because the chakra system is, as I said, mainly a model for nyāsa. In nyāsa, you visualize a specific mantric syllable at a specific place in a specific chakra in your energetic body while silently intoning its sound.
Obviously, this practice is rooted in a culturally specific context in which the sounds of the Sanskrit language are viewed as unique powerful vibrations that can form an effective part of a mystical practice that brings about spiritual liberation or material benefits through magic means.
Invoking the image and energy of a specific deity in a specific chakra is also culturally specific, although if Western yogis can understand what these deities represent, the practice could potentially make sense for them as well, but probably never more meaningful than for someone who grew up with these deities as paradigmatic icons on their subconscious mind.
6. The seed-mantras that you think go with the chakras actually go with the elements that happen to be installed in these chakras:
It’s simpler than it seems. You have 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 the somewhat muddled syncretic account of Pūrṇānanda. And the mantra of the 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 practices chakra visualizations is installed in the mūlādhāra.
VAM is the seed-mantra of the water element, which is installed in svādhiṣṭhāna (the seven chakra system that you know). And so on: RAM is the syllable for Fire, YAM for Wind, and HAM for Space. (All of these bījas rhyme with “thumb”; although I should note in passing that in esoteric Tantrik Yoga, elementary bījas actually have different vowel sounds which are considered to be much more powerful.)
So the main point is that the fundamental mantras associated with the first five chakras on each website, you can use Google too, do not belong to these chakras, but rather to the five elements that are installed in them.
It is important to know if you want to install one of these elements in a different location. ‘Can I do that? “Totally. What do you think could be the effect on your relationships of always placing the Wind element in the heart center? (Remember, YAM is the mantra of Air/Wind, not of the anāhata chakra.)
Have you ever noticed that modern American yogis have really unstable relationships? Could this be related to the repeated invocation of the Wind at the level of the heart? Nahhh… .. (I can be funny now because only a small percentage of my readers have made it this far.)
So maybe you want to install Earth in the heart someday, grounding is good for your heart. In this case, it is a little practical to know that LAM is the Earth element mantra, not the mūlādhāra-chakra mantra. (Note that, traditionally, although the elements can be installed in different places of the body, they cannot change their defined sequence. In other words, they can telescope up or down according to the given practice, but the Earth is always the lowest, etc.)
In addition, some of the geometric figures associated with chakras today also properly belong to the Elements. Earth is traditionally represented by a square (yellow), Water by a crescent (silvery), Fire by a triangle pointing downwards (red), Wind by a hexagram or a six-pointed star, and the Space by a circle. So, when you see these figures inscribed in the illustrations of the chakras, know that they are in reality representations of these elements, and not of a geometry inherent in the chakra itself.
Being open to the real truth about chakras:
It is still mainly an unexplored territory. So, when it comes to chakras, don’t pretend that you know. Tell your yoga students that each chakra book has only one possible model. Nothing written in English is really authoritative for yoga practitioners.
So why not hold more gently your beliefs about yoga, even as you continue to learn? Let’s admit that we really don’t yet understand these ancient yoga practices; and instead of seeking to be an authority on some simplified version, you can invite yourself and your students to look more clearly, more honestly, more attentively and without judging their own inner experience. After all, everything that every yoga master has already experienced is in you too.