For her birthday, my daughter received a “magic chakra pendant” which consisted of cheap, dyed crystals glued together to form a rainbow in the shape of a pyramid. Shortly thereafter, she and I were shopping and we saw a set of seven “chakra teas” in a rainbow of boxes. She asked me, “What does chakra mean?” I sighed. It was like being asked, “What is art?”
A couple years ago, I wrote an article for The Dragontree about the throat chakra and received numerous requests for articles on the other chakras. I have hesitated to oblige for a few reasons. First, interpretations of the word and concept vary quite a lot, even within the various Indian traditions where it’s found. Many of the classical writings about chakras are complicated and arcane. And the idea has been widely co-opted by Westerners, sometimes in thoughtful ways, other times in superficial ways. I felt it would be difficult to do the subject justice in the format of a brief article.
However, I’m realistic about modern attention spans. I know that not many people are interested in reading a scholarly work about chakras. But Westerners have a hunger for spiritual connection, and chakras are interesting and might serve as an opening to deeper exploration and insight. So, I figure, if you’re going to read a mediocre article about chakras it might as well be from someone who has had in interest in them for a few decades and possesses a small library of books about them. Even if I have to oversimplify and modernize the topic, I feel there’s still value in opening the door. So, over the following months, we’ll look at what chakras are and how you can grow and heal through an understanding of this system.
First, what’s a chakra? Chakra or çakra – pronounced “chah-krah,” not “shah-krah” – is a Sanskrit word meaning wheel, disc, or cycle. Chakra philosophy, which comes mainly from the Tantrik texts of India, appears in Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoga, Ayurvedic medicine, Jungian and transpersonal psychology, and more. Chakras are usually defined as energy centers in the body that influence spiritual awakening as well as psychological and physical function. The number and location of chakras varies between traditions, but the prevailing model features six or seven chakras located along the midline of the body, upon or in front of the spine.
The endurance and spread of this system is probably due to the appealing and accessible way in which it describes different states of consciousness and how we’re influenced by this subtle layer of our being. Here are the viewpoints of a few authors:
Sir John Woodroofe, an early translator of Tanrik texts, described the chakras as centers of “Vital Force” (prana) and universal consciousness.1 He (and many others) saw them as instrumental stations that need to be opened in order to arouse the life force/consciousness called kundalini to move through us and awaken us. (Kundalini is just as dense of a topic as chakras, so please pardon my superficial coverage.)
Caroline Myss exposed millions of people to the concept of chakras through her 1996 book, Anatomy of the Spirit. She writes about them as if there’s a historical consensus supporting her interpretations (there isn’t), which is a bit misleading, but I believe her presentation of the chakras offers a lot of value. Here’s her modern psycho-spiritual definition: “The chakra system is an archetypal depiction of individual maturation through seven distinct stages.” She describes a process of ascension through the chakras whereby, “at each stage we gain a more refined understanding of personal and spiritual power, since each chakra represents a spiritual life-lesson or challenge common to all human beings. As a person masters each chakra, he gains power and self-knowledge that become integrated into his spirit, advancing him along the path toward spiritual consciousness in the classic hero’s journey.”2
Harish Johari, in one of the earliest English language books on the subject – aptly named Chakras – defines them as “psychic centers of transformation that enable one to move toward an enlightened state of being.” As for the translation of chakra as wheel, Johari says, “the word chakra indicates movement. Chakras introduce movement because they transform psychophysical energy into spiritual energy.” He explains that variances in the way energy moves through our chakras produce variances in our psychic state and physiology.4
Just to shake things up, let’s look at some contrasting views. Ken Wilber, a prolific scholar on Eastern philosophy, writes: “The being-consciousness-bliss of one’s formless self is distorted and constricted, and under this tyranny [imposed by a separate-self sense] appears in the restricted forms known as the chakras.” Wilber goes on to explain that the chakras are like knots or contractions in our consciousness, and that spiritual liberation is the untying of these knots, or, more accurately, “not the actual untying of these knots, but the silent admission that they are already untied.” The paradox of the chakras, he explains, is that “They are ultimately dissolved in the realization that they need not be dissolved.”
He claims that the chakras aren’t real, “in the sense that they do not pose a barrier to self-realization, nor do they constitute mandatory stages in an upward climb to liberation,” however, he goes on to say that they can certainly be perceived – as the localized experiences of different states of consciousness.3
In Robert Svoboda’s book, Kundalini, he asks his mentor, Aghori Vimalananda, about the notion that almost all physical and mental diseases are due to ‘blocked chakras.’ Vimalananda replies, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. The chakras exist in the subtle body, and their connection to the physical body is very subtle. It is true that both the physical and subtle plexuses may become blocked, but in most people the Kundalini is fast asleep in the Muladhara Chakra [the first or root chakra at the base of the spine], and their chakras are absolutely closed and play no part in their day-to-day lives. . . . As long as you are full of attachments to life your consciousness will never be able to get close enough to any chakra even to smell its fragrance, much less to experience it.”5
So, how do we make sense of these disparate views? I recommend a combination of contemplation of others’ teachings and the guidance of your personal experience (keeping in mind that your personal experience doesn’t make you an authority on others’ experiences). I have encountered many practitioners of yoga, energy healing, and meditation who have had powerful firsthand experiences of their chakras – specifically the experience of an opening or closing, or the blockage of flow and the restoration of flow.
It’s possible that these experiences are occurring on a different plane than what Vimalananda defines as a chakra, but we have to ask if it really matters. I’m inclined to believe that in most cases, it doesn’t. If the chakra system is a useful means for understanding our challenges, knowing ourselves, and prompting growth, isn’t that a good thing even if it doesn’t make us enlightened?
Before I wrap this up, here is a list of the seven primary chakras, some of their characteristics, plus the key virtues and obstacles associated with them:
- Muladhara – at the perineum (between the genitals and the anus). Associated with the earth element, with a sense of security and stability, and [Myss:] with lessons related to the material world.
- Svadhisthana – at the genital region. Associated with the water element and with creativity, family, procreation, and [Myss:] with lessons related to sexuality, work, and physical desire.
- Manpura – at the level of the navel. Associated with the fire element and with transformation, will, and [Myss:] with lessons related to the ego, personality, and self-esteem.
- Anahata – at the level of the heart. Associated with the air element and with balance, love, compassion, connection, and forgiveness.
- Vishuddha – at the level of the throat. Associated with space and with communication, self-expression, and creation through the word.
- Ajana – at the level of the “third eye.” Beyond the elements, it is associated with self-realization, vision, knowing, projection, intuition, and insight.
- Sahasrara – at the top of the head. Sometimes considered not to be a proper chakra, it is associated with oneness with Absolute (God) Consciousness and [Myss:] lessons related to spirituality.
Next time, we’ll discuss the first and arguably most important chakra for the average human – Muladhara – which is often said to be an expression of our sense of foundation and our ability to trust that our basic needs will be met. In the meantime, consider meditating on these concepts. Have you ever had a sense of one or more of your chakras? Have you ever experienced a shift in one of these places that brought about a change in your body, mind, or broader consciousness?
Dr. Peter Borten
- Woodroffe, J. G., & P. (1931). The Serpent Power: Being the Shat-chakra-nirūpana and Pādukā-panchaka; Two Works on Laya yoga. Madras: Ganesh.
- Myss, C. M. (1996). Anatomy of the Spirit: The seven stages of power and healing. New York: Three Rivers Press.
- White, J. W. (1990). Kundalini, Evolution, and Enlightenment. New York: Paragon House.
- Johari, H. (1987). Chakras. Energy Centers of Transformation. Destiny Books.
- Svoboda, R. E. (1995). Aghora II: Kundalini. Albuquerque, NM: Brotherhood of Life Publishing.