Q: Can you write an in depth look at the chakras? What was the original intent in the ancient texts? And how has the understanding changed over time? What is true to yoga and what is New Age mysticism?
A: Well, to start, because I’m not qualified to write an in-depth look at the chakras, I asked someone on our staff who is, namely Beth Gibbs, to write one for our reader. She not only agreed to tackle this subject, but also has promised to write an entire series of the chakras, which will start in September. So, we can all look forward to learning more about the chakras, especially about how they can be employed in a modern yoga practice.
But today I thought I would take a look at the origins of chakras, in terms of how “ancient” the theories about them actually are and what their original meaning was.Although I tend to think of the chakras as being associated with Hatha Yoga, they actually do precede it. In The Yoga Tradition, Georg Feuerstein says:
“The Tantric literature is filled with descriptions of the “centers” (cakra) and “currents/pathways" (nadhi) that are the basic structures of the subtle body.”
According to Feuerstein, the Tantras made their appearance "in the opening centuries of the first millennium C.E." And Hatha Yoga is one of the schools that are offshoots of Tantrism So, this does make the original descriptions of the chakras arguably "ancient," depending on how you define that word.According to Feuerstein, chakras as defined during the Tantric era were:
“These are pools of life energy, vibrating at different rates. Each cakra is associated with specific psychosomatic functions, but these energy whirls must not be confused with the nerve plexuses of the physical body with which they are, however, correlated.”
However, if by being “true to yoga” you mean Classical Yoga, the yoga of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, then you’re going to have to radically shift your ideas about chakras. That’s because Classical Yoga not only precedes Tantra Yoga, which is when the "subtle body" was fully described, but in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Edwin Bryant clearly states the use of the word “cakras” in that text (it does appear in the third pada, for example) has nothing to do with the Tantra model of the "subtle body":
“Cakra here is not necessarily a reference to the cakra physiology most commonly associated with the cluster of siddha/tantra/sakta traditions. Tellingly, Patanjali makes not direct reference to this overall physiology.”
In the Yoga Sutras, the chakras are simply areas of the body on which to focus your meditation. Additionally, the Tantric practices that use the chakras are based on a goal of liberation that is at odds with the goal of yoga in The Yoga Sutras. According to Bryant:
“One might go on to note that the understanding of the goal in classical Yoga clearly differs from the siddha notion that the supreme goal of yoga is attained, and liberation occurs, when this kundalini reaches the thousand-petal sahasrara-cakra in the crown of the head.”
If you’d like to read his thorough comparison of those goals and why they’re opposed to each other, see page 358 of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
But is there some other period, say, for example, the yoga described in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, that this reader would like to stay true to? Because you will have to start by identifying which source you consider to be the “true yoga” in terms of chakras. That’s not something I can do for you because there is no single authoritative text on this subject. For example, here is what Richard Rosen says about the way chakras are described in the Tantric texts:
“It is generally reported that there are six or seven of them located along the central channel (sushumna nadi) in the subtle body, but that’s just one particular model; other models include eight, nine, or twelve or more cakras. These numbers, however, are dwarfed by those noted in some sources, which number the cakras well into the tens of thousands; however, as with all yoga numbers of this magnitude, they’re not to be taken literally, they’re only meant to indicate that there are “lots and lots” of them.”
But if you’d like to see how Richard compares the original descriptions of the chakras with the way they are currently taught, see pages 138 to 141 of his book Yoga FAQ. It’s a bit snarky, I’m afraid. Here’s one quote:
“Anyway, as we can see from this overload of evidence, modern teachers have taken the cakra ball and run with it, so to speak. They’ll help you open your cakras, balance them, and heal them—though we know for sure from the old texts they’re closed, it’s not clear how they got unbalanced or ill—they offer cakra retreats, and if you’re curious about the condition of your cakras, there are any numbers of tests you can take to help you figure that out.”
He encourages you to first study the “primary sources,” such as “Investigation of Six Centers” by Purnananda (dated at 1525 CE, so not especially "ancient.")
Perhaps, reader, this was not exactly what you wanted to hear but I hope at least you learned some things that will lead you to the answer that’s right for you. I know for sure that I learned a lot writing about this topic! And we can both look forward to Beth’s series in the fall.
By the way, Richard, who has studied Sanskrit, also tells us that many of us mispronounce the word. It is “chuck-ruh” not “shock-ruh.”
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