Demystifying controversial beliefs within the field of yoga, sound healing and modern-day spirituality.
The chakras do not exist in the way most people believe them to be. We have been told a story and it has been copy pasted a million of times. Do chakras even exist? And if they do, beyond the illusionary veil of another person’s story, what are they, really?
As there isn’t a shortcut, I need you to follow me all the way into the depth and origins of this story if you wish more clarity on this matter. I’ll shine some light on the origins of it, as well as some greatly settled misconceptions about the related colours and sounds (frequencies and mantras). More importantly, we’ll also dive into the ontological paradigm related to chakras.
Despite its tremendous success and extensive use within the yoga and healing communities the chakra system is still generally perceived as a new age huffy fluffy piece of air. Partially I believe there is a good reason for that. There are major misconceptions about the nature of the subtle (or energetic) body, there is little understanding of its traditional origins and on top of that the commercialized spiritual preachers are cashing it in. It could be healthy to question the whole thing for a moment before bringing it into your daily life or practice.
My personal experience with it
I was introduced to the chakras nearly 15 years ago and ever since it’s been a part of my daily life and practice. I learned to work with the common 7-chakra system as a tool for healing and meditation within the context of sound healing as well as tantric yoga. Although I can surely state that the system and related practices served me very well, the last couple of years I started to feel a bit claustrophobic by the limitations of it. It dawned on me that some aspects just didn’t seem to be as ‘fixed’ as is usually preached. There seemed to be a lot of dogmatic beliefs and oversimplifications to it, often wrapped up in a commercial story. Following my gut-feeling I ended up investigating some of the original sources (tantric texts and teachings) more in depth. Along with my direct experience, these sources brought me a way broader and clearer perspective than what I've been taught before.
The origins of the chakras
The chakras. Who doesn’t know them these days? Along with yoga and meditation, within the last couple of decades the ‘chakra’ worked his way up into the vocabulary of the average westerner. Chakras have never been so known and widely used as they are today. Only until about a century ago the use and knowledge of chakras was a secret, hidden within various tantra traditions in India. Some of these were Yogic tantra, others Buddhist tantra traditions. These hidden secrets belonged almost exclusively to men.
Although there were a couple of mentions of chakras in ancient Indian texts throughout the ages, the first outlined chakra system appeared in the early tantric texts from the 6th to the 9th century CE. Before that, when the word 'chakra' was used, it was pointing to something different from what we now know as a chakra. One of the main translations of 'chakra' is 'wheel' and that's what it often meant in the ancient times. In the context of tantra (and thus relating to spiritual practice) the correct translation isn't wheel, but 'center' or 'focal point'. The tantric text named Brahmayamala from the 7th century might be the earliest scripture that refers to a set of 'centers' (or locations within the energy body) and calls it at some point ‘chakras’. The Netratantra from the 9th century is the first text that comes up with a clearly defined chakra system (containing 6 chakras).
Correcting 6 major misconceptions about the chakras
1) The 7 chakra system as a Western system
The popular and well-known 7 chakra system found its origin in the Kubjikamatatantra (associated with the Shakta cult of the Shaiva tradition), written in the 10th century. This text is mentioning the 6 chakras that we know today as the first 6 chakras. Most of their given Sanskrit names as well as their locations given in this text are mostly the same as today. In the 16th century an explanation on these 6 chakras, called Sat-chakra-nirupana, was written by Swami Purnananda. It was this text that was used by the first westerners who introduced the chakras to the West.
In the second part of the 19th century for the very first time in history the teachings of tantra yoga found their way into the west. This happened through the Theosophical Society, mainly through Madame Blavatsky (in the picture on the right). Yogic and tantric concepts like the chakras were introduced, but also brought together with other esoteric traditions. The union of different spiritual traditions under the western umbrella of Theosophy gave rise to a transmutation of the original concepts.
In 1919 the English John Woodroffe translated the text from Swami Purnananda and wrote a commentary on it, known as ‘The serpent power’. With this he brought information on the chakras for the first time to the west on a larger scale. Some traditions (not all) mentioned Sahasrara (on the top of the head) as an important point and this was added as a 7th chakra. As theosophical and esoteric circles started to integrate and interpret the chakra system in their own way, it started to have a western life of its own.
Underneath you can see the evolution of the modern-day 7 chakra system and its precursors.
Kubjikamatatantra (10th century) The first mention of the 6 (first) chakras as we know them today Sat-chakra-nirupana by Purnananda Yati (1577) An explanation of the 6 chakras, based on the system of the above text The serpent power by John Woodroffe (1919) Translation and commentary on the above text The chakras by Charles W. Leadbeater (1927) A mix of occultism, theosophy and esoteric teachings, giving new interpretations to the chakras Nuclear evolution: Discovery of the rainbow body by Christopher Hills (1977) Relating chakras with frequencies and rainbow colours
2) Chakra systems are many
The modern-day 7 chakra system is only one of many! As explained above, it’s a very recent and western interpretation that is based on the 6 chakra system that became dominant in the tantra yoga world in India from the 16th century on. It’s notable that throughout the centuries there existed more chakra systems then there exist yoga styles today (and that’s quite a bunch).
Here is just a handful of tantric texts (in a chronological order) with their date and number of chakras that the authors were using.
Brahmayamala (7th century) 9 locations (of which some are called chakras) Netratantra (9th century) 6 chakras Kaulajnananirnaya (10th century) 11 chakras Buddhist Hevajratantra (10th century) 4 chakras Kubjikamatatantra (10th century) 6 chakras (the precursor of the current chakra system) Siddhasiddhantapadhati (18th century) 9 chakras Hatha Yoga today 7 chakras Buddhist Tantra today 5 chakras
There wasn’t only a huge variety in number, also the related qualities differed greatly. The precise locations of the chakras vary greatly as well, although some locations are included in most systems; pelvic floor, navel, and in almost any (if not any) system there is the heart center. There also are major chakras in some systems that are not included in the western 7-chakra system. One of them is a chakra in the palate.
Now you might be wondering ‘which system is the right one’? Which of these chakras are the real chakras? Who is right and who is wrong?
3) Chakras (as we know them) don’t exist unless you create them
Here we have arrived at the main misconception. As I outlined in the first article of this series we westerners tend to believe in an objective reality that has to be the same for everyone, unrelated to the subject. Looking through the glasses of the western mind people started to interpret the chakras as factual, fixed things, or ‘energetic organs’. There are even books called ‘energetic anatomy’. This shows, in my opinion, a lack of understanding the fluid, energetic body and isn’t in line with how the chakras were brought into practice in the earlier times either. Also in India during the last centuries the perception on the chakras shifted more in the direction of ‘a chakra being an objective fact’. These Indian interpretations on the original sources showed to be appealing for the rationalised western mind. As westerners were drawing from these later sources (almost exclusively the 16th century Sat-chakra-nirupana) the misconception of the chakras continued to live its own life, integrated in the west.
The great majority of original tantric sources on chakras is describing them as focal points for meditation that should be visualised and thus created through one’s own mind. They aren’t described as hidden energetic organs, as the common story goes. They are a support in meditation. Traditionally they were mainly used to install and activate certain deities or elements in specific locations of the energetic body. This was mainly done through visualisation and the application of the corresponding mantras of the deities or elements. In this way the energy would get activated and purified. Also specific inner qualities would be brought about in this way. Often they were visualised as complex multi-petalled lotus flowers.
Chakras as we know them only exist if you visualise them through the power of the creative mind. This doesn’t debunk the value and healing and purifying effect of the chakras. It merely rips off the illusionary belief that the chakras are fixed energetic organs. The energetic body can be perceived as a fluid energy mass that is in constant interaction with the body, emotions and mind. It reacts instantly on anything (ex. any thought) that comes in contact with it. Thus it gets shaped by the thoughts that are projected onto it, but can also be reshaped in an instant if these thoughts are changing.
Mark Singleton, a Sanskrit scholar, puts it nicely: “The ontological clash between features of the yogic body as imaginatively focuses for meditation and as physical realities takes a new turn from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, when chakras, kundalini, etc. begin to be interpreted in the context of modern scientific rationalism as corresponding to physical features of the biological body. The cognitive dissonance which this sometimes generates is nicely illustrated by a story of Arya Samaj founder Dayananda Sarasvati, who dissects a corps in order to ascertain for himself the truth of the chakras; when he fails to find them he throws his yoga texts into the river in disgust.” (*1)
I know… it’s quite a mind-bend, especially if you have been using the chakras in your own practice, therapeutic sessions or professional life. Countless people undoubtedly benefited from the use of the chakras. So how could they not be real? For sure chakras aren’t to be compared with physical organs like the heart or the liver. Yet, visualising them and applying them in practice may bring about a very ‘real’ experience. This could be a rush of energy that may cause physical sensations or eventually even a physical healing from an illness (to mention just one potential beneficial effect).
Thus on the one hand chakras are conceptual. On the other hand they are experiential phenomena. Whether you believe in chakras or not, while going through a break-up, you might actually feel your chest area being contracted. When you don’t dare to speak up while feeling the urge for it you might suddenly feel a lump in your throat. There was a period in which I personally was meditating so much, using my internal ‘focal’ muscle so intensely, that the area of my third eye started to be burned (physically) from inside. There are many more experiential examples that could be mentioned and they all reveal the existence of an energy center. All of these experiences are real, believing in chakras or not.
Therefore it is clear that some places within the energy body (especially along the central axis) serve as centers where the energy is intensified and relating to specific psycho-emotional states. These correlations are less fixed than is promoted in many teachings these days. The proof of this is that basically any chakra system comes up with different, often entirely different, correlations. It is also worth mentioning that the traditional tantric teachings didn’t emphasise or often even didn’t mention correlations with psycho-emotional states. The goal used to be merely to liberate and reactivate the energy system. The strong connection between chakras and psycho-emotional states was mainly introduced by Carl Jung in the 1930’s. (*2) Even these differ quite a bit from the relating psycho-emotional states that we know from the modern system.
It was Carl Jung (on the left) that introduced the idea of the chakras as evolutionary stages in personal (and collective) development. Before that, for over a millennium, within tantric yoga the chakras were only used as energy centers. There was no mention of psychological stages one could go through on an ascending chakra ladder. Since yoga starts from and aims at the present moment, there was no mention of evolution in time. Since yoga also aims at transcending the ego, no attention was given to one’s personal story.
I’m not saying that perceiving the chakras as evolutionary stages couldn’t bring about positive effects. I merely want to make clear that placing the chakras in a context of psychology is a quite different approach than the one of traditional tantra yoga. Whatever system one chooses for, it might be beneficial to understand the larger context in which it is placed. Although we eventually all want the same thing (being happy and free) the approach of a psychologist is different from that of a yogi and as well different from that of a holistic healer. However, if all of these approaches are well-understood, it could possibly be of great value to apply them within an integral system.
4) The rainbow-coloured-system is a western chakra-edition
Yes indeed, it’s only since the book ‘Discovery of the rainbow body’ by Christopher Hills came out in 1977 that the chakras were given the rainbow colours. The old tantric texts give either mention of different colours or have no mention of chakra colours at all. The 14th century Shiva Samhita gives the 1st chakra a golden colour, 2th chakra red, 3th again golden, 4th red, 5th golden and 6th white. If the 5 elements are placed within the chakras the colours of the elements are placed as well within the chakra (which are entirely different from the rainbow colours). These are just two examples. Again, these systems didn’t attempt to describe the objectively factual colours of the chakras, but simply placed these colours in the chakras through visualisation.
In the 17th century Isaac Newton identified 7 colours within the entire spectrum of a prism and rainbow. Before that he came up with five colours, but because of the mystical number 7 (and his affection for mysticism) he decided to add orange and split purple in indigo and violet. (*3) So has the rainbow 7 colours? No, it’s a spectrum that you could potentially divide into countless colours. In the same way we could perceive our energy body. We could potentially identify countless chakras as it is a large field of countless frequencies.
Here we conclude that the idea of a fixed heart chakra in the center of everybody’s chest radiating a green colour is a myth. That doesn’t mean it has no value to visualise the colour green within the heart chakra as a way to activate energy in that area. I’m simply saying that there is no ontological truth in the connection between the rainbow colours with the chakras. This becomes more clear when we investigate the relationship between frequencies and chakras underneath.
5) Chakras have no fixed frequencies
In case you’ve read all the above it is useless to say that the same logic also dismantles the theories about ‘fixed’ frequencies or tones for the chakras. In the same way that there are 7 colours, there are 7 notes in a musical scale. When it comes down to colours, in reality there is just a vibrational field of light. According to one’s human perception or belief this appearing variety within the visible spectrum is brought into a specific order. This order can contain 7 colours (as Newton created it), or basically any other number as the possibilities of division are endless.
Let’s talk first about the frequencies of the colours. Yes indeed, colours ‘are’ frequencies that can be scientifically measured. Visible light for us human beings all happens within 1 octave, whereas audible sound for us human beings stretches out over a spectrum of 10 octaves. Visible light isextending from the colour red to the colour violet and is forty octaves higher than the middle audio octave, that which you would hear on a piano keyboard. Light, however, is measured by its wavelength, whereas sound in measured by its frequency. (*4)
Light starts to be visible from 7000 Å (angstrom = 0,1 nanometre) as a dark red colour and stretches to 4000 Å as deep violet. Applying the law of octaves to the measured colour frequencies 7000 Å corresponds to an audible G (492 Hz) and 4000 Å to an audible F (698 Hz). Underneath you can see all the 7 main colours and their corresponding tone on the musical scale.
G Red G# Dark orange A Orange A# Yellow B Light green C Drak Green C# Turquoise D Blue D# Indigo E Violet F Deep violet F# Purple (between red and violet)
This is showing different relationships between tones and chakras as we are used to see in the common scheme. At some point someone must have reasoned “7 chakras, 7 colours… why not add the 7 notes to it? Let’s start from C (do) and connect it to the first chakra!” It all looks great, it fits, that’s true. It has no base in reality though. That doesn’t mean that chanting the tone C cannot activate the root chakra. It could possibly be an effective practice. But one may as well chant the tone G or A or basically any other tone. C is by nature not more ‘grounding’ than any other tone (unless you would play it in a very low pitch compared to the other tones).
There are other theories that connect different frequencies or tones with the chakras. One of the most common is the connection between the 'ancient Solfeggio frequencies' and the chakras (extensively discussed in the previous article), another system connects the sounds of the planets (according to Hans Cousto) to the chakras, and there are others. Honestly, none of them really makes sense as the chakras might not even be objective energetic organs. And if they would be, would ALL of our chakras really vibrate at the same rate?! And would their frequency really be fixed, static and unchangeable? I mean... it just doesn’t hold stake. Nothing in the universe is fixed. Everything is in a constant movement and transition. Moment by moment, things change, always. Then why wouldn’t our energetic frequencies be submissive to this universal law?
6) Chakras usually have no corresponding seed-mantras
The widely used ‘chakra bija-mantras’ (seed-mantras), stemming from the tantric yoga tradition, are actually the bija-mantras of the 5 elements. LAM, for example, is not the mantra of the 1st chakra, but the mantra of the earth element! According to scholar Christopher Wallis there is no single Sanskrit text that mentions these bija-mantras being the mantras for the chakras. (*5)
Space HAM Wind YAM Fire RAM Water VAM Earth LAM
Although often earth is placed within the first chakra, earth does certainly not equal first chakra. If the desired effect is a grounded heart, the earth’s bija mantra could be sung within the heart chakra. An element can thus be placed in any desired chakra.
Anyway, putting the 5 elements within a 7-chakra system doesn’t really make sense. Ever since the chakras made their way into the West, as much attributes as possible have been attempted to being put into one system. Originally the 5 elements were mainly used in … you guessed it; a 5 chakra system. Here is one example of such a system, stemming from the Shaiva tradition:
1st chakra Trikona (pelvic floor) Earth 2nd chakra Kanda (lower belly) Water 3rd chakra Hrid (heart) Fire 4th chakra Talu (palate) Wind 5th chakra Crown Space
Usually no mantras are given to the chakras itself, although there are some exceptions. The heart chakra is sometimes given the mantra OM (as in the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra). In other traditions OM is related to the 3th eye.
How to work with the chakras?
So which system should you use? Which sounds do connect to them? How should all of this be applied? The answer to these questions would take me beyond the aim of this work. With this article I mainly aim to rip off some illusionary layers from this vast and profound topic. If you really want to work with the chakras I believe it is necessary to study with a qualified teacher in person. What is qualified isn’t always proven by a certificate or degree. It’s something for yourself to determine.
In the sound healing trainings I am offering we are connecting with the chakras through the vowel-system. This is mainly based on the overtones present within each vowel. I didn’t go into the theory, neither into an explanation of the practice, of this system here. This is because I find nothing to demystify here. It would be simply an explanation of the technique, and that is ideally done while being in the same, physical, resonant space together.
So are the chakras real? For sure they aren't real in the same way that our physical organs are real. Surely they are real as visualised energy centers and surely these visualisations cause very real experiences. More than that, there are places along the central axis within the energy body (we could call chakras) where the energy intensifies, causing all kinds of physical, energetic and emotional feelings. These centers, however, aren't as fixed as is often described and neither are their attributes.
We could conclude that chakras are both conceptual and experiential phenomena within a highly fluid and changeable energy body. There is no system that can claim the ultimate truth about aspects of the energy body, as it is highly influenced by thoughts (created in a specific cultural and historical context) and basically anything that comes in touch with it. Chakras can be placed (through the power of mind) in numerous different points within the energy body although some areas (E.g. the navel, heart or forehead) appear to generate naturally a more intensified energy.
Working with the chakras as a tool for spiritual and energetic liberation or healing isn’t about finding some scientific, objective truth though! It is about trusting your inner world and being engaged in its creation. Through the power of the mind and its ability to create, energy can be activated and purified. The important question, really, isn't so much about whether or not chakras are real! Is the spiritual work with the chakras benifiting you and causing a 'real' positive transformation? That should be all that matters!
In Light and Truthfulness,
Recommended related sources
· Book: Roots of Yoga by James Mallinson and Mark Singleton
· All teachings from Christopher Hareesh Wallis: https://hareesh.org/
· Web page about the connection between light, colour and sound frequencies: https://roelhollander.eu/en/tuning-frequency/sound-light-colour/
A lot of the given information is derived from the teachings of Christopher Hareesh Wallis (Sanskrit scholar and tantric yoga practitioner). Much gratitude for his groundbreaking work! Also a lot of the given information stems from the book 'Roots of Yoga' by scholars James Mallinson and Mark Singleton. It contains numerous translations of well-known and often lesser known original yoga scriptures as well as a commentary.
1) Roots of Yoga by James Mallinson and Mark Singleton
2) The Psychology of Kundalini Yoga – Carl G. Jung
Artwork of Indian man with chakras by Indian School, Punjab Hills around 1850
Artwork of 5 elements and OM by Tuula
Rainbow chakras image by Clker-Free-Vector
About the In Tune Series
This series contains articles and occasionally videos on vague, mystic and often controversial topics within the field of sound healing and modern-day spirituality. I’ll shine some light on some very ‘settled’ beliefs within this field, and investigate whether or not they really are ‘in tune’ with ‘truth’.