Updated: Jul 4, 2020
To begin to explore the idea of chakras, we must first understand how this practice is embedded in a culturally-specific context.
The chakra system many Western yogis follow is based on a Sanskrit text written by a man named ūrṇānanda Yati. He completed his text (theṢaṭ-chakra-nirūpaṇaor 'Explanation of the Six Chakras', in the year 1577, and it was translated into English just over a 100 years ago, in 1918. Since then there have been hundreds of books published on the chakras,
translations attempted and teachings shared. This makes it pretty tricky to figure out how far we have come from the original study and knowledge of the chakra system.
What is a Chakra?
Today, in the western world and in many yoga teachings in India, the chakras are defined as a Sanskrit word meaning “wheel” or “circle”, and it refers to the individual circular spinning wheels of energy located throughout the body. The Chakra System is a complex network of energy channels connecting these wheels and is mapped throughout the whole body, much like a spiritual nervous system.
If we look further back there have been times where it was believed that there could be over 100 chakras, which does suggest that the 5 - 7 we now study is a very simplified way of studying energy within the body.
Another perspective is that the chakras are more prescriptive than descriptive, meaning we actually need to put some work in, rather than be told how to heal! For example it may not be as simple as saying the root chakra is at the base of the spine, as there is so much variant from each individual.
Chakras are a concept not strictly tied to one religion, but are primarily used in Tantra, Hinduism and some types of Buddhism. Many other major religions have had energy centers in the same places as the chakras, before the cultures came into contact- they just weren't called chakras.
Depending on your resource/teaching Chakras are distinguished by location, colour, mantra, symbol or meaning. Sanskrit scholars have shared that this possibly wasn't always the case and the mantras we connect to each chakra are actually from the corresponding element.
Example of basic western definitions
Should we be simplifying spiritual practices?
This is a big question and one I present in the hope that you will question your own journey. In my experience, and studies, I have explored and found comfort in practices from many different cultures and religions. I also try to acknowledge that my interpretation and experience does not give me ownership or a greater understanding than those whose ancestors passed on this wisdom.
What I’ve learned is chakras are more complex than what books, classes, or yoga teachers have revealed over the years. Instead, the concept has been watered-down to a more “palatable” form. Ideas, teachings, or beliefs adapted without really disclosing the source. Leaving people to accept what has been fitted into a package with less questioning, curiosity, or context.
If, like I was, you are now feeling a bit "eeeeek" about bringing chakras into your practice, then I want to re assure you we CAN practice, study and grow in a respectful way. Through our yoga and meditation practice, we are always connecting and observing our energy, which means we are working with the Chakra system whether consciously or not.
You will learn the most from your own chakras. More so than any book, just experiencing your energy will teach you the most and guide you towards the best healing modalities for you.
Older doesn't necessarily mean better, but we must be mindful to honour the true meaning when possible. Each perspective, each teacher, each book offers just one possible model.
So remember to keep exploring and always be open to new lessons