Perhaps, like me, the first time you heard about chakras was through an eccentric character in a movie - think Shirley MacLaine in Out on a LimbMaybe, like me, you went on with your life forgetting about chakras, only to stumble upon them again in the world of yoga, BAM, there they were, being taught by individuals who seemed a lot less out there than Shirley MacLaine (though...).
Today, working on our chakras seems to be the key to all our problems and holds the promise of our fulfillment. Are you suffering in your relationships with others? It's probably your heart chakra, Anâhata, which is "closed". Diligently practice the wheel pose (Urdhva Dhanurasana), and all the other "heart openings", to "harmonize" this recalcitrant chakra.
Having issues with your sexuality? Svâdishtâna Chakra is at work: you'll need to work on your hip openings (never mind if your skeleton is not really enthusiastic about this idea), eat carrots (the color orange is associated with this chakra), and why not wear carnelian or topaz on you (stones of color... orange).
Vous vous sentez un peu perdu.e, avec un sentiment diffus d’instabilité qui vous colle à la peau ? Rien à voir avec la montée des inégalités, le chômage de masse, le patriarcat, la crise sanitaire et politique et la catastrophe écologique qui nous pend au nez, non, c’est votre chakra Mûlâdhâra qui vous joue des tours : travaillez vos postures debout, engagez votre périnée, mangez des poivrons (couleur rouge associée à Mûlâdhâra chakra), et tout ira mieux.
I am deliberately overstating the point (though...) but chakras are now taught as energy wheels that exist on a subtle plane, that of our so-called energetic body. They would be more or less "open", functional, energy would circulate more or less well there, but thanks to specific techniques and tools, we could improve their functioning and thus free ourselves from a whole host of psycho-energetic blockages. Essential oils, mantra, food, stones, yoga poses, hormonal glands, tarot cards, are all elements associated with these energy wheels that we can work on to allow us to rebalance them.
But historically, what was the place and role of chakras in yoga?
A brief history of chakras
Initially, chakras were not considered by yogis as energy wheels that actually exist in the body, but as points of concentration and visualization for the yoga practitioner. The chakra system is a legacy of Tantric yogas, which reached their peak between the 6th and the 13th siècle après JC. La tradition tantrique développe ce qu’on va nommer le « corps yogique » : ce corps yogique n’est pas un corps « réel », empirique, biologique, commun à tous les êtres humains, mais un corps rituel, « imaginal » (selon l’indianiste André Padoux), construit conceptuellement en fonction de la tradition dans laquelle on s’inscrit.
It is a body that only exists because it is visualized by the practitioner, who associates it with symbols linked to divinities, in a perspective of transformation, of divinization. To quote the words of James Mallinson and Mark Singleton in their book The roots of yoga " the yogic body is the one that is constructed or 'written' on and in the body of the practitioner by the tradition itself " (p.196)
These are subtle centers of meditation, and so their number and location can vary according to the texts and traditions: some will mention five chakras, others six, seven, eleven, etc. This diversity of "yogic bodies" confirms to us that chakras were not the description of a real body to be discovered, but visualization guides that allow the practitioner to construct, imagine another body, the "yogic" body.
The first known appearance of the chakra system that will become the most widespread model of the yogic body dates from the 10th century, in the KubjikâmatatantraIt describes the following 6 chakras:
- Âdhâra (at the level of the anus)
- Svâdishtâna (at the level of the penis - sorry for the others!)
- Manipûraka (at the level of the navel)
- Anâhata (at the heart level)
- Vishuddhi (at the throat level)
- Âjña (between the eyes).
The 7th chakra, Sahasrâra, will appear a few centuries later, and the system of 7 chakras will then become the most widespread.
Thus, chakras in the tantric tradition are not observable physical phenomena, but according to Daniel Simpson, researcher and author of the book The Truth of Yogathey are nevertheless brought to exist through the imagination and visualizations of the practitioner, and through their visualization, have powerful powers. Chakras are thus "real", not materially, physically, but in the field of the practitioner's subjective experience.
From the yogic bbody to the anatomical body
At the end of the 19th century, some Indian yogis sought to modernize and revalue the practice of yoga by developing an approach inspired by the scientific and rational values of the time. They will try to match the yogic physiology derived from the tantrics to an empirical bodily reality, thus linking the systems of nâdîs, and chakras to the different channels and plexus of the nervous system, a vision still dominant today in globalized modern yoga. In order for yoga to be taken seriously, it must be proven that this yogic body is not the fruit of the tantrics' imagination but that it accurately describes a scientific reality. Thus, the "biologization" of the chakras was born in a broader process of re-legitimizing yoga through a rational and scientific approach. An interesting anecdote that says a lot about this need for the legitimization of yoga by the scientific method that prevailed at the time: Dayananda Saraswati, a Hindu militant and founder of the Ârya Samâj, decided in 1855 to dissect a corpse to check whether the tantric chakras really existed. Unable to identify them, he scornfully threw away his yogic texts and rejected their teachings outright.
The introduction of the chakra system in the West is attributed to Arthur Avalon (his real name John George Woodroffe), a judge in Calcutta under the British Empire, and English Indologist, who translated in 1919 the Satchakranirûpana, a tantric text from the 16th century, under the title The Serpent Power.
At the same time, Charles W. Leadbeater, an English priest, theosophist and occultist, published The Chakras, the Force Centres in Man. He popularized the idea that the chakras would correspond to different nerve plexuses and endocrine glands, and the association of colors with each of the chakras.
Thus, under the gaze of Western occultists, who have a completely different conception of the body from that of pre-modern tantric yogins, the chakra system is completely reformatted and reinterpreted in the light of scientific realism and a medical vision of the body. New Age movements, as well as Jungian psychology, will finish transforming and popularizing this vision of the chakra system, associating it with particular qualities, psychological states, foods, stones, Christian archangels, etc. The chakra system as we know it today is thus an extremely recent reinterpretation of the chakra systems of tantric traditions. So much so that today, chakras are no longer perceived as visualization centers aiming to create a ritual body, but as real, albeit subtle, energy centers, which it will be a matter of improving the functioning of for a more balanced and fulfilled life.
Although our contemporary vision of chakras is quite different from that originally developed by tantric traditions, both in its representations and its goals, should we therefore reject it as a heresy?
Personally, I became very interested in chakras at the beginning of my yoga practice, in their modern, esoteric-psychological version, and it brought me a lot. I found in this New Age style chakra system a valuable framework for reading, analyzing, and exploring within, especially for me who had so much trouble reading my emotions, qualifying them, naming them, linking them together. I interpret this system of modern chakras as propositions to refine our inner map, explore our own landscapes, refine our perceptions and feelings, our knowledge of ourselves. With in mind, the idea of gaining clarity in relation to our own mechanisms, our conditionings, our automatisms, to gain inner freedom. In this context, why not wear a red bracelet, the color of Muladhara chakra, as a reminder to ourselves of our commitment to stay grounded? In our turn, modestly, after the tantric yogins, to use the power of our imagination to link symbols, qualities, and points of concentration (material like the bracelet, or imagined like the chakras) as so many possibilities for transforming our subjective experience.
Let's move away from a literal, simplistic interpretation of the chakras! By taking an interest in their history, let's stop presenting them as very real and fixed organs, and let's stop selling miracle recipes to "harmonize" them, dangling the tantalizing promise of a better life. Let's give chakras another place, more poetic, more imaginative, which finally resembles a bit their initial intention, although reinterpreted in the light of our contemporary aspirations: that of guides for exploration and transformation of our inner landscapes.
- Images of the body in the Hindu world, edited by Véronique Bouillier and Gilles Tarabout, CNRS Editions, 2016
- The roots of yoga, James Mallison and Mark Singleton, Almora editions, 2020
- At the origins of modern postural yoga, Mark Singleton, Almora editions, 2020, Mark Singleton, éditions Almora, 2020
- The Truth of Yoga, Daniel Simpson, North Point Press, 2021