Editor’s Note: This post is part 5 in The Enchanted World of Tantra, a blog series by Sandra Anderson exploring the many dimensions of the tantric path.
“The subject of chakras is not going to be an easy one,” wrote Swami Satyananda in Kundalini Tantra. Perhaps he was thinking it’s a subject foreign to his audience, or perhaps he was just thinking the subject is not an easy one. For us in the modern world, the topic of the chakras is complex for both reasons. Our first grasp of a difficult subject is necessarily a simplified one, but if we’re not attentive, our first grasp may be our only grasp. Have we inadvertently oversimplified a sophisticated body of knowledge embedded in a vastly different culture and language? The concept of chakras is familiar to most yoga students, and yet . . .
Misconception #1: The pronunciation of “chakra.”
Remember this tongue twister? “How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” Now say “chuck, chuck, chuck.” Add “ra” and you’ve got it—“chuck-ra.” In the official transliteration convention for Sanskrit, “c” is pronounced “ch” as in “church,” so you may see “cakra” as well as “chakra.” Regardless of how it’s spelled, remember the woodchuck.
Misconception #2: The chakras are “things” residing somehow in the body—maybe in the nerve plexuses or the glands, or the spine . . .
It goes without saying that the chakras are not material things, but the literal-minded among us may not have thought through what this means. We continue to speak as if an autopsy would reveal a string of variously colored lotuses through the middle of the torso, or as if a chakra is just another organ like the liver or the spleen. Better to think of a chakra as an intersection of major energy channels (nadis) in a plane of consciousness, resulting in psycho-somatic experiences and functions, and which can serve as a focal point for meditation and spiritual practice. Here are a few handy definitions:
- Vortex of consciousness in the body (The Practice of the Yoga Sutra by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait)
- A focus for visualization in the yogic body (Roots of Yoga by James Mallinson and Mark Singleton)
- Phenomenologically based conceptual structures (“The Real Story on the Chakras” by Christopher Wallis)
Misconception #3: The chakras are the colors of the rainbow.
Tempting! But alas, no mention of rainbows in the source texts. Different texts describe different colors (or often, no color at all). For example, the navel center lotus is variously described as black, dark green, dark blue, golden, or red.
There’s another problem with the idea of chakras being specific colors, as you will see in this summary of a description in the Shat-Chakra-Nirupana Tantra: The adhara lotus (muladhara chakra) has four crimson petals with gold Sanskrit letters, a yellow pericarp, and a red Dakini devi. The svadhishthana chakra has a vermilion lotus and letters the color of lightning. Its deity, Hari, is blue but wearing yellow clothes, and the devi Rakini, also blue, sits on a red lotus in the luminously white pericarp. The manipura lotus is the color of a rain cloud, the letters are lustrous blue, and the pericarp is red. Its deity, Rudra, is red but appears white due to ashes, and the shakti Lakini is blue and sits on a red lotus.
You get the picture. Which color is the color?
Associating the chakras with colors is part of a visualization practice, which, it turns out, varies according to the tradition. Descriptions are for practice with a particular purpose or particular result, and are not describing a reality in the physical realm.
One widely applied convention for working with chakras involves the five elements (bhutas). The geometric shape and the color of each of the five bhutas is established in five chakras, usually the five well-known centers associated with the pelvic floor, pelvis, navel, heart, and throat.
|Bhuta||Color and Form||Widely Used Chakra and Body Association|
|Prithvi (earth)||yellow square||muladhara – pelvic floor|
|Apas (water)||white crescent moon||svadishthana – genital area, lower abdomen|
|Agni (fire)||red triangle||manipura – navel area|
|Vayu (air)||grey-blue hexagram||anahata – center of chest, heart|
|Akasha (space)||blackish circle||vishuddha – throat|
But even this association varies. For example, the Goraksha-Paddhati describes a practice for concentrating on the earth element as a yellow square at the heart center, the water element in white half-moon form at the throat, the fire element as a triangle at the palate, the air element between the eyebrows, and the space element at the brahma-randhra (the opening to brahman—all-pervading consciousness—experienced at or above the crown of the head).
Misconception #4: There are seven chakras.
I have a beautiful illustration from the Nath Charit which depicts 12 chakras, four of them between the two-petalled lotus at the eyebrow center and the innumerable-petalled lotus above the crown of the head. The Siddha-Siddhanta-Paddhati by Gorakshanatha describes nine chakras. The Netra Tantra describes six (pelvic floor, navel, heart, palate, eyebrow, and crown), all with different names than the system most familiar these days. Abhinavagupta, a famous Kashmiri tantric adept, describes a five-chakra system: base, kanda (pelvis), heart, palate, and crown. The Vijnana Bhairava Tantra, an important Shaiva text, also refers to 12 chakras.
The 6 + 1 system currently dominant (root, pelvis, navel, heart, throat, and eyebrow center, plus one above the top of the head) is only one of many systems which variously describe 3, 4, 5, 9, 11, or 12 major centers. In fact, there are innumerable energy centers, but 12 major centers through the core axis of the body. In ayurveda, minor energy centers are called marma points, and the centers aligned along the axis of the body are called chakras. Why so many different systems?
The number of centers enumerated and described depends on the practice or the tradition. Different schools or texts use a different conceptual model to prescribe or describe visualizations, practices, and invocations of powers (deities). For example, some traditions emphasize the talu chakra, at the soft palate, while others don’t mention it at all. Some traditions have elaborate practices for six or more chakras; others focus only on the navel or pelvis, and the heart and brain centers.
Misconception #5: The second chakra is all about sex.
Truthfully, there is a whole host of desires that play out through instinct, karma, and the innate desire to be alive, express ourselves, and gain both worldly experience (bhoga) and ultimate freedom (apavarga). Rather than thinking of specific desires as exclusive to specific chakras, it’s better to think of desire as our innate wealth as human beings, and the foundation of life in the body. And then to remember that, without exception, all schools of yoga advocate transcendence, transmutation, or mastery of sensual desires of all kinds, though they differ in how that transcendence is to take place.
Right Understanding: A Work in Progress
Our first simplification of the concept of chakras is to attribute the qualities of the physical plane to the subtle body, but the reality of the subtle body is much more vast and mysterious than we realize. What we do know is that what we believe not only affects what and how we practice, it also affects both the subtle and physical bodies. So it’s important to keep on learning and growing. Finding a living lineage of time-tested practices and practitioners can make all the difference. If our study and practice are working, they begin to free us from the grip of cultural conditioning and our assumptions about ourselves. That can be uncomfortable at times, but nothing else is as rewarding! So let us be flexible but rigorous in our thinking, make use of what makes sense, continue practicing and making inquiry, and be willing to change our minds.