Traditionally Hatha Yoga works with subtle energies and operates on the fundamental principles of resonance and correspondence. The underlying idea is that man is a microcosmic copy of the macrocosm, having within him all that exists in the Universe.
The general identity between universe (= macrocosm) and person (= microcosm) can be found in many wisdom traditions. Already the ancient Greek philosophers knew: “Know thyself, and thou shall know the universe.” (Inscribed in the Temple of Delphi). The Sufi tradition states that man is a small Universe, and the Universe is a great man (insan kabir, alam saghir: Ikhwan. Epistle 26+34). In the Jewish Cabala it says, what is up is like what is down, and what is down is like what is up, completing the miracle of the whole (Tree of Life). And in Tantra: what is here (in the microcosm) is everywhere (in the universe); what is not here, is found nowhere (Vishvasara Tantra 1:57).
In Yoga, the goal of the individual is to consciously attune with the beneficial energies of the universe (such as those of healing, vitality, self-confidence, love, or intuition). The idea is that by using body postures (asana), controlling the breath (pranayama), using certain locks or gestures of the body (bandha & mudra), and lastly by focusing the mind in a specific way, it is possible to create resonance with the energies of the universe and thereby amplify them in our own being.
The entirety of the universe and therefore of man can be divided into seven main levels of vibration or energy. The doorways of communication between our individual structure and these energies are believed to be the chakras.
The Sanskrit word cakra literally means “wheel”, is oftentimes also referred to as “lotus” (padma), and is adopted into the English language as chakra. In Hatha Yoga and Tantra, where most of the teaching on chakras originate, the term refers to a subtle psycho-energetic center of the non-physical energy body.
The Sanskrit scholar Christopher Wallis delivers a comprehensive definition: “In the Tantric traditions, chakras are focal points for meditation within the human body, visualized as structures of energy resembling discs or flowers at those points where a number of nadis or meridians converge. They are conceptual structures yet are phenomenologically based, since they tend to be located where human beings experience emotional and/or spiritual energy.
Unlike organs in the physical body, chakras are not “fixed facts”. As subtle energetic structures, they are responsive to mental influence. Original scriptures may not describe existential facts, but forms of meditation in which one visualizes subtle objects such as chakras. There is an agreement that emotional and spiritual phenomena can be and have been experienced in the commonly described chakras by
humans all over the world.
There is some mention of the term chakra in scriptures of the Vedic period (1500 – 500 BC). The Bhagavad Gita (500-200 BC) as well as the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (500 BC – 400 AD) give some short reference to a few of the chakras. Some Yoga Upanishads refer around 600 BC to the chakras as psychic centres of consciousness.
Gorakshanath, the founding father of Hatha Yoga, gives one of the first summaries of a six plus one chakra system in his Goraksha Sataka (900 – 1400 AD). Most modern schools of Yoga and Tantrism work with these 6 main psycho-energetic centres, and a 7th centre being thought of as transcending bodily existence. Other scriptures of the Tantric tradition articulate many different chakra systems with varying numbers, which usually have considerable overlaps with the 7 main chakras.
The most comprehensive and influential source for the seven chakras, which is commonly used in the past decades, is the Shat-Chakra-Nirupana by Purnananda Yati (16th century AD). The text is important to many lineages in India today and has a broad adaptation in Western Yoga history. It is mostly accessed via the English translation of John Woodroffe aka Arthur Avalon, which he published in 1919 in his book the Serpent Power. Due to its wide spread popularity, we mostly base our teachings on this common six plus one chakra system.
It seems that one of the original purposes of the chakras is to install mantras and energies represented by specific Hindu deities at certain focal points. One of the early references to psychology of the chakras can be found in a musicological text called Sangita-Ratnakara by Sharngadeva (13th – 16th century AD), associating the spokes of the chakras with various attributes.
Most of the modern connections between psychological states and chakras seem to be a 20th century innovation, which are partly related to the psychologist Carl Gustav Jung. In a 1932 seminar he correlated the Eastern teachings on chakras with findings of the Depth Psychology of his time, later published in his book Psychology of Kundalini Yoga. Another line of influence is associated to the occult Theosophic Society and C.W. Leadbeaters book The Chakras.
Decades later, the initial connection between chakras and psychological states grew into a very colorful array of associations with emotions, physical organs, glands, and nerve plexuses, and even minerals, herbs, essential oils, etc. None of these attributions can be sourced in the original scriptures and should always be taken with the proverbial pinch of salt.
As the acknowledged Yogic scholar Georg Feuerstein points out: “There are certain correspondences between the structures of the subtle body and the anatomical organs and endocrine system of the physical body, but these are parallel or analogous rather than identical.” (Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy, p. 149)
Another more traditional and very widespread practice is to associate the lower 5 chakras with gross and subtle elements such as earth, water, fire, air, and ether. These elements do traditionally come with certain characteristics, even colours and geometrical shapes. We will introduce these correlations in a rather detailed way, because they are part of what could be called modern Yoga knowledge. Again, some scholars point out, that even the chakra – element association is prescribed rather than factual.
Overall we would like to see the chakras as “associated with distinct sensations or states of consciousness” like the integral psychologist Ken Wilber puts it. They are “models of reality that are designed to assist the Tantric practitioners in their inward odyssey from the Many to the One.” (Georg Feuerstein. Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy, p. 150)
Having said all that, we conclude with the popularly most important principals regarding the chakras as part of the subtle energy body: Clairvoyant vision describes the subtle body as a moving vibrant and
shimmering energy field which is crisscrossed by luminous energy channels known as nadis. The chakras appear as part of this subtle structure in a circular form in the Pranamayakosha. In some lineages, the chakras / kshetrams are said to be located about 2 centimeters outside of the body and about 10-12 centimeters in diameter. Others locate the chakras along the spinal channel. Some of the main nadis which carry the vital life force prana, run through the chakras, terminate at or issue from them. Depending on the used metaphor “wheel” or “lotus”, the chakras are described as having “spokes” or “petals”. Like the original scriptures suggest, Yogic practice can activate any
psycho-energetic centre, and in modern understanding balance, strengthen or soothe the connected characteristics.