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.