Do CHakras Exist?
“There’s more in heaven and earth, Horatio, than is dreamt of in your philosophy.”
(Hamlet. Act 1, Scene 5)
Chakras, nadis and prana are terms that are often employed within yoga circles and workshops. In courses I’ve often heard students reel off definitions without too much prompting or thought. Definitions such as ‘psychic centres’, ‘wheels of energy’ or ‘areas of aura’. Their experiences range from chakras that they’ve practiced with in Reiki classes, yoga meditation workshops, healing groups and so on.
What always fascinates me is how each student is insistent that their experience is the ‘correct one’, that the feelings and/or colours they experience in the places they experience it are the most valid. This is hardly surprising as, if you were to pick up a yoga text, they very often do exactly the same thing - asserting just one way to practice.
The question often arises - why so many ways to practice? Do chakras actually exist? Why do I work with five chakras within the system I was taught, why do you perhaps work with seven? Why so many variations between different lineages?
If science is the study of observable phenomena then scientifically chakras can’t be said to exist. If we were to plonk a body on the operating table and peel it open, work our way through it piece by piece, would we find an energy channel or a chakra? I don’t think so. So on a literal pragmatic physiological level they can’t in anyway be said to exist. But in that same body, could you show me consciousness or awareness - or find any visual or visceral evidence such a thing exists? Again, I don’t think so. Yet we know we have a degree of consciousness - we know we can cultivate and utilize awareness, even if we don’t know where in our physical make-up it resides.
Douglas Harding the English philosopher and mystic concludes if we examine ourself from a purely scientific standpoint then not only do our chakras not exist but that we also have no head! If we work from observation you cannot see your head; by scientific definition it doesn’t exist. We can see it in others, they have heads, but we cannot see our own. Yes we can see it reflected in a mirror but forgetting reason and memory and logic that head we see is over there and I’m here. ‘Well, I canfeel my head’, you might argue. But can you? If you don’t label what you feel, leave out conceptual thinking for a second, then all you’re feeling is shape and form; a series of sensations under your fingertips.
“the leg bone’s connected to the knee bone,
and the knee bone connected to the thigh bone...”
If we were to close our eyes, forget reason and memory for a moment and just experience yourself - what is that experience? Ultimately we experience the body as sensation. And that experience takes place in the awareness. Then I habitually go on to label that sensation, as hand, arm, foot and so on. I could also label a feeling or sensation I have as a chakra. Just like I learned a map of my body as a child - learning the names for the different parts (all together now: ‘the leg bone’s connected to the knee bone..’) so I can learn names and a map, and a new set of labels, for a more subtle sense of feelings, Anahata, Vishudda and so on. And yes, depending on who I learn the map from the labels might be different. The chakra systems may differ from lineage to lineage, or indeed from practice to practice depending on what my intention is when I roll out my yoga mat. After all, I wouldn’t use a street map to navigate the underground, or a bus planner if I intended to cycle.
“If you’re doing yoga with your body you’re not doing yoga.”
The important thing to understand is chakras are only really directly useful on an experiential level. It is in the unity of the physical, the sensory and awareness that enables us to experience chakras. In effect they could be described as a psycho-physical process of embodiment.
So if chakras are just a concept - all be it one that, when used skillfully, can inform how we are in our bodies, why do we need them at all? Why were they ‘invented’ in the first place? What can they add to our yoga tool box that we can’t achieve by other approaches to practice?
The wind, breath or vital energy (vayu, prana or prana vayu) is conceptually and practically the link between the physical and subtle bodies. Feuerstein asserts you can trace both the organic sense of breath and the association between wind and breath from the period of the vedas through the classical Ayruveda of Susruta and Charaka and the psycho-physiology of yoga.
In Hatha Yoga the practitioner must first be able to assume the basic asana. Assuming the asana with bodily intelligent alignment and attention on the body, breath and ‘feel of the posture’ the structural physical body of bones and muscles maintains alignment so that the breath is able to be controlled and ‘stopped’. The spinal column is the central axis of the physical body, which must be kept in correct alignment even in challenging posture or vigorous practice.
When a practitioner learns to assume ‘correct position’, moving into that position is understood to make the prana or vayu course through the body controlling and harmonising it. Siva Samita (III, 90) states, ‘by performing and practicing this posture (padmasana), undoubtably the vital airs of the practitioner at once become completely equable, and flow harmoniously through the body.’ Certain poses are considered important in developing control of the breath and the internal winds. in the Siva Samita (III.96) assuming swatiskanasana is understood to bring ‘regulation of the air ... he obtains vayu siddhi’ and thereby becomes accomplished in controlling the wind or breath.
Each yoga pose has it’s own logic which, if we’re attentive, defines how it should be performed. Correct practice encourages breathing naturally - both relaxing unnecessary tensions while maintaing an asana and utilizing the breath in movement, for example during vinyasa or even entering or exiting a single posture. Correct breathing develops over time and will happen with attention and relaxation during the practice, and off the mat during day to day activities.
In addition to the natural coordination of breath with exercise, a practitioner can employ breath control techniques (pranayama) to help activate and circulate the ‘internal energy’ or prana vayu, thus filling out the asana or form.
Loosening up the Self-Image
But all of these yoga techniques can be further assisted if we, while practicing yoga or Kum Nye, breathing exercises or yoga pranayama, and indeed in daily life, learn to feel the body - or the sensations we call the body, and then thoroughly relax into what we feel. All this is done without conceptualizing or labeling the experience, and with an open sense of awareness. The resulting sense of space and openness allows us to transcend the physical and we become embodied.
Think of yoga as a verb not a noun. Because yoga practices are not things or commodities, but active, engaged, embodied doing, they are intersections where personal social and cosmological experiences and realities are negotiated. A yoga practice is not a history - we can’t practice yoga without awareness, but practices always exist within and simultaneously create histories, or identities. Likewise a practice isn’t a discourse, but implicit in any practice are one or more discourses and perhaps paradigms through which the experience of practice might be reflected upon and possibly explained.
Chakras practices then aren’t so useful in isolation but as part of the yoga whole they can be invaluable. Their uses includes allowing us to become aware of the feeling of a relaxed spacious body, or sense of self. Skillfully used, they are part of what could be called ‘incorporating practices’, practices through which the body, and therefore experience and meaning are shaped into actual action and behavior. Yoga as a body-mind, or psychophysical, technique is practiced in order that we be transformed to attain a certain normative and idealized relationship between the ‘self’, ‘agency’, ‘power’ and behavior. Ideally, the yogi’s ‘self’ is reconstituted through long term practice to achieve a way of being in the body, and a type of behavior which can be deployed personally, socially and perhaps even cosmologically. Such a transformation can only be actualized through the body-in-practice.
Notes and Bibliography:
Dem Bones, Dry Bones or Dem Dry Bones is a traditional song, sometimes used to teach basic anatomy to children, although its description is not anatomically correct! The melody was written by African-American author and songwriter James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938). The lyrics are based on Ezekiel 37:1-14, where the prophet visits the Valley of Dry Bones and causes them to become alive by God's command.
The Chime Rimpoche quote is anecdotal and taken from my notes from various courses with Maarten Vermasse. ‘Loosening up the Self-Image’ is the name of an exercise from Kum Nye Tibetan Yoga.
Georg Feuerstein, The Yoga Tradition, Hohm Press 1998 (mainly referenced chapter 2.8)
Lama Govinda, Psycho-cosmic Symbolism of the Buddhist Stupa, Dharma Publishing 1976 (mainly in chapter 3, psycho-cosmic images of man)
Douglas E. Harding, On Having No Head, Sholland Trust 1986
Mark Johnson, The Body in the Mind, UCP 1987 (general background reading)
Swami Saradananda, Chakra Meditation, Duncan Baird 2008 (general reference)
Swami Sivananada Radha, Kundalini Yoga for the West, Timeless Books 2004 (general background reading on a specific approach to chakras from one lineage)
Geshe Tashi Tsering, Foundation of Buddhist Thought, Part 6: An Overview of Tantric Paths and Grounds, Jamyang 2003 (mainly chapter 6, The nature of Body and Mind)
Tarthang Tulku, Kum Nye - Tibetan Yoga, Dharma Publishing 2007 (Exercise 54 - page 259, exercise 72 ‘Embodiment’ - page 309)
Rai Bahadur Srisa Chandra Vasu, The Siva Samhita, Munshiram Manoharial Pub. 2002