I’m taking a break from blogging about yoga and population health to jump back into the chakras (correct spelling: cakra) and talk about some recent, exciting writing. Although I will tie all this stuff back together soon enough because one of the reasons we are interested in cakras is because they provide a non-materialistic, alternative perspective from which to consider human health – and these kinds of alternative models are sorely missing from the health care conversation. “We” includes my husband Brett, who is a social worker/futurist/prevention specialist/remarkable systems thinker, who keeps me up late at night mulling this stuff over when we should be sleeping or at least washing the dishes.
Recently, I read Christopher Wallis blog “The Real Story of the Cakras.” I appreciate his and Christopher Tompkin’s work on the topic of the cakras – it’s refreshing to have some academic input on a subject that has been largely in the hands of people who didn’t seem to be that interested in Indian thought to begin with.
But I also have a few things to say about how this argument is being framed. I think Tompkin’s reference to Jung’s 1932 lectures on Kundalini, as the foundation of contemporary cakra thought, is reductive and inaccurate. Well at least directly. New Age thinking and writing about the cakras has been something of a psychology festival – of course you can trace it back to Jung – as you can with lots of pop psychology theories.
But Jung’s text was not widely available in English until 1996. Hence the idea that the western cakra system is based on his writings is inadequate since many of the New Age texts were written in America in the eighties. You won’t find the book which contains the transcriptions of Jung’s lectures, The Psychology of Kundalini Yoga, in the bibliographies of Judith (at least the first edition), Motoyama, Myss, or other late twentieth century authors.
Because Jung’s theory was influenced by eastern thought, it’s understandable that upon learning about the cakra system, western writers projected (with an ironic bow to Carl) their Jungian influenced ideas about psychology onto that system – especially because of the petals, or vrittis, which each represent different human propensities or tendencies of mind.
As for sources, what is more accurate I think is the possibility that New Age thought on cakras largely resulted from Theosophical and early twentieth century occult interest and Orientalism. And, if you trace it even further back, you may land in a Harry Potter-like realm of exoteric medieval western alchemists like Johann Gichtel.
Clearly there was influence on western alchemy by Rasayana (Indian alchemy), Persian and perhaps Chinese alchemy – ideas about the energy centers were being culturally exchanged long before the twentieth century.
In those older texts are references to some of the gems stones, planets, herbs, and other paraphernalia you see crop up in New Age writing. Which gems stones, etc. would be in accordance with the specific system – western, Persian, Indian, Chinese, etc.
Jung’s theory was influenced by Eastern thought for sure and certainly he, Campbell, and from there on through to Wilbur, used the cakra system as a lens to view developmental theory. I think that’s a fairly interesting take on the cakras as described by the Tantrics – especially in light of the vrittis/petals. But most of the populist New Age writers did not share, or understand, Jung’s lens and so we have ended up with what I like to call “Cakra Dogma,” which is an amalgamation of various twentieth century writers. Incidentally, there is an almost complete disregard for Woodroffe’s The Serpent Power – perhaps because the information just wasn’t accessible to those New Age writers.
In the second edition of The Serpent Power, Woodroffe politely chastised Leadbeater for misleading westerners with his wildly popular 1927 book, The Chakras, insinuating that Leadbeater’s ideas were not what the Tantrics were talking about. Incidentally, The Chakras remains to this day, the most widely distributed publication of the Theosophical Society and one of the most popular cakra books of all times.
The rainbow cakra system can be traced to Christopher Hill’s 1977 book Nuclear Evolution, at least in terms of New Age thinking on the system. The rainbow might be the main ingredient of cakra dogma – after all, it just fits so neatly – 7 cakras, 7 colors. Sorry for the sarcasm, but however lovely rainbows are, they have almost nothing to do with the system as the Tantrics described it, certainly not in the way that they understood the tattvas or elements as foundational.
I have heard people say that the rainbow came from ancient Egyptian accounts of the system, but I have yet to find any sources, so if you have some, please let me know!
Another issue I have with Wallis’ post is that I am skeptical about the subtle body being solely a random projection for whatever kind of nyasa you are into. Nyasa is the very well known Tantric technique of mentally “placing” the mantra or deity in the body. This idea that the cakras could be anywhere is not ontologically consistent with other aspects of the yoga tradition (the śariras and kośas for example) where the subtle is causal to the physical and therefore has at least some matrix-like or blueprint reality.
Indian women have been putting a bindi on their third eye for centuries and if you’ve ever talked to a monk about his turban (or a jew about his yamaka for that matter) – there is lots of experiential ground of some energy structure that is not purely subjective or relative. And then there’s the ever popular heart center and, well, I have a hard time thinking it’s just a nyasa construct. I think there is an energy basket there, and at other points along the central channel, to put the nyasa in.
This is also evidenced in the cross model reference of Chinese medicine acupoints. All the seven cakra concentration points are frequently needled. Well except for muladhara, which is a powerful point and fortunately, a little challenging to needle. Also I don’t think the vishuddha is frequently needled but I’ll check with my acupuncture friends. I have a lot of other things to say about local and non-local reality of the centers, but I’ll save that for another time.
I agree that the whole idea of a relationship between the energy centers and the glands remains reductive and crude, but perhaps this is because western scientific instrumentation is not yet powerful enough to detect these subtle structures. Richard Maxwell has done some interesting speculation about this though.
At any rate, I am so incredibly grateful to have people talking about this stuff in a wider way in the yoga world. It’s a relief to not be the only rainbow party pooper out there.