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The Subtle Body Part 1-Uprooting How We Think About Chakras
A couple of years ago, while browsing in Barnes and Noble with my son, I noticed a table piled with exotic book-shaped boxes. A sign read: “Chakra balancing kits, $12.99.” The kits contained essential oils, some polished stones, and a deck of cards—the combination of which promised to align my chakras (at an affordable price).
I am not averse to simple solutions, and it may very well be that stones, oils, and the spectrum of chakra accessories out there are beneficial to the subtle body. After all, they appeal to our innate sense of holism and interconnectedness. But I can’t help wondering if I’ve been duped. If Barnes and Noble can balance my chakras for just $12.99, why have I been practicing yoga all these years? My issue with kits (or chakra singing bowls, banners, laminated charts, teas and smoothies, apps, etc.), is not that they are ineffectual, it’s that they tend to minimize and obscure the importance of the subtle body and its role in health and healing.
The cutting edge of Integrative Medicine isn’t an edge at all, it’s vibrational. Modalities like acupuncture, homeopathy, reiki, sound healing, and flower essences have grown tremendously over the last 30 years in their reach, acceptance, and application. Anecdotes and research continue to attest to their efficacy, and yet the mechanisms through which they work remain largely mysterious.
These modalities affect some sort of improved functioning of the subtle body. It’s through this effect that health benefits (physical, mental/emotional and perhaps even spiritual) can be catalyzed. A challenge is that Western science, for the most part, has not yet developed tools subtle enough to measure or evaluate these processes. A bigger challenge is this: The reductive, mechanistic thinking that has been at the root of Western science and medicine for the last few centuries is insufficient to explain vibrational healing. So hardcore science rolls its bespectacled eyes and writes off the chakra system as New Age fluff. Add to that quite a bit of, shall we say, “creativity” in the chakra field (which I believe derives from the lack of a solid framework that can guide scientific inquiry) and, well, you get a rainbowed miscellany of chakra paraphernalia and therapies.
Whatever you think causes a problem will determine how you look for solutions. So in health care, conceptual models are incredibly important, because they determine what we do to treat illness. The current lifestyle disease crisis reveals that Western science has stretched the limits of its conceptual models. If its conceptual model was complete, Western medicine would work. But the fact that there is so much illness tells us that these models need help, they need to expand. They are necessary, but insufficient.
Yoga practitioners and professionals are heirs to a legacy of a very different way of thinking about what it means to be human and to be healthy. And I think to some extent, the yoga community has attempted to understand and embody a broader way of thinking. But until you consciously drag your thinking out into the open and dissect it, it’s extremely difficult to adopt new perspectives. What has happened instead is that we take concepts like the chakra system and tweak them to fit into our Western way of thinking. Our thinking is so close to who we are that it’s like asking a fish to think about the water it’s swimming in. The lake of thinking that we Westerners swim in is a reductive, mechanistic, materialistic one. So if you introduce something like the chakra system into that ecosystem, it spawns something very different than it would in its native waters.
In the West, we tend to think about ourselves, our lives, and our health from the ground up. The body creates the brain and the mind is what the brain does. As for energy, well, it’s a little out there, but okay, we can go with it. Maybe we can design a machine to measure the body’s energy and then we’ll know something empirical about the subtle body—because that’s how we think about investigating phenomena. We tend to think in this direction: There is a physical body, the physical body has a neuroendocrine system, the neuroendocrine system creates a vibration, and that vibration is the chakra system; therefore, chakras are in, or at least floating along with, the physical body.
If you turn that paradigm on its head, you get something closer to the Eastern, or tantric perspective of the system. From this perspective your chakras are not in your body, your body is in your chakras. You are a being that has come into existence through the consciousness inherent in the ocean of Brahman, or oneness. That oneness intentionally takes shape through the manifestation of five great elements (mahatattvas) and the three forms of energy (gunas). You are one of the results. You are a fractal of this universe. Hence the elements have mixed, along with your unique karmic impressions, to create an energetic blueprint of you. Your physical structure, your body, necessarily manifests in accordance with the energetic blueprint of your subtle body. The causal pathway is spirit to mind to energy to body. This also resonates with the idea of the kośas or layers of self that are spelled out in the Upaniśads.
Certainly an understanding of the chakra system would look different from this perspective. And by the way, I’m not suggesting that this is the “proper” way of thinking about chakras, only that it is the worldview or underlying thinking structures that give us the difference between the Eastern and the Western models. Different chakra models—East and West—are the tips of the iceberg. What is underwater is the way we see the world in general. And, by the way, all models are wrong, but some are useful. Perhaps it could be useful to at least be aware that there is an underwater part of our thinking and to start to explore that uncharted territory. Through this exploration we can find a way to link East and West and come up with a synthetic model that can offer both a materialistic and a non-materialistic way to look at health and human thriving. These are the kind of models that can give us an expanded idea of human existence and offer us clues for how to address the mental and physical health challenges we face. Understanding the tantric perspective on the chakra system may be useful in better understanding who we are as human beings and how we heal and thrive.
Kristine Kaoverii Weber, MA, E-RYT 500 has been studying yoga and holistic healing for nearly 30 years, teaching since 1995, and training yoga teachers since 2003. Her organization, Subtle®Health provides holistic yoga based trainings, education, and clinical services with the mission of enhancing community health infrastructure. She is the director of the Subtle® Yoga Teacher Training for Behavioral Health Professionals program at MAHEC in Asheville, NC; presents workshops and trainings internationally, and is frequently invited to speak about yoga at health care conferences. Kristine is the author of Healing Self Massage and has published articles in Yoga Therapy in Practice and other wellness publications. Her work has been featured in Redbook, BodySense, Women's World, Natural Health, and Lifetime TV. She is also a yoga therapist at a partial hospitalization rehab program for drug and alcohol addiction and eating disorders in Asheville, NC. Find out more at www.subtleyoga.com.