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The Subtle Body Part 2-Reclaiming the Tantric Chakras
The medieval tantrics had some substantially different ideas about the chakra system than those that are currently popular in the West today. This is partly because much of today’s perspective was largely influenced by a cluster of books that were published in the ’80s, and are based on material written a half century earlier, Charles Leadbeater’s 1927 Theosophical Society publication, The Chakras. These books present a system meant to be used in aura reading and energy healing, but not necessarily yoga practice, and they bear little resemblance to the original writings.
Today’s standard chakra “dogma” is largely bereft of traditional teachings. For example, it is commonly understood that chakras vibrate with the colors of the rainbow, that they can be seen on other people, that you can manipulate chakras with colors, crystals, flower essences, etc. Ideas like the first chakra is about survival and security, is associated with the physical body, and is red are ubiquitous. But when you look at where these ideas come from, you’ll find an amalgamated model pieced together from various New Age writers and psychic healers, which is quite different from the original system.
If you read the few translated tantric texts, for example The Serpent Power by Sir John Woodroffe, they are dense, obscure, and veiled in metaphor. The texts that are available in English were written or compiled by medieval yogis and require a fair amount of fluency in Indian mythology in order to crack the metaphoric code. Why is there an elephant, a golden square, and an ornately dressed child in my first chakra? Add to this the fact that there are some discrepancies about these symbols in the different Indian texts and things become confusing quickly. Perhaps many of the New Age writers scrapped the esoteric and culturally specific aspects of the tantric texts and replaced them with their own interpretations. This is exactly what Sir John Woodroffe, one of the early translators of the tantric texts, politely suggested Charles Leadbeater had done.
As a yoga practitioner, I want to be able to understand and use yoga to optimize the function of my chakras. I don’t feel like I can do this authentically if the only information I have about the chakras come from late 20th-century psychic healers who have not studied or practiced much yoga. This is not a critique of psychic healing, but that paradigm is not necessarily relevant for yoga. As a yoga practitioner, I want to understand the original worldview through which the chakra system was perceived so that I can understand how to use yoga practices. I need a framework that helps me understand how subtle energy is organized and what I can do with my practices to influence and optimize the function of my subtle body.
One of the foundational aspects of the traditional tantric system that I think gets lost in Western translation is cosmology. For the tantrics, the chakra system is the microcosmic fractal of the cosmic elements (mahatattvas) within each of us. According to the tantrics, the chakra system organizes prana and facilitates essential subtle energy flows which then provide a blueprint for the structure and function of the whole human being—body, mind, and spirit. Chakras are the mechanism through which yoga practices progressively open the pathway for the Kundalini Shakti, the innermost vibrational force, which can then break through blockages in the subtle body and, eventually, unite the individual with the universal force of consciousness and affect various levels of spiritual realization.
In the tantric system the idea of optimizing the function of your chakras is related to bringing the vibration of your own individual elements into harmony with the cosmic elemental vibrations of the universe. It’s an “as above, so below” principle at work here. When you vibrate in closer resonance with the universal elements, your chakras will function better, and that’s what yoga practices were designed to do.
From the tantric perspective, because you are a fractal of the macrocosm, the colors that matter are the ones that vibrate in harmony with the cosmic elements. In the case of the first chakra, which is a microcosm of the earth element. The color that the tantrics understood to help the first chakra vibrate with that cosmic element is golden yellow, like a field of wheat in the sun. The tantrics mentioned different colors in each chakra, but for optimizing the function and affecting the process of self-realization, the color of the element was seen as essential.
Carl Jung looked at the symbols in each of the chakras as key archetypes to understanding the mind. Jung’s book, The Psychology of Kundalini Yoga, contains the transcripts of lectures given in Zurich in 1932 by himself and a German “Indologist” named Wilhelm Hauer. But these lectures were not made widely available until 1996, hence the ’80s New Age books didn’t have the benefit of Jung’s archetypal insight, and you won’t find his lectures in the bibliographies of those first editions either. Jung isn’t the only one who has attempted to translate the system; there have been other writers like Joseph Campbell who extrapolated on Jung’s interpretations and have attempted to understand, what appears to be, a developmental psychology, or at least theory of mind.
The tantric chakra system tends to function within the context of the esoteric culture within which it arose. Bridging the chasm between the Eastern and the Western understanding of the subtle body is not an easy task. But this process may hold the key to evolving useful models for understanding how to optimize subtle energy in the body, and certainly bring more depth to our understanding. And if we can understand the application of the chakra system through the lens of traditional tantric teachings, I think it can offer us a more expanded, holistic model of human health, potential, and thriving.
Study with YogaUOnline and Kristine Kaoverii Weber: Journey to Health-Working With the Subtle Body in Yoga.
Another subtle body article in this series from YogaUOnline and Kristine Kaoverii Weber- The Subtle Body Part 1- Uprooting How We Think About Chakras.
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 inYoga 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.