A few years ago, my youngest son was arguing with his friend about the age of Honey, our wild golden retriever. His friend insisted that Honey was five, because the dog had been alive that many years. Said Gabe, "Sometimes Honey is really one, like when he chews our shoes; sometimes he's 89, like when he pretends he's too old to listen when you call. He could be any age, depending."
The point that Gabe made was one of perspective, and reminds me of the proverbial description of the elephant, which looks different to people standing near the tail versus the trunk. And guess what? The issue of perspective also applies to chakras, the subtle energy bodies that manage physical, psychological, and spiritual functions.
If you've ever taken a yoga class—or studied the chakras—you've probably been told that you have seven chakras. And you do—sort of. The truth is that the number of chakras you might perceive, as well as ideas about their function, is based on cultural viewpoint. For instance, a few hundred years ago, many Hindu experts said there are six, not seven, chakras. Yet others counted dozens of chakras. And yet, most people in the West conclusively believe there are seven Hindu-based chakras.
In this article, I’m asking you to suspend your current perception of chakras and join me on an around the world—and across time—tour. We're going to examine several chakra systems, each of which testifies to various numbers of chakras, as well as perceptions of their tasks. The source of this information is my new book, Llewellyn's Complete Book of Chakras, which contains the research behind my statements.
Before we initialize our passports, I want to ask the obvious question: Why do most Westerners believe there are seven chakras? We've to thank that figure to the introduction of the book The Serpent Power into the West in 1919. Written by Sir John Woodroffe, who wrote under the pen name Arthur Avalon, this book shared several tantric and shakti yoga secrets from the East, specifically India.
Avalon framed the chakras as points of consciousness, or doorways into Spirit. Through the chakras, a human can receive ethereal truths and develop into beings of higher awareness. Ironically, Avalon outlined six chakras, advising that the top chakra, frequently called the crown, seventh, or Sahasrara chakra, isn't actually a chakra, but rather a summation of the energetic system. Regardless of his technical differentiation, Westerners formalized this crown point as a chakra and decreed that there are seven in-body chakras, which lock into and emanate from the spine.
Who of us hasn't seen the typical visualization of the chakras? The lowest in-body chakra emits from the coccyx and regulates our security issues. Moving upward, we meet the orange or emotional chakra; the yellow and mental subtle center; the green and relationship-based center; the blue communication vessel; the purple organ devoted to vision and clairvoyance; and the crown, glowing white and representing spirituality. Here is our "rainbow self," composed of subtle energy vessels that transform us at every level, mundane and divine. This metamorphic process is activated by a rich electromagnetic energy called kundalini, which when activated in the first chakra, pulses up the spine, clearing our blocks and enticing us into the state of enlightenment.
But that's only one point of view.
Let's start our expedition in the East, starting in the Indian region, to sample a few of the innumerable systems involving chakras or chakra-like energy bodies.
Ancient India was actually a hotbed of varying ideas. One of the earliest sources of chakra-ology, the Bhagavata-purana, lists six locations for the chakras. Pinpointed are the navel, heart, and breast, root of the palate, eyebrow area, and the cranium. A related work, emerging in the Yogini Kaula School around the eleventh century BCE, outlines eight chakras, which are to be meditated upon to acquire magical powers.
Centuries later, Kriya yoga guru Swami Paranabananda Giri suggested that in addition to six chakras there are also two other spiritual centers, both in the brain and found above each ear. These only activate when performing higher spiritual practices. In Kriya yoga, the seventh chakra is pictured as a light that emanates from the head. Once an initiate engages with this site, they can enter the realm of an eighth chakra, located about a foot above the head.
We uncover a medley of differing ideas in Kashmir Shaivism, with most agreeing that there are five chakras. Each of these chakras participates in the rising of the kundalini, assisting with bodily and spiritual transformation. The kundalini activates in the lowest of these five chakras in response to one of six promptings, which are to recognize the Supreme, dream for peace, serve humanity, aspire strength, use the kundalini serpent power, or initiate others in their own kundalini process.
Stepping into Tibet, we pause to examine chakras in Tibetan Buddhism, a spirituality that blends Buddhist philosophy and tantric or yogic ideas. Within this approach, chakras are typically referred to as doors or channel wheels. Considered part of our physical being, these channel wheels ultimately help us achieve a sense of emptiness, a crucial Buddhist goal.
In general, within this form of Buddhism, also called Tantric Buddhism or Vajrayana, there are four main channel wheels, although some systems number five, seven, or ten wheels. Simplistically, the channel wheels rely on red and white subtle drops, which are comparable to kundalini, and subtle winds that run through the body’s energy channels. Awakened is a tummo, or inner fire, which leads to enlightenment and extrasensory abilities. I love the names of these wheels, which include "Great Bliss Chakra," "Enjoyment Chakra," and "Manifesting Chakra."
Throughout Asia, there are dozens of systems that incorporate chakras or similar subtle bodies, including the acupoints of Traditional Chinese Medicine and the pressure points of Japanese Shiatsu. One particular Korean system, written about by a Korean sage to describe his own enlightenment experience, professes three internal and four external energy centers called the dahnjons. Similar to the chakras, these enable a gradual awakening to our humanity, earthliness, and heavenliness. On the African continent, we find energy systems featured in ancient Egypt and within Kamitic spirituality and medicine, such as amongst the Zulu and Yoruba. The Zulu and Kamitic systems, along with the Jewish Kabbalah, showcase a Tree of Life featuring spheres that operate very much like the chakras. I'm personally most fascinated by the Yoruba orishas, which are spirits that dwell within the body in the same sites as the Hindu locates the chakras. These orishas intercede between the human and divine worlds and counterbalance the presence of the ajogun, or negative spirits. I like to think that these angelic forces are truly present in my chakras.
Unifying many cultures, including Egypt, India, and Persia, is the Hermetic tradition. Hermeticism is a collection of beliefs that acknowledge the interaction between the heavenly and the physical realities. Many Hermetic philosophies embrace a belief in invisible energy, human consciousness, and the subtle anatomy, including chakra-like centers. At the core of the Hermeticism are "mystery traditions" composed of practices that connect the invisible universe inside and outside of us. Chakras are vessels for this linkage.
We travel to the Americas and find dozens of cultures that have embraced chakra-ology. My favorite is the Tsalgi or Cherokee tribe, whose members believe they come from the Pleiades. Their cosmology depicts the earth and physical body as constructed from equivalent webs of meridians, matrixes, and interconnecting points, which include the chakras.
Within the body are five doorways (chakras), which must be unblocked to allow in three higher fires. Each processes a certain type of block. For instance, the solar plexus transforms negative thoughts to achieve higher action. The throat center draws upon the power of the voice to say "yes" and make it so. In addition to these are five other centers. Amongst these, the navel receives five subtle airs and five rivers to nourish our five bodily systems. Yet another is located at the hands and feet, link with a single energy that moves around the body.
Hundreds of other energetic systems portray the chakras in all their brilliance. Some number dozens of chakras, found both in and outside of the body. Others emphasize only three or four chakras. Yet others link the chakras to other types of energy bodies, to the center of the earth, and to the twinkling stars. Equally fascinating is the fact that chakra knowledge is continually expanding.
Within my book, I outline dozens of other chakric systems, but also highlight emerging ideas. Contemporary individuals perceive the addition or development of new chakras, such as the zeal chakra, which is located at the base of the skull. Also called the Well of Dreams, the Ascension chakra, and the Mouth of God, this chakra governs interdimensional communication and astral travel. It seems to be one of many compelling us into a finer future—and in my view, relates to a chakra called the brahmarandra, perceived long ago by the Hindu, and considered a second outlet of the crown chakra.
In the end, the incredible kaleidoscope of chakra knowledge spread across time is exciting, and proves the fact chakras are a long-standing fact in hundreds of cultures. The variance in chakra and energy systems can be attributed to our different ways of seeing reality, based on cultural and ethnic experience. But in the end, all perceptions lead to the same truth: We are fully human and divine, able to embrace matters of earth—and the stars, simultaneously.