Putting Chakras in Their Place

Putting Chakras in Their Place

An anatomist studies the maps of our human energy systems.

While 30 years ago a chakra couldn’t get the time of day in my neighborhood, nowadays they’re a veritable growth industry. Hardly a day goes by without a catalog in the mail touting a CD, crystal set, or technique to open, rev up, tune, tone, or soothe my harried chakras. For the longest time I’d gotten by without even realizing that I had chakras, and now I have to maintain them? Heck, I’m still trying to master flossing.

Their currently vibrant commodification aside, chakras are something worth thinking about. As an ethicist by training and an anatomist by avocation, I ground that inquiry in the context of the whole person and the whole body.

The notion of a “chakra system” — a series of spinning vortices of light representing an esoteric or energetic level of human anatomy — can be found in classical medical, religious, and native traditions worldwide. Chakra systems are schematized with a great variety of descriptive characteristics, variously enumerating from six or seven to 108, and more. According to Jeffrey Kripal, Ph.D., chairman of the Department of Religion at Rice University and renowned historian of religion, the word “cakra” (“C” pronounced as “ch,” as in Charles) is of Sanskrit origin and means simply “wheel.” Kripal credits two important sources for the appropriation and proliferation of the word “chakra” in Western thought. One is the popularity of Theosophy beginning in the late nineteenth century.

The modern Theosophical movement was built in large measure upon the esoteric writings of New York’s Helena P. Blavatsky (Secret Doctrine, 1888) and the “radical” politics of London’s Annie Besant (women’s suffrage, birth control, workers’ rights, Indian home-rule). Both of these women ended up in India, where they explored ideas and practices through the branch of the Theosophical Society led by C. W. Leadbeater — Leadbeater published The Chakras in 1927. The interpretation of the chakra system carried forward by Theosophy swirls at the base of the “New Age” conceptions.

Likewise, says Kripal, there was the widely influential monograph of Sir John Woodroffe, The Serpent Power, first published in 1919 and absorbed by luminaries, including Carl Jung. In it, Woodroffe writes how the coiled energy of the Tantric goddess (devi) Kundalini lies in wait at the base of the spine, or root chakra, like a sleeping serpent.

More currently, we have the work of Rosalyn L. Bruyere, a noted clairvoyant healer who has been a key subject as well as lead investigator into the human energy field for over 30 years. In her 1989 book, Wheels of Light, Bruyere carefully documents the accounts of chakra systems found in numerous ancient traditions. Taken within the larger context of a human energy field — commonly referred to in the literature as the “aura” — chakras are described most generally as a particular aspect of the human body’s subtle energy field.

This bit of introductory information is probably enough to get your average, scientific type rolling her eyes, and the more conventionally religious might shudder over the dangers of occult mystery schools and unrestrained New Age fluffery. But as Rosalyn remarked in a telephone conversation, “This is 2009, after all!” The human body indisputably comprises heaps of swirling, light-absorbing and light-emitting atoms. While folks may quibble over how best to describe human energy systems, it is beyond reasonable doubt that such a thing does exist.

Anatomy of a Chakra?

For my part, I have never seen a chakra. I have, however, had my hands deep into the dissection of over 150 human bodies over the past 15 years. The array of shapes and the wisdom of organization and relationships inherent in the human form is truly a marvel to behold. I know that matter is composed of energy, and that living matter is relentlessly “on the move.” Cadavers are “still photos” of that living matter. The forms and their internal relationships point to greater truths about the body.

Take the tiny pineal gland. About the size of a pine nut, this soft mass of cells is rooted to the thalami by tiny “legs.” Richly vascular, 40 percent magnetite in substance, and surrounded by several pounds of electrochemically lit nerve and glial cells, the pineal is centrally positioned over a veritable fountain of cerebrospinal fluid. The whole package of cranial contents — with that little biomagnetic pineal “body” — exists within multiple layered bags of piezoelectric fascia, the meningeal membranes. Those membranes adhere to the inner walls of the cranium, which is itself a great apatite-crystalline egg. I couldn’t make this stuff up! Just at a physical level, we have a spectacular arrangement of tissues with significant conductive and emanative properties, like some sort of extremely high-tech antenna. And despite my lack of clairvoyant abilities, it requires no great leap to imagine this whole system as a “crown chakra,” absorbing and emitting various signature frequencies of light.

Beyond the inspiration of gross anatomy, there are also abundant sources for furthering our understanding of the scientific basis for the human energy field, among them the Superconducting Quantum Interference Device (SQUID). SQUIDs are fantastically sensitive, capable of detecting extremely low-frequency magnetic fields and fluxes. Since the 1960s, they have been used to differentiate subtle magnetic emanations throughout the human body. Other detection devices are the MRI, which sometimes actually includes SQUIDs; the electromyograph (EMG), which measures electrical potentials in skeletal muscle tissue; the electroencephalograph (EEG); and the electrocardiograph (EKG). None of these would have much to image or chart, were it not for the invisible magnetic and electrical emanations and conductivity of the human form.

Taking on the Skeptics

The fact that the human body is pulsing with subtle energies and detectable electromagnetic phenomena, however, fails to stand, in itself, as specific evidence of chakras. And, the considerable differences in the chakra literature, from author to author and from tradition to tradition, might seem to be evidence of chakras’ nonexistence. But hold on. The lack of agreement by experts on complex phenomena is hardly unusual. Experts on the economy hold forth tenaciously to exactly opposite positions; experts in physics proffer drastically divergent models of the very structure of the universe, and I can personally attest that experts in the field of anatomy identify dramatically different perspectives and emphases of the physical human form in a manner utterly confusing to most people. It is therefore unfair to demand of experts in a field as complex as human energy systems that they all agree on every point. The structure of the human energy field, if it has anything to do with the physical body at all, will be correspondingly intricate. Even a great variety of interpretations and conceptualizations for simplifying such a complex and living reality will not exhaust the potential ways one could approach the subject. We can, however, try on different approaches for size to see how they fit.

The Observer Problem

I have found that what you actually see in the physical human form is completely dependent upon what you’re looking for. If you see the body as a machine, you will look for — and you’ll find — discrete and separable parts: you will create them with your idea and with your scalpel, and there they will be: a liver here, an eyeball there. If you see the body as an “onion tree” (the organic model with which I primarily work), you will look for, and find, and demonstrate for anyone to behold, layers and continuities: a great fleece of superficial fascia here, a heart tree with its intact branches gloriously extending from trunk to periphery there. Both approaches discern in the physical body aspects of what is there, and then abstract what they find from the greater reality as a matter of emphasis. But the reality of the body is neither the collection of its parts nor a series of textural layers; it is, rather, a nearly infinitely complex whole.

Reflecting on the chakras then, we might consider them as points of emphasis, abstracted and mindfully specified out of the whole that is the living and moving energies of the human field. Just as endocrinologists, gastroenterologists, and orthopedists will have very different relationships with and levels of interest in the pancreas, for example, we can fully expect different perceptions, interpretations, and schematizations of the chakras from those who perceive and work with them directly. And, as an anatomist may spend a lifetime looking at certain aspects of the body without much concern in others, those who work with the subtle energies of the human body may or may not have much to do with chakras.

Clairvoyant Views

There’s a young clairvoyant and a healer named Adam of increasingly epic stature in western Canada. Neither in his healing work, nor in his four books, nor in his instructional DVD, nor in his packed-to-the-walls workshops on the subject of self-healing through visualization and intention, does he place any particular emphasis on chakras. Adam told me that he imagined that schematizations of chakra systems “were created and simplified for teaching and instructional purposes. Where there is more metabolic activity in the body, such as the heart, I see an increase of light intensity, so there may be some correlation between chakras and metabolic activity. I do not work with them as discrete points of activity. My guideline is how the person’s energy is flowing. I can ‘see’ when a person does effective visualizations through intention — [his] energy moves, changing patterns and flow. That is when I know that the person is influencing [his] own health.”

Ron Lavin is also a clairvoyant teacher and healer, and like Adam, Lavin has “seen” the human energy field his whole life. He acted on his gifts, helping others develop their own skills in service of others and founding 14 healing schools here and abroad. He offers a particularly poetic and spiritual perspective, flowing from his vision of the world and the body as expressions of divine source.

He wrote to me: “Chakras are like God’s breath, swirling energy from light into matter. The chakras vibrate from higher to lower frequencies, as they move down the chakra systems through the body.” He further says, “In rare moments of unity consciousness, I have seen, felt, and exchanged smiles and nods with the elemental energetics of various chakras’ essences. Looking like lotus flowers tossing their lazy heads in the wind, while riding on the buoyant rolling waters, it’s no wonder the ancients acknowledged them as variations of various floral images. As an aspect of light, they work to refresh the soul’s creation.”

In this account, the chakra system is a luminous reality: Lavin likens chakras to “the flowing waters of great ancient river systems, with their eddying whirlpools, endlessly moving back and forth from bank to bank, shifting their courses, while displacing and removing natural and foreign debris.”

When Lavin “puts the chakras in their place,” it is in a decidedly spiritual place, an aspect of the soul’s metabolism in motion. In his own words, “Pure spiritual revitalizing essence moves into and through our bodies from Source, as requested from our glandular systems, always at the beck and call of our vital organs. Spiritual essence may also enter and refresh the body from a healer, by employing light, will, and intention.” This type of healing happens “always and only in harmony with a healer’s willingness to accept [his or her] own growth and change. This is how healing becomes integrated into our lives.”

So while chakra systems form a more integral part of the healing work and spiritual orientation of Ron Lavin than they do for Adam, these adepts do share some common ground. The health of the whole person involves consciously directing and yielding to flows of energy. Further, the movements of subtle energy are something for which we enjoy ultimate responsibility, and with that responsibility, we are empowered.

Mapping the Chakras

When I asked Rosalyn Bruyere how she was able to accumulate so much detailed information about the chakras in her book Wheels of Light, she remarked that it “helps” to be able to see the aura! “In our culture, seeing is believing . . . whatever it is those of us who see the energy field see is probably not the whole picture, but it’s certainly part of the picture.” She also noted that the cartoonish drawings of rainbows in so many depictions of the aura and the chakras fail to represent in a meaningful way the living, complex reality that people like herself, Adam, and Ron Lavin see as a matter of course. In Bruyere’s frame of reference, this is “right-brain” activity, so the more you read about it and think about it, the more you theorize and schematize, the further you get from the experience.

On the subject of auras, Rosalyn shared a fun tidbit regarding her role as a consultant for the 1980 classic film Resurrection. In it, Academy Award winner Ellen Burstyn plays a woman who develops healing abilities as the sequelae of an accident. Burstyn, as Bruyere tells it, was so skillfully empathetic an actress, that by imitating Bruyere’s disposition and manner in preparation for her part, the actress herself actually began to see auras as well!

Over several years prior, Bruyere participated in research sponsored by the Rolf Institute of Structural Integration, conducted by Dr. Valerie Hunt of the UCLA Kinesiology Department. Up until this study, particular frequency emanations detected by the EMG instrumentation of the day were considered to be mere electronic noise and “artifacts” on the oscilloscope. Hunt and Bruyere were able to parse the jumble of seemingly chaotic frequencies. They correlated them with the auric emanations of the human subjects in the study — specifically, a Rolfer and her client, who were monitored by the electronic instrumentation in one room, and Bruyere in another. In other words, Hunt began to “see” on the frequency tape what Bruyere could “see” from her clairvoyant vantage. Hunt and Bruyere were able to identify characteristic frequency ranges associated with the designated locations of various chakras. (Hunt’s 1977 Project Report is available through the Rolf Institute in Boulder, Colorado.)

Bruyere is still involved in research at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, the protocols of which are overseen by the research board of Johns Hopkins University.

I am sure that if I were to continue surveying more historical context, additional gifted individuals, and further scientific data, the conversation would grow richer still. Though a seemingly elusive subject — or the lofty purview of psychics and inscrutable scientific instrumentation — our access to our chakra system is actually quite immediate. Chakras cannot be dissected out of their continuity with the total energy field, as they are not lumps of separable matter, nor light bulbs that can be flipped on or off. Yet the movements within each of us, the flows of energy inherent to embodied human life, the emotions we feel swirling, and our connection to one another and the living matrix in which we are all embedded — all of these can be understood in terms of ranges of frequencies and vibrations. We each express ourselves more or less unconsciously, negotiating with ourselves and others with habitual patterns. But we alter our emission and absorption spectra throughout our bodies as we do so. It is possible to heighten our awareness, leaving behind our conditioned thinking and beliefs, by opening ourselves to new choices and experiences. Without ever seeing a chakra, our lives can unfold like a thousand-petaled lotus.

On Placing the Chakras

Reviewing material for this article, I noted more disagreement with regard to the lower chakras than the upper ones. While some Tibetans identify six rather than seven major chakras, most systems circulating on the shelves of my office count seven. Both Rosalyn Bruyere and Barbara Brennan indicate main chakras beyond the seven and at levels not normally associated with the physical body.

Authors seem to converge with respect to the crown, third eye, throat, and heart chakras as numbers 7, 6, 5, and 4, respectively. Identifications are more diverse for the third chakra. It carries associations with the spleen, solar plexus, adrenals, or pancreas. Similarly, the second chakra is variously identified with the solar plexus, “Peyer’s patches” (intestinal lymphatic tissue), or the gonads. Finally, the first, root, or base chakra, depending on the system, will be associated with the nerve plexus at the tip of the coccyx, or the gonads, or even the adrenal glands. The minor chakras are even more diversely categorized, depending on the level of esotericism, and some will link a minor chakra to every joint in the body.

Gil Hedley, Ph.D., is the author of Reconceiving My Body, the founder of Somanautics Workshops, Inc., and the producer of The Integral Anatomy Series on DVD, which documents his whole body, layer-by-layer approach to the human form. You can connect with him at

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