Yoga’s Energy Centers: What Science Says About the Chakras
If you practice a yogic lifestyle in the West, you most likely have been exposed to a myriad of products advertised to “balance your chakras.” From essential oil blends to fist-sized crystals to polished rocks, many of these products are designed to be aesthetically pleasing and affordable. But do they work? More importantly, what do we know about the chakras in the West? This article explores the chakra system and investigates their meaning from a scientific perspective.
What Are the Chakras?
At their heart, the chakras are what Hindu spiritual traditions describe as seven centers of concentrated metaphysical energetic positioned from the base of the spine to the crown of the head. The word “chakra” translates to “wheel” in Sanskrit. Each chakra is thought to vibrate at its own frequency in a circular pattern, funneling energy from the universe into the body’s energetic system. Although the chakra system may be discussed among yoga practitioners, it is often regarded as myth among scientific communities, largely because scientists in the West have conducted very little research on the topic.
Anatomical Theories of the Chakras
Although empirical research on the chakras is limited, several scholars in the West have attempted to link the chakras with anatomical locations in the physical body. For example, the chakras have been theorized to align with several major nerve plexuses and endocrine glands. Commonly, the chakras are linked with the esophageal, aortic, hypogastric, and pelvic plexuses and the prefrontal cortex and neocortex, among other anatomical structures (1).
Yet in an article on the physiological foundation of chakra expression, psychologist Richard Maxwell calls previous anatomical theories of the chakras “overly zealous attempts to reduce chakras to a physical structure” (2).
Instead, Maxwell proposes a model of understanding the chakras through gap junctions, or the channels between the cytoplasm of two adjacent cells that allow communication via the passage of ions, molecules, and electrical impulses. He theorizes that the chakras align with regions with high densities of intracellular gap junctions that arose during embryological development. This theory builds on previous scientific work by Charles Shang that attempted to explain both chakras and meridians as arising from intracellular networks between undifferentiated cells involved in embryological development (3).
Functional Theories of the Chakras
Other researchers have proposed functional theories of the chakras. For example, Joseph Loizzo, Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychiatry in Complementary and Integrative Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College, has linked modern maps of the central nervous system (CNS) with maps of the subtle body (1). Loizzo proposes that the chakras can be cross-referenced with maps of the central nervous system: the crown chakra with the neocortex, the third eye with the prefrontal cortex, the throat chakra with the limbic system, the heart chakra with the midbrain, the solar plexus with the pons, the sacral and root chakras with the medulla oblongata.
Rather than controlling a specific part of the body, as previous scientific models of the chakras have proposed, the model by Loizzo links the chakras with brain-body structures that provide the conscious mind with information about the CNS and its processes (1). Nonetheless, Loizzo states that scientists cannot empirically assess this theory because the technology necessary to do so is still lacking.
Psychological Theories of the Chakras
In addition to its ties to anatomy and embryonic development, chakra theory has been discussed in association with Western paradigms of psychological development. Most frequently, chakra theory is compared with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which outlines an order of needs that one must satisfy in order to develop and grow. For example, in her book Eastern Body, Western Mind: Psychology and the Chakra System as a Path to the Self, Anodea Judith (4) relates Maslow’s need for physiological safety with the root chakra, safety with the sacral chakra, belonging with the solar plexus, self-esteem with the heart chakra, self-actualization with the throat chakra, and transcendence with the third eye and crown chakras (4).
Furthermore, chakra theory is also frequently related to Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development, which maintains that personality develops in a predetermined order from infancy to adulthood. Judith associates Erikson’s “trust vs. mistrust” stage with the root and sacral chakras, “autonomy vs. shame and doubt” with the solar plexus, “initiative vs. guilt” with the heart chakra, “identity vs. inferiority” with the throat and third eye chakras, and “intimacy vs. isolation,” “generativity vs. self-absorption,” and “integrity vs. despair” with the crown chakra. In her book, Judith also relates chakra theory to a number of other psychological theories of development, including Piaget’s stages of cognitive development, Freud’s psychosexual stages (4).
The main difference between chakra theory and Western psychological theories of development is that chakra theory maps development to energy stored and held in the body. In this sense, viewing development through the lens of the chakras is more holistic, embodied, and more keenly attuned to the mind-body connection than Western paradigms of development. Thus, Western scholars have proposed chakra theory as a stand-alone model for growth-oriented development that is distinct from traditional psychological views of development (5).
Limitations of a Scientific Perspective on the Chakras
Scholarship linking the chakras to psychology is frequently limited to mental and emotional development, whereas anatomical and functional theories of the chakras are nearly always restricted to the physical body. Yet, as Maxwell says, “The challenge for anyone interested in explaining chakras is to be able to demonstrate how something nonphysical could interact with the physical” (2). Evidently, our tendency to see the mind and body as separate entities in the West makes it challenging for chakra theory to be explained.
Modern science still lacks the tools to measure the subtle energy that makes up the chakra system. Both in the academic sphere and in consumer culture, our understanding of the chakra system in the West has been reductive. Although we may look to science to conceptualize the chakras within Western paradigms, at present, looking to historical texts and practices may provide us more powerful insight than modern science into the mind-body aspects of the chakra system.