Thursday, April 25, 2013

Jung's interpretation of the chakra system





Carl Jung’s Interpretation of the Chakra System





       Xena Dreyfuss

Yoga: Theory Culture and Practice

Professor Douglass

April 24, 2013






Carl Jung was the first psychologist to relate many of Yoga’s practices and beliefs into Western psychology. Rather than mystisizing Yoga, like much of the popular literature at his time, he studied the psychological themes found in Yoga (Douglass, 2007). I have found that traditional Yogic texts have a way of putting experiences of my own into words that I can relate to. It seems like human nature to give explanations of occurrences that we notice in the world or experience for ourselves. In the West, experiences are typically explained through a scientific process using empirical, observational evidence. Jung, although a Western empiricist, valued Yoga’s experiential mode of learning about the self. He found that Yoga affirmed many of his own personal experiences and put them in cross cultural contexts that he could understand and further explore (Coward, 1985). Although the unconscious is difficult to observe objectively, Jung viewed the unconscious as empirically real and therefore part of the scientific study of the psyche. He believed that to understand the unconscious, one needs to clearly understand his or her individuality, without viewing it through the opinions of society. Yoga was a parallel way for him to understand the psyche (Coward, 1985). To him the study of chakras was a study of symbols that one encounters as they further develop their individuality and awareness of the unconscious (Coward, 1985). It is my purpose to understand some basic concepts of the chakra system, gain an understanding of Jung’s interpretation, and see to what extent the ancient system of chakras is upheld or dismissed by this empirically minded, yet experientially aware individual.


 Kundalini Yoga

The objective of Yoga is to create a totality of balance between the interacting forces of the mind, body, and spirit. Once complete balance is achieved the awakening and development of the human conscious is possible (Muktibodhananda, 2012). Yoga is a way of becoming aware of the distracting influences of human nature so that one can eliminate these desires. Desires come from our karma, which bring stored habits and memories from previous lifetimes (Coward, 2002). Yoga predated Western psychology in the idea of bringing to light what lies in our unconscious. In Yoga, once one takes appropriate steps towards mental and physical cleansing, then one can achieve a state of transcendent consciousness. At this state, a person is said to be one with Brahman, God or the Universe (Coward, 2002).

According to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, to achieve a balance of energies within oneself, one can look to the forces of creation and destruction within the universe. Prana shakti, meaning life force, is one energy within the universe. The other is manas shakti, or mental force. Everything that is created is the union of the two energies and everything that is destroyed is the separation of the energies. So to create a union within oneself, one must bring together the vital life force with the mental force. The imbalance of prana shakti and manas shakti can cause physical or mental disease. In the West, people tend to be weighted with much mental energy, causing a split of the self and symptoms of disharmony such as stress or schizophrenia (Muktibodhananda, 2012).

The process of Kundalini Yoga involves three flows of energy (Muktibodhananda, 2012). In Sanskrit energy flows are called nadis. The three major nadis are the ida nadi, the flow of consciousness, the pingala nadi, the flow of vital energy, and the sushumna, the flow of spiritual energy. These nadis are represented as the negative flow, positive flow, and neutral flow, respectively. Typically the dominant energy alternates between the positive and negative forces, but when a balance can be achieved through Yoga, they both cease to flow and the spiritual sushumna energy rises. When a union of the three flows occurs at the eyebrow chakra, kundalini energy rises through the sushumna channel and ascends from the lowest chakra to the highest chakra. The arousal of kundalini is the ultimate goal of Yoga, which brings one to a state of higher consciousness and liberation (Muktibodhananda, 2012).

A chakra is a “psychic center in the subtle body; circle, wheel or vortex of energy; conjugation point of the nadis” (Yoga magazine glossary, n.d.). Nelson (1994) describes the seven chakras as “a three thousand year old way of integrating body, mind, and spirit…an ancient idea that has passed the test of time” (The chakra system section, para. 1). There has been a movement in the Western world to become better acquainted with the traditions and practices of the East. “Energy healing” has been influencing medicine and psychology is the Western world (Judith, 2004). The chakra system has become an integrated part of a variety of psychotherapies. Although the body of knowledge on the chakra system is great and is becoming more readily available for persons worldwide to access, this comes with the risk of dilution of the true transformative knowledge. Persons may be enthusiastic to “cleanse” their chakras without really knowing what this means (Judith, 2004). There are seven chakras which have come to be associated with different themes in the branch of psychology (Judith, 2004).  The following is a table with the Sanskrit name, the location, and the central issue of the chakra as related to psychological development.
Table 1 Correspondences of the Seven Chakras

Sanskrit name and meaning
Central issue
Chakra seven
Top of head,cerebral cortex
Chakra five
(to perceive)
Intuition, Imagination
Chakra five
Chakra four
Love, relationships
Chakra three
(lusturous gem)
Solar Plexus
Power, will
Chakra two
Abdomen, genitals, lower back, hips
Sexuality, emotion
Chakra one
Base of spine










 Note. Adapted from Eastern body, western mind, psychology and the chakra system as a path to the self, p.10-11, by A. Judith, 2004, Berkley: Celestial Arts.


Symbolic Chakras

The psyche is a rich and complicated aspect of a human being, full of thought, feeling, memory, perception, and imagination. To Jung, these cognitive functions make impressions on both our conscious level, which we are aware of, and our unconscious level, where they remain hidden (Coward, 2002). Yoga philosophy indicates that our unconscious is made up samskaras, or the traces of memory left from the accumulation of an individual’s past lives (Coward, 2002). Rather than receiving memory from reincarnation, Jung believed in the collective unconscious, a collection of memories and intuition from our human ancestral history. The collective unconscious, which may influence individuals without them being aware of it, is brought forth to the conscious in the form of archetypal symbols (Coward, 2002). These symbols bring with them wisdom to the conscious level (Coward, 2002).  Thus, symbols can relate an individual to a society at large and through different eras of time. We relate to symbols by personally identifying with them and viewing them as an aspect of our immediate life. This is our psyche’s way of processing our experiences and relating them to the big picture of things (Coward, 1985).  Symbols are images that one allows to speak from all parts of the self, engaging the parts of the collective unconscious that the mind doesn’t always have access to. Symbols form from the opposing forces- the positive and negative aspects- of one’s nature (Coward, 1978). Jung’s theory of the chakra system viewed chakras as symbols of part of the highly complex psyche. Similar to the Yogic idea that chakras are centers of energy where the ida and pingala mix, Jung sees chakras as symbols where opposing forces of the psyche can be held (Coward 1978). 

Jung saw psychic tensions, or opposing forces and urges of emotion, feeling, and memory, which influenced the personality of each individual (Coward 1978).  Eastern thought incorporates pairs of opposites, called dvanda. Overcoming the conflict of opposites and rising above the opposing forces is the Eastern path toward liberation. Yoga is a practice of balancing and uniting opposing forces to create a harmonious being. Westerners, who are highly theoretical and caught up in the intellect, lack the balance found in Eastern practice. The Westerner’s common split of conscious, intellect, and mind from the unconscious, feelings, and body experiences leads to psychosis. Jung believed Westerners could be more healthy harmonious beings if they adapted some Eastern values. Jung saw that in Western culture, contemplation and self reflection were not valued. Self knowledge is judged worthless, whereas external documentation and activity is prized (Coward, 1978). Jung says that “the East teaches us another broader, more profound, and higher understanding- understanding through life” (Jung, 1947, p. 84). The practice of Yoga could connect the Western person back to his intuitive spiritual side. This balance not only brings harmony and understanding to the individual, but as Jung says, “When the opposites balance one another…that is a sign of a high and stable culture” (Coward, 1978, p.342).


Jung’s view of the Seven Chakras

            Jung saw the chakra system used in Kundalini Yoga as system of emerging states of impersonality which developed the separation of the non-ego from the conscious ego (Jung, 1932). The ego is the part of the self that is aware of only conscious personal experiences. Yoga develops these steps of awareness, taking unconscious material and making it conscious. Yogis develop an extremely heightened sense of awareness, to the point that their awareness feels less rooted in conscious material and more rooted in the unconscious. Jung calls this state a suprapersonal consciousness (Jung, 1932). Easterners work to attain higher consciousness by moving upwards. Westerners seem to travel down to awaken the unconscious from below. Although this puts the chakra system a bit upside down, Jung thought it was necessary to look at it this way to accommodate the chakra system to the Western mind. He found it important to maintain a Western way of thinking. Jung was very cautious of abandoning Western mentality and adopting the very alluring Eastern ideas, for this would inhibit the development of our own psychology (Coward, 1985).  

The muladhara is the lowest chakra, also known as the root chakra. In Eastern thought it is said to influence the excretory and reproductive organs and is related to our most basic animal instincts (Muktibodhananda, 2012). Jung saw the muladhara as our daily routine world where we act in response to our instincts, impulses and unconscious. We remain oblivious to life deep inside ourselves and simply function with little control of what goes on (Coward, 1985). Westerners stayed rooted in a life of routines, work, and meetings. So, Jung would actually imagine the root chakra at the highest level because it is what we are consciously aware of in the world. But, Jung says “a Hindu is normal when he is not in this world…They have the unconscious above, we have it below. Everything is just the opposite” (Jung, 1932, p. 16).  Although Jung believed Easterners and Westerns have developed different perceptions of reality, he does believe that the same unconscious processes are taking place. He believes that the moments when we feel urges that there is something more to life than our daily routine, we are traveling to the next chakra, svadhisthana (Coward, 1985).

 Svadhisthana is where self-discovery, or individuation, begins. We dip down into the dark waters of our unconscious and separate a bit from the ordinary constraints of the mind (Coward, 1985). This chakra is considered the baptismal front and is associated with water. Jung had a client who continued to dream of traveling towards water which Jung viewed as a symbol of moving to the second chakra. However, to Jung, these glimmers of the unconscious “might not be down in the belly but up in the head” (Jung,1932, p. 17). Jung’s interpretation demonstrates how he views the chakra system as a theory of the psyche, and not a physiological process that occur in the body (Jung, 1932). However, the chakra system is used in acupuncture which is based on the knowledge of chakra locations and is “a proven technique for healing throughout the world” (Nelson, 1994, the chakra system section, para. 1).  In traditional text, the svadhisthana is associated with the deeper personality, but it is low in the body and is connected to the sacral plexus, urinary and reproductive organs (Muktibodhananda, 2012). According to Jung, if the second chakra is baptism into the unconscious, then the third chakra is where we are reborn (Jung, 1932).

            Kundalini traveling to the third chakra would be a spark of interest or excitement that leads us to continue on an adventure to the unconscious. In Jung’s terms, this spark is the psychological force of the animus, or shadow side, which gives us glimmers of unconscious feelings lying dormant (Jung, 1932). In the third chakra, manipura, one discovers “the fire within one’s true self” (Coward, 1985, p. 388). One feels deep rooted emotions flare up. Fire is associated with this chakra to symbolize the flames of desire that we are tempted with (Coward, 1985). In Yogic text, it is said that the manipura influences digestion and sight. One is still immersed in a more basic, bodily level of existence and deals with sensualities, ambition, and greed (Muktibodhananda, 2012). The solar plexus is where we feel emotions such as old wounds, trauma, and memories that may have been covered up but still are painful when uncovered (Jung, 1932). Jung believed that these desires must be faced to move to reach the next chakra, Anahata (Coward, 1985).

            Anahata, the fourth chakra, is commonly called the heart chakra. We rise above desires and instinct and reach a heightened level of impersonal experience (Coward, 1985). We rise above worldly passion and can reflect on the self by separating from emotions and urges. You discover that you are not these urges, in other words, you are not your ego. By disconnecting from these urges you can identify with your real self, which is viewed as “below” these distractions in the West. In the Eastern chakra system, the fourth chakra is connected to the heart and is responsible for love, hate, compassion and cruelty (Coward, 1985). Jung writes that “the contact with the sun in manipura lifts you up off your feet into the sphere above the earth” (Jung, 1932, p. 37). This demonstrates that in anahata you are above emotions and are able to reflect on emotions rather than feel their wrath. You are aware that you are not your emotions, so you discover the self.  This is the process that Jung describes as individuation (Coward, 1985).

The visuddha chakra, the fifth chakra, is the occurrence of experiences that are abstract or outer worldly. The world is no longer interactions of the ego with external objects. Instead, the world is a reflection of the psyche. It is more psychic than physical and one may connect with the collective unconscious and archetypes. It is an understanding of the self and seeing the world in one’s own individual way. This is the last chakra that Jung feels can be assimilated to Western thought (Coward, 1985).

Jung views the sixth chakra, the ajna chakra, as a psychic union of the self with the divine. Yogic text describes the disappearance of the ego, which Jung believed to be impossible for human experience (Coward, 1985).  Jung wrote that “the ego disappears completely; the psychical is no longer a content in us, but we become contents of it” (Jung, 1932, p. 57). In the seventh chakra, which Jung could hardly imagine, there is no psychological substance. He believed it was complete Eastern intuition which led them to formulate this chakra. Clearly the liberation that is the goal of Yoga seemed impossible to Jung, who believed that humans will constantly remain in a state of life tensions. There can be balance of these tensions, but they do not cease to exist. In Yoga, escape and liberation from these tensions is the ultimate, yet attainable, goal (Coward, 1985). Jung believed that the idea of one making conscious all of the unconsiocus material, becoming aware of the totality of the world and seeing things for what they truly are, is not a true state but a projection of Eastern experience. He believed that it is not possible to lose the self because when there is something observed there is always an observer (Coward, 2002). Therefore, Jung believed that once you have awakened your kundalini, or in other words, discovered your unconscious, it is important not to try to identify with it. Rather, one should just observe what takes place (Jung, 1932). If the observer is lost, Jung believed that the Western person would potentially delve into a state of craziness. He said “it is wise not to identify with these experiences but to handle them as if they were outside the human realm. That is the safest thing to do—and really absolutely necessary. Otherwise you get an inflation, and inflation is just a minor form of lunacy, a mitigated term for it. And if you get so absolutely inflated that you burst, it is schizophrenia” (Jung, 1947, p. 83). Jung indicated that outer worldly experiences could lead the Westerners to madness due to an inability to remain balanced.



Jung did not believe that human psychology could be completely understood with empirical evidence. He himself had experienced events that were beyond empirical facts and moved into outer realms of the spirit. He admired Yoga as a science of experiential based evidence and Jung himself had experiences that seemed out of the realm of human experience. (Coward, 1978). Yogis may have “spiritual gurus”, which Jung was astounded to find, because he himself had dreams of a figure that brought him ideas and insight. This gave him evidence that his experiences were part of the human experience, rather than personal delusions or fantasies (Coward, 1978). Jung seems to be influenced by some of Yoga’s ideas, such as karma, which his theory of archetypes in the collective unconscious seems to indicate. His belief that memory is greater than the experiences of one’s present life is a great leap from the previous Western psychological idea that humans are born with a blank slate, or tabula rasa (Coward, 2002). Although Jung believed the psyche was at times out of the grasp of empirical evidence, he did place limits on the Westerner’s ability to understand the psyche from a Yogic perspective (Coward, 1978).  

In Jung’s opinion, Europeans have not passed down ideas of the unconscious and so we have not accepted mystical ideas. The East, however, has been working on the practice of Yoga for centuries with Sanskrit texts that describe it in detail. They understand it because it is how they are raised and part of their history; it is not foreign to them (Jung, 1932). In the West, we view life in terms of staying sane, rational and stable. Going to work and appearing like a productive member of society is very valued to us (Jung & Shamdasani, 1932). Part of what Westerners consider intellect is our ability to classify and explain things with empirical evidence. Some Western thinkers believe that “Western psychology accepts and includes these first five stages of consciousness [the first five chakras] and, in many ways, characterizes them more precisely” (Nelson, 1994, Vishudda section para.12). The fact that Nelson considers our ability to describe the chakra system better than the East is far-fetched, and implies that Westerners have a better indication of what reality may be. We should consider that other cultures may not view the ability to classify knowledge into words as a true indicator of knowing. Perhaps this is why kundalini is often described with metaphors, such as a “coiled snake” (Edson, 1991). An Eastern thinker named Vyasa said “when the speaker has neither perceived nor inferred the object…the authority of agama [the process of verbal transmission] fails” (Coward, 2002, pp.13). Thus, descriptions of kundalini, by those in the West who have not experienced it, will not accurately portray its’ knowledge. Jung argues that Yoga is not appropriate for Westerners because we already have a highly developed psyche and the Yogic discipline will further enhance this mentality (Coward, 2002). It would be a mental leap for people in the West to attempt to consciously integrate ideas that they cannot experience intuitively. Instead of seeking understanding of the unconscious from outside sources, such as Yoga, Jung argues we should seek it within. An active imagination would be a better way for Westerners to come in contact with the unconscious, argues Jung (Coward, 1978). Jung sees the study of Yoga practices and beliefs, such as chakras, as compliments to his own perspectives of psychology. Jung believes that the west will perfect its own system that explains the unconscious (Coward, 1978). So, although Jung admires the chakra system, he takes it with a grain of salt. He interprets it in a way fit to his own belief system thus losing faith that the Westerner can fully comprehend and integrate it into their life and losing his own potential to understand it fully.





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