by Shannon Cogan
Chakras are often referred to as a part of yoga practice and used to describe the way energy “moves” in the body. They are mentioned historically as early as 600 B.C. by Yoga Upanishads1. The name “chakra” is the Sanskrit word for wheel, because they are said to be spinning forces of energy in the body. Chakras are said to correspond to nerve centers and major organs in the body, and each of the seven chakras are said to correlate with different abilities, expressions and types of health. For instance, the well-being of the fifth chakra, which is located near the throat, is said to relate to a person’s ability to speak truth, but is also related to their neck, thyroid and oral health2. Believers claim that when chakras are blocked (typically as a result of different kinds of negative energy), negative physical, mental, emotional issues will result. There many suggestions put forth about how to “align” chakras to reduce this blockage, and individuals can pay for products or treatment that claims to improve chakra alignment3. While no data has been collected about the prevalence of a belief in chakras, chakra alignment is frequently worked in to yoga, which is practiced by almost 9 percent of adults in the United States4.
Believers in chakras claim that they experience physical, mental, and emotional improvements after alignment of their chakras. Because chakra alignment is often connected with mindfulness meditation or yoga, the benefits to physical and mental health of the yoga and meditation5 are often used as evidence for the effectiveness of chakra alignment. Chakras are explained as “nerve centers” or “sites of major organ”, but even yogis admit that no one has been able to measure these energetic centers in any meaningful way6. However, they argue that just because these energy centers cannot be measured scientifically does not mean they don’t exist. However, the proposal of chakras does not fit with the modern scientific understanding of how the human body uses and stores energy, and there is currently no proposed method by which the existence of chakras can be shown scientifically.
One main cognitive factor that likely contributes to the continued belief in chakras and chakra alignment is confirmation bias. Individuals who believe that they have different chakras associated with their well-being will be more likely to remember times when improvements in well-being occurred just after they took steps to ensure the alignment or balancing of their chakras. In addition, individuals who do no improve after chakra alignment might believe that they simply haven’t done enough, or that they are encountering additional negative energy from another source. Individuals might also attribute improvements in well-being to a balanced chakra when improved well-being might actually be the result of a different factor, including decreased stress, increased exercise, or a more positive attitude. Although little reliable research has been done, it is possible that chakra alignment does have some function as a placebo treatment.
In addition to cognitive factors, social influences also likely influence a belief in chakras. The authority bias, or tendency to accept the opinion of an authority, are likely at work as this belief is maintained. Leaders of yoga are generally very experienced in the practice, and so people who are new to the practice of yoga would likely be inclined to take advice from these experts about how to improve their well-being in various ways. In addition, many individuals who believe in chakras make an appeal to antiquity and claim that the existence of chakras is supported by the fact that the belief has been around for so long. These are some of the social factors that likely contribute to the continued belief in chakras.
Overall, these are many cognitive and social factors that contribute to this continued belief. Most individuals who practice chakra alignment are also probably unlikely to seriously question their belief because there are so few possible negative effects of this practice (besides potential wasted time, money, or lack of considering alternatives). In general, believers in chakra alignment do not tend to think about or talk about how this belief fits in to a larger scientific understanding of the functioning of the human body, possibly because the belief in chakras and chakra alignment is associated with a more spiritual (rather than scientific) framework of beliefs.