This article was originally published on April 29, 2016.
Remember the pilot episode of Friends? There’s a scene where Ross, recently divorced, enters Central Perk and sits down next to Phoebe, who winces and starts plucking at the air over his head. “No, don’t! Stop cleansing my aura,” Ross tells her. “Fine,” Pheebs responds. “Be murky.” And that was my — and maybe your — very first encounter with the idea of auras. It’s played for laughs here, as just another part of Phoebe’s identity as a quirky New Age-devotee, but it touches on a spiritual practice that’s been around far longer than you’d expect.
People have sensed auras, or energy fields, around other people since biblical and even ancient times. The concept is reflected in the halos you see in artistic representations of Jesus and various Christian saints, in the Indian concept of prana, or a person’s life energy, and in the idea of chi in schools of Chinese philosophy. There are countless names for the aura, but its significance remains roughly the same: Auras represent our current state of mind, they are constantly changing, and only certain people have the ability to see them with the naked eye.
Auras can be felt, seen, and, more recently, photographed. Much like Ross’ aura in the aforementioned scene, the history and science behind auras really is a bit “murky,” but that sense of mystery is kind of the point.
Ahead, with the help of Deborah Hanekamp, a seeress and medicine woman, we dive into everything you need to know about the mysterious world of aura readings — what the process is really like, how it's changed over the years, and what to know before you have your own aura read.
The process of reading them is loosely based on a system, but more often than not, depends on the reader. Hanekamp includes an energy and aura reading in her normally hour-and-a-half long Medicine Readings, which she structures as ceremonies to bring balance back into her clients’ lives. Each reading is very different, depends on the person, and is an experience for both Hanekamp and her client. When she reads someone’s aura, she says, “I’m also being balanced and cleansed and blessed and healed.” She adds, “In some way I’m attracting that person [to the reading], so the medicine that is coming through me for them is also for me.”
She describes an aura as “a combination of vibrating colors,” adding that certain areas can appear brighter or darker than others, depending on the person’s energy at that moment. If that person is experiencing “an energetic block of some kind, or even sadness,” Hanekamp says, that “will show up as a dark spot in the aura.” (Just look at our original example — Phoebe read Ross’ aura at a very low point in his life, and called it “murky.” Those TV writers did their research.)
A possible scientific explanation for the ability to read auras is synesthesia, a condition that causes people who have it to experience one sense when another is stimulated. Researchers have even found certain healers to be undiagnosed synesthetes, but the overlap between what readers and synesthetes see isn’t consistent.
Thanks to the advent of the camera (and a husband-and-wife duo in Russia), anyone can see what auras look like now. Aura photography is said to have been discovered in 1939 by electrician Semyon Davidovich Kirlian and his wife, Valentina, while they were exploring the limits of high-voltage photography. Their process actually ionizes the air around the object in the photo (living or nonliving), and any water in the air will be visible as layers of glowing colors. Naturally, many believe that these waves of colors and lights are what auras must look like.
Entire businesses produce and sell cameras capable of Kirlian photography, and, more often than not, you’ll see these cameras at specialty or occult shops, like NYC’s Magic Jewelry, located on the ground floor of a Chinatown mall. These days, this is probably the simplest — and most accessible way — to get your first taste of an aura reading.
Unlike the more interpretive, individualized types of readings you may get from a clairvoyant, there’s actually a system for the aura readings done at Magic Jewelry. First, you sit for your photo against a black backdrop with your hands on two metal pads that are connected to a large camera. Once your photo has been taken, the camera spits out what looks like a Polaroid. The shop employee refers to a chakra chart while reading your aura photo, which is meant to depict your emotional state from the week prior (the colors and lights to your right), the current week (the colors and lights over your head and torso), and the week to come (those on your left). Each color has a set of meanings, both positive and negative, but they can be made to fit whatever comes up on someone’s reading.
A few intrepid R29 staffers visited Magic Jewelry and shared their impressions of the process with us. “I was sure that it would be a typical hoax… But she was weirdly spot-on with everything,” one woman tells us, while another admits she “was a little freaked out that [her reading] was accurate.” Readers will even prescribe certain crystals, or activities, such as yoga, to customers with problem areas in their auras. I was encouraged to obtain a black obsidian crystal for protection, which Magic Jewelry happens to sell in a variety of sizes and clarities.
Essentially, aura photography gives people a visual aid for their emotional state. Whether or not you get your aura photographed, paying multiple visits to the same reader can actually help you track how your feelings change over time. In fact, during our visit, two young women showed up with their most recent aura photographs in hand, eager to see how things had changed since their last reading. The folks at Magic Jewelry told us to come back in three weeks, but Hanekamp says you have a little more wiggle room than that, explaining that most of her repeat customers will come by “once every four to eight weeks.”
So, now that you’re a little more in the know, how should you prepare for your very first aura reading? Hanekamp recommends bringing a pen and a journal, in case your reader assigns you any “spiritual homework” to optimize your aura (she says she’ll tell clients to “practice saying ‘no,’” or to start that hobby they’ve been putting off for years). Magic Jewelry doesn’t allow recording, so taking notes is the only way to remember pertinent points from your reading, unless you have a steel-trap memory for all the details and instructions.
But Hanekamp makes it clear that you shouldn’t do anything to change your aura if the action falls outside of your comfort zone. “You really are your own master, your own teacher, your own healer, so you’ve got to make sure that you follow your intuition and your feelings more so than anyone else’s” — even those of your reader, she says. And this is something to take to heart whenever consulting a psychic, medium, or healer of any kind.
But that isn’t Hanekamp’s most valuable piece of advice. No, the most important thing you should know is, “Don’t go hungover,” she says with a laugh.
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