The astral body is a hypothesized spiritual counterpart to the physical human body that is said to exist on a different plane.
The word “astral” means “of the stars”, thus the astral plane, consisting of the celestial spheres, is held to be an astrological phenomenon: “The whole of the astral portion of our earth and of the physical planets, together with the purely astral planets of our System, make up collectively the astral body of the Solar Logos”. There are “seven types of astral matter” by means of which “psychic changes occur periodically”.
The idea that humans can leave their bodies during dream states is ancient. Countless people, from New Agers to shamans around the world, believe that it is possible to commune with cosmic intelligence through visions and vivid dreams experienced during astral projection, also known as out-of-body experiences. However it’s most recent resurgence has its roots in the spiritual boom of the 19th century and early 20th century.
The astral body is sometimes said to be visible as an aura of swirling colours. It is widely linked today with out-of-body experiences or astral projection. Where this refers to a supposed movement around the real world, as in Muldoon and Carrington’s book The Projection of the Astral Body, it conforms to Madame Blavatsky’s usage of the term. Elsewhere, this latter is termed “etheric”, while “astral” denotes an experience of dream-symbols, archetypes, memories, spiritual beings and visionary landscapes.
Awareness of the astral body is believed to be stimulated by meditation, shamanic practices, lucid dreaming and certain drugs. Some say that it can be seen as an aura of constantly changing colors swirling around the physical body. It is als described as being like ether and attached to the navel of the physical body by a silver cord.
According to yogic philosophy, humans have three bodies – the physical, the astral and the causal – which, together, are the vehicle of the soul. The astral body is more subtle than the physical body and it contains prana (life force), the senses and the mind.
In yoga, it is the astral body which contains prana and the the system of nadis (energy channels) that carry prana. These are sometimes known as astral tubes.
In many recensions the concept ultimately derives from the philosophy of Plato though the same or similar ideas have existed all over the world well before Plato’s time: it is related to an astral plane, which consists of the planetary heavens of astrology. The term was adopted by nineteenth-century Theosophists and neo-Rosicrucians.
Neoplatonists agreed with Plato as to the immortality of the rational soul but disagreed as to whether man’s “irrational soul” was immortal and celestial (“starry”, hence astral) or whether it remained on earth and dissolved after death. The late Neoplatonist Proclus, who is credited the first to speak of subtle “planes”, posited two subtle bodies or “carriers” (okhema) intermediate between the rational soul and the physical body. These were; 1) the astral vehicle which was the immortal vehicle of the Soul and 2) the spiritual (pneuma) vehicle, aligned with the vital breath, which he considered mortal.
Such ideas greatly influenced medieval religious thought and are visible in the Renaissance medicine of Paracelsus and Servetus. In the romantic era, alongside the discovery of electromagnetism and the nervous system, there came a new interest in the spirit world. Franz Anton Mesmer spoke of the stars, animal magnetism and magnetic fluids. In 1801, the English occultist Francis Barrett wrote of a herb’s “excellent astral and magnetic powers” – for herbalists had categorised herbs according to their supposed correspondence with the seven planetary influences.
In the mid-nineteenth century the French occultist Eliphas Levi wrote much of “the astral light”, a factor he considered of key importance to magic, alongside the power of will and the doctrine of correspondences. He considered the astral light the medium of all light, energy and movement, describing it in terms that recall both Mesmer and the luminiferous ether.
Levi’s idea of the astral was to have much influence in the English-speaking world through the teachings of The Golden Dawn, but it was also taken up by Helena Blavatsky and discussed in the key work of Theosophy, The Secret Doctrine. Levi seems to have been regarded by later Theosophists as the immediate source from which the term was adopted into their sevenfold schema of planes and bodies, though there was slight confusion as to the term’s proper use.