An introduction to the ancient practice of chromotherapy.

Or, how a story about beating winter turned into a manifesto about the vibrations of the universe.

Story Stephanie Wilson
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Your aura is purple. (“What?” you’re thinking. I can see it on your face.) Purple! I said your aura is purple!

Fine, I can’t really tell what color your aura is from where I’m sitting. Or from anywhere; I’ve never seen anyone’s aura. Last week, I still held the belief that auras were “such total and utter bullshit,” to quote snow_enthusiast’s answer to a post on the subject in the /r/isitbullshit subreddit. But here’s the beauty of making magazines for a living: you get to learn new things all the time.

I learned I was wrong to assume auras were some sort of metaphysical woo-woo, something being peddled by calm yoga teachers to eager crowds of Onzie-clad pretty people. But as I fell down a rainbow-hued rabbit hole in a quest for information about how color affects one’s health—physically, mentally, emotionally—I discovered that color is everything. Really, truly: everything.

Put another way, everything that exists in this world is a combination of different colors, and every color is a form of energy, every shade vibrating on its own frequency. (It has to do with light and electromagnetic radiation and the visual spectrum. We’ll go into the science more later; just stay with me.) Every part of our body—organs, limbs, cells, atoms, whatnot—has its own distinct color, which in turn has its own vibrational energy, each organ vibrating in harmony with the frequencies of those colors, which exist in wavelengths that don’t fall within the “visual spectrum,” or light the human eye can perceive. Auras are composed of wavelengths the eye cannot discern.

Full disclosure: it was dark when I fell down this colorful rabbit hole. And I was trying to stay out of the dark place I got stuck in last winter when struck by seasonal affective disorder (SAD). The world was cold and gray, I was blue. Light therapy is shown to be effective for SAD (see the feature on p.42 for more on that), but for me, I wanted more than intermittent blasts of light for temporary relief. I wanted to surround myself with warmth, my apartment to be saturated by it, my body to be draped in it. What that looked like, exactly, I wasn’t sure. I wondered, is color the answer?

Color Is Everything

Turns out humans have been asking themselves questions like this since forever. The history of color as medicine is as old as that of any other medicine, according to a critical analysis of chromotherapy research undertaken by Samina T. Yousuf Azeemi and Syed Mohsin Raza, published in 2005 by Oxford University Press. Chromotherapy is a method of treatment that uses the visual spectrum (colors) of electromagnetic radiation to cure diseases, and the physicists’ research found a number of studies that have elaborated on the relationship between the human body and colors. This shouldn’t be confused with color psychology, which looks at the influence of colors on human behavior. We’ll get into that in a bit. First, we’ll start at the beginning: ancient Egypt.

While ancient Greece, China, and India were using phototherapy (sunlight), Egyptians used color for healing as well. According to Egyptian mythology, the art of chromotherapy was discovered by Thoth, the god of writing, wisdom, and the moon. Ancient Egyptians and Greeks used colored minerals, stones, crystals, salves, and dyes as remedies and painted treatment sanctuaries in various shades. (Technically more color psychology than chromotherapy but we’ll let it slide.)

Fast forward a few thousand years, and in the late 1800s, The Principles of Light and Color reports that rays of color/light can affect the blood stream, which in turn affects the full body. Later research confirms this, and one researcher found it to be a complete therapeutic system for 123 major illnesses.

Today, bright white, full-spectrum light is being used in the treatment of cancers, SAD, anorexia, bulimia, insomnia, jet lag, shift working, alcohol and drug addiction, and more. Blue light has been shown to help treat rheumatoid arthritis and is used to help heal injured tissue, prevent scar tissue, and is used for burns and lung conditions.

Since 1990, it’s been used in the treatment of a wide variety of psychological problems, including addictions, eating disorders, and depression. Red light helps with cancer and constipation. It can improve athletic performance: red light for short, quick bursts of energy; blue light to encourage steadier energy output. Pink light is said to have a tranquilizing effect, which is why it’s often used by police in holding cells.

Basically, chromotherapy is as tested a practice as any of the “alternative” medicines today—Ayurveda, acupuncture, homeopathy, aromatherapy, reflexology—and more research is needed. The researchers conclude: “Chromotherapy as a system of treatment can benefit people because of its harmony with nature. Everything that exists in this world is a combination of different colors.”

Vibrant Vibrations

On the flipside, studies about the psychology of color are spurred by motivated marketers trying to tap into our wallets through our psyches. It might seem like a relatively new development, but humans have used color to express ideas and emotion for thousands of years, according to color specialist and trend forecaster Leatrice Eisman. As executive director of the Pantone Color Institute, she’s the world’s leading authority on the topic of color. In The Complete Color Harmony, Pantone Edition, she writes about how subtle nuances in color can result in shades that excite or calm, pacify or energize, and even suggest strength or vulnerability. “They can nurture you with their warmth, soothe you with their quiet coolness, and heighten your awareness of the world around you. Color enriches our universe and our perception of it,” says Eisman.

She notes we all respond to color at a very visceral level, associating specific hues with another time or place. “Color invariably conveys moods that attach themselves to human feelings or reactions,” she notes. “Part of our psychic development, color is tied to our emotions as well as our intellect. Every color has meaning that we either inherently sense or have learned by association and/or conditioning, which enables us to recognize the messages and meanings delivered.

A good part of the emotions that colors evoke is tied to natural phenomena. Yellow, the color of the sun, is associated with warmth and joy. Blue with steady dependability, calm, and serenity. Green with nature, health, and revival. White stands for simplicity; black for sophistication. A 1970s study on the body’s physiological responses to colors revealed that warm hues (red, orange, yellow—the colors of the sun) aroused people troubled with depression and increased muscle tone or blood pressure in hypertensive folks. Cool colors (green, blue, violet) elicited the reverse, but the important finding was that all colors produced clinically tangible results.

One of the earliest formal explorations of color theory came from German poet and politician Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. His 1820 book Theory of Colours explored the psychological impact of colors on mood and emotion. Yellow, Goethe wrote, is the color nearest the light, yet when applied to dull, coarse surfaces, it is no longer filled with its signature energy. “By a slight and scarcely perceptible change, the beautiful impression of fire and gold is transformed into one not undeserving the epithet foul; and the colour of honour and joy reversed to that of ignominy and aversion.”
Of red: “All that we have said of yellow is applicable here, in a higher degree.” Goethe’s theories continue to intrigue, possibly because of the lyrical prose rather than its scientific facts.

On the Bright Side

When your physical landscape is devoid of bright, vibrant hues, your emotional one is affected as well. That’s where color therapy comes in. It has a deep effect on physical, psychological, and emotional aspects of our lives, and it comes in many forms: light sessions that include color wheels. Colored crystal lights. Breathing in colors through meditation. Infrared saunas with chromotherapy add-ons. (See the sidebar for local resources where you can learn more.)

There are actually many ways of adjusting the color in your life, and not all of them require a trip to see a specialist. Unlike trying to self-administer acupuncture (don’t do that), techniques can be as simple as putting on colorful attire or getting some bright throw pillows or plants. You can never have too many plants. And you should eat more plants, too, filling your plate with healthful fruits, vegetables, and spices from every part of the spectrum.

If a lack of sunlight has you feeling a lack of joy, paint your home or office—warm, vibrant yellows and oranges showcase excitement and warmth; browns and neutrals decidedly do not. Choose wisely. Painting not an option? Consider temporary wallpaper or hanging large artworks. On a budget? Head to the thrift shop and repurpose an old canvas by painting it white and then adding whatever hues you are vibing with this winter. If it doesn’t turn out well, cover it up with more white paint and start again. Have fun with it, consider it art therapy.

There are also an array of therapeutic options to explore near Denver and Boulder, as wellness studios, spas, and alternative medicine practices incorporate chromotherapy treatments into their offerings. At Vive Float Studio in Cherry Creek and Frisco, the infrared sauna features chromotherapy benefits, and the combination of the full-light spectrum and the heat effectively tricks the brain into thinking it spent a full day basking in the sun, causing it to release those sweet endorphins that flood your body when the warm rays of spring hit your face when you step outside. It feels good.

And really, that is everything. Color is everything.

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