Kundalini is a Sanskrit word meaning either "coiled up" or "coiling like a snake." There are a number of other translations of the term usually emphasizing a more serpent nature to the word - e.g. 'serpent power'.
The caduceus symbol of coiling
snakes is thought to be an ancient symbolic representation of Kundalini
physiology.The concept of Kundalini comes from yogic philosophy of ancient India and
refers to the mothering intelligence behind yogic awakening and spiritual
maturation. It might be regarded by yogis as a sort of deity, hence the
occasional capitalization of the term.
Within a western frame of understanding it is often associated with the practice of contemplative or religious practices that might induce an altered state of consciousness, either brought about spontaneously, through a type of yoga, through psychedelic drugs, or through a near-death experience.
According to the yogic tradition Kundalini is curled up in the back part of the root chakra in three and one-half turns around the sacrum. Yogic phenomenology states that kundalini awakening is associated with the appearance of bio-energetic phenomena that are said to be experienced somatically by the yogi.
This appearance is also referred to as "pranic awakening". Prana is interpreted as the vital, life-sustaining force in the body. Uplifted, or intensified life-energy is called pranotthana and is supposed to originate from an apparent reservoir of subtle bio-energy at the base of the spine. This energy is also interpreted as a vibrational phenomena that initiates a period, or a process of vibrational spiritual development.
The source text for the concept of kundalini is the "Hatha Yoga Pradipika" written by Swami Svatmarama (English translation, 1992) somewhere between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries. Any examination of the topic should include this work. The pradipika is one of the later developments in yoga sacred texts. Hatha Yoga is strictly speaking a forcing technique which has as its primary aim the forcing of the arising of kundalini.
The main emphasis is a difficult regime of breathing techniques meant to increase the store of "prana" in the body. The well known physical postures are only meant to be an aid to maintain peak physical fitness, so as to support the real work of the breathing practices. All of this has, according to tradition, to be accompanied by prolonged and unbroken meditation practice (for which the main text is the "Yoga Sutras of Patanjali"). The text adds that great good fortune is another requirement, i.e.luck, for the procedure to succeed. However, these techniques are not without dangers.
The Interpretation of Kundalini
Two early western
interpretations of Kundalini were supplied by C.W. Leadbeater (1847-1934),
of the Theosophical Society, and the analytical psychologist Carl Jung
Jung's seminar on Kundalini yoga, presented to the Psychological Club in Zurich in 1932, has been widely regarded as a milestone in the psychological understanding of Eastern thought and of the symbolic transformations of inner peace.
Kundalini yoga presented Jung with a model for the developmental phases of higher consciousness, and he interpreted its symbols in terms of the process of individuation. (Princeton University Press Book description to C. G Jung - "The Psychology of Kundalini Yoga", 1999).
A few western translators interpret the energetic phenomena as a form of psychic or paranormal energy although the western parapsychological understanding of psychic energy, separated from its cultural-hermeneutic matrix, is probably not the same as the yogic understanding. Yogic philosophy understands this concept as a maturing energy that expresses the individual's soteriological longings. Viewed in a mythological context it is sometimes believed to be an aspect of Shakti, the goddess and consort of Shiva.
Kundalini might be said to be a popular concept, since it is widely quoted among various disciplines of yoga and New Age beliefs. However, the recent popularization of the term within new religious movements has - according to some scholars of religion - not contributed to promote a mature understanding of the concept (Sovatsky, 1998). As with many eastern contemplative concepts there exist considerable difficulties, and possible semantic confusion, connected to the way these concepts are adapted to a western context.
This has led to somewhat different interpretations and applications of the concept of Kundalini within the spiritual and contemplative culture in the west. On the one hand there are the New Age popularizations, and on the other hand there is the traditional lineage of Kundalini Yoga understood from its cultural background and interpreted within the academic fields of Religious Studies, Pastoral Theology and Transpersonal/Humanistic psychology.
With the tools of these academic traditions it is possible to give different interpretations to the concept of Kundalini; such as physiological interpretations, psychological interpretations, clinical interpretations, religious interpretations, mythological interpretations and spiritual interpretations.
Kundalini Yoga is a meditative
discipline - or a system of meditative techniques and movements - within the
yogic tradition that focuses on psycho-spiritual growth and the body's
potential for maturation. The practice of Kundalini Yoga consists of a
number bodily postures, expressive movements and utterances,
characterological cultivations, breathing patterns, and degrees of
The movements and the body-work should not - according to some scholars of religion - be considered mere stretching exercises. The concept of life-energy - pranotthana - is central to the practice and understanding of Kundalini Yoga. It also gives special consideration to the role of the spine and the endocrine system in the understanding of yogic awakening. Recently, there has been a growing interest within the medical community to study the physiological effects of meditation, and some of these studies have applied the discipline of Kundalini Yoga to their clinical settings.
Kundalini in the World's Religions
Kundalini is mainly associated
with Hinduism. However, Kundalini as a spiritual experience is thought to
have parallels in many of the mystical and Gnostic traditions of the world's
Many factors point to the universality of the phenomenon. The early Christians might have referred to the concept as 'pneuma', and there are some recent parallels in contemporary Christian Charismatic 'Holy Ghost' phenomena. Religious studies also note parallels in Quakerism, Shakerism, Judaic Shuckling (torso-rocking prayer), the swaying zikr and whirling dervish of Islam, the quiverings of the Eastern Orthodox hesychast, the flowing movements of tai chi, the ecstatic shamanic dance, the ntum trance dance of the Bushman, Tibetan Buddhist tummo heat as practiced by Milarepa, and the Indically-derived Andalusian flamenco (Sovatsky, 1998). Kundalini practice is centerfold in Japan's Aum Shinrikyo group and Kundalini-yoga is also one of the stages the practitioner is able to achieve.
According to yogic terminology
the force of Kundalini is supposed to be raised through meditative exercises
and activated within the concept of a subtle body, a body of energy and
finer substance. This process has been explained in detail by Motoyama
(1981) and by Sharp (2005). Motoyama bases the bulk of the Kundalini raising
practices listed in the book on the notable Swami Satyananda Saraswati, as
well as on personal experience in helping people in various stages of
Kundalini awakening. Sharp provides a kundalini meditation called The Great
Invocation along with detailed guidance on controlling and managing the
energy flow and subsequent manifestation.
Kundalini-experiences are often understood in terms of the Hindu chakra system, the understanding of psycho-spiritual energy centers along the spine (Scotton, 1996). According to Hindu tradition the Kundalini raises from the root-chakra up through the spinal channel, called sushumna, and it is believed to activate each chakra it goes through.
Each chakra is said to contain special characteristics (Scotton, 1996). In raising Kundalini, spiritual powers (siddhis) are also believed to arise, but many spiritual traditions see these phenomena as obstacles on the path, and encourages their students not to get hung up with them (Kason, 2000). Although the opening of higher chakras are believed to mark advanced spiritual unfoldment, it is important not to measure spiritual growth solely by the opening of higher potentials. According to this view chakras might be under- or overdeveloped, and lower chakras are thought to be just as important as higher.
Spiritual literature also describes instances where Kundalini is said to be initiated. Initiation of kundalini activity is usually considered to take place by a practice called shaktipat. This is a form of 'laying on of hands' where physical contact to the body or the forehead of the subject by the guru, or initiator, is supposed to cause an experience of Kundalini that later may persist or grow with continuing practice, or fade away if practice is stopped. Scotton (1996) mentions that kundalini-symptomatology is associated with such practices as shaktipat. He also gives a case-example of such a practice from an American meditation retreat.
According to much contemporary spiritual literature, and the field of Transpersonal Psychology, it is not considered wise to engage in any of these practices without the guidance of a credible teacher or without thorough psychological preparation and education in yoga. Any form of intense contemplative or spiritual practice without the support of a cultural context, or without the support of thorough psychological preparation, is usually considered to be unfortunate, and in some cases even dangerous. Traditional teachers of kundalini meditation also warn neophytes of the potential dangers of experimenting with kundalini Yoga techniques. These warnings should not be underestimated. A growing body of clinical and psychological literature notes the growing occurrence of meditation-related problems in Western contemplative life. Among these we find the Kundalini Syndrome (which is presented more closely later in this article) and different forms of "wind illness" described in the Tibetan tradition.