The science of kundalini is one of the most advanced and difficult branches of yoga. In this article I hope to set right some misconceptions of this science and to give a clearer conception of what kundalini yoga is.
To understand the meaning of kundalini we must consider it along with the word shakti. Kundalini comes from the Sanskrit root kundala—“coil.” The image of a serpent curled up while resting conveys the idea of kundalini. The word shakti comes from the root shak—“to have power” or “be able.” Taken together, these two words can be translated as “the coiled-up power” or “the resting potential.”
But what is this power and why is it resting? According to tantric philosophy, the entire universe is a manifestation of pure consciousness. In manifesting the universe, pure consciousness seems to become divided into two poles or aspects, neither of which can exist without the other.
Shiva and Shakti
One of these poles has a static quality and remains identified with unmanifest consciousness. This quality is called shiva and is conceptualized as masculine. Shiva is depicted as being absorbed in the deepest state of meditation—one of formless being, consciousness, and bliss. He remains aloof from and uninterested in manifesting the universe. Shiva has the power to be, but not the power to become or act. He is the power holder, but has no energy in his own right. The power that builds the universe arises out of this consciousness.
The other pole is a dynamic, energetic, and creative aspect called shakti—personified as Shakti, the great mother of the universe. From her all form is born. Shakti is the subtlest of created things. She manifests herself as the entire universe: matter, life, and mind.
Shakti is a projection of pure consciousness that veils consciousness with the innumerable illusory manifestations (maya) that she brings forth. This is what we call the universe. These two principles—shiva and shakti—are united, but in the world we know an illusion of separation is created between pure consciousness and its manifestations. This leads to confusion and misinterpretation of our world, or mistaking the unreal for the real.
As we know from physics, any activity or force must have a static background. When consciousness manifests itself as the dynamic, creative principle (shakti), she polarizes herself into these two forms. Part of the energy becomes involved in the manifestation itself, while a greater part remains dormant. In Indian mythology, the primal power that remains is symbolized by coiled-up energy—a serpent that supports the universe.
Chakras: Organizing the Body’s Energies
According to tantra, the human being is a miniature universe. All that is found in the cosmos can be found within each individual, and the same principles that apply to the universe apply to the individual being. In human beings, the surplus of energy that is not being used to maintain the organism’s functioning is also symbolically described as a coiled serpent. This potential energy is said to rest at the base of the spinal cord, at the muladhara (root support) chakra, where it is called kundalini. This kundalini is the static support of the entire body and its pranic forces.
The dynamic energy that provides the working forces for the body evolves from the active energy of shakti and is called prana. Prana is organized and subdivided according to specific functions in the body. It flows like an electric current through an intricate network of subtle nerves (nadis), connecting the body and mind and keeping the entire organism in working order.
This vital force of shakti in the body is also organized around specific centers. These are not physical centers, although they have correlations in the various plexuses of the body. These vortices of energy—called chakras—help organize, vitalize, and control the corresponding regions of the body. They also determine the quality of consciousness. When universal consciousness is manifest in the form of each chakra, the result is a particular frame of reference through which we experience the world.
For example, when the mind and energy are expressed through the svadhishthana (pelvic) chakra, we may be preoccupied with sensual enjoyment. At the anahata (heart) chakra, we become loving and compassionate.
Although there are many chakras, six are traditionally considered to be the most important. They are aligned along the central axis, or spinal cord (see figure 1). Differences in where energy is focused from person to person, and from time to time, help to account for the different ways the world is experienced from one individual to the next, and from one moment to the next.
The two lowest chakras that correspond to the root and pelvic centers represent the most primitive expressions of energy, states of consciousness that are most closely tied to the physical world: the basic instincts for individual and species survival. When energy is focused here, pure consciousness is obscured. These chakras have the quality of tamas (inertia or torpor).
The second two chakras, located at the solar and cardiac plexuses, represent a turning to more subtle relationships with the world. Here we actively try to organize and make sense of the world, and to interact on a less physical plane. We also focus on the building up and expansion of our sense of I-ness. The predominant characteristic is that of rajas (expansion and activity).
The two chakras that correspond to the cervical and pituitary centers represent a movement away from worldly relationships to a world of pure form. Here we perceive and relate to the underlying forms from which the material universe comes. When operating at these levels we exhibit creativity, intuition, and wisdom. Our manner is predominantly one of sattva (serenity and clarity).
There is a series of still more subtle chakras above the ajna or pituitary center, culminating in the center of pure consciousness at the crown of the head (sahasrara). This is the abode of shiva—pure transcendent consciousness—in each individual. It is the home of all the nectar in the universe.
In ordinary individuals, shiva resides at the crown chakra while the power of shakti lies dormant at the base of the spine. Only the smallest bit of shakti’s infinite reservoir of energy becomes dynamic in order to maintain the ordinary functions of the individual.
It is traditionally thought that shakti contains not only latent energy but also latent memories, both personal and transpersonal. Those individuals who have controlled access to the unconscious experience abundant energy, insight, and creativity. Those who transform this power of shakti from its latent to its active form become the geniuses of every age and culture.
This transformation is called the awakening of kundalini. Usually this is depicted as a sudden, intense experience. But such an experience is rare. More commonly, tiny bits of this energy are released. One experiences breakthroughs, bursts of energy and enthusiasm, peak experiences, and a sense of well-being.
Kundalini yoga involves not only awakening this kundalini shakti but also systematically leading her through each of the chakras to the sahasrara chakra. When shakti travels up to the top, energizing each center along the way, one becomes fully awakened and illumined. This yoga, or union, can be understood as the uniting of kundalini shakti with shiva (pure consciousness). Here one attains samadhi, dissolving the universe and abiding in a state of pure consciousness. This union is the goal of the yogi, but few achieve it. It is more common, although still rare, for the aspirant to awaken kundalini shakti and lead her only partway toward her goal.
Methods of Awakening Kundalini
Yoga has a number of methods to help the aspirant awaken the sleeping force within. A good teacher chooses an appropriate method to prepare each student according to their particular inclinations and capacities. Before describing these methods, I would like to warn students so that they may avoid being misguided by so-called teachers who are not able to guide their students properly.
Kundalini and tantra yoga are the most misunderstood of all yoga practices. These sacred, systematic, and advanced methods for attaining transcendent consciousness have been distorted. In the distorted versions of these types of yoga, we often hear about rough breathing exercises and unfounded claims by teachers that they directly arouse this energy in students through their mere touch or presence (mass shaktipata). All too often what becomes aroused are the student’s hysterical and emotional tendencies! Misinterpretation of these ancient teachings has led to self-delusion instead of genuine awakening. In fact, the vast majority of reports of awakened kundalini are merely the expressions of rich imaginations.
I once asked my master why there are so many false teachers. He said, “They create a fence for those who are genuine. By attracting students who want to get something for nothing, they free the real teacher to work with a smaller group of sincere aspirants.”
To genuinely awaken kundalini, preparation is needed. Without long, patient practice in purifying ourselves and strengthening our capacity to assimilate such a flood of energy, the awakening of this power would disturb and confuse us. Even at the physical level such a charge of energy can threaten the body’s integrity. This has been metaphorically described in terms of a 10-amp fuse receiving a current of 100 amps. Only after we have developed considerable self-control can this sudden and massive release of awareness be tolerated without danger.
If through careful training we have come to recognize and master our unconscious demons, only then are we prepared to face the full awakening of what is latent within us. Releasing kundalini without preparation is like opening Pandora’s box without having cultivated the ability to master what emerges. For this reason, the teacher who represents an authentic tradition that teaches methods to awaken kundalini will never fully reveal these to an unprepared student, but will do his best to prepare the student. Preparation for awakening kundalini is more important than awakening kundalini.
Here is an overview of the traditional methods of preparing to awaken kundalini:
1. Physical Means
The practice of hatha yoga, including purifying exercises, prepares the body to tolerate the heightened energy of kundalini. After considerable preparation, advanced postures, energy locks and seals called mudras and bandhas, and breathing exercises (pranayama) help to rechannel the dynamic energy (prana) and use it to awaken the latent energy (kundalini).
Since prana regulates the functioning of the body and mind, by acquiring control of this energy the yogi is able to control the mind and body at will. In most people prana flows outward, connecting the mind with the senses, but when this energy is concentrated and channeled upward through the chakras, the mind becomes detached from the senses and physical body and becomes inwardly absorbed in meditation. A number of related practices withdraw energy from the ida and pingala nadis that run to the left and right of the spinal cord and channel this energy through sushumna, the central channel.
In the process, a form of prana that normally travels upward is brought down, while the normally downward-flowing energy is brought upward, so that the two merge. This union in the central channel creates intense heat. The friction produced between them creates fire. Kundalini is thereby aroused and flows upward through a canal at the center of the spine called brahma nadi.
2. Concentration and Meditation
Kundalini can also be awakened by intense concentration and meditation on specific
sensory nerves, such as the tip of the nose or the root of the tongue, and on specific chakras. This helps the student withdraw the consciousness from its absorption in the physical body and master the quality of energy associated with a specific chakra. Meditation on a chakra along with the repetition of a particular mantra and, in some cases, a visualization (yantra) can awaken energy and bring it to that center.
Physical and mental celibacy is still another path. Instead of discharging the vital force in pleasure and procreation, the yogi learns to absorb that energy and direct it upward. The external union between male and female is forsaken; instead, an internal union between the male (shiva) and female (shakti) principles takes place.
This union is cultivated in tantra yoga, which centers on the worship of Shakti, the mother of the universe. Many people in the West think that tantra means having sexual relations. In some forms of tantra, a male-female relationship is involved, but it is transformed from the physical plane to the sphere of energy and consciousness. The partners relate to one another not as physical beings but as embodiments of Shiva, the lord of consciousness (and of the powers of destruction and transformation) and Shakti, his consort.
In the purest form of tantra (samaya), Shakti is worshiped through meditation and mantra, so that the aspirant comes into a direct, conscious relationship with the personified forms of Shiva and Shakti within himself, and unites them. The teacher introduces bahiryaga (external worship) to unprepared students. But those who are prepared are introduced to antaryaga (inner worship) to make the mind inward and one-pointed.
These are just some of the practices for arousing kundalini. Others include intense bhakti (devotion) or study of the scriptures. In fact, any spiritual practice that leads to a genuine experience of transcendent states of consciousness involves an awakening of this energy.
In most spiritual practices, the awakening of this force is not understood or systematically brought under the aspirant’s control. Thus the mystic may have inexplicable moments of ecstasy and illumination but does not know how to produce these at will. But a student who practices systematic yoga under an awakened master is guided toward his goal through a series of initiations. The first initiation is the imparting of a bija mantra, a “seed” sound to concentrate on, which represents aspects of this vital force. Mantra meditation is practiced in conjunction with a number of mental and physical practices to purify and prepare for further steps. The successful student is guided through more intricate forms of meditation to help him become sensitive to, and channel, the forces within.
These practices may culminate in shaktipata diksha, a higher initiation in which the master directly transmits his energy to remove a student’s final obstacle. In a practice called shakti chalana, the student is led gradually—and to some extent unconsciously—through transformations in which he becomes more and more able to integrate the awakening shakti. Fortunately, the master is not working alone when dealing with this powerful force. He is guided by the tradition of sages, which he represents.
Signs and Symptoms of Kundalini
There are clear and unmistakable signs when kundalini awakens. Initially there may be involuntary jerks of the body, shaking, and an intense feeling of pleasure. One of the first and most common occurrences is the experience of heat as energy passes through a particular center. Here are typical descriptions:
- I felt a burning sensation and my whole body was perspiring.
- It seemed as if a jet of molten copper, mounting up through the spine, dashed against my crown.
As kundalini awakens there is often a sensation of frogs jumping, snakes wriggling, or ants creeping along the spine.
When the aspirant has difficulty leading the energy upward, it may remain in a lower chakra and go dormant. There are three granthis (knots) through which the energy has difficulty passing: rudra granthi at the abdominal center (manipura chakra), vishnu granthi at the heart center (anahata chakra), and brahma granthi at the eyebrow center (ajna chakra). In piercing rudra granthi, pain or physical disorders may occur. Bringing kundalini to the heart center and piercing vishnu granthi is the most difficult task. At this point kundalini is said to pass from an infant state to a mature state. Advanced yogis believe that real accomplishment happens once you reach brahma granthi at the ajna chakra.
Kundalini acts as a spiritual guide, leading the individual through various experiences as the aroused energy passes through the chakras. Even so, the yogi may have to repeat the process of awakening kundalini many times, gradually leading her higher along her path.
Meditation is said to culminate in the union of shiva and shakti at the sahasrara chakra. This is the most transcendent and all-encompassing state that can be experienced, where individual consciousness merges with divine consciousness. Usually, however, it is not possible to maintain this state, and kundalini again returns to the lower chakras. Gradually, through systematic practice, the yogi learns to direct the energy at will, maintaining the state of consciousness that is appropriate and useful at a given time.
A healthy body and a yogic, undisturbed mind are two necessary instruments to awaken consciousness and lead it to its source. During my sadhana, I learned control over the four appetites (food, sleep, sex, and self-preservation). I was told to discipline myself in mind, action, and speech, and not to allow my mind to be influenced by anyone’s opinion. This took a long time to achieve. I was instructed not to follow any so-called intuition that comes through an unpurified mind. I was cautioned against being guided by emotions, but instead to channel them appropriately. Remember, emotional outbursts—shouting and crying—are not symptoms of kundalini.
The Dawn of Grace
Kundalini awakening is a specialized method of self-realization that can be attained after long, intense practice. Physical and mental self-discipline, as well as faithfulness and truthfulness, are necessary prerequisites on the path of enlightenment. It is important to know and awaken the ascending force, kundalini. But it is equally important to be aware of the descending force of kripa (grace). Shaktipata is a form of grace that dawns when the student makes sincere, selfless effort.
Many students depend completely on their guru and do not cultivate their mind. But direct experience through self-mastery alone enlightens the student, leading him to the final goal. The Upanishads declare that without a systematic method of meditation (dhyana yoga), kundalini awakening is not possible. The great sages experienced the union of individual and cosmic consciousness through meditation. As the Shvetashvatara Upanishad reminds us: “By practicing meditation, the great sages can awaken the Devatma Shakti—the Self of all.”