What Is Kundalini Yoga?
Kundalini yoga is a school of yoga that is influenced by Shaktism and Tantra schools of Hinduism. It derives its name through a focus on awakening kundalini energy through regular practice of mantra, tantra, yantra, yoga or meditation. Kundalini yoga is often identified as the most dangerous form of yoga because of the involvement of subtle energies.
What has become known as “Kundalini yoga” in the 20th century, after a technical term particular to this tradition, is actually a synthesis of many traditions which, according to Gaia, “is a blend of Bhakti Yoga (the yogic practice of devotion and chanting), Raja Yoga (the practice of mediation/mental and physical control) and Shakti Yoga, (for the expression of power and energy).” However, it may include Hatha Yoga techniques (such as bandha, pranayama, and asana), Patañjali’s kriya yoga (consisting of self-discipline, self-study, and devotion to God), tantric visualization and meditation techniques of laya yoga (known as samsketas), and other techniques oriented towards the ‘awakening of kundalini’.Laya may refer both to techniques of yoga, and (like Raja Yoga) its effect of “absorption” of the individual into the cosmic. Laya Yoga, from the Sanskrit term laya meaning “dissolution”, “extinction”, or “absorption”, is almost always described in the context of other Yogas such as in the Yoga-Tattva-Upanishad, the Varaha Upanishad, the Goraksha Paddhati, the Amaraugha-Prabodha, and the Yoga-Shastra of Dattatreya. The exact distinctions between traditional yoga schools is often hazy due to a long history of syncretism, hence many of the oldest sources on Kundalini come through manuals of the tantric and haṭha traditions such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and the Shiva Samhita. The Shiva Samhita describes the qualified yogi as practicing ‘the four yogas’ to achieve kundalini awakening while lesser students may resort solely to one technique or another: “Mantra Yoga and Hatha Yoga. Laya Yoga is the third. The fourth is Raja Yoga. It is free from duality.”The Sanskrit adjective kuṇḍalin means “circular, annular”. It does occur as a noun for “a snake” (in the sense “coiled”, as in “forming ringlets”) in the 12th-century Rajatarangini chronicle (I.2). Kuṇḍa, a noun with the meaning “bowl, water-pot” is found as the name of a Naga in Mahabharata 1.4828. The feminine kuṇḍalī has the meaning of “ring, bracelet, coil (of a rope)” in Classical Sanskrit, and is used as the name of a “serpent-like” Shakti in Tantrism as early as the 11th century, in the Śaradatilaka.
The experience of Kundalini awakening can happen when one is either prepared or unprepared.
According to Hindu tradition, in order to be able to integrate this spiritual energy, a period of careful purification and strengthening of the body and nervous system is usually required beforehand. Yoga and Tantra propose that Kundalini can be awakened by a guru (teacher), but body and spirit must be prepared by yogic austerities, such as pranayama, or breath control, physical exercises, visualization, and chanting. The student is advised to follow the path in an open-hearted manner.
Traditionally, people visited ashrams in India to awaken their dormant kundalini energy with regular meditation, mantra chanting, spiritual studies and physical asana practice such as kundalini yoga.
The Yoga-Kundalini Upanishad is listed in the Muktika canon of 108 Upanishads. Since this canon was fixed in the year 1656, it is known that the Yoga-Kundalini Upanishad was compiled in the first half of the 17th century at the latest. The Upanishad more likely dates to the 16th century, as do other Sanskrit texts which treat kundalini as a technical term in tantric yoga, such as the Ṣaṭ-cakra-nirūpana and the Pādukā-pañcaka. These latter texts were translated in 1919 by John Woodroffe as The Serpent Power: The Secrets of Tantric and Shaktic Yoga. He identifies the process of involution and its techniques in these texts as a particular form of Tantrik Laya Yoga.
The Yogakundali and the Yogatattva are yoga texts related to the school of Hatha yoga and Mantra yoga. They are part of a tendency of syncretism combining the tradition of yoga with other schools of Hindu philosophy during the 15th and 16th centuries.
The Yoga-Kundalini Upanishad consists of three short chapters; it begins by stating that Chitta (consciousness) is controlled by Prana, and it is controlled by moderate food, postures and Shakti-Chala (I.1-2). Verses I.3-6 explain the concepts of moderate food and concept, and verse I.7 introduces Kundalini as the name of the Shakti under discussion:
- I.7. The Sakti (mentioned above) is only Kundalini. A wise man should take it up from its place (Viz., the navel, upwards) to the middle of the eyebrows. This is called Sakti-Chala.
- I.8. In practising it, two things are necessary, Sarasvati-Chalana and the restraint of Prana (breath). Then through practice, Kundalini (which is spiral) becomes straightened.
Main article: Modern Yoga
Although kundalini developed as a part of tantra side-by-side with hatha yoga through a process of syncretism, Swami Nigamananda (d. 1935) taught a form of laya yoga which he insisted was not part of Hatha yoga.
Swami Sivananda (1935) introduced many readers to “Kundalini Yoga” with his book on the subject in 1935. This book has in-depth details about Kundalini Yoga Swami Sivananda’s book combines laya teachings from older sources including the Hathapradipika and Sat Cakra Nirupana. Together with other currents of Hindu revivalism and Neo-Hinduism, Kundalini Yoga became popular in 1960s to 1980s western counterculture.
In 1968, Harbhajan Singh Khalsa, also known as Yogi Bhajan, introduced his own brand of kundalini yoga into the United States, “Kundalini Yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan”. Yogi Bhajan founded the “Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization” (3HO) as a teaching organization. Yogi Bhajan took yogic postures and techniques, attached them to Tantric theories and Sikh mantras, synthesizing a new form of ‘Kundalini’ yoga. “When placed alongside the teachings of Swami Dhirendra Brahmachari and Maharaj Virsa Singh, it becomes strikingly apparent that at least in its earliest years, Yogi Bhajan’s Kundalini yoga was not a distinct practice, but essentially a combination of yogic mechanics learned from the former and the Sikh-derived mantras (Ik Ongkaar, Sat Naam, Sri Waheguru) and chanting from the latter,” Deslippe writes. But Virsa Singh rejected Bhajan’s Kundalini yoga. Yoga was not a part of the Gobind Sadan spiritual path. And a power struggle ensued over who would win control of the new American followers.
Traditional Sikhs use quotations by Bhai Gurdas, whose “Vaaraa,” or “Ballads,” were considered by Guru Arjan as a key to understanding the concepts of the Guru Granth as saying, wherever Guru Nanak went and debated the futility of yoga, the yogis gave up their yogic paths. The yogis of “Gorakhmata,” meaning “Wisdom of Gorakhnatha,” the founder of Hatha yoga, converted to the path of Guru Nanak, and also changed the name of their ancient center to “Nanakmata,” meaning “Wisdom of Guru Nanak,” known today as Gurdwara Sri Nanakmata Sahib. Guru Nanak never practiced yoga, and neither did any of the following Gurus, their Sikhs or the Khalsa. Yoga is unmistakably refuted in the Guru Granth.
Disciples of Harbhajan Singh (Yogi Bhajan) claim that while Yoga practice and philosophy are generally considered a part of Hindu culture, Kundalini Yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan is founded on the principles of Sikh Dharma. While adhering to the three pillars of Patanjali’s kriya yoga system: discipline (tapaḥ), spiritual study (svādhyāya) and devotion to God (iśvarapraṇidāna) (PYS, II:1), Kundalini Yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan does not condone extremes of asceticism or renunciation. He encouraged his students to marry, establish businesses, and be fully engaged in society. Rather than worshiping God, Yogi Bhajan’s teachings encourage students to train their mind to experience God. Yogi Bhajan sometimes referred to the Sikh lifestyle as Raja Yoga, the yoga of living detached, yet fully engaged in the world.
In respect of the rigor of his teachings, Yogi Bhajan claims kinship with other 20th century Sikh sadhu saints, such as Sant Baba Attar Singh, Sant Baba Nand Singh, and Bhai Randhir Singh.
Yogi Bhajan‘s version of Kundalini Yoga has continued to grow in influence and popularity largely in the Americas, Europe, South Africa, Togo, Australia, and East Asia, with the training of many thousands of teachers. It is popularized through books and videos, teachers such as Gurmukh, research by David Shannahoff-Khalsa, Dharma Singh Khalsa, Sat Bir Singh Khalsa and others, and through the publicity accorded it by various celebs such as Madonna (entertainer), Demi Moore, Cindy Crawford, Russell Brand, Al Pacino, David Duchovny, and Miranda Kerr who are known, or have been known, to practice it. One 2013 article in a New York wellness magazine described Kundalini Yoga as “The Ultra-Spiritual Yoga Celebs Love.”
Principles and methodology
Kundalini is the term for “a spiritual energy or life force located at the base of the spine”, conceptualized as a coiled-up serpent. The practice of Kundalini yoga is supposed to arouse the sleeping Kundalini Shakti from its coiled base through the 6 chakras, and penetrate the 7th chakra, or crown. This energy is said to travel along the ida (left), pingala (right) and central, or sushumna nadi – the main channels of pranic energy in the body. A recent article has suggested that the process may be mediated by vagus nerve.
Kundalini energy is technically explained as being sparked during yogic breathing when prana and apana blends at the 3rd chakra (navel center) at which point it initially drops down to the 1st and 2nd chakras before traveling up to the spine to the higher centers of the brain to activate the golden cord – the connection between the pituitary and pineal glands – and penetrate the 7 chakras.
Borrowing and integrating the highest forms from many different approaches, Kundalini Yoga can be understood as a tri-fold approach of Bhakti Yoga for devotion, Shakti yoga for power, and Raja yoga for mental power and control. Its purpose through the daily practice of kriyas and meditation in sadhana are described a practical technology of human consciousness for humans to achieve their total creative potential. With the practice of Kundalini Yoga one is thought able to liberate oneself from one’s Karma and to realize one’s Dharma (Life Purpose).
The practice of kriyas and meditations in Kundalini Yoga are designed to raise complete body awareness to prepare the body, nervous system, and mind to handle the energy of Kundalini rising. The majority of the physical postures focus on navel activity, activity of the spine, and selective pressurization of body points and meridians. Breath work and the application of bandhas (3 yogic locks) aid to release, direct and control the flow of Kundalini energy from the lower centers to the higher energetic centers.
Along with the many kriyas, meditations and practices of Kundalini Yoga, a simple breathing technique of alternate nostril breathing (left nostril, right nostril) is taught as a method to cleanse the nadis, or subtle channels and pathways, to help awaken Kundalini energy.
Sovatsky (1998) adapts a developmental and evolutionary perspective in his interpretation of Kundalini Yoga. That is, he interprets Kundalini Yoga as a catalyst for psycho-spiritual growth and bodily maturation. According to this interpretation of yoga, the body bows itself into greater maturation […], none of which should be considered mere stretching exercises.
Sir John Woodroffe (1865–1936) – also known by his pseudonym Arthur Avalon – was a British Orientalist whose published works stimulated a far-reaching interest in Hindu philosophy and Yogic practices. While serving as a High Court Judge in Calcutta, he studied Sanskrit and Hindu Philosophy, particularly as it related to Hindu Tantra. He translated numerous original Sanskrit texts and lectured on Indian philosophy, Yoga and Tantra. His book, The Serpent Power: The Secrets of Tantric and Shaktic Yoga became a major source for many modern Western adaptations of Kundalini yoga practice. It presents an academically and philosophically sophisticated translation of, and commentary on, two key Eastern texts: Shatchakranirūpana (Description and Investigation into the Six Bodily Centers) written by Tantrik Pūrnānanda Svāmī (1526) and the Paduka-Pancakā from the Sanskrit of a commentary by Kālīcharana (Five-fold Footstool of the Guru). The Sanskrit term “Kundali Shakti” translates as “Serpent Power”. Kundalini is thought to be an energy released within an individual using specific meditation techniques. It is represented symbolically as a serpent coiled at the base of the spine.
In his book Artistic Form and Yoga in the Sacred Images of India, Heinrich Zimmer wrote in praise of the writings of Sir John Woodroffe:
The values of the Hindu tradition were disclosed to me through the enormous life-work of Sir John Woodroffe, alias Arthur Avalon, a pioneer and a classic author in Indic studies, second to none, who, for the first time, by many publications and books made available the extensive and complex treasure of late Hindu tradition: the Tantras, a period as grand and rich as the Vedas, the Epic, Puranas, etc.; the latest crystallization of Indian wisdom, the indispensable closing link of a chain, affording keys to countless problems in the history of Buddhism and Hinduism, in mythology and symbolism.
When Woodroffe later commented upon the reception of his work he clarified his objective, “All the world (I speak of course of those interested in such subjects) is beginning to speak of Kundalinî Shakti.” He described his intention as follows: “We, who are foreigners, must place ourselves in the skin of the Hindu, and must look at their doctrine and ritual through their eyes and not our own.”
Western awareness of kundalini was strengthened by the interest of Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Dr. Carl Jung (1875–1961). Jung’s seminar on Kundalini yoga presented to the Psychological Club in Zurich in 1932 was widely regarded as a milestone in the psychological understanding of Eastern thought and of the symbolic transformations of inner experience. 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, with sensitivity towards a new generation’s interest in alternative religions and psychological exploration.
In the introduction to Jung’s book The Psychology of Kundalini Yoga, Sonu Shamdasani puts forth “The emergence of depth psychology was historically paralleled by the translation and widespread dissemination of the texts of yoga… for the depth psychologies sought to liberate themselves from the stultifying limitations of Western thought to develop maps of inner experience grounded in the transformative potential of therapeutic practices. A similar alignment of “theory” and “practice” seemed to be embodied in the yogic texts that moreover had developed independently of the bindings of Western thought. Further, the initiatory structure adopted by institutions of psychotherapy brought its social organization into proximity with that of yoga. Hence, an opportunity for a new form of comparative psychology opened up.”
The American writer William Buhlman, began to conduct an international survey of out-of-body experiences in 1969 in order to gather information about symptoms: sounds, vibrations and other phenomena, that commonly occur at the time of the OBE event. His primary interest was to compare the findings with reports made by yogis, such as Gopi Krishna (yogi) who have made reference to similar phenomenon, such as the ‘vibrational state’ as components of their kundalini-related spiritual experience. He explains:
There are numerous reports of full Kundalini experiences culminating with a transcendental out-of-body state of consciousness. In fact, many people consider this experience to be the ultimate path to enlightenment. The basic premise is to encourage the flow of Kundalini energy up the spine and toward the top of the head—the crown chakra—thus projecting your awareness into the higher heavenly dimensions of the universe. The result is an indescribable expansion of consciousness into spiritual realms beyond form and thought.
Sri Aurobindo was the other great scholarly authority on Kundalini, with a viewpoint parallel to that of Woodroffe but of a somewhat different slant – this according to Mary Scott, herself a latter-day scholar on Kundalini and its physical basis, and a former member of the Theosophical Society.
Kundalini references may be found in a number of New Age presentations, and is a word that has been adopted by many new religious movements.
According to Carl Jung “… the concept of Kundalini has for us only one use, that is, to describe our own experiences with the unconscious …” Jung used the Kundalini system symbolically as a means of understanding the dynamic movement between conscious and unconscious processes. He cautioned that all forms of yoga, when used by Westerners, can be attempts at domination of the body and unconscious through the ideal of ascending into higher chakras.
According to Shamdasani, Jung claimed that the symbolism of Kundalini yoga suggested that the bizarre symptomatology that patients at times presented, actually resulted from the awakening of the Kundalini. He argued that knowledge of such symbolism enabled much that would otherwise be seen as the meaningless by-products of a disease process to be understood as meaningful symbolic processes, and explicated the often peculiar physical localizations of symptoms.
The popularization of eastern spiritual practices has been associated with psychological problems in the west. Psychiatric literature notes that “since the influx of eastern spiritual practices and the rising popularity of meditation starting in the 1960s, many people have experienced a variety of psychological difficulties, either while engaged in intensive spiritual practice or spontaneously”. Among the psychological difficulties associated with intensive spiritual practice we find “Kundalini awakening”, “a complex physio-psychospiritual transformative process described in the yogic tradition”. Researchers in the fields of Transpersonal psychology, and Near-death studies have described a complex pattern of sensory, motor, mental and affective symptoms associated with the concept of Kundalini, sometimes called the Kundalini syndrome.
The differentiation between spiritual emergency associated with Kundalini awakening may be viewed as an acute psychotic episode by psychiatrists who are not conversant with the culture. The biological changes of increased P300 amplitudes that occurs with certain yogic practices may lead to acute psychosis. Biological alterations by Yogic techniques may be used to warn people against such reactions.
Some modern experimental research seeks to establish links between Kundalini practice and the ideas of Wilhelm Reich and his followers.
- Venkatesh et al. (1997) studied twelve kundalini (chakra) meditators, using the Phenomenology of Consciousness Inventory. They found no empirical evidence, only observational. The study publishes that the practice of meditation “appears to produce structural as well as intensity changes in phenomenological experiences of consciousness”.
- Lazar et al. (2000) observed the brains of subjects performing, “a simple form of Kundalini Yoga meditation in which they passively observed their breathing and silently repeated the phrase ‘sat nam’ during inhalations and ‘wahe guru’ during exhalations,” and found that multiple regions of brain were involved especially those involved in relaxation and maintaining attention.
“Kundalini Yoga consists of active and passive asana-based kriyas, pranayama, and meditations which target the whole body system (nervous system, glands, mental faculties, chakras) to develop awareness, consciousness and spiritual strength.” —Yogi Bhajan
Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia