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Kundalini is derived from a Sanskrit word meaning either "coiled up" or "coiling like a snake"; and refers to a religious experience of an altered state of consciousness brought about either spontaneously, or through a type of religious yoga practice, or through psychedelic drugs, or through a near death experience.

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.

In yoga, Kundalini refers to the mothering intelligence behind yogic awakening and spiritual maturation, and may be regarded by yogis as a sort of deity, hence the occasional capitalization of the term. According to Yogic phenomenology kundalini awakening is associated with the appearance of bio-energetic phenomena that are 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 (Sovatsky, 1998). According to the Yogic tradition Kundalini is curled up in the back part of the root chakra in three and one-half turns.

Some western translators interpret the energetic phenomena as a form of psychic 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 also sometimes believed to be an aspect of Shakti, the goddess and consort of Shiva.

Two early western interpretations of Kundalini were supplied by C.W. Leadbeater (1847-1934), of the Theosophical Society, and the Analytical Psychologist Carl Gustav Jung (18751961). 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. (PsycINFO abstract: C.G Jung - "The psychology of Kundalini yoga". Princeton University Press, 1999).

Kundalini is a popular concept that 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 is 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 and Transpersonal/Humanistic psychology.


Kundalini Yoga

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 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 (Sovatsky, 1998). 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 (Lazar, 2000; Cromie, 2002)

Kundalini rising

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 in the book "Theories of the Chakras" by Hiroshi Motoyama, who 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. As the Kundalini raises from the root-chakra up through the spinal channel, called sushumna, it is believed to activate each chakra it goes through. Each chakra is said to contain special characteristics, and 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. 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).

According to much contemporary spiritual literature, and the field of Transpersonal Psychology, it is not considered wise to engage in this sort of practice 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. These warnings cannot be underestimated without risk. A growing body of clinical and psychological literature notes the growing occurrence of meditation-related problems in Western contemplative life (Lukoff, Lu & Turner, 1998; Perez-De-Albeniz & Holmes, 2000). Among these we find the Kundalini Syndrome (which is presented more closely later in this article). For more on this subject see the article on meditation section 7: Adverse effects of meditation.

Spiritual literature also describes instances when Kundalini can be initiated. Initiation of kundalini activity is usually considered to take place by a form of 'laying on of hands', or shaktipat, 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 neglected. Eye contact during satsang with the guru is also supposed to cause this experience. Within the context of spiritual literature inadvertent kundalini experiences have also been reported to take place when subjects physically contacted powerful gurus, such as Meher Baba, by accident.

Kundalini in the world's religions

Kundalini as a spiritual experience is thought to have parallels in many of the mystical and gnostic traditions of the world's great religions. 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 parallells in contemporary Christian charismatic 'Holy Ghost' phenomena. Religious studies also note parallels in Quakerism, Shakerism, Judaic davening (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 practised by Milarepa, and the Indically-derived Andalusian flamenco (Sovatsky, 1998).

The Kundalini Syndrome

Theorists within the schools of Humanistic psychology, Transpersonal psychology and Near-Death Studies describe a complex pattern of motor, sensory, affective and cognitive/hermeneutic symptoms called The Kundalini Syndrome. This psycho-somatic arousal and excitation is believed to occur in connection with prolonged and intensive spiritual or contemplative practice (such as meditation or yoga). It might also occur spontaneously as a result of intense life experiences or a close encounter with death, such as a near-death experience (Greyson 1993, 2000; Scotton, 1996; Lukoff, Lu & Turner, 1998; Kason, 2000).

According to these fields of study the Kundalini-syndrome is of a different nature than a single Kundalini episode, such as a Kundalini-rising. The Kundalini-syndrome is a process that might unfold over several months, or even years. If the accompagnying symptoms unfold in an intense manner—that de-stabilizes the person—the process is usually interpreted as a Spiritual Emergency (Grof & Grof, 1989; Lukoff, Lu & Turner, 1998).

Interdisciplinary dialogue within these particular schools of psychology has now established some common criteria in order to describe this condition (see references below).

Motor symptoms are thought to include tremors, shaking, spontaneous or involuntary body-movements and changes in respiratory function. Sensory symptoms are thought to include changes in body-temperature, a feeling of energy running along the spine or progressing upwards in the body, a feeling of electricity in the body, headache and pressure inside of the head, tingling, vibrations and gastro-intestinal problems. Cognitive and affective symptoms are thought to include psychological upheaval, stress, depression, hallucinations (inner visions or accoustical phenomena), depersonalization or derealization, intense mood-swings, altered states of consciousness, but also moments of bliss and deep peace (Sannella, 1976; Greyson, 1993 & 2000; Greenwell, 1995; Scotton, 1996; Kason, 2000). Within the mentioned academic traditions this symptomatology is often referred to as the Physio-Kundalini syndrome (Sannella, 1976, Greyson 1993; 2000) or Kundalini-experience/awakening (Scotton, 1996; Lukoff, Lu & Turner, 1998). A roaring noise or other loud auditory hallucination have also been reported (perhaps related to the phenomenon of 'Exploding head syndrome'). Transpersonal literature emphasizes that this list of symptoms is not meant to be used as a tool for self-diagnosis. Any unusual or marked physical or mental symptom needs to be investigated by a qualified medical doctor (Kason, 2000).

Greyson (1993) developed The Physio-Kundalini Syndrome Index in order to measure the degree of Physio-Kundalini symptoms among Near-Death experiencers. Most researchers within this field believe that the core of the process is not pathological, but maturational, even though the symptoms at times may be dramatic and very disturbing (Greyson, 1993; Lukoff, 1998). In a conventional medical journal Le Fanu (2002) briefly discusses the similarity between the interpretation of new mystery syndromes and the Kundalini experience. According to the field of Transpersonal Psychology the Kundalini-syndrome is largely unknown to Western psychiatry. Many writers within this field are consequently working towards a clinical approach to the problem. Possible improvements in the diagnostic system that are meant to differentiate the Kundalini-syndrome from other disorders have been suggested (Hansen, 1995; Herrick, 1996; Scotton, 1996; Lukoff, Lu & Turner, 1998; House, 2001; Maxwell, 2001; Grabovac & Ganesan, 2003). Lukoff, Lu & Turner (1998) has suggested that the Kundalini-symptomatology might be placed under the diagnostic category "Religious or Spiritual Problem" (American Psychiatric Association: DSM-IV Code V62.89)

A recent criticism of some of the approaches to this clinical category has been put forward by Sovatsky (1998) who believes that when interpreting the symptomatology one must differentiate between the symptoms of - what is thought to be - a Kundalini-awakening, and the symptoms of different preliminary yogic processes. According to this view many reported Kundalini-problems might rather be signs of the precursory energetic state of pranotthana. A confusion of terms within this delicate area of clinical concern might also - unfortunately - lead to various undiagnosed neurological problems being misdiagnosed as a Kundalini-problem.

In an article from Psychological Reports Thalbourne (2001) discusses whether scores on a 35-item Kundalini Scale is correlated to the concept of Transliminality (a hypothesized tendency for psychological material to cross thresholds into or out of consciousness). The Transliminality Scale, presented by Lange, Thalbourne, Houran & Storm (2000), defines a probabilistic hierarchy of items that address magical ideation, mystical experience, absorption, hyperaesthesia, manic experience, dream interpretation, and fantasy proneness.

Kundalini and physiology

Contemporary spiritual literature often notes that the chakras as described in the esoteric kundalini documents bear a strong similarity in location and number to the major endocrine glands, as well as nerve bundles called ganglions. One speculation is that the traditional practices have formalized a method for stimulating the endocrine glands to work in a different mode which has a more direct effect on consciousness, perhaps ultimately by stimulating the release of DMT by the pineal gland, which may be analogous to the 'pineal chakra' (Strassman, 2001). Within the context of meditation Kundalini might also be interpreted as a meditation-induced ecstatic experience, a non-sexual "air-gasm".

Within the transpersonal field Sovatsky (1998) has put forward the hypotheses of post-genital puberties. The possibiliy of viewing pranotthana (yogic terminology for intensified life-energy) and the larger Kundalini process as a maturation of body and character beyond conventional psychological growth. He has also made some criticism about the tendency—of much contemporary alternative culture—to frame the concept of Kundalini in a New Age-vocabulary. A tendency that might hinder a mature understanding of the subject. The interpretation of Kundalini as a developmental, or maturational phenomena, was first suggested to the west by the Indian Pundit Gopi Krishna, whose autobiography is entitled Kundalini—The Evolutionary Energy in Man (Boulder: Shambhala, 1971).

The late Itzhak Bentov studied Kundalini from an engineering perspective. According to Bentov, the 7.5Hz oscillation of the heart muscle rhythm-induces mechanical KHz frequencies in the brain, that in turn create a stimulus equivalent of a current loop. The nerve ends in that loop correspond to the route through which the Kundalini "rises". This current polarizes the brain part through which it flows in a homogenous way, effectively releasing tremendous amounts of stress from the body. The body then becomes an effective antenna for the 7.5Hz frequency, which is one of the ionosphere resonant frequencies. In lay man terms, you then pick up information from the air. This might account for repeated descriptions of heightened senses as a result of rising Kundalini, e.g. as described by Yogananda: "The whole vicinity lay bare before me. My ordinary frontal vision was now changed to a vast spherical sight, simultaneously all-perceptive. Through the back of my head I saw men strolling far down Rai Ghat Lane..." An article by Bentov titled "Micromotions of the Body as a Factor in the Development of the Nervous System" appeared in the anthology "Kundalini" by John White, editor.

Pathological Kundalini

When practiced in a religious context, Kundalini is mostly beneficial and benevolent, but its initial physiological precursors have the potential to diverge into some peculiar types of pathology, when induced to arise via violence and outside of a religious context, where it may be part of a PTSD response to extreme experiences.

For example, the serial killer Pee Wee Gaskins describes kundalini-type symptoms as a response to childhood beatings:

"The new man of the house beat Pee Wee Gaskins and his other children 'just for practice', as Pee Wee recalled, the violence was a part of daily life, ... By age 10, he suffered from the onset of a lifelong 'bothersomeness', described as feeling like 'a ball of molten lead rolling around in my guts and up my spine into my head'. That feeling presaged outbursts of erratic violence, sometimes assuaged by forays into criminal activity." [1]

The PTSD researcher, Dr. Jonathan Shay describes several cases with kundalini-like symptoms in his book 'Achilles in Vietnam'.

Kundalini energy has also occasionally been abused by various gurus or spiritual teachers of various sects, usually by creating an unhealthy dependence of the disciples upon the guru for 'energy treatments'. Shoko Asahara of Aum Shinrikyo infamy is an example of this pathological form of guru-disciple relationship maintained through abuse of Kundalini energy.

The philosopher Nietzsche may have also been the victim of a pathological form of kundalini awakening, leading to his breakdown and 'insanity', from which he never recovered.

See also

References and further reading - books and articles

General and academic

  • American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth edition. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association.
  • Cromie, William J. (2002) Research: Meditation canges temperatures: Mind controls body in extreme experiments". Harvard University Gazette, April 18, 2002
  • Greenwell, Bonnie, (1995) Energies of Transformation: A Guide to the Kundalini Process, Saratoga, CA: Shakti River Press. 2nd ed.
  • Grof, Stanislav & Grof, Christina (eds) (1989) Spiritual Emergency: When Personal Transformation Becomes a Crisis (New Consciousness Reader) Los Angeles : J.P Tarcher
  • House, Richard (2001) "Psychopathology, Psychosis and the Kundalini: postmodern perspectives on unusual subjective experience." Chapter 7 in Isabel Clarke (ed.), Psychosis and Spirituality: Exploring the New Frontier, London: Whurr Publishers, 2001, pp. 107-25
  • Irving, Darrel, (1995) Serpent of Fire: A Modern View of Kundalini, York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser, Inc., ISBN 0877288305
  • Kason, Yvonne (2000) Farther Shores: Exploring How Near-Death, Kundalini and Mystical Experiences Can Transform Ordinary Lives. Toronto: HarperCollins Publishers; Revised edition.
  • Krishna, Gopi, (1971) Kundalini : the evolutionary energy in man. Boulder, Colorado : Shambhala, 1971. autobiography; many other books, see his entry.
  • Lazar, Sara W.; Bush, George; Gollub, Randy L.; Fricchione, Gregory L.; Khalsa, Gurucharan; Benson, Herbert (2000) Functional brain mapping of the relaxation response and meditation [Autonomic Nervous System] NeuroReport: Volume 11(7) 15 May 2000 p 1581–1585 PubMed Abstract PMID 10841380
  • Lange R.; Thalbourne M.A; Houran J. & Storm L. (2000) The Revised Transliminality Scale: Reliability and Validity Data From a Rasch Top-Down Purification Procedure. Consciousness and Cognition, December 2000, vol. 9, no. 4, pp. 591-617(27) Ingenta Connect Abstract 2004 Ingenta
  • Perez-De-Albeniz, Alberto & Holmes, Jeremy (2000) Meditation: Concepts, Effects And Uses In Therapy. International Journal of Psychotherapy, March 2000, Vol. 5 Issue 1, p49, 10p
  • Sannella, Lee (1976) Kundalini, psychosis or transcendence. San Francisco: Dakin
  • Strassman, Rick (2001) DMT: The Spirit Molecule: A Doctor's Revolutionary Research into the Biology of Near-Death and Mystical Experiences. Rochester, VT: Park Street Press
  • Sovatsky, Stuart (1998) Words from the Soul : Time, East/West Spirituality, and Psychotherapeutic Narrative (Suny Series in Transpersonal and Humanistic Psychology) New York: State University of New York Press
  • Thalbourne, Michael A. (2001) Measures of the Sheep-Goat Variable, Transliminality, and their Correlates. Psychological Reports, April 2001, pp. 339-350

The Kundalini syndrome — clinical and academic discussion

(Includes approaches to DSM-IV and ICD-10)

  • Grabovac, Andrea & Ganesan, Soma (2003) "Spirituality and Religion in Canadian Psychiatric Residency Training". Canadian Journal Of Psychiatry, Vol 48, No 3, April 2003 (Table 3: Selected elements of a proposed academic lecture series on religious and spirituality in psychiatry) PubMed Abstract PMID 12728741 PubMed — indexed for MEDLINE
  • Greyson, Bruce. (1993). "The physio-kundalini syndrome and mental illness". Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 25, 43–58. PsycINFO Abstract, Accession Number: 1994-09663-001. PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2003 APA
  • Greyson, Bruce. (2000). "Some neuropsychological correlates of the physio-kundalini syndrome". Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 32, 123–134. PsycINFO Abstract, Accession Number: 2001-16631-002. PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2003 APA
  • Hansen, G (1995) [Schizophrenia or spiritual crisis? On "raising the kundalini" and its diagnostic classification]. Ugeskrift for Laeger. 1995 Jul 31;157(31):4360–2. [Article in Danish] PubMed Abstract PMID 7645095 PubMed — indexed for MEDLINE
  • Herrick, Karen (1996) Finding Our Own Substance: New DSM-IV Code 62.89, Religious or Spiritual Problem. Poster Presentation Abstract—Toward a Science of Consciousness 1996 Sponsored by the University of Arizona April 8–13, 1996, Tucson Convention Center.
  • Le Fanu, James (2002) "A clutch of new syndromes?" Journal for the Royal Society of Medicine, 2002; 95:118-125. PubMed Abstract PMID 11872759 PubMed — indexed for MEDLINE
  • Lukoff, David; Lu , Francis G. & Turner, Robert P. (1998) From Spiritual Emergency to Spiritual Problem: The Transpersonal Roots of the New DSM-IV Category. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 38(2), 21–50, 1998.
  • Maxwell, Victoria (2001) Bridging Science and Spirit. Visions BC's Mental Health Journal, NO. 12, Spring 2001. Canadian Mental Health Association.
  • Scotton, Bruce (1996) The phenomenology and treatment of kundalini, in Chinen, Scotton and Battista (Editors) (1996) Textbook of transpersonal psychiatry and psychology. (pp.261-270). New York, NY, US: Basic Books, Inc. PsycINFO Abstract, Accession Number: 1996-97805-024. PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2003 APA

Esoteric and Spiritual

  • Swami Muktananda, (1978) Play of Consciousness, San Francisco: Harper and Row, spiritual autobiography
  • Effendi, Irmansyah, (2004) Reiki TUMMO: An Effective Technique for Health and Happiness, Indonesia : Yayasan Padmajaya Press. ISBN 9799852900
  • Jones, Franklin, aka Da Free John and other names, (1973) The Knee of Listening: The Early Life and Radical Spiritual Teachings, Los Angeles: Dawn Horse Press. autobiography
  • Wolfe, W. Thomas, (1978) And the Sun is Up: Kundalini Rises in the West, Red Hook, NY: Academy Hill Press
  • Sivananda, Sri Swami (1971) Kundalini Yoga, Sivanandanagar, UP, India: Divine Life Society.
  • Radha, Swami Sivananda (Sylvia Hellman) (1978) Kundalini: Yoga for the West, Forward by Herbert V. Guenther , Introduction by Stanley Krippner , Spokane: Timeless Books.
  • Saraswati, Paramahans Satyananda (1972) Tantra of Kundalini Yoga, Bihar, India: Bihar School of Yoga.
  • Woodroffe, Sir John , The Serpent Power. an early presentation of Yoga to the West.

External links

Clinical approaches to the Kundalini syndrome

Kundalini research

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