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.—Swami Rama
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.
The entire universe is a manifestation of pure consciousness.
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.
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.
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, Shakti is worshiped through meditation and mantra.
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.”