Kundalini in Modern Yoga—Lost in Translation
By Carly Dresselhaus
Yoga: Theory Culture and Practice
Professor Laura Douglass
May 3 2010
This paper attempts to explore the concept of Kundalini in Modern yoga. There are contradictions seen in the various yogic texts (such as Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Yoga yagnavalkya, and the Kundalini Upanishads) that confuse our current understanding of Kundalini. This, along with the lack of solid scientific evidence supporting the phenomenon of “kundalini awakening” and its “New Age” reputation, is reason to take an in-depth look at what Kundalini really is and what it means. We as a society could benefit from a more thorough understanding of both the mythology and the physiology of this esoteric aspect of yoga. I will examine the misleading superstitions surrounding the concept of Kundalini, as well as its filtered and morphed integration into western culture. I also will focus on what got lost in the process, and on revealing the subtle physiology of Kundalini (chakras, nadis, prana) using Bentov’s Model of the Physio-Kundalini syndrome, among other clinical and survey based papers on the subject, in order to put Kundalini into a scientific and cultural perspective that will hopefully clarify this largely misunderstood aspect of Yoga.
The concept of Kundalini is widely misunderstood or unknown by westerners. It remains obscure in the West due to its unavoidably selective translation from eastern Sanskrit literature and Yogic philosophy to Western academic literature, philosophy, and science. Especially during Yoga’s transition to the west in the early 1900s, and Yogi Bhajan’s 1960’s “New Age” revolution of Kundalini Yoga in America, scientists and academics focused mainly on the occult aspects of yoga and the physical techniques of yoga. This left the more esoteric and secretive practices, such as Kundalini, in relative darkness.
In order for yoga to be accepted in the west, it had to go through scientific analysis. The year “1948 introduced yoga as a practical [eclectic] discipline “well adapted to modern life here in America” (Douglas, 38). However, associations (with occult magic and psychedelics) were laid on by culture and western academics who “de-emphasized yoga’s attention to mental obstacles and ethics, [and] instead chose to focus on its supernatural elements” (Douglas, 38). This could be responsible for western science’s lack of effort in this field. However, understanding Kundalini could be a major step in the evolution of the human mind.
Kundalini, which is part of the subtle body system, is nearly impossible to study effectively in a laboratory setting (refer to sanella and saraswati). Yet according to Sanella there is a “marked increase in the number of people undergoing intense spiritual experiences within our own culture (Greeley and McCready, 1975)” (1).
The “rebirth process now occurs more frequently, as shown by case files of the Kundalini research Foundation in NY” (sanella, 5). This increasing interest in spiritual enlightenment in the west raises issues of the necessity of gurus and preparatory sadhaka (practices), as well as the limitations of western science in understanding the subtle body and human consciousness.
According to Elizabeth De Michelis’s book, “A History of Modern Yoga”,
“Modern Yoga” is used as a technical term to refer to certain types of yoga [such as the more physical practices of yoga] that evolved mainly through the interaction of Western individuals interested in Indian religions and a number of more or less westernized Indians over the last 150 years”. (2)
It is important to understand this arrival at Modern Yoga in order to find where Kundalini comes into play.
Kundalini Yoga being relatively exclusive even in India, it was not a part of the development of this Modern Yoga, and therefore has not been adapted to western culture in the same way. Nor has it been taken seriously. It has therefore remained in a static state of esotericism.
What is it?
In Paul Pond’s article “why study kundalini?” (2003), he states, “Kundalini is held to be responsible for mystical or transcendental experience and is thus the root of all esoteric and religious traditions…yoga was developed as the science of its day, a way of verifying supernatural truths” (2).
According to the classical and medieval texts (such as Hatha Yoga Pradipika and the Upanishads), Kundalini refers to the latent “coiled” energy at the base of the spine, residing in Mooladhara chakra (energy centers located at various points along the spinal column). Some practices of yoga are meant to move this energy up through Sushumna nadi (energy channel) until it reaches Sahasrara (the crown chakra), at which point one supposedly attains enlightenment and self-realization.
Also in traditional yogic philosophy, “the term Kundalini refers to both a ‘mechanism’ and an ‘energy’ [prana] in the human body. Activation of the mechanism causes an increased amount of pranic energy to be produced in the cells and tissues of the body and to be transmitted to the brain via the nerves in and around the spinal column [Ida, pingala, and susumna nadis], leading to alterations in the state of consciousness in the individual” (pond, 2). This quote is a good example of a westerner’s attempt to describe the chakras and other components of the subtle body system from a scientific perspective.
The Chakras are a main component of Kundalini, and yoga in general, and are described by yogis as lotus flowers (Muktibodananda, 161). The chakras and Kundalini are immersed in rich and seductive imagery and mythology, and are partially responsible for its occult obscurity and misunderstanding. In “the Heart of Yoga”, T.K.V Desikachar warns of taking this imagery too literally. This makes sense, as the imagery can be alluring yet misleading (This is discussed further in the section on Kundalini and culture).
The mystique of the descriptions of the chakras is partially responsible for western science’s dismissal of Kundalini as a viable science. According to some studies that I will touch on later, the chakras and the process of Kundalini Awakening is in fact very scientific and has more to do with brain function than anything physically located in the body, and certainly more than lotus flowers and snakes.
Kundalini in the West
“For thousands of years, from the ancient Vedas onward, this process [of Kundalini Awakening] has been described. Until recently (the late 1800s, early 1900s), it was confined to distant cultures, esoteric traditions, and a few isolated individuals. Accounts of it have usually been highly personal and often permeated with vague mysticism and strange mythology” (Sanella, Intro).
As a result, the accounts were not taken seriously and no systematic comparisons of the reports from different traditions were possible. “Consequently, professionals have remained confused, skeptical and suspicious.” (Sanella, 1). Also, “many of these traditions claimed divine revelation and absolute truth”, which threatened the faith of many western scholars who studied the subject (Douglas).
Despite the increase in religious pluralism, America is still largely based on Judeo-Christian beliefs (such as God as an external being, and monotheism) (Douglas). Yet in the 1900s, the medical and physical benefits (such as relief of stress and depression symptoms, improved posture and flexibility) were becoming attractive to many. So yoga was ultimately severed from its spiritual roots and introduced as a purely practical, yet “eclectic” practice based on postures (asanas) and relaxation techniques (Douglas).
Kundalini in Popular and counter-culture
“The marked interest in the number of individuals undergoing the rebirth transformation may be a reflection of a similar transformation taking place at a sociocultural level in society as a whole....There is now a greater interest in this subject in the west as can be seen by the rapid expansion of all sorts of mind-training, new therapies, meditative practices, and psychic pursuits. (Sanella, 6).
Kundalini experienced a sort of revival in America in 1969 with Yogi Bhajan, who ushered in a “New Age” in the dawn of the “Age of Aquarius” (said to begin in 2013, an age of awakened consciousness, according to Bhajan), attracting the drug-crazed youth and others seeking higher consciousness in an era disillusioned with material gain, (Sanella, 7).
“The main cause of the increase in the number of suicides and mental disorders among the youth is the increasing hollowness and senselessness of life of the society and the younger generation’s distaste for profit” (Gopi Krishna quoting Dr. Teffert, an American physician).
Gopi Krishna also stated that
“Modern psychology is absolutely dead to a most powerful impulse in the psychic make-up of man that has always been in evidence from the very dawn of civilization to this day. When thwarted in its mission, the impulse can lead to social and political unrest, craving for drugs, promiscuity or other social evils, and even violence” (1975)
This impulse is suggested to be the force of Kundalini, and when blocked will drive people to destructive habits in their attempt to find something more meaningful. Those who flocked to Bhajan had tried “sex, drugs, and rock and roll”, which, according to Sanella, “can be seen as a determined, if dangerous and misguided, urge in the direction of things of the spirit“(6). Disillusioned with their parents’ morals and with capitalism, the youth revealed a desire to transcend them in this era of liberation from taboos.
The culture of hallucinogenic drug users is fascinated and centered on the imagery and ideology of Kundalini awakening (there have even been recent studies relating the psychedelic drug experience with that of Kundalini Awakening). Even music groups today, such as the rock band Tool refer to yoga and other eastern occult spiritualism in their lyrics, and the visionary artist Alex Grey is linked with them. A sort of celebrity amongst drug-users and artists with visionary tendencies looking for a guide of any sort, he often depicts chakras and the nervous system as well as transcendental experiences through the imagery of the human body.
This artistic exploitation of the mythological imagery of Kundalini brings Kundalini into an even deeper counter-culture. But it is a counter culture which is now becoming popular as far as image goes, and is being marketed. It is drawing a hungry crowd but it is loosing its essential nourishment. Followers are misguided about how to go about achieving a higher spiritual state, using art, as well as drugs, as a makeshift guru.
It is important to realize that culture filters concepts from eclectic and universal sources that it can capitalize on. Kundalini, being so rich in imagery and mystique, is perfectly suitable to be molded into food for pseudo-spiritual culture seekers.
Kundalini, the black sheep of yoga---
“Kundalini Rising” may seem like the highest goal of yogis. It is, in fact highly valued by “small groups and philosophical circles in India, especially those with an interest in the occult” (Ravindra, 135). However, not only westerners misconceive the meaning of Kundalini; there are yogic writings that argue a contrary notion that Kundalini is, in fact, an obstacle to a higher level of awareness, blocking Prana from “entering sushumna” (the central Nadi). The yogic text yoga Yajnavalkya, one of the oldest texts dealing with Kundalini in yoga, quoted in Desikachar’s Heart of Yoga, claims that the “concept of Kundalini is confused by many imprecise definitions” (138). In Yajnavalkya, there is nothing ambiguous about Kundalini. It is presented as an obstacle. The classical text Hatha Yoga Pradipika speaks of “moving Kundalini”, which could be comparable to this statement, but it is unclear. According to Desikachar, Kundalini does not rise up through the nadis, as widely accepted, but is what needs to be moved so that Prana can then rise up through Sushumna.
Another opposition to the common concept of Kundalini is Gurdjieff, who challenged the “truths” of tradition and stressed in his teachings that Kundalini is,
“in reality, the power of imagination…which takes place of a real function…with its help all the centers can be satisfied with the imaginary instead of the real…Kundalini is a force put in men in order to keep them in their present state…. Kundalini is the force that keeps them in a hypnotic state” (Desikachar 135, from Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous, p.220)
Gurdjieff also refers to Kundalini as avidya, or ignorance, which stops the purusha, or spirit.
This is important to consider because by challenging assumptions of tradition as Gurdjieff did, we can gain a clearer understanding of our society and the soundness of the beliefs it is based on. Also, knowledge of the ambiguity of the meaning behind the practice, and the wide-range of interpretations from varied sources, would lead us to be more discerning.
Kundalini yoga is advertised to westerners as the swiftest way to achieve the highest state of consciousness and bliss (Hatha Yoga Pradipika even says it is possible to achieve in 40 days by a dedicated practitioner). This is attractive to us because of our need for instant gratification, and because of our relatively short attention spans. However, almost all who write about Kundalini (especially in Hatha Yoga Pradipika) emphasize the necessity of preparing the body and mind beforehand through asanas and pranayama. This is just one contradiction that is confusing to westerners. Sanella suggests “it would be possible to clarify things by remembering the theoretical definition of kundalini action as a purificatory process” (53).
Today, there are two models of Kundalini: classical yogic description found in the Upanishads and Ishtzak Bentovs physiological model.
“It is too early to say exactly what the relationships are [between the physio-kundalini complex and the classical description] except that perhaps the physio-kundalini mechanism is a separate entity which may be activated as part of a full Kundalini awakening.” (Sanella, 53)
Demystifying Kundalini via Science—a western solution
To this day, Kundalini remains relatively unstudied for reasons already mentioned, such as the reliance on imagery and the lack of visceral proof. The chakras and nadis being part of the “subtle body”, they are impossible to see, and therefore impossible to prove through western science’s techniques. Taimni refers to yoga as a “science of sciences”, and states that it
“stands on its own right as a Science based upon the eternal laws of the higher life and does not require the support of any science or philosophical system to uphold its claims. Its truths are based on the experiences and experiments of an unbroken line of mystics, occultists, saints and sages who have realized and borne witness to them throughout the ages….Their appeal is to the intuition and not to the intellect” (3).
Whether or not Taimni is correct, Kundalini was not pursued by western science until recently, and it has only skimmed the surface. “Vivekananda implicitly argues that modern anatomy and physiology are discovering what the yogis already knew, i.e., the anatomy and physiology of the nervous system” (Demichelis, 167).
Much of the scientific research that is being attempted involves mostly speculation and relies heavily on personal accounts and case studies. However, the desire to understand the psycho-physiological effects of something that is so ingrained in eastern yogic philosophy is increasing in the west.
One model in particular has been developed to help western scientists to understand this phenomenon in a physiological sense. This model is known as The Bentov Model, developed by Ishtzak Bentov, and is presented in The Physio-kundalini syndrome by Swami Satyananda and in “Kundalini: Psychosis or Transcendence?” by Lee Sanella, M.D. “Certain differences between the classical kundalini concept and the cases [studied] lead [Sanella] to propose a variation, the “Physio-Kundalini Model”, to account for their observations” (3).
“The influence of western science has resulted in a new emphasis on describing the objective aspects of this process in other societies as well as our own. “ (Sanella, 1) . Sanella studied other cultures that had traditions similar to that of Kundalini arousal and found that “a single physiological mechanism is at the root of the wide diversity of phenomena we see. If these assumptions are correct, the idea of spiritual rebirth or enlightenment can no longer be considered a confusing jumble of superstitions, religious dogmas, and wild rumors.” (1)
According to Sanella,
“Western scientists say that the actual location of the sensory perception is in the sensory cortex, even though the sensation is felt to be in the periphery. Similarly, yogis might mean that the sensations, blocks, and openings, which are felt to be in various body parts, are in some way represented in the spinal chakras” (53).
In another paper presenting the Bentov Model is the Physio-kundalini syndrome, by Swami Satyananda Saraswati, we see a similar interpretation from a Non-Indian model presented by a master Indian Yogi. In his paper, the Swami states Bentov’s theory that
“stimulation of the corpus callosum will in turn stimulate the sensory cortex [through the thalamus, the area of brain in front of pineal gland that we can associate with the highest functioning of the ajna chakra] to produce the sensations of something moving in the body from the feet, up the spine, up over the head and then down the abdomen and pelvis. It is this experience which many people associate with the awakening of Kundalini (3).
”Clinical study and survey lab findings present the thesis that “the rise of kundalini” is a reality, is much to be desired, and can be described as an evolutionary process taking place in the human nervous system (sanella, 3). Bentov presses that we urgently need modes that will allow us to understand Kundalini in terms which make sense to us in order to expand our concept of Man (Saraswati, 1). He also presses the importance of scientific and psychological study of Kundalini awakening for the understanding of human consciousness, which he claims is now more than ever urgent (Saraswati, 4).
By studying both the western and eastern, scientific and traditional, models of Kundalini, and by challenging the occult imagery and theology of the traditional concept of Kundalini, as Gurdjieff did, Westerners will slowly be able to understand that Kundalini is something far more grounded in reality than was presented at its introduction to the West, and is continued to be presented.
By studying this subject, and acknowledging the dangers of practicing something we understand little about, we may come to realize, as Taimni states, “there can be no doubt that the serious pursuit of the yogic ideal is a difficult task and cannot be undertaken as a mere hobby or to find an escape from the stress and strain of ordinary life” (6), or even to transcend the material culture while remaining among it.
Even though it may not be possible for Westerners to remain in our culture and achieve an awakening, Taimni proposes the possibility that one “can continue the theoretical study of yoga, think constantly over life’s deeper problems, try to purify their mind and strengthen their character, until their power of discrimination becomes sufficiently strong enough to enable them to pierce through ordinary illusions and see life in its naked reality (7).
De Michelis, Elizabeth. 2008. A History of Modern Yoga. NY: Continuum.
Desikachar, T.K.V. 1995. The Heart of Yoga: Developing a personal practice. Revised Edition. VT: Inner Traditions International.
Douglas, Laura. 2007. How Did We Get Here?. International Journal of Yoga Therapy. No.17. p. 35-42.
Muktobodananda, Swami. (Under guidance of swami satyananda saraswati.) 2008. Hatha Yoga Pradipika. Munger, Bihar, India: Yoga Publications Trust.
Pond, Paul, PhD. “Why Study Kundalini?”
Ravindra, Ravi. 2006. The Spiritual Roots of Yoga: Royal Path to Freedom. ID: Morning Light Press.
Sanella, Lee. Kundalini, Psychosis or Transcendence? California. Library of Congress no. 76-43180. Reprinted for kundalini awakening systems 1. Retrieved from www.kundaliniawakeningsystems1.com/.../kundalini-psychosis-or-transcendence. PDF
Saraswati, Swami Satyananda. The Physio-kundalini syndrome. Retrieved from http://www.scribd.com/doc/13988128/Physio-Kundalini-Syndrome-Bentovs-Model-by-Swami-Satyananda-Saraswati.
Taimni, I. K. (Year unavailable) The Science of Yoga. Wheaton, IL: The Theosophical Publishing House.