Kundalini (from Sanskrit कुण्डलिनी meaning "coiled") refers to a system of Indian yoga, which aims to awaken and harness the intrinsic energy force found within each person for the purpose of spiritual enlightenment. This energy force, called Shakti, can be envisioned either as a goddess or as a sleeping serpent coiled at the base of the spine. As a goddess, Shakti seeks to unite herself with the Supreme Being (Lord Shiva), where the aspirant becomes engrossed in deep meditation and infinite bliss.
The purpose of Kundalini Yoga is to awaken the energy that resides in the spine by activating the nerve channels that are intertwined there. It links movement with breath and focuses on moving energy through the chakra system, stimulating the energy in the lower chakras and moving it to the higher chakras. The chakras are energy centers, seven in total, located beginning at the base of the spine and ending at the top of the head. Activation of the subtle body is enabled along the chakras (energy centres) and nadis (channels). Both Kundalini Yoga and Tantra propose that this energy may be "awakened" by such means as austerities, breath and other physical exercises, visualization and chanting. It may then rise up a subtle channel at the spine (called Sushumna) to the head, bringing psychological illumination. Each chakra is said to contain special characteristics. Kundalini Yoga has many points in common with Chinese acupuncture.
Kundalini yoga is a physical and meditative discipline, comprising a set of techniques that use the mind, senses and body to create a communication between "mind" and "body." Kundalini yoga focuses on psycho-spiritual growth and the body's potential for maturation, giving special consideration to the role of the spine and the endocrine system in the understanding of yogic awakening.
Kundalini is a concentrated form of prana or life force, lying dormant in chakras in the body. It is conceptualized as a coiled up serpent (literally, 'kundalini' in Sanskrit is 'That which is coiled'). The serpent is considered to be female, coiled up two and a half times, with its mouth engulfing the base of the Sushumna nadi.
Kundalini yoga is sometimes called "the yoga of awareness" because it awakens the "kundalini" which is the unlimited potential that already exists within every human being. Practitioners believe that when the infinite potential energy is raised in the body it stimulates the higher centers, giving the individual enhanced intuition and mental clarity and creative potential. As such, kundalini was considered a dangerous practice by ruling powers and so, was historically practiced in secret. Only after a lengthy initiation process was the knowledge handed down from Master to student.
The purpose of Kundalini Yoga is to awaken the energy that resides in the spine by activating the nerve channels that are intertwined there. It links movement with breath and focuses on moving energy through the chakra system, stimulating the energy in the lower chakras and moving it to the higher chakras. The chakras are energy centers, seven in total, located beginning at the base of the spine and ending at the top of the head.
The practice of kundalini yoga consists of a number of bodily postures, expressive movements and utterances, cultivation of character, breathing patterns, and degrees of concentration. None of these postures and movements should, according to scholars of Yoga, be considered mere stretching exercises or gymnastic exercises. Many techniques include the following features: cross-legged positions, the positioning of the spine (usually straight), different methods to control the breath, the use of mantras, closed eyes, and mental focus (often on the sound of the breath).
In the classical literature of Kashmir Shaivism, kundalini is described in three different manifestations. The first of these is as the universal energy or para-kundalini. The second of these is as the energizing function of the body-mind complex or prana-kundalini. The third of these is as consciousness or shakti-kundalini which simultaneously subsumes and intermediates between these two. Ultimately these three forms are the same but understanding these three different forms will help to understand the different manifestations of kundalini.
A number of models of this esoteric subtle anatomy occur in the class of texts known as Āgamas or Tantras, a large body of scriptures, rejected by many orthodox Brahmins. In early the texts, there were various systems of chakras and nadis, with varying connections between them. Over time a system of six or seven chakras up the spine was adopted by most schools. This particular system, which may have originated in about the eleventh century C.E., rapidly became widely popular. This is the conventional arrangement, cited by Monier-Williams, where the chakras are defined as "6 in number, one above the other".
The most famous of the Yoga Upanishads, the Yogatattva, mentions four kinds of yoga, one of which, laya-yoga, involves Kundalini. Another source text for the concept is the Hatha Yoga Pradipika written by Swami Svatmarama (English translation, 1992) somewhere between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries.
Sir John Woodroffe (pen name Arthur Avalon) was one of the first to bring the notion of Kundalini to the West. A High Court Judge in Calcutta, he became interested in Shaktism and Hindu Tantra. His translation of and commentary on two key texts was published as The Serpent Power. Woodroffe rendered Kundalini as "Serpent Power."
Western awareness of the idea of Kundalini was strengthened by the Theosophical Society and the interest of the psychoanalyst Carl Jung (1875-1961) "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. Kundalini yoga offered Jung a model for the development of higher consciousness, and he interpreted its symbols in terms of the process of individuation".
In the early 1930s two Italian scholars, Tommaso Palamidessi and Julius Evola, published several books with the intent of re-interpreting alchemy with reference to yoga. Those works had an impact on modern interpretations of Alchemy as a mystical science. In those works, Kundalini was called an Igneous Power or Serpentine Fire.
Another popularizer of the concept of Kundalini among Western readers was Gopi Krishna. His autobiography is entitled Kundalini—The Evolutionary Energy in Man. According to June McDaniel, Gopi Krishna's writings have influenced Western interest in kundalini yoga. Swami Sivananda produced an English language manual of Kundalini Yoga methods. Other well-known spiritual teachers who have made use of the idea of kundalini include Osho, George Gurdjieff, Paramahansa Yogananda, Swami Rudrananda Yogi Bhajan and Nirmala Srivastava.
Kundalini references may commonly be found at present in a wide variety of derivative "New Age" presentations. Stuart Sovatsky warns that the popularization of the term within New Religious Movements has not always contributed to a mature understanding of the concept.
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. Their findings are not all positive. Researchers in the fields of Humanistic psychology, Transpersonal psychology, and Near-death studies describe a complex pattern of sensory, motor, mental and affective symptoms associated with the concept of Kundalini, sometimes called the Kundalini Syndrome.
Lukoff, Lu & Turner notes that a number of psychological difficulties might be associated with Asian spiritual practices, and that Asian traditions recognize a number of pitfalls associated with intensive meditation practice. Transpersonal literature also notes that kundalini practice is not without dangers. Anxiety, dissociation, depersonalization, altered perceptions, agitation, and muscular tension have been observed in western meditation practitioners and psychological literature is now addressing the occurrence of meditation-related problems in Western contemplative life.
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