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Version 1.0, May 1996
Kundalini Yogas FAQ
Copyright Kurt Keutzer, 1996 (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The author grants the right to copy and distribute this file, provided it remains unmodified and original authorship and copyright is retained.The author retains both the right and intention to modify and extend this document.
This FAQ gives an overview of those Kundalini yoga
practices which require conscious effort.
Two other articles are strongly related:
Siddha Mahayoga FAQ
The Siddha Mahayoga Tradition of Swami Shivom Tirth
I remember with gratitude those yogis who have with great skill and perserverance maintained the tradition of awakening and guiding our Kundalini energy.
What is Kundalini ?
What is Kundalini ?
"Kundalini " literally means coiling, like a snake. In the classical literature of hatha yoga Kundalini is described as a coiled serpent at the base of the spine. The image of coiling, like a spring, conveys the sense of untapped potential energy. Perhaps more meaningfully Kundalini can be described as a great reservoir of creative energy at the base of the spine. It's not useful to sit with our consciousness fixed in our head and think of Kundalini as a foreign force running up and down our spine. Unfortunately the serpent image may serve to accentuate this alien nature of the image. It's more useful to think of Kundalini energy as the very foundation of our consciousness so when Kundalini moves through the sushumna and through our cakras our consciousness necessarily changes with it.
The concept of Kundalini can also be examined from a strictly psychological perspective. From this perspective Kundalini can be thought of as a rich source of psychic or libidinous energy in our unconscious.
In the classical literature of Kashmir Shaivism Kundalini is described in three different manifestions. 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 differerent manifestations of Kundalini .
First we need a few concepts: In yogic anatomy the
sushumna is the central channel and conduit for the
Kundalini energy that runs along our spine and up to the
crown of our head. Along this channel are placed additional
channel networks called cakras. These cakras are associated
with major aspects of our anatomy - for example our
throat, heart, solar plexus, and in turn these aspects of our
anatomy are related to aspects of our human nature.
According to the literature of Kundalini yoga our experience
of these centers is limited due to knots which restrict the flow
of energy into these centers. Three knots are particuarly important.
The knot of Brahma which restricts the center at the base of the
The knot of Vishnu which restricts the heart center and the
restricts the center between the eyebrows.
These knots form an important framework in yogic thinking and the
stages toward enlightenment are articulated in terms of breaking
these knots in the yogic classic the Hatha Yoga Pradipika as
as in some of the yoga upanishads.
Specifically, four stages of progress are described:
Arambha is associated with breaking the knot of Brahma and the awakening of Kundalini . Ghata is associated with breaking the knot of Vishnu and and with internal absorption. Parichaya the absorption deepens and in nishpatti the knot of Rudra is pierced and the Kundalini may ascend to the center at the crown of the head. In this state transcendence is integrated and, according to the yogic liteature, the yogi has nothing more to attain.
Putting these elaborate physiological decriptions aside, the goal of Kundalini yoga is the same as the goal of any legimitate spiritual practice: To be liberated from the limited bounds of the self-centered and alienated ego. In Kundalini yoga this is associated with internal manifestations of the Kundalini but the external manifestations should be similar to any other legitiimate spiritual practice.
Indirectly Kundalini can be awakened by devotion, by selfless service, or by intellectual enquiry.
Broadly speaking there are two radically different direct approaches to awakening Kundalini . One approach requires initiation by a guru and relies upon a technique called Shaktipat, or "descent of Shakti." It is variously called: Siddha Mahayoga, Kundalini Mahayoga or Sahaja Yoga (Spontaneous Yoga). These approaches are treated in the Siddha Mahayoga FAQ. The other approach uses intentional yogic techniques . The styles using intentional techniques include Mantra Yoga, Hatha Yoga, Laya Yoga or Kriya Yoga. These approaches are treated in this FAQ.
Fundamentally the approach of Siddha Mahayoga and the Kundalini Yogas are different. In Siddha Mahayoga the guru awakens the Kundalini and after that the core of the practice is the inactive and non-willful surrender to Kundalini . In Kundalini Yogas the will is used to awaken the Kundalini and to guide its progress. Clearly these are different approaches. Nevertheless, elements of the each approach occur in the practices of the other. Siddha Mahayogins may use asanas, pranayamas and other hatha yoga practices. On the other hand gurus in Kundalini Yoga may give infusions of Shakti to their students to help them at particular points in their practice.
Since every practitioner brings his own unique inclinations and obstacles to the practice of yoga it is very hard to generalize on this point. In terms of actually awakening Kundalini gurus of Siddha Mahayoga claim that the Kundalini is more easily and reliably awakened by the grace of the guru than by individual effort. In my limited experience I would agree. with this assertion. While not every long-term student of either practice necessarily shows signs of Kundalini awakening it is amazing how many people have had instant awakenings of Kundalini through initiation from siddha gurus.
In terms of encountering difficulties along the path the siddha gurus would also claim that fewer problems due to Kundalini awakening, such as mental imbalance, are encountered by students of Siddha Mahayoga. Here I think the results are mixed. It seems to me that the guidance of the teacher in either Siddha Mahayoga or Kundalini Yoga is more a determining factor than which style of Kundalini practice is employed.
Generally speaking each style of practice has its strengths and weakness. The strength of Siddha Mahayoga is the ease with which it awakens the Kundalini . The weakness is that because the Kundalini is so easily awakened by the guru students of Siddha Mahayoga often have completely undisciplined personal meditation practices. Time is spent instead to trying to recreate some of their initial experiences by following the guru around hoping for his or her grace. Some people spend 20 or more years in this manner without ever developing an inner core of practice or experience.
The strength of the family of Kundalini Yogas is that the progress is at least apparently more under the control of the student of the yoga. These students seem more likely to have disciplined personal practices and more of an understanding of how the practice relates to their own experience. Unfortunately for some students this leads to a fairly egotistical approach to their practice and ultimately the Kundalini energy is used to bolster the ego rather than to merge the ego in bliss.
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The reader may have noticed that there doesn't seem to be a great deal of effort applied in this approach. This is true and in many ways this approach is more akin to Siddha Mahayoga in which the guru can use sound or "shabda" as the instrument of initiation.
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The description of Kundalini given earlier suffices for general purposes; however, if one wishes to practice the Kundalini yogas a more detailed description is necessary. In fact there are a number of highly related yogic concepts which must be understood. Kundalini is often associated with a fierce hot energy. In the hatha yogic terminology of the Nath tradition this energy is known as rajas and also as surya. In the tantric Buddhist tradition this energy is known as red bodhicitta and also as candali in the Sanskrit language or as gTummo in Tibetan. The word gTummo literally means "the fierce woman." The association between Kundalini and a fiery energy runs so deep that this fiery energy is often considered to be synonymous with Kundalini . Strictly speaking these two energies are separate; however, whenever the fiery surya energy is activated then Kundalini stirs and and often when Kundalini stirs the fiery energy is also activated. So while these energies are not equivalent, from a practical standpoint the activation of one energy will most often result in the activation of the other.
The most universal description is that Kundalini is awakened by the uniting of the "winds" or "energies" of prana and apana. Prana is the life-giving energy associated with inspiration. It is associated with feelings of expansion and its center is in the heart. Apana is the downward-voiding energy associated with defecation. It is associated with feelings of contraction and its center is in the anus. The uniting of these two very different forces creates a "spark" which awakens the Kundalini from its slumber.
Another description is that Kundalini is awakened through the uniting of the energies of the two channels of ida and pingala. The ida and pingala are two side channels which run parallel to central channel, the sushumna, on its left and right sides respectively. The ida channel is associated with a cool energy that descends from the crown of the head. The pingala channel is associated with a hot energy that ascends to the crown. From the yogic viewpoint ordinary waking consciousness our winds or energies run in these two side channels and as a result our minds are unsteady and prone to anger, greed and delusion. The Kundalini yogin aims to cause the energies to move out of the ida and pingala and into the sushumna. When this occurs the knots which hold the Kundalini energy in place are loosened and the Kundalini is able to rise.
A similar description is that Kundalini is awakened through the uniting of the two bindus of rajas and retas. First of all bindu, or literally "drop", means a constituent of the subtle body. The bindu rajas is associated with the egg (or sometimes menstrual blood) of woman but it more fundamentally refers to a subtle constituent of both the male and female body. In some texts it says that this constituent resides at the navel. In other texts it says that it resides near the perineum. The Tantric Buddhists call this constituent "red bodhicitta" or literally the "red mind-of-enlightenment." Whatever it is called, this constituent is associated with a fiery red energy that rises. It is also associated with the sun. One may also find other associations such as the "red lion" of alchemical traditions.
The complement to rajas is retas or shukra. The bindu retas is associated with the sperm of man but like rajas it more fundamentally refers to a constituent present in both men and women. Classical texts are in agreement that this resides in the subtle body at the crown of the head. The Tantric Buddhists call this constituent "white bodhicitta" or literally the "white mind-of-enlightenment." Whatever it is called this constituent is associated with a cooling white energy and is associated with the cooling rays of the moon. One may also see associations with the "white eagle" of alchemical traditions.
In summary, the fundamental approaches to awakening Kundalini are through the uniting of the prana and apana, or through the uniting of the rajas and retas.
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The vase breath (Sanskrit: kumbhaka, Tibetan: rlung bumpa can) is a technique in which the the apana wind is first drawn up from the perineum region to a point about two inches below the navel. The apana wind is drawn up using a technique called mula-bandha or literally "root-lock." There are a variety of descriptions of this technique. The prana wind is then inspired and drawn down to the the same area as well. The student then swallows and then slightly tenses the navel region to create the pot-like posture from which the technique draws its name. In the yogic literature it is often noted that one should never use much force in retaining the breath and should only gradually increase the duration of retention. To gain success in the vase breath it is valuable, if not essential, to become very familiar with the prana and apana winds or energies. If the nature of these do not become very clear then this technique will only be another mechanical exercise. If one does gain facility and moving these energies then without a doubt Kundalini can be awakened from her long slumber.
Another fundamental technique for uniting prana and apana
is through the application of bandha traya or three
bandhas or locks. The first lock applied is the
mula-bandha used to drive upward the apana wind as
described above. The second lock is uddiyana. Some writers give
the etymology of this term as "flying up." It is not fully clear but
the name of this may be derived from the ancient land of Odiyan which
was a haven for Buddhist and Hindu Tantrics.
In summary, the goal of the vase breath pranayama and the bandha traya is the same: the uniting of the prana and apana. In the vase breath exercise this is done by using phases of inspiration and retention and adding muscular control to cup the winds in a vase or pot below the navel. In bandha traya this is accomplished by phases of expiration and retention and adding muscular control to force the winds together in the abdominal region. Intuitively there also seems to be something of a vacuum effect in bandha traya which is aiming to create a vacuum in which a suction force will be used to arouse the Kundalini .
Some will be drawn to try to practice these techniques but
I believe that to do so the guidance of a
teacher is necessary.
In the very gentle approaches one attempts to bring the winds into the central channel by imagination or concentration alone. One visualizes an image, such as a deity or a seed-syllable in the central channel and lets mind become absorbed in that. It is a common tenet of yogic lore that where the mind goes the winds will follow. So if the mind can be kept steadily focussed on inside of the central channel then the winds will enter there. When the winds enter there the knots holding the rajas and retas loosen and the two are allowed to flow together. It is worth noting that it was Gopi Krishna's practice of a very simliar method that led to his tremendous difficulties with Kundalini . So even very gentle methods can lead to imbalances. In the more forceful practices the visualizations described above are complemented by breathing practices such as the vase-breath practice described earlier.
If upon reading these descriptions one would like to try to practice them then a teacher is necessary. If one lacks a teacher but has a surplus of curiousity one might simply try to become familiar with the central channel. Take an ordinary breath. How does the spine feel when inhaling? How does the spine feel upon exhaling? Success in these yogic practices will require a great sensitivity to the central channel and much of this sensitivity can be obtained by simply improving one's awareness of that area.
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There are a few radically different methods. Some of these are extremely forceful. Some yogins, take literally the meaning of rajas and retas and seek a literal uniting of these constituents. Others take the slumber of the Kundalini very literally and attempt to very forcefully wake her up by dropping on the floor while seated in the lotus position.
At the other extreme, in many other approaches no attempt whatsoever is made to awaken the Kundalini directly. In these practices all of the effort is placed on purifying the nerve channels through physical, mental and breathing exercises. In the practice of Kriya yoga as taught by Baba-ji and Lahiri Mahasaya the Kundalini is "magnetized." Apparently in this practice energy is circulated around the central channel without forcing it into the central channel. In this way it is expected that the Kundalini will be drawn into the central channel.
If we take the psychological perspective and view Kundalini as the power latent in our unconscious then it is easy to understand that awakening this force is going to bring a greater amount of unconscious material into our consciousness. Even in the best of circumstances this is likely to be uncomfortable and if an individual is barely coping with his unconscious even under normal circumstances then awakening Kundalini may push the individual over into psychosis. This phenomenon has been documented many times.
Forceful methods of awakening Kundalini pose additional dangers. As has been mentioned, the breath or prana is strongly interdependent on the mind. If one begins to actively control the breath then the mind will be affected. Many Kundalini yogas rely on this connection. Unfortunately, with incorrect practice rather than bringing the mind to a greater state of equanimity the breath control practices can also create even greater imbalances in the mind. Typical signs of this are extreme agitation and anxiety. In the panorama of human suffering there is probably no greater suffering than that of a mentally unbalanced individual and no sadder example of this than someone who has actually brought a state of mental imbalance onto himself through improper practice of Kundalini yoga.
As an example an individual named Gopi Krishna awakened his Kundalini by doing unguided meditation on his crown cakra. His life after awakening was both blessed by ecstatic bliss and tormented by physical and mental discomfort. Eventually his experience stabilized. He wrote down his experiences in a recently re-released autbiography entitled "Living with Kundalini ." Gopi Krishna's autobiography appears to be an honest representation of his experiences but it is only one extreme datapoint in the panorama of experience on Kundalini yoga. It represents dangers in forceful unguided practice but it is not representative of a typical practicioner's experience.
Some gurus and students of Kundalini yoga seem to feel that such warnings regarding Kundalini practice are overblown, but there is simply no doubt that improper application of breath control practices can lead to mental imbalance. Breath control practices which typically do not use breath retention are much safer. Kriya yoga practices which do not focus on purifying or "magnetizing" the central channel without directly attempting to awaken the Kundalini are also much safer. Finally, the role of a fully qualified guru cannot be estimated here. It is not just that the guru has traversed the path but a fully qualified guru of Kundalini yoga has the ability to intervene in the mind and body of the student to correct imbalances.
First of all it may be useful to observe that there is no technique currently known on earth that appears to be rapidly catapulting large number of individuals toward enlightenment. Because Kundalini yogas deal so directly with a powerful enlightening force it seems natural that they would be "faster", but there appears to be alot of tortoise and hare phenomena at work with newbie Kundalini yogins. Many people begin Kundalini yogas, have strong initial experiences and then become frightened. Many who perservere through this initial phase become distracted by the energy and focus on temporal and phenomenal applications of the energy.
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Each of these works is very brief, typically less than 500 verses and yet the entire literature of hatha, kriya and laya yoga is drawn from these works. Anyone interested in Kundalini yoga can benefit from taking the time to read these classical works but to actually practice the techniques described in these works a teacher is required. This is reiterated within the text of these works themselves.
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The first role of the teacher in Kundalini yoga is as an instructor in the practices of Kundalini yoga. The classical works of Kundalini yoga repeat again and again that only those practices learnt from the guru will bear fruit and all other attempts to practice will only bring misery. This may seem a bit melodramatic but the point is that these practices are sufficiently subtle that they can only be properly conveyed through personal instruction by an individual who has himself been properly instructed.
The second role of a teacher in Kundalini yoga is in monitoring the progress of the student. A tremendous variety of positive and negative experiences can manifest on the path of Kundalini yoga. A true Kundalini teacher will not only have encountered a wide range of these experiences but will have a subtle sensitivity to the students nervous system and will be able to intuit when practice is leading to imbalance.
Ultimately, whether following the path of effort or the path of grace, the true guru is the guru-tattva or guru-principle - this is the Kundalini -Shakti herself.
For those individuals that have not been able to find a teacher there
are a few published materials that are apparently intended for beginning
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Yogi Bhajan (Siri Singh Sahib Bhai Harbhajan Singh Khalsa Yogiji) 3HO-Foundation International Headquarters P. O. Box 351149 Los Angeles, CA 90035 (213) 552-3416 Yogi Bhajan Web Page
Yogi Bhajan brought Kundalini yoga to the West in 1969, at the age of 39, and founded the Happy, Healthy Holy Organization (3HO). Yogi Bhajan is a Sikh and his writings indicate that he is "the Chief Religious and Administrative Authority for the Sikh Dharma in the Western Hemisphere." Yogi Bhajan has taught an organized regimen of yogic practices aimed at clearing the subtle nerve channels and ultimately awakening the Kundalini .
The precise lineage of Yogi Bhajan has been impossible for me to determine. Equally difficult has been to understand at what point in time the hatha yoga teachings taught by the founder of the Naths, Gorakshanath, became intertwined with the Sikh teachings tracing from Guru Nanak. Over the hundreds of years in India these two groups must have often come in contact but the precise time at which the yogic teaching passed into the Sikh lineage is unclear. A number of introductory yoga manuals and videotapes have been published by 3HO and should be available via the number above. In addiition, Yogi Bhajan has been liberal in his training of teachers to pass on his lineage and a few are quite active. We will mention only one, Ravi Singh.
Ravi Singh The New York Center for Art and Awareness 61 4th Avenue 2nd Fl. New York, New York 1003 Ravi Singh Web Page
Among Yogi Bhajan's students Ravi Singh has been especially active in establishing his center and in publishing books and videotapes. I found his book Kundalini Yoga for Strength, Success and Spirit among the best of those published by Yogi Bhajan's students.
B. K. S. Iyengar Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health P. O. Box 793 Lenox, MA 01240 (413) 637-3280
B. K. S. Iyengar is a teacher in the hatha yoga tradition that passed from Shri Ramamohan Brahmacarya, to Tirumalai Krishnamacharya and then onto B. K. S. Iyengar. For quite some time I was under the impression that B. K. S. Iyengar's exposition of hatha yoga did not extend to encompass hatha yoga practices aimed at awakening the Kundalini and I once made this assertion in response to a question on the net. A series of email exchanges with a student in Krishnamacharya's lineage straightened me out on this score although such advanced teachings are not a part of the normal regimen.
` Swami Janakananda http://sunsite.kth.se/DDS/tv/lund/bindu/sv4_swja.htm http://www.spiritweb.org/Spirit/Yoga/kriya-janakananda.html
Kundalini Yoga in the Tibetan Tradition
Kundalini yoga is taught in all four (Nyingma, Kargyudpa, Sakya and Gelugpa) of the major schools of Tibetan Buddhism. For this reason this FAQ would be very incomplete if it failed to mention something about Tibetan schools of Kundalini yoga. On the other hand it would be extremely mis-leading to simply give a list of Tibetan Buddhist centers in America as though one could walk right in and sign up for a course on Kundalini yoga. Some history may help here.
The tradition of the Indian Mahasiddhas who founded Hatha yoga and
the Indian Mahasiddhas who founded many of the important lineages of
Tibetan Buddhism are intertwined. As a result it is no surprise that
these two traditions share many practices in common. In particular
Kundalini yoga, known as candali yoga (Tibetan: gTummo rnal 'byor) in
Tantric Buddhism, is taught in the Completion Stages of a number of
Tibetan Buddhist practices.
To better understand this it will be necessary to put the gTummo
yoga practice in the broader
context of Tibetan Buddhist practice.
With the Completion stage come a variety of yogic practices. Of these candali (or Kundalini ) yoga forms the core of Completion stage practice in the Six Yogas of Naropa as well as the Cakrasamvara, Hevajra and Yamantaka tantras. The actual practice of candali yoga has its own preliminaries. These include physical yogic practices similar to asanas. Next come a series of imaginations (or visualizations) and finally breath control practices aimed at awakening the Kundalini . The encouraging news here is that the hatha yoga lineages have been successfully maintained for over a thousand years within Tibetan Buddhism. The challenge for the student of Kundalini yoga is to find access to them. Following the path from preliminaries, through Generation Stage practices to Completion Stage practices requires a great sincerity and commitment to Buddhist practice and many years of concentrated effort but there are great extremes in the presentation of these teachings.
For some teachers of Tibetan Buddhism gTummo is only taught within
the context of a three year retreat.
White, John (Editor) (1990). Kundalini - Evolution and Enlightenment. New York: Paragon House.
The Gheranda SamhitaPublished with a commentary as Pure Yoga by Yogi Pranavananda. Translated by Tony Rodriguez and Dr. Kanshi Ram. Motilal Banarsidas, Delhi, 1992.
The Shiva SamhitaTranslated by Rai Bahadur Srisa Chandra Vasu Sri Satguru publishers, Delhi.1979.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika
Translated with a commentary by Swami Muktibodhananda (a disciple of Swami Satyananda Saraswati). Bihar School of Yoga, Munger, Bihar. 1985.
The GorakshashatakamCritically edited and translated by Swami Kuvalayananda and Dr. S. A. Shukla. Kaivalyadhama, Lonavala, (no date). A translation of a less critically edited edition is more readily available in Chapter Fourteen of Gorakhnath and the Kanphata Yogis by George Weston Briggs. Motilal Banarsidas, Delhi, 1982.
Selected works by the teachers mentioned. These are available from the respective centers. (I am aware that each of these teachers has published numerous works):
Some caution is recommended when dealing with Kundalini. |
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