Kundalini: The Channel of Awakening
Most people who enjoy yoga have heard the term “Kundalini.” Kunda means bowl or container. In Indian mythology, Kundalini is depicted as a sleeping snake, wrapped three and a half times into a coil within the bowl of the pelvis, in the region of Muladhara, the first chakra.
At first, the idea of a snake in your pelvis might not seem very appealing, factual or relevant to the average person. It sounds more like what you might see in the National Enquirer rather than in Natural Awakenings.
The symbol isn’t meant to suggest that there is a sleeping serpent in your body that was somehow overlooked in all the anatomy books. It’s not physical. Instead, it has to do with what yogis call the “subtle body,” the energy body that exists at a very fine level between matter and consciousness.
But the implications of this imagery, both physical and metaphysical, are beyond profound. Beyond the symbol and the name, Kundalini and its cultivation are at the center of countless systems of yoga, philosophy and spirituality throughout the world. The symbol represents a universal force that is fundamental to all creation.
The creative intelligence that is expressed as everything, everywhere also resides within us as Kundalini. And it has the potential to radically transform us.
This great mystery is so powerful that even in its dormant state, it sustains our consciousness and maintains the physical processes of the body. It inspires creativity, love and spiritual longing. A few texts even describe Kundalini as intoxicated by prana, the life force energy, that it drains from us when it is in its dormant state.
The preferred routeThe mouth of Kundalini blocks the sushumna nadi, the central channel between the first chakra and the seventh chakra, also known as the crown chakra, the thousand-petaled lotus at the very top of the head.
Even when it is in its dormant state, hidden in the first chakra, Kundalini maintains our normal everyday consciousness. That chakra is the ground of all the chakras, the seat of the Divine Feminine, and it provides the foundation and support for our ascent to the Supreme.
According to the teachings of yoga, there are 72,000 channels in the subtle body through which prana flows, and sushumna is one of them. These channels energize and nourish all parts of the physical and subtle body with life force. But unlike most of the other channels, sushumna culminates at the crown chakra, the abode of Shiva, the Absolute, and is therefore the preferred route for Kundalini rising.
This rising awakens us to our true nature as it connects the two poles of our being and breaks through obstacles in our hearts and limitations in our understanding to reveal our true Self—unshaken by the tidal waves of change and anchored to the silent depths of being.
With a coherent, progressive practice of yoga and the yoga lifestyle, especially meditation, Kundalini may awaken and begin its ascent up sushumna. Other factors—not the least of which is the operation of grace—also come into play. When Kundalini awakens, the prana it was sapping is unleashed, and the yogi gains an upsurge of life force.
Shakti risingKundalini Shakti is the spiritual power of our true essence. According to yoga teachings, it is the presence and potency of the Divine within us. It’s the means for the development of consciousness that is the goal of all higher yoga practices.
As it rises, Kundalini Shakti moves through the yogi in a path of benevolent fire, clearing obstacles and preparing the physical and subtle bodies for a higher level of functioning. The effects of past experiences on the body and mind are healed as it flows from the first chakra to the seventh. At the same time, life events seem to offer challenges and opportunities to address and rise above limitations in our conditioning.
When this Shakti, revered in the ancient texts as the Divine Feminine, rises to the thousand-petaled lotus of the seventh chakra, she merges with her beloved Shiva, a symbol of the Divine Masculine. Sometimes called the “inner marriage,” this divine embrace personifies the integration that takes place in yoga.
Assisting awakeningThere are many theories about how to facilitate the awakening of Kundalini. Most schools take the approach of working on purifying and preparing the nadis, or energy channels, and the chakras through asana, pranayama and meditation. This process of purification, preparation and awakening is generally attempted in one of three ways: outside-in, inside-out, or some combination of the two.
Some outside-in advocates attempt to control Kundalini by trying to force it to awaken and behave according to preconceived notions of what it should do. They rely on prolonged routines of forceful breathing, breath retention, rigid body postures and repetitive jerky movements in an attempt to dominate the primal energy, to force it to awaken and move in the direction in which the yogi thinks it should move.
This approach is reflective of patriarchal forms of religion that attempt to muzzle, dominate, subjugate and master the feminine aspect. It’s no wonder that some outside-in advocates warn about the dangers of Kundalini. Imagine waking up a sleeping child by violently shaking her. Yes, she will awaken. But do you really want to deal with a child who is in such a state?
Such forceful methods typically do not awaken Kundalini. But if they do, if sushumna nadi is not open and available, a premature awakening may enter a “cul-de-sac” nadi, which is not equipped for such a massive upsurge of energy. Such an awakening, even if just partial, can lead to serious damage or imbalance in the body and mind.
Yet Kundalini is the power of grace; when approached in an environment of intelligent, coherent effort and devotion to the spiritual path, the flow of grace eventually comes in response, in its own time. Not to be corralled, controlled or mastered, it has its own intelligence. Unprovoked, Kundalini bestows its gifts.
Another outside-in approach consists of visualizing, thinking about or concentrating on some notion of Kundalini, or bringing attention to the crown chakra, in the hope of drawing Kundalini there. But excessive thinking about it is counterproductive. Sushumna nadi remains closed in the presence of mental activity.
The inside-out approachSettling into the lively silence of one’s true nature, the inside-out approach seeks out, locates and attunes to the creative impulse of life at the core of one’s being. It is in that silence that sushumna nadi naturally opens up.
This is the path of a specific practice of meditation that leads awareness to turn in on itself, which is blissful and fulfilling and gives meaning to life. It doesn’t come by concentrating or by thinking about it, because sushumna nadi opens when the yogi is free of thought, in a state of samadhi, or union with the Divine.
Natural awakeningThe famed Eight Limbs of Yoga, a structural framework for yoga practice, describes a balanced set of practices consisting of lifestyle, breath work, posture and meditation in a coherent and progressive daily routine. The deeper practices cannot be learned from a book—or an article. They are initiatory in nature and require a qualified teacher.
The esoteric goal of all the different traditions of yoga has been to awaken this exquisite power of consciousness. More than our thoughts, emotions, body or even mind, it is the essence of who we are. Beyond our relationships, our roles in society, to know the truth of who and what we are is the gift of Kundalini.
It is near for those who ardently desire it. — Yoga Sutra
Graham Fowler is founder and spiritual director of Peachtree Yoga. Contact him at [email protected]