Kundalini Shakti, the inner fire of transformation
Kundalini is a force of withdrawal, reversing the process of creation so we can return to the One.*
Why do we practice Yoga? Why do we bother with strange breathing techniques, challenging asana sequences, or regular meditation practice aside from their well-established benefits to our physical and psychological health? What about Yoga's ultimate spiritual orientation? Where does that fit within the larger scheme of things?
Many our entries in the past few months have dealt with a diversity of loosely defined Tantric Hatha Yoga topics that take as their point of departure, more or less explicitly, the concept of Kundalini Shakti. This often mystified, romanticized, and rather confusing idea –the so-called ‘dormant serpent-like power’ or energy metaphorically sleeping at the base of our spine– is one of the main reasons, if not THE reason, why Yoga is practiced in the first place.
Strangely, however, students of Yoga have very confused ideas about what Kundalini is and don't often really know what to make of it. This is understandable, however, because for those of us who may not have had an awakening of this latent type of energy as yet, wrapping our heads around the idea of a ‘serpent-like whatever’ resting at the base of our spine is nothing short of the kind of effort required from us to believe that the fantasy world portrayed in an episode of Game of Thrones is actually real... To say that some of Yoga’s most esoteric or even 'magical' notions require a bit of openness on our part is an understatement; since, for any rational western mind –meaning, for most of us– Kundalini Shakti will pertain to the realm of the unreal until proven otherwise. And tradition is very straightforward when it comes to this part. It clearly states that this may never happen for the majority of us –at least not during this lifetime.
Yet, Kundalini Shakti and its resulting 'Kundalini Awakening' are real and embodied experiences that happen to people just like you, or like myself, regardless of how open or well acquainted we may be with them. In fact, any student who commits to the practice of Yoga for a few years will sooner or later begin to have a chance to experience proof of its existence in some measure, degree, form, or way. But the question remains: what is it for?
We have said it before: interpreting the human body as a miniaturized version of the entire universe, and the human spine as the axis or antenna catching and directing all the signals within this ecosystem, the entirety of Yoga’s practices are a how-to method for yogis to progressively increase control over their bodies and minds to eventually create enough momentum and readiness in themselves for the awakening of Kundalini to take place.
Often portrayed as a female deity in Hindu myth, (Kundalini) Shakti is the famous counterpart (and lover) of powerful Shiva, the ‘feminine’ creative principle and energy that functions as a complement to that most active and raw masculine power inherent as well in all of us. In a way, Kundalini Shakti is nothing but a metaphor, the name given to a reservoir of inner energy or prana that all of us possess as part of the inherent transformative potential of our consciousness. Because, that is what Kundalini ultimately is: a very refined, highly intelligent and intuitive form of ‘conscious energy.’
Connected to the area of the perineum in the case of males and to the cervix in the case of females, Kundalini is actually a non-physical force, a type of subtle energy that resides within the so-called Causal Body. Never heard of this term before? Never mind. Let’s just say that yogis believe that there's more than meets the eye when it comes to our 'bodies,' and that we have three different of these or three different layers to our soul, so that ‘causal body’ is name given to the deepest one. You can think of it as the ‘superconscious’ if you prefer to use that type of terminology, or as that part of your consciousness that is closer or more intimately connected to ‘your soul,’ your 'true essence,' or whatever other word you may be more comfortable using to refer to that that's deepest, truest, and most inherently 'you' in you. It would thus correspond to the part of you that never changes and that remains ‘alive’ even after physical death.
From the Sanskrit word for ‘coil,’ “Kundalini actually comes from the word kunda, meaning ‘deeper place, pit, or cavity’” because that’s where it’s actually emanating from –a profound spot both spiritually and physically.** It is one of the manifestations of prana (physical energy) and chitta (mental energy) and working much like an ethereal engine, once Kundalini Shakti is ready to be jump started or 'awakened,' this form of condensed and intelligent ‘inner fire’ lights up through the esoteric channels in our spine (or Nadis), pierces our Chakras or energy centers along the way, and leads to a radical spiritual transformation that, if complete, lands one into permanent enlightenment or illumination –which is a less spooky way of referring to a person's 'union with god' or the divine in all things. THAT is really what traditional forms of Yoga are after: the evolution of human consciousness through desidentification with the ego via the ignition of this form of God-like Agni.
But what do we need Kundalini and its awakening for?
In a very simplified way, the awakening of Kundalini is a momentous experience that signals the point at which a human being becomes spiritually able (aka, ready) to undertake the type of hard work necessary to relinquish negative patterns and attachments, abandon the senseless pursuit of external desires, resolve past traumas, wounds, and pending Karma, and open herself up to true inner freedom and wisdom –for all freedom and wisdom must emanate, ultimately, from the Self.
The awakening of this type of energy storehouse is imbued with great metaphysical and spiritual importance in all traditions because it essentially magnifies the rate or speed at which our soul progressively re-members –as in recalling and re-piecing up together– who we are and where we are going, which is, ironically, where we originally came from. It is in this way that the awakening of Kundalini is a process of maybe spontaneous and direct, maybe progressive and gradual remembrance of something we have somehow forgotten and that, most of us, spend the entirety of our lives trying to find again.
But let’s not romanticized the process in excess as is all too often the case. The transformations resulting from the awakening of our Kundalini Shakti can often prove incredibly demanding. In fact, in traditional descriptions of the process, there is a certain tendency to coat the whole experience with a veil of cryptic mysticism that fails to accurately account for what happens to an individual's life after his or her Kundalini wakes up. To make up for that, the Internet comes up with a well of weirdly polarized descriptions that represent the experience in two main ways: as nothing short of a Satanic possession, or as an orgasmic love affair.
The truth is that extremes rarely allow for nuance, and nuance is a particularly important keyword when it comes to speaking of Kundalini. So, going back to the question at the beginning of this section, let's just say that with the awakening of this quiescent energy, a person becomes permanently unable to avoid dealing with all the SHIT she may have been (un)consciously avoiding to deal with for most of her life. It is in this way that Kundalini requires conscious but gentle effort, and a great deal of patience, love, and hard work, at least for all of those who, upon its awakening, don't make it straight into blissed-out 'illumination.'
This is the reason why the experience can often prove emotionally, psychologically, and physically challenging. Still, because of its profound emanation and raw capacity for transformation, its challenges never last for too long –or longer than a given individual is able to handle. And so, both Kundalini Shakti and its correlate are a doorway into a more holistic and wholesome way of going about doing life here, now. Meaning, doing so as per our rules, our true desires, and our real aspirations, instead of automatically following the rules we have been taught to ascribe to and observe. So we can think of it as an in-built mechanism whereby the deepest and most genuine part of ourselves overtly helps us let go of a variety of useless, painful stuff that’s keeping us trapped in a perpetual loop of suffering and repetition preventing us from fully embodying the most authentic version of who we really are. What could be better than that?
Still, because the experience can manifest very differently for different individuals and challenge the boundaries of what we consider normal, sane, reasonable, safe, or even possible, Kundalini remains a rather obscure and obscured notion, and is as such confined to rather secretive or speculative discussions that do not much help demystify its rather 'natural' nature. Which is, actually, the motivation for this entry in the ACEBE blog!
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* Frawley, David. Yoga and Ayurveda, Self-healing and Self-realization. New Delhi: Motital Banarsidass (2008), p. 143.
** Satyananda-Saraswati, Swami. Kundalini Tantra. Munger: Bihar School of Yoga (1984), p. 15.