Kundalini literally means coiled. In Indian yoga, a “corporeal energy” – an unconscious, instinctive or libidinal force or Shakti, lies coiled at the base of the spine. It is envisioned either as a goddess or else as a sleeping serpent hence a number of English renderings of the term such as ‘serpent power’. The Kundalini resides in the sacrum bone in three and a half coils and has been described as a residual power of pure desire.
The Yogatattva Upanishad mentions four kinds of yoga, of which laya-yoga involves Kundalini.
Sri Ramana Maharshi maintained that the Kundalini energy is nothing but the natural energy of the Self, where Self is the universal consciousness (Paramatma) present in every being, and that the individual mind of thoughts cloaks this natural energy from unadulterated expression. Advaita teaches that Self-realization, enlightenment, God-consciousness, nirvana and Kundalini awakening are all the same thing, and self-inquiry meditation is considered a very natural and simple means of reaching this goal.
Yoga and Tantra propose that this energy can be “awakened” by Guru, but body and spirit must be prepared by yogic austerities such as pranayama, or breath control, physical exercises, visualization, and chanting.
Kundalini is considered an interaction of the subtle body along with chakra energy centers and nadis channels. Each chakra is said to contain special characteristics and with proper training, moving Kundalini energy ‘through’ these chakras can help express or open these characteristics.
Sir John Woodroffe (pen name Arthur Avalon) was one of the first to bring the notion of Kundalini to the West. As 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” for lack of a better term in the English language but “kundala” in Sanskrit means “coiled”.
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 presented Jung with a model for the development of higher consciousness, and he interpreted its symbols in terms of the process of individuation”.
Another populariser of the concept of Kundalini among Western readers was Gopi Krishna. His autobiography is entitled Kundalini: The Evolutionary Energy in Man.According to one writer his writings influenced Western interest in kundalini yoga.
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 is called an Igneous Power or Serpentine Fire.
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. Some modern experimental research seeks to establish links between Kundalini practice and the ideas of Wilhelm Reich and his followers.
However, the intensive spiritual practices associated with some Asian traditions are not without their problems. Psychiatric literature notes that “since the influx of eastern spiritual practices and the rising popularity of meditation starting in the 1960s, many people have experienced a variety of psychological difficulties, either while engaged in intensive spiritual practice or spontaneously”. Among the psychological difficulties associated with intensive spiritual practice we find “kundalini awakening”,”a complex physiological and psycho-spiritual transformative process described in the yogic tradition”. Also, researchers in the fields of 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.
According to the psychiatrist Carl Jung, “…the concept of Kundalini has for us only one use, that is, to describe our own experiences with the unconscious…”