Kundalini is an esoteric term that has gained widespread use in pop culture so that its meaning can be misinterpreted or diluted far from its original meaning.
In gross simple terms, kundalini is creative energy that can be directed through specific yoga practices. Kundalini awakening refers to it rising and becoming active.
What Is Kundalini?
Kundalini is often depicted as a serpent coiled at the base of the spine. Through specific yoga practices -- such as mantras, hand movements known as mudras, breath work or pranayama, or physical yoga postures -- it can move up the central energetic channel, or sushumna. In some ways, this also represents the central nervous system. Dedicated yoga practitioners may experience kundalini awakening spontaneously or from being guided by a very experienced teacher.
The classic explanation of the “purpose” of kundalini awakening is samadhi, or enlightenment. Highly revered yoga masters including Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who passed away in 2008, is described as entering this state of samadhi and remaining there for days. As a very adept guru, it has been said that he, like others of advanced spiritual development, can move in and out of samadhi, as he was able to easily direct kundalini energy.
Kundalini Awakening Is Rare
Ordinary practitioners of yoga, which is the lion share of people who practice yoga for other health benefits such as stress management, might be able to manage their kundalini, but it is not common. The greater danger is for people who overreach their yoga practice and move too quickly or who experiment with advanced yoga practices and experience kundalini awakening before it is appropriate for them. In these cases, kundalini energy may divert into ida or pingala, the two intertwined energy pathways, or nadas, that wrap around sushumna, creating obvious physical and emotional distress.
Described as Near-Death Experience
According to Georg Fuerstein, Ph.D., a scholar on Indian philosophy, most people do not experience kundalini awakenings and those who do may feel it to be as much of a near-death experience as it is mystical. This was the case in 1937 with Gopi Krishna, a scholar from Kashmir, India, who wrote: “Suddenly, with a roar like that of a waterfall, I felt a stream of liquid light entering my brain through my spinal cord … The illumination grew brighter and brighter, the roaring louder, I experienced a rocking sensation and then felt myself slipping out of my body, entirely enveloped in a halo of light.” Gopi Krishna had practiced intense yoga techniques from ages 17 to 34 and later described his kundalini awakening as if he were near death.
Redirecting Creative Energy
B.K.S. Iyengar, founder of Iyengar yoga, writes in the book "Light on Yoga," that kundalini awakening, if it is seen as a harnessing of creative energy, can be seen as a “sublimation of sexual energy.” His description is also considered classical in the yoga tradition in that many of its practices is designed to bring about this sublimation. This is seen in the use of bhandas or locks, specific breath work and postures. Kundalini awakening is not a realistic goal for people who practice yoga asanas in a group class several times a week. It is a rare event that is best managed with a genuine yoga master as it is akin to the vaulted status of enlightenment, and most yoga masters can remain in that state for years if they wish, doing whatever they desire, meditating or traveling outside of the body.