In the West, yoga is for the most part relegated to exercise classes with spiritual bonus points. The word "yoga," however, means "union" and historically it suggests a path to higher consciousness. That path can be physical, mental or both -- as in the case of Kundalini Yoga. As its name suggests, this form of yoga works with the Kundalini (also called Shakti) which is the primal creative energy that animates life.
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Waking the Snake
In its ordinary form, Kundalini pervades the body; it's the life force. But at the base of the spine, in the sacrum, there's a what you might call a well of dormant Kundalini energy that's said to resemble a snake coiled around itself three and a half times.
This energy represents the full potential of human awareness and it's this coil of energy that is unleashed when the Kundalini is awakened. This can happen in a number of ways, including by doing asanas, chanting or by meditating. In some cases the awakening can happen spontaneously, such as when someone comes into contact with the right Kundalini master or has a near-death experience.
High Voltage Energy
When the Kundalini is freed, it rushes up to the brain through the a hollow tube in the spinal cord called the Sushumna. On its way to the brain, according to Swami Vivekananda in his book "Raja Yoga," the energy unlocks layer after layer of the mind, freeing it from its past negative karma, resulting in beautiful visions and many powers over mind and matter. Ultimately, the yogi is freed from the bondage of his ordinary earthly identity and achieves Samadhi, complete union with the divine consciousness.
So what's not to like? The yogi B.K.S. Iyengar Swami Vivekananda likens the nervous system to an electrical system with wiring (the nerves), circuits (chakras) and gates or locks (bandhas). As with any electrical system, a power surge of Kundalini can damage the grid, causing grave mental and physical illness. While the channels through which Kundalini travels do roughly correlate with the nervous system, Kundalini is a subtle energy form that can't be measured like ordinary nerve circulation is.
Too much Kundalini awakening too fast is not without peril. Problems can arise when Kundalini energy is diverted into the side channels that flank the spinal cord -- known as the ida and pingala. This phenomenon is sometimes called a "spiritual emergency." Along with feelings of ecstasy and bliss, the yogi may experience a number of unpleasantly intense signs that include burning or even searing sensations, intense spasms, vibrating and jerking.
Uncontrollable emotions can arise so strongly, in fact, that the process can resemble a psychotic breakdown according to clinical psychologist Bonnie Greenwell in her book "Energies of Transformation." Some people who were abused as children may feel great fear as the awakening unlocks long-repressed memories of trauma or violation.
The Need for a Guru
Kundalini Yoga is a transformative process involving powerful energy currents that affect body, mind and spirit. In order to avoid destabilizing extremes, the transformation should be guided by a qualified yogi.
As Bruce Greyson, Professor of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences at the University of VirginiaIn Eastern traditions writes: "Kundalini would be ideally activated at the appropriate time by a guru who can properly guide the development of that energy. If awakened without proper guidance… Kundalini can be raw, destructive power loosed on the individual’s body and psyche."