What is Kuṇḍalinī?

The word ‘kundalini’ has become what linguists call a ‘free-floating signifier’ — that is, it is used to mean virtually anything people want it to mean. In that context, the question “What really is kundalini?” is impossible to answer. Even dictionaries don’t agree. For example, two dictionaries chosen at random don’t share a single word in their respective definitions of ‘kundalini’:

  • latent female energy believed to lie coiled at the base of the spine.

  • the vital force lying dormant within one until activated by the practice of yoga, which leads one toward spiritual power and eventual salvation.

The concept which these two definitions implicitly share is that of some kind of potential energy that is dormant or latent in most people. Interestingly, that very concept is not found in any of the Sanskrit texts in which the first documented instances of the word kuṇḍalinī appear.

Let’s back up to the beginning and explore this seemingly impenetrable topic together. First off, it’s important to mention that kuṇḍalinī (to spell it correctly) is a Sanskrit word (meaning ‘the coiled one’ (fem.)) that first appeared in Tantric texts about 1300 years ago, and which didn’t appear in any other kind of literature for several centuries afterward. So if we want to understand kuṇḍalinī, we must look to the Tantric tradition that originated both the word and all the teachings that surrounded it (up to the early modern period, at least).

We immediately run into a problem here: there hasn’t been any major scholarly study of this topic. This is because the Sanskrit scholars who’ve looked into it, and are qualified to write about it, have realized that the topic is enormous, challenging to master and difficult to write about in a variety of ways. One of the challenges is that the word kuṇḍalinī has undergone a number of semantic shifts, meaning that it has changed its meaning over time and in different contexts. To parse all the ways in which this key term was used in the various stages of the Tantric traditions would be an enormous and difficult study. There is actually only one book on Kuṇḍalinī written by a Sanskrit scholar; a book originally written in French by Lilian Silburn in 1983. Silburn was unfortunately not a great Sanskritist, and though her book cites some very important primary sources, she simply didn’t understand those sources as well as one might have wished. Her book fascinates but also obfuscates. But it was still a valiant attempt, and there’s been no further attempt in the scholarly world in the 40 years since. And there simply cannot be an authoritative book on Kuṇḍalinī not written by a Sanskritist, because the vast majority of sources on the topic have never been translated (many of them still exist only in manuscript form, meaning they have not even been published in Sanskrit, let alone in translation). In the absence of authoritative work on the topic, there’s a huge amount of speculation. In modern spiritual culture, ‘Kundalini’ is a buzzword that is pressed into service by different people to serve their particular spiritual, and sometimes even financial, agendas.

Before I delve into some of the primary sources, I need to say something that is unfortunately controversial, but is nonetheless true. What is being taught in countless yoga studios right now under the name of ‘Kundalini Yoga’ is a form of practice that bears no relation to any traditional practice associated with the word Kuṇḍalinī. The modern practice that goes by the name ‘Kundalini Yoga’ was created by a man called Harbhajan Singh Puri, better known as the 3HO cult leader ‘Yogi Bhajan’. If you regard this kind of ‘Kundalini Yoga’ as an authentic traditional practice handed down through generations, I invite you to look at a brilliant article by the scholar Philip Deslippe, called “From Maharaj to Mahan Tantric: The Construction of Yogi Bhajan’s Kundalini Yoga”. This scholarly article proves that ‘Yogi Bhajan’ didn’t inherit, but rather fabricated, the practice(s) that he transmitted to his students under the name ‘Kundalini Yoga’. And why does this matter? Well, it doesn’t necessarily matter if somebody loves that practice, and it benefits them. I think it’s important to know, however, that the practice taught as ‘Kundalini Yoga’ in Western yoga studios today, whenever it derives from ‘Yogi Bhajan’ (which it nearly always does), has no relation to what is taught in connection with the word kuṇḍalinī in the original Sanskrit sources.

Having cleared that hurdle, we may ask, what is Kuṇḍalinī in the original Tantrik sources, and how does it relate to yogic practices? When it comes to the issue of what Kuṇḍalinī ‘really is’, it seems that everyone who believes themselves to have had a Kuṇḍalinī awakening and written a book about it claims to understand the topic better than anyone else. Here I’m simply engaged in a historical inquiry, since the topic of the spontaneous psychophysical event referred to (in our time) as Kuṇḍalinī awakening is well beyond my purview: it both merits and demands proper scientific study. (And please note that this spontaneous life-changing psychophysical event was not called ‘Kuṇḍalinī awakening’ in the premodern tradition: it was called śaktipāta.)

As a historian, I’m interested in what we can actually demonstrate to be true through evidence-based research. Unfortunately, almost all our evidence for the premodern period is textual, and these Sanskrit texts are entirely prescriptive, not descriptive. This means that they don’t describe people’s real-life experiences (with only the rarest of exceptions), they simply tell you how to do specific practices. We don’t have data on how well these practices worked, how many people awakened as a result, and how many people just went crazy. But we do know is that the Tantrik tradition became so influential and widespread that teachings and practises that weren’t effective or highly regarded probably didn’t survive for very long, because the tradition had a reputation to uphold and royal patronage to maintain (at least, up until the Muslim invasions brought an end to all that).

Now let’s look at a few of our earliest primary sources. There is a very early Kaula Trika text called Siddha-yogeśvarī-mata, which means The Doctrine of the Perfected Goddesses of Yoga (or perhaps The Doctrine of the Siddhas and Yoginīs). In this text from before the year 700 CE, we see the very first documented usage of the word kuṇḍalinī. It was closely followed by another instance of its usage in a very different text from the same period, the Kālottara (or Transcendence of Time), which is a Shaiva Siddhānta scripture. Both these texts have very little to say about kuṇḍalinī, but it seems significant that the term appears around the same time in both of the two main streams of the classical tradition, which were in many ways opposite: the nondualistic, transgressive, goddess-worshipping stream, sometimes called the left current or Kaula tradition, and the dualistic Veda-congruent Shiva-worshipping stream, sometimes call the right current or Saiddhāntika tradition. We find no prior usage of the word kuṇḍalinī in any other source. In other words, Kuṇḍalinī was, in origin, an exclusively Tantrik doctrine. It is not found in any pre-tantrik source: not the Vedas, not the Upanishads, and not the six Darshanas. Kuṇḍalinī is, originally, a purely Tantrik teaching that originated in the texts and traditions of Shaiva Tantra. (Later, the term appears in Tantrik Buddhism and Tantrik Vaishnavism as well but I’m not addressing those texts here, because that’s not my area.)

The Siddha-yogeśvarī-mata is an early, fascinating, as-yet unpublished Trika text in which we find this verse: yā sā kuṇḍalinī sātra jagadyoni prakīrtitā / śaktitraya-samudbhūtis tato varna-samudbhavah. This means that Kuṇḍalinī is proclaimed to be the jagad-yoni, the womb of the universe, or more literally here, the source of the world. So the term has, from its very outset, a much bigger scope than most people realize: it is the name for the generative matrix of the universe, the Goddess herself. In the second line, it is stated that Kuṇḍalinī is the source of the three primary Shaktis (the three goddesses of the Trika and/or the three powers of willing, knowing, and acting) and is the source of all the Sanskrit letters (and/or the source of language more generally). So from the beginning, we also have a more specific conception of Kuṇḍalinī as a linguistic and mantric power. In classical Tantra, Kuṇḍalinī is frequently related to the power by which mantra exists and operates—or it is a code word for a specific mantra (see below).

In the Sārdhatriśati recension of the Kālottara, also dateable to about 700 CE, we find a single mention of our key term: and this time kuṇḍalinī is localized to a specific region of the body. Please note, it is not the base of the torso, nor the base of the spine, nor is She said to be dormant.

The Primordial Coiled One is fused with the ‘sun’ (piṅgalā channel), ‘moon’ (iḍā channel), and ‘fire’ (the suṣumnā or central channel). She is to be visualized & experienced in the region of the heart [where these three channels converge], remaining there with the appearance of a curled sprout. (candrāgni-ravi-saṃyuktā ādyā kuṇḍalinī tu yā | hṛtpradeśe tu sā jñeyā aṅkurākāravat-sthitā || 12.1; note that another text specifies that this is a ‘sprout of flame’.)

We see Kuṇḍalinī frequently characterized in early sources as being coiled, crooked, or curled. When she straightens out in the central channel, the awakening process has begun in earnest (or, some say, is on the verge of completion). For more on the concept of Kuṇḍalinī ‘straightening out’, see VBT verse 154 (cited further below).

Let’s look at one more early verse. The following Kaula verse has an unknown origin, but it occurs in a number of different texts (such as the Kulānanda and the Matsyendra-saṃhitā). Though its source is mysterious, we know it’s more than a thousand years old because Kshemarāja quotes it. The verse is as follows:

ūrdhva-śakti-nipātācca adhah-śakti-nikuñcanāt / rudra-śakti-samāveśam yo jānāti sa panditah: “One who experiences the [type of] immersion into Divine Power that occurs due to the descent of the upper energy and the [beneficial] contraction of the lower power is a truly wise one.”

In classical Tantra, there is a doctrine of two Kuṇḍalinīs: an upper Kuṇḍalinī in the crown of the head, which is to be brought down towards the heart, and a lower Kuṇḍalinī in the base of the body, often associated with sexual energy, which is to be ‘compressed’ and encouraged to rise up. The two Kuṇḍalinīs, it seems, are supposed to meet and merge in the central channel and thereby become one Kuṇḍalinī, causing the stabilization of awakened awareness. This is a fundamental concept in some forms of classical Tantra (we see it, for example, in The Recognition Sutras Chapter 18) and it suggests that the normal human condition is an unintegrated one. The primary integration, then, is to unite the upper Kuṇḍalinī with the lower Kuṇḍalinī. In Haṭha-yoga, however, this doctrine was lost, and so Haṭha-yoga gave us the popular current understanding of a dormant power at the base of the body (or the base of the spine) that needs to be impelled upward until it reaches the crown of the head, which is the end of its journey. This is markedly different from anything we find in classical Tantrik sources. Furthermore, from the nondual Tantrik perspective, this Haṭha-yoga view is out of balance, and even dangerous in a certain sense, because it encourages a relentless upward movement which is inherently transcendental and therefore anti-embodiment. The motive in premodern Haṭha-yoga is ultimately to transcend the body, to ‘get up and out’. (This despite the emphasis on physical practices; we see Haṭha-yoga’s conviction that the body is inherently impure in its obsession with extreme ‘cleansing’ practices, for example.) That urge towards transcendence needs to be balanced, in classical Tantrik Yoga, by the movement down into embodiment. You don’t relinquish the transcendental impulse, you learn how to unite and integrate it with the impulse to say yes to embodied existence. That’s the key. Tantrik authorities would not have been surprised to learn that modern practitioners who push their Kuṇḍalinī relentlessly upward often have psychotic breaks (thankfully, most of them recover from those breaks).

In the Kaula verse cited above there are two causes of divine Immersion specified: each is necessary, but not sufficient without the other. The verse says that the Upper Kuṇḍalinī needs to descend, and the lower Kuṇḍalinī is to be contracted or compressed, which effectively pumps it upward. The verse suggests that if you can create the conditions that facilitate the descent of the upper Kuṇḍalinī, and perform the practices that create the compression and pulsation of the lower Kuṇḍalinī, then you’ll experience what’s called rudra-śakti-samāveśa. This means experiential immersion into the most intense power of awakened consciousness (a topic covered in detail in my doctoral dissertation). In this context, rudra-śakti literally means divine power. It’s also a specialised term, where rudra refers to something fierce or intense. When rudra-śakti-samāveśa is experienced, you are utterly bathed and immersed in intensified divine energy due to the fusion of the two Kuṇḍalinīs. You become a truly ‘wise’ person, according to the verse, but this is not intellectual wisdom—it is insight into the true nature of reality.

This is discussed in some detail in chapter 18 of my book The Recognition Sutras where Lord Kshemarāja presents ten key practises for how to access and expand the centre, the core of one’s being, and thereby experience the natural and innate bliss of awareness (cidānanda). In that teaching, the upper Kuṇḍalinī is to be stimulated through uccāra practice and brought down once it is activated (or perhaps, pulsed down and upward repeatedly—the Sanskrit is unfortunately ambiguous on this point). The lower Kuṇḍalinī is stimulated through a specific sexual practice in his text (drawn from VBT verse 68), but it can also stimulated through non-sexual practices in other sources, practices that work with the kanda (called the lower dān tián in Taoism).

Kshemarāja also uses a mysterious phrase in this section of chapter 18, when he talks about nourishing the lower Kuṇḍalinī and straightening it out. (We see the same concept in VBT verse 154 below.) Now, what does that mean? This is where we come to the very important fact that the very word Kuṇḍalinī literally means ‘the coiled one’—it’s a coiled power. So what is this coiling and straightening out actually referring to?

It seems that the earliest form of Kuṇḍalinī yoga focused on the breath pause, primarily the pause at the end of the inhale. Most people don’t take the time to pause between breaths but if you pause long enough, the energy of prāṇa-śakti coils up in anticipation of the next breath cycle. The breath comes in and down to the belly and then, if you hold the prāṇa-śakti there, it coils at or around the navel. (It can also coil at the level of the heart.) If you pause for a little longer than seems natural, the ‘coiling’ intensifies in anticipation of the exhale. (At this point you can fuse the energy of the breath with a single-syllable mantra called a bīja.) The subsequent exhale is the coil straightening itself out, as it were. You want the energy of the prāṇa to ride the exhale upward, but the key is to induce it to enter the central channel, which is perfectly straight, as opposed to the curved side channels.

This image, a detail of a larger early modern (18th cen.?) manuscript from the image collection of Christopher Tompkins, clearly shows Kuṇḍalinī coiling at the level of the navel where, the Sanskrit caption tells us, the presiding deity is Agni.

Originally, in classical Tantrik Yoga, Kuṇḍalinī was never described as dormant, nor did it have anything to do with a snake or a serpent per se. Where did this association come from? In some early sources, we find the simile of prasupta-bhujagākrti, meaning if Kuṇḍalinī had a visual form, it would look like a sleeping serpent. How does the serpent sleep? It sleeps coiled up, in a spiral, in its hole. So, as a coiled energy, Kuṇḍalinī looks like a sleeping serpent but it wasn’t originally a specifically serpentine energy, nor was it dormant. Those concepts (misunderstandings?) came later. In classical Tantra, we don’t see any specific association of Kuṇḍalinī with snakes, except in terms of this simile. Kuṇḍalinī simply ‘the coiled one’ (in the feminine grammatical gender)—it does not mean, as many websites and even dictionaries claim, ‘coiled snake’.

There are also specific Kuṇḍalinī bīja-mantras, and the coil concept is relevant here as well because these mantras, if you write them in the script of that time, include a kind of coiled shape. What were the Kuṇḍalinī bījas, originally? This requires more research, but I’m convinced that one of them was certainly Hrīṃ, and another was probably Hrauṃ, and another was almost certainly Hūṃ. All three of these mantras begin with H, and when you write them in the script of that time, they have a kind of coiled shape. So to say that Kuṇḍalinī is like a sleeping serpent could have been a coded reference to these mantras. The most secret mantras were always given in code so that someone picking up a text wouldn’t be able to ascertain the mantra just from reading the text. A living teacher was necessary.

Now, according to the Netra-tantra (c. 800 CE), when the Kuṇḍalinī bīja is resonated correctly, and with sufficient intensity, it becomes what’s called a nāda-suchi, a ‘sound needle’, which has the ability to pierce the so-called psychic knot in the centre of the head, or just below the center of the head, called the Rudra granthi or the Māyā granthi. This psychic knot is what prevents you from experiencing the true unity of things, in this yogic theory. The mantra is intensely vibrated there as the sound needle pierces the knot, little by little, each time, until there is a big opening. Then you have access to the upper Kuṇḍalinī energy which is eternally dwelling at the crown of the head, and it can flow down and merge with the lower Kuṇḍalinī until you have one Kuṇḍalinī moving in the central channel. What’s the consequence of that? You’re finally fully alive. You attain an aliveness so vibrant, so vivid, so complete, that your life before seems to you to have been something like sleepwalking. When the two Kuṇḍalinīs unite and move in the central channel you experience this absolute, full aliveness, full consciousness and full presence, compared to which what you thought was aliveness was just stumbling around in a half-conscious daze.

So far we’ve been looking at several sources whose versions of the original Kuṇḍalinī Yoga significantly overlap, even though they also differ in certain details. We will look at one more text, the Vijñāna-bhairava-tantra, another early source circa 800 or 850 CE, in which we can see the mystery we’ve been discussing in plain sight—but it has not been recognized by previous translators.

One needs to compare Verse 24 to Verse 154 of the Vijñāna-bhairava-tantra because these two verses are complementary; verse 154 brings the text full circle. The relationship between Verse 24, the first practice verse, and Verse 154, the last practice verse, is absolutely crucial to understanding the revelation of the Vijñāna-bhairava-tantra. Verse 154 states that the prāṇa goes out on the exhale, the life-force enters on the inhale, and it forms into a coil, like a spring, by the power of the Will; and that great Goddess [Kuṇḍalinī] straightens out & lengthens by the same power. She is said to be “both transcendent and immanent.” This teaching on Kuṇḍalinī was still so secret at that time that often the word itself wasn’t even used; here we see the word kuṭila instead, a common synonym in the literature.

So what do you actually do in the classical practice of Kuṇḍalinī Yoga, as revealed by the original masters over 1000 years ago? I discuss the practice in some detail in this Youtube video.

I’ll conclude by noting that much more research on the topic is needed: for example, the great master Abhinavagupta taught that there are actually three Kuṇḍalinīs: parā-kuṇḍalinī (at the crown), kula-kuṇḍalinī (at the heart), and prāṇa-kuṇḍalinī (at the base). Many people who have experienced what they call ‘Kundalini awakening’ have experienced only the third of these three. Abhinavagupta’s teaching, as usual, weaves together and makes sense of all the extant sources available at his time. (This teaching, found in the Tantrāloka, has not yet been published.) Interestingly, Abhinava’s teaching of the three Kuṇḍalinīs seems to have inspired a revised version of the Kaula verse cited above, which appears in the later Amaraugha-śāsana attributed to Goraksha in this form:

ūrdhvaśakti-nipātācca tathādhaḥśakti-kuñcanāt | madhyaśakti-prabodhena jāyate param sukham || “Due to the descent of the upper power, the contraction of the lower power, and the awakening of the central power, the supreme joy arises.”

When people ask what Kuṇḍalinī is, they’re asking the wrong question, at least vis-a-vis the traditional teachings, in the same way that it’s the wrong question to ask what Chakras are. These are not ontological entities, just sitting there existing, waiting for you to notice them. They are elements of practice, so they are processes, not things. Therefore the right question is not what they are, but rather what you do with them. In absence of the process of engagement we call yoga sādhanā, it’s simply meaningless to ask what they are! Even if you define Kuṇḍalinī as an ‘energy’, as most people do today, it’s important to remember that energy never exists as a thing-in-itself, but only as a property of an active system that accomplishes something observable. In other words, the concept ‘energy’ only has meaning as part of a process. In this case, the process of spiritual awakening that produces observable transformations in the subjective experience, psychology, and even physiology of the one who undergoes it.

We have quite a lot of research ahead of us to tie all these ancient threads together into a truly cohesive picture of the original Kuṇḍalinī Yoga. But many of the pieces of the puzzle are right here, presented to the public (as far as I know) for the first time in one place. OM!