It is in India that the phenomena of kundalini awakening has been observed, preserved and most clearly elucidated. It is therefore not surprising that India should produce one of the most eloquent authors on the subject, Gopi Krishna. His simple definitions of kundalini remain the best,
‘Kundalini is the super-intelligent Energy behind consciousness.’ 1
‘…there are two aspects of the Power: First the individual aspect where She can be said to be lying dormant at the base of the spine, and second Her cosmic aspect, which is beyond our understanding.’ 2
Looking first at this cosmic aspect, it is perhaps not too huge a leap, for even the most Cartesian mind, to consider that there may be a primal creative energetic force behind all the phenomena of the known universe, as yet unidentified by western science. The spiritual sciences of India long ago established the reality of this force and named it Shakti. Shakti is a Sanskrit word that can be translated as meaning power or energy. It is derived from the verb root ‘shak’, which means ‘to be able’, ‘to do’, ‘to act’. It was also recognised that this force was feminine in nature, a creative mother energy. It is in this way that it presents itself to the aspirant, hence my dreams of Isis and the goddess in blue. In Hinduism, Shakti is personified as a goddess of the same name and the awakened kundalini in the individual becomes known as Shakti. It is considered that the primal goddess of creation is flowing in the person. This concept of a primal feminine creative power is expressed in the kundalini yoga, Adi Shakti mantra.
Adi Shakti, Adi Shakti, Adi Shakti, Namo, Namo
Sarab a Shakti, Sarab a Shakti, Sarab a Shakti, Namo, Namo
Prithum Bhagvatee, Prithum Bhagvatee, Prithum Bhagvatee, Namo Namo
Kundalini Mata Shakti, Mata Shakti, Namo, Namo
(Primal She-Power, Salutations to Thee!
All-Encompassing She-Power, Salutations to Thee!
That through which Divine Creates, Salutations to Thee!
Creative Power of the Kundalini, Mother of all Mother Power, Salutations!)
This is the cosmic aspect of kundalini, which as Gopi Krishna says, is beyond our understanding. This cosmic feminine energetic force resides at the base of every human spine as latent spiritual potential, curled three and a half times like a spring or a serpent ready to strike. On the biological level Gopi Krishna has this to say of kundalini awakening,
‘…energy goes from the body to the brain like a radiant stream of light…The enlightened person has these two characteristics: a new area in the brain springs to activity, and a new form of energy rises through the spinal cord into the brain.’3
Kundalini moves through the spiritual nervous system which overlays and sometimes coincides with our biological nervous system. The spiritual nervous system consists of the chakras (energy wheels) and nadis (energy channels or rivers). Of the nadis the most important is the sushumna, which means ‘auspicious’. The sushumna is the principle spiritual nerve in the body and runs along the spinal column from the root chakra (mooladhara), located at the perineum, to the third eye (ajna chakra), in the centre of the forehead just above the eyes. In fact, from there, it extends out and upwards into the cosmos. This is what the ancient Egyptians were depicting with the cobra coming out of the pharaoh’s forehead. Either side of sushumna are the two other principle nadis, ida and pingala. Ida is the moon channel and pingala is the sun channel. It is necessary for these two nadis to come into complimentary balance for the kundalini to rise up the sushumna.
The mechanics of an awakening are as follows. The kundalini energy, at the base of the spine, moves up through the sushumna, through the chakras located on the spine, into the brainstem and then the brain. It then moves through certain nadis in the brain going through the pineal and pituitary glands until it is perceived as exiting the head at the area known as the fontanel. It is surely no coincidence that kundalini is felt rising in the area called the sacrum (sacred) and exits, ‘fountaining’ at the fontanel. It is clear to me that these names were given with full knowledge of the kundalini process. Upon exiting the fontanel a union of energy occurs, a little way above the head. This is a unification of female and male polarities, usually termed Shakti and Shiva. The energy then returns back down into the individual, continuing a process of transformation lasting years or lifetimes. What I have described here is an ideal version, in reality there are an infinite amount of variables and each person will have a slightly different experience.
There are many ways that kundalini is felt in the body, it is certainly both a biological and spiritual energy. On the biological level the sensation of it is as tangible as any other physical sensation one might have. It is obvious to the person within whom the energy is moving that it is working directly upon the physical body, that at one level an evolutionary upgrade is being received. The energetic sensations are felt initially most strongly at the base of the spine in the area known as the sacrum. The energy can be discerned entering the sushumna from this point. It may be felt as a very fine sharp energy, or as heat or cold, or as large bubbles. It may move slowly or extremely fast. Basically there is no restriction on how it may manifest, the only prerequisite for defining kundalini is that there must be energy moving within the spinal column. This is not the only place it will be but it has to be there. It may feel like insects crawling on the skin, it may feel like being stung. The left side of the body and face may go numb as if being anesthetised at the dentist. It may be felt at all chakra points, pulsing at the root or wrapping like a snake around the throat. It may be felt in arms and hands, legs in feet. Even the genital area may become ecstatic. It may rise up the front of the body as well as the back. It may be felt deep within the stomach, in the teeth, the eyes and nose. It may be as specific as having an intensely blissful nose tip, or it may be everywhere at once.
For me, the physical presence of kundalini is always immediate, if I simply turn my attention inward. However it may come at any time during everyday activity. I may find myself having a conversation but at the same time have ecstatic energy moving in my crown chakra and third eye. Divine sounds may be heard; I have woken in the night to hear thousands of crickets around me, the sound of water rushing through me, or the crystalline tinkling of tiny bells. In the right ear one may perceive the sound of kundalini in the sushumna. As kundalini begins to awaken our spiritual heart we may see fireflies, fire and smoke within us, we may see the full moon and the rising of the internal sun.
Other physical manifestations are known as kriyas. In yoga a kriya is a set of movements, which combine towards a certain end. Kundalini yoga uses kriyas to attempt the raising of kundalini. The fact however, is that yoga is the gift of kundalini and not the other way round. I have found that many of the sitting and breathing exercises found in kundalini yoga happen spontaneously to the kundalini-awakened person in meditation. Arching of the spine, bending forward, twisting from side to side, the tongue going back in the mouth, bouncing up and down, strange vocalisations. These movements were clearly observed in kundalini-awakened people and then incorporated into yoga in the hope that imitation would bring about the same results.
As the awakened kundalini moves through every cell in the body, more and more of the spiritual nervous system becomes enlivened. Traumas from this and past lives accrue in this spiritual nervous system as blockages and as the kundalini progresses, it clears these blockages and traumas. In this way kundalini clears what we might think of as certain aspects of karma. Although this spiritual nervous system remains largely undetected and ignored by western science it is very real to the awakened person.
Kundalini may bring spectacular visions and experiences in order to shake the person to the very core of their beliefs about the nature of existence. Although most phenomena are experienced internally, sometimes visions may be given, to be seen with open eyes, in ordinary reality. Visions of this nature are the exception rather than the rule and although we crave more, we only need to see the Divine in this form once, after this we must learn to see the Divine in everything. Because we are rooted in the concept that what we see with open eyes is the true reality, visions that manifest here serve to reaffirm the truth of our experience and from there we may move on to inner visions with less questioning of their validity.
After a time the manifestations and experience become more subtle, as more and more of what the person is not, is stripped away and more and more of the true self begins to shine through, expressing out into daily life and those around them. Indeed, those close to the awakened one may certainly be effected by the process as they are drawn into the karmic vortex that kundalini initiates. Kundalini puts a person onto a karmic fast track, seeking in one lifetime to burn through as much karma as possible. This means that whatever residual negative karma there is will come but on the plus side, all the positive karma will come too. It should be understood that the search for truth and the process of spiritual awakening is not a selfish pursuit. In fact that desire to know the Self is the most selfless pursuit we can undertake because changing our own consciousness may catalyse the process in others and this is really the only way we can effect positive change in the world.
The Katha Upanishad says,
‘Those who see themselves in all and all in them help others through spiritual Osmosis to realise the Self in themselves.’
Judee Sill is a largely forgotten singer/songwriter from the nineteen seventies. She was a musical genius with a deeply spiritual aspect to her work. She made some live recordings for the seminal British music programme, The Old Grey Whistle Test. Among them, her incredibly beautiful song, ‘The Kiss’. In her introduction she says, this song is about the union of opposites that we all have and the kiss is a symbol of that union. This is a perfect description of kundalini awakening and makes me think that perhaps she knew more than she was telling. Her lyrics describe beautifully the subtle sense of divine presence that tends to pervade the kundalini awakening process, holy breath, touching me like a wind song.
The principle catalyst in kundalini awakening is the soul’s wish to return to Oneness. There are three main ways in which kundalini awakening may occur. It may come from self-initiation through intense spiritual desire (bhakti), it may be transmitted from guru to disciple (shaktipat) or it may be induced through spiritual austerities. Of the latter, yoga, for thousands of years has been the tried and tested method for safely raising the kundalini energy. Details of the various yogic methods for awakening kundalini can be found in the Kundalini Yoga Upanishad and the Hatha Yoga Pradapika. Yoga is the antidote to cumha, for me, yoga is the science of experiential remembrance of who we are.
The boundaries between yoga and shamanism are certainly quite blurred in places but ultimately their goals are different. Just as Gopi Krishna is the definitive voice on kundalini, the same came be said of Mercia Eliade on shamanism. Here he eloquently expresses the essential difference between the two.
‘But let us emphasise… the structural difference that distinguishes classic yoga from shamanism. Although the latter is not without certain techniques of concentration its final goal is always ecstasy and the souls ecstatic journey through the various cosmic regions, whereas yoga pursues enstsasis, final concentration of the spirit and ‘escape’ from the cosmos.’ 4
Kundalini awakening and shamanic awakening should not be confused as necessarily the same thing. Kundalini awakening is the process of enlightenment, its function is to bring the person home into self-realisation. Not all kundalini-awakened people will be shamans. Shamanic awakening on the other hand is not primarily about enlightenment but about creating an individual that can be an intermediary between here and the spirit worlds, what Eliade calls, a technician of the sacred. Yogis have studied and written about kundalini awakening with scientific precision but the same cannot be said of shamanic awakening which is an equally mysterious process.
In a shamanic spiritual awakening it is not the individual but the shamanic spirits that are the principle catalyst. The shamanic spirits may be considered as disincarnate consciousnesses in the form of animals, plants, ancestors, and shamans. Broadly speaking there are three main ways that a person may become a shaman. Firstly, it may be in the family and they continue the tradition, sometimes the helper spirits pass from one family member to another. Secondly, an individual may simply feel a strong calling and seek out a teacher. Thirdly, the person may undergo a shamanic spiritual awakening having been ‘chosen’ by the spirits. Even in traditional societies there may be an element of fear surrounding this possibility, there is a sense of choice being taken away, of accepting a destiny not desired. Traditionally the person must accept the calling, non-acceptance may lead to an unhappy life or even death. In some traditions it is considered that shamans are born not made, that even though the calling may not manifest until adulthood, a spirit has bonded with them from birth. Sometimes the shaman is likened to a cuckoo, raised in the same nest as its siblings but not the same. As with kundalini awakening, the process itself may be difficult and confusing, all the more so for a western person in a culture with absolutely no reference point for this class of phenomena.
During visions, dreams and ecstasies, the shamanic spirits teach and alter the shaman through attacks and dismemberments and inserting objects like crystals into the shamans’ spiritual body. The shamanic sickness is a particularly mysterious characteristic of this kind of awakening. As a child, Black Elk, the Oglala Sioux medicine man was struck down with a mysterious illness for a number of days during which he remained in a comatose state completely unresponsive to any treatment. It is during this time that the spirits come and he receives his great vision and after this he becomes a healer. This is a classic example of shamanic sickness. There is currently a trend to view certain forms of mental illness as shamanic sicknesses and while there is little doubt that some people undergoing the phenomena of shamanic spiritual awakening have been diagnosed as mentally ill, not all mentally ill people are misdiagnosed shamans.
Usually, initiation by spirits is backed up by training from a human elder shaman. In the modern context it should be noted that you can’t buy the former and without this the latter is irrelevant. In the west, training from an elder shaman from an ancient lineage is an unrealistic expectation and in any case it is the non-human initiatory aspect that is of primary importance.
‘…sicknesses, dreams and ecstasies in themselves constitute an initiation; that is, they transform the profane, pre-choice individual into a technician of the sacred.’ 5
Shamanism and yoga may certainly combine harmoniously as one. That shamanic yogas may have existed is supported by Pantajali in his famous Yoga Sutras where he refers to certain medicinal plants (ausadhi) that in equal measure with samadhi, can give the yogin miraculous powers. As Eliade points out,
‘…the protohistorical origins of classic yoga in no sense exclude the existence of intermediate forms of shamanic yoga directed to obtaining particular ecstatic experiences.’ 6
The word ‘shaman’ is said to come from the Tunguskan word saman, which may be translated as ‘one who knows’. After encountering Siberian shamans western explorers and anthropologists began to apply the term to all the traditional healers/spirit workers they encountered in other parts of the world. So the word shamanism was invented and entered the English language to describe any form of indigenous healing practice, despite the fact that they are incredibly diverse in nature. In this sense it is best really to talk of ‘shamanisms’ rather than shamanism but that said, irrespective of culture or geographical location, the shamanisms of the world exhibit far more similarities to each other than differences.
The shamanisms of the far north, of the Inuit, the Sami and Siberia all display knowledge of kundalini in various ways. From Siberia, where it is said that all shamanism originated, comes the oldest wooden statue in the world, the Shigir Idol. It was preserved in a peat bog and is estimated at 9,500 years old. It can be viewed in the Yekaterinburg History Museum. Professor Mikhail Zhilin, leading researcher of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Archaeology said,
‘We study the idol with a feeling of awe. This is a masterpiece, carrying gigantic emotional value and force. It is a unique sculpture, there is nothing else in the world like this. It is very alive and very complicated at the same time. The ornament is covered with encrypted information. People were passing on knowledge with the help of the idol.’ 7
Currently the idol stands 2.8 meters tall but originally was more likely 5.3 meters. Depicted on it are seven faces distributed on both front and back. Six of these faces are one dimensional, the seventh one on the top of the idol being three-dimensional. The faces on the idol are staggered up its length and linked by snaking zigzag patterns and markings very similar to those found on the handles of Siberian drums representing the vertebrae of the spirit figure, the ongon. It is very clear to me that this idol is depicting the six chakras on the spine, the zigzag pattern representing the snake-like movement of kundalini. The seventh face, being the only fully formed three-dimensional one, can be seen as the crown chakra.
Professor Zhilin observed that the people that created the idol,
‘…lived in perfect harmony with the world, had advanced intellectual development, and a complicated spiritual world.’ 8
Miraculously, they have left us a clear depiction of knowledge of the spiritual awakening process from the Mesolithic Stone Age.
In Inuit shamanism the master shaman obtains the angacok for the apprentice.
‘Then the master obtains the angakoq…the disciples ‘lighting’ or ‘enlightenment’, for
the angakoq consists of a mysterious light which the shaman suddenly feels in his body, inside his head, within the brain, an inexplicable searchlight, a luminous fire…’ 9
The fact that the shaman ‘obtains’ this luminous fire for the initiate does seem strikingly similar to the process of shaktipat in India.
The designs on the drums of the Sami people provide some of the most valuable insights into shamanic cosmology. Hundreds of these drums were burnt by missionaries along with their owners the Sami shaman, the noaide. On a detailed drawing fortunately preserved of one of the lost drums, there is a clear depiction of kundalini. The serpent passes through the three shamanic worlds, spiralling around a central line representing the spine. At either end of the serpent are the sun and the moon representing ida and pingala nadis and the unification of male and female energies.
In North America a Navaho sand painting to a blessing chant from New Mexico (1950) shows clearly a union of opposites and energy ascending a central column with different levels. This represents a spiritual ascent along what the Navaho call the Pollen Path. Campbell notes that,
‘The parallelism of the tantric visionary ascent of the sushumna and the ritually controlled transit of the Navaho Pollen Path is not so simple to explain.’ 10
‘The conformity of this particular sand painting to the sense and symbolised experiences of the yogic sushumna is certainly astonishing…’ 11
In Africa, the San on the Kalahari, call kundalini n/um, it rises up their spines like a rope connecting them to Heaven. The Zulu call kundalini, umbalini, the two words are strikingly similar. The indigenous peoples of Australia have the Rainbow Serpent.
In South America, we see the trinity of serpent, feline and condor representing the kundalini awakening process. The Q’ero, shaman-mystics of the Andes, speak of the siki, located at the base of the spine from where there is,
‘…a specific kundalini-like movement of energy, visualised as a serpent of light, that can be unleashed from the siki…’ 12
In the Amazon, the entheogen Ayahuasca, a snake-like vine, ascends a tree-spine as the feminine principle, earth energy seeking the sun. The San Pedro cactus, a phallic masculine entheogen compliments this union of polarities.
So it can be seen, from this by no means comprehensive list of examples, that kundalini is a fundamental principle underlying various shamanisms of the world and also the source and goal of the spiritual science of yoga. Both kundalini awakening and shamanic awakening bring the individual into awareness of the illusory nature of reality. If we take the analogy of water as pure consciousness, then what we experience here is snow. Here, consciousness is condensed, you can shape and mold snow in ways that you can’t with water in its pure state. It is this way so that we are not overwhelmed. Both yogi and shaman learn to navigate the waters of consciousness, they learn to swim where others might drown. Until, through our yearning to return home we awaken the goddess within, we remain as children, playing in the snow.