Kundalini - Medical and Psychological Theories Previewed

A Draft of the paper for the Conference about Yoga Leipzig, Germany, November 12-14, 1993 by Karel Nespor, MD, Ph.D. (Swaroop Murti)

According to Hatha Yoga Pradipika, "Just as a door is opened with a key, the yogi opens the door to liberation with kundalini," (chapter 3, verse 105). If classic, texts like Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Gheranda Samhita or Shiva Samhita consider kundalini so important, it should be taken seriously by medical and psychological research too. It has been, to a certain degree, and it can be useful to review medical and psychological theories of kundalini.

Autonomous nervous system theory

The pioneer in this area was an Indian doctor Varant G. Rele whose book The Mysterious Kundalini was published in 1927, and has been reprinted many times since then. The core of his theory is the idea that the upward movement of kundalini can be identified with the activation of the right vagal nerve.

Even if few people would accept this theory completely today, it still has a considerable impact. Both professionals and Yoga teachers often speak about chakras as nerve plexuses. For example, a well known Indian doctor, Professor Udapa, considers the basis of kundalini awakening to be the stimulation of the plexuses of the autonomous nervous system (Udupa, 1982).

Most of us probably feel that kundalini is not simply the flow of impulses along the autonomous nerves. In this way it would be difficult to explain the kundalini awakening caused by Bhakti Yoga, Mantra Yoga or Guru's grace. But at the same time there may be some relationship between kundalini and the autonomous nervous system. Many powerful traditional approaches, to awaken kundalini stimulate this system.

Special energy theory

According to them, kundalini is a special form of energy new to Western science. For example, Motoyama considered kundalini to be the life force called 'chi' in Acupuncture and Chinese medicine which moves along certain acupuncture channels or meridians. He claimed that it is possible to measure it and depict it with electronic equipment (Motoyama, 1981).

Kirlian photography has been considered to be able to picture and measure the level of 'energy' in living beings too (e.g. Bluen and Holstock, 1981).

The advantage of these theories is that they can explain the effects of many practices in which little stimulation of the autonomous nervous system takes place. For example, the effects of meditation can be understood as the communication with cosmic energy or prana removing the blocks of energy that flow in the body (Carrington, 1986).

The concept of life energy may be too vague and the proof of its existence not convincing enough for some people, but let me quote the well-known German physicist G. F. von Weizsacker: "Prana is not necessarily incompatible with physics. Prana is spatially extended and vitalising. Hence, above all it is a moving potency quantum theory designating something not entirely remote from this..."

Psychoanalytic theories

The notion that sexual energy can be transformed and that it is overtly or covertly, consciously or unconsciously, directly or indirectly the most important motivating force in humans is very close to Freud. Sigmund Freud used the word "sublimation" to describe the transformation of sexual impulses and their indirect expression in art or creative work. His renegade disciple C. G. Jung, was very interested in eastern systems like Yoga. According to him, kundalini is synonymous with 'anima', female aspect of human psyche (Jung, 1975).

It is interesting that it was a Jungian therapist who discovered Mr Gopi Krishna for the West and wrote a commentary to his book (Krishna, 1971). Gopi Krishna's idea that kundalini is an evolutionary energy in man seems to me closer to the world of Jungian archetypes than to Darwin.

Psychoanalysis is greatly dependent on introspection which is its most important research tool for understanding the human mind. It is its strength and weakness at the same time. For some people, subjective and differing psychoanalytic theories are not either understandable or acceptable. Others may argue that to explain the mysterious kundalini by the not less mysterious 'anima' is not enough.

Biomedical model by Bentov

It emphasises the resonance of the vibrations by the heart-aorta system. The vibrations within an individual may be harmonised, and even attuned with vibrations of the Earth and other planets. Bentov described a typical sequence of symptoms when kundalini is awakened, and its journey from the left foot to the spine, the head, and down to the front of the body. The symptoms appear only when this journey is not 'stress-tree' (Bentov, 1977).

The best known author adopting Bentov's theory is probably Dr Lee Saunella (1979). She tried to help people with what she considered awakened kundalini to overcome possible difficulties. Any acceptable explanation giving one's painful experience positive meaning or framework can he helpful. That is why some professionals may not be convinced that the improvement after Lee Saunella's treatment is the proof that the symptoms were caused only by kundalini awakening.

Silent brain awakening theories

According to Cn. Hills, kundalini awakening does not take place in the spinal passage but in the brain; it is only projected to the different parts of the body. Even it this theory may go too far, many experts would agree that the awakening of kundalini activates the silent or unused areas of the brain and in this way increases one's mental and spiritual abilities (e.g. Teachings of Swami Satyananda Saraswati, 1981).

Synthesis of different theories

The above mentioned theories are not mutually exclusive; it is quite common that some experts use Or combine the elements of different theories. The complex phenomenon of kundalini may have many levels reflected, more or less, by different approaches. The following part of this paper summarises some practices associated with kundalini, Perhaps this will help you to select your favourite theory of what kundalini is.


If we consider the need 'to purify' the body and to prepare oneself for safe kundalini awakening, most, if not all, yogic practices can be related to kundalini in One way or another.

Preparatory practices

  1. Selfless service to people in need, the Guru, mankind, etc. This may be understood in different ways. A traditional explanation may include the concept of karma, sometimes described as past conditioning. Karma, which would otherwise interfere in the awakening, is burnt out in this way. The more psychological explanation emphasises the reliable anchoring in external reality before going deep inside. In this way self control and self discipline are developed. This is well reflected in Paramahamsa Satyananda's idea that a good balanced sadhana (practice) comprises thirty minutes of meditation to every eight hours of hard work.
  2. The chakras are 'purified' and prepared by particular asanas, surya namaskara with concentration on the chakras, bandhas and some other practices (Satyananda, 1984, 1973).
  3. Nadi shodhana balances and purifies the nadis (channels of energy).
  4. Yama, niyama, detachment, or the witness attitude are often mentioned as important preparatory techniques.
  5. Sushumna (or the central channel of energy) is purified by the shatkarmas, the so-called cleansing practices (Satyananda, 1984).
  6. Easily digestible, well cooked and light vegetarian diet is recommended (Satyananda, 1985).
  7. Most authorities agree that a competent teacher or Guru with personal experience is crucially important to make the process predictable and safe.

Practices for awakening

According to Satyananda (1984) there is awakening by birth, mantra, tapasya, soma (herb), Raja Yoga, pranayama, Kriya Yoga (the elaborate system combining mental practices like visualisation, pranayama and bandhas), tantric initiation, shaktipat and sell surrender. The same author mentions elsewhere kirtan, music, selfless service, karma yuga and rituals.

Before his kundalini awakening, Gopi Krishna practised concentration for many years (Krishna, 1971).

Classical texts like Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Shiva Samhita and Gheranda Samhita mention especially pranayamas, bandhas, mudras, and Guru's grace.

Modern New Age sources rely particularly on imagination and visualisation (Paulson, 1992, Allen, 1962).

The Tibetan technique Tumo or Tum-mo produces heat and helps the yogi to survive in the cold Himalayan climate, but essentially it may be a kundalini practice with the main objective being the state of bliss. Here a combination of Mantra Yoga, pranayama, and visualisation is utilised. According to Benson (1985) "This wind (prana or energy) is then directed into an alleged main channel through the central part of the body, where the swirling winds ignite an internal heat. The heat proceeds to melt a generative fluid that is supposed to be located in the head. Finally, as the generative substance is drawn down and then up through the central channel, the meditator produces succeedingly greater states of bliss." A more elaborate description is available by David-Neel (1971). The 'seat' of kundalini is not at the base of the spine but in the middle of the abdomen according to Tibetan tradition.

How to handle possible complications

Swami Satyananda recommends harmony and tranquility to eliminate disturbing factors. A tolerant, safe and understanding environment at a Yoga ashram or centre is important because elsewhere people may not comprehend the altered state in a correct way. He warns against drugs and chemicals.

Lee Saunella advises an appropriate expiration and positive reframing, a heavier diet, suspension of meditation and vigorous physical activity in the case of too rapid kundalini awakening.

Grof and Grof (1989) dealing with 'spiritual emergencies' (i.e. not only kundalini awakening) besides the already mentioned items, suggest a competent spiritual teacher with personal experience. The process can be speeded up by techniques enabling full expression of emotions like dreams, screaming, body movement, working with dreams, dancing, painting, diary, music, breathing, and by so-called holotropic breath-work devised by these authors. If the speeding up is not appropriate or possible, the process may be slowed down by the discontinuation of certain practices, heavier diet, simple manual work. Closer supervision and emotional support are desirable.


I started this paper with the quotation from Hatha Yoga Pradipika, and I will finish it in the same way: "The Kundalini Shakti sleeps above the kanda. This Shakti if the means of liberation to the yogi and bondage for the ignorant. One who knows this is the knower of Yoga" (chapter 3, verse 107).

It is clear that medicine and psychology do not know Yoga, even it is able to explain some particular mechanisms of some yogic practices.


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The following theories of kundalini are reviewed: the autonomous nervous system theory, the special energy theory, the psychoanalytic theories, the biomedical model by Bentov, and the awakening of the silent areas of the brain. These theories ate not mutually exclusive, and may reflect different aspects of the complex phenomenon of kundalini. Some practices used for the preparation, the awakening of kundalini, and the management of possible complications are reviewed as well.