If you Google Kundalini Yoga, chances are one of the first things you will see is the question “is Kundalini Yoga dangerous”? The page that gets the most hits on my website addresses the dark side of Yogi Bhajan’s Kundalini, and the reasons why we don’t teach his style or have anything to do with his organisations.
So, where does this idea come from and is there any truth to it?
Yoga literature is littered with descriptions of Kundalini energy rising spectacularly and spontaneously, causing extreme physical symptoms and visions. For example, in his book, Building A Noble World, Shiv R. Jhawar describes his Kundalini experience at Swami Muktananda’s public program at Lake Point Tower in Chicago on 16 September 1974 as follows:
“…I mentally repeated the mantra, I noticed that my breathing was getting heavier. Suddenly, I felt a great impact of a rising force within me. The intensity of this rising kundalini force was so tremendous that my body lifted up a little and fell flat into the aisle; my eyeglasses flew off. As I lay there with my eyes closed, I could see a continuous fountain of dazzling white lights erupting within me. In brilliance, these lights were brighter than the sun but possessed no heat at all. I was experiencing the thought-free state of “I am,” realizing that “I” have always been, and will continue to be, eternal. I was fully conscious and completely aware while I was experiencing the pure “I am,” a state of supreme bliss. Outwardly, at that precise moment, Baba delightfully shouted from his platform, ‘I didn’t do anything. The Energy has caught someone.’ Baba noticed that the dramatic awakening of kundalini in me frightened some people in the audience. Therefore, he said, ‘Do not be frightened. Sometimes kundalini gets awakened in this way, depending upon a person’s type”.”
Carl Jung famously wrote of Kundalini in the introduction to The Tibetan Book of the Dead:
“One often hears and reads about the dangers of Yoga, particularly of the ill-reputed Kundalini Yoga. The deliberately induced psychotic state, which in certain unstable individuals might easily lead to a real psychosis, is a danger that needs to be taken very seriously indeed. These things really are dangerous and ought not to be meddled with in our typically Western way.”
In her book “Energies of Transformation”, Bonnie Greenwell states that Kundalini rising can resemble a psychotic break.
We can look at Kundalini energy rising from two overlapping viewpoints – Yogic and scientific – in order to understand the potential pitfalls.
All styles of Yoga aim to raise Kundalini, whether they mention it by name or not, for it is the energy of enlightenment, the drive to know who you really are.
In Hatha Yoga, yogis work diligently towards balancing the left (Ida) and right (Pingala) energy channels in order to open up and energise the central channel (Sushumna) over an extended period of time. Only once the Sushumna is open, can the Kundalini energy dormant at the base of the spine rise. Even then, the Chakras (energy points) that lie along the Sushumna need to be balanced and cleansed for Kundalini to rise up to the crown of the head to achieve insight.
This is not expected to be instantaneous – rather a yogi is expected to work at it daily, not just through posture, meditation and breath, but also through purification, moral codes, and a gradual unraveling of unconscious patterns and habits. A yogi gets into difficulty if he or she has not adequately prepared, and the Kundalini is forced up through the left (Ida) or right (Pingala) channels, rather than through the Sushumna.
Kundalini Yoga itself was traditionally taught by a guru who would decide when and if a yogi was ready to experience the rise of Kundalini energy. That rising would then be initiated and supervised by the guru.
Even Yogi Bhajan’s recent Kundalini Yoga was not designed to force Kundalini to rise. Instead practitioners are expected to follow a daily practice, and strengthen their nervous system.
Non-guru Kundalini yoga uses techniques to stimulate Kundalini energy, but always in tandem with psycho-spiritual work of cleansing the unconscious, and strengthening the Pranic channels (nervous system).
From all accounts, the dangers posed by Kundalini rising come from climbing too far too soon. I have met two people who claim to have been damaged by Kundalini energy. The first claimed his Kundalini was activated for fun by an enlightened girlfriend, during a drug fueled evening. The second had a history of trauma and mental health problems, and was initiated by a non yogic group uses practices designed just to raise Kundalini, not to first purify and stabilise.
Primarily in traditional yoga, we are working with the autonomic nervous system (ANS). Balancing the Sympathetic, fight or flight, with the Parasympathetic, rest and digest. More specifically, we work along the lines of Porges’ Polyvagal Theory. This divides the Parasympathetic part into the old Dorsal Vagal system that includes the freeze response, lethargy, and dissociation, and the newer Ventral Vagal system which includes social engagement, bliss, and empathy.
The Yogic descriptions of the major nadis align with Polyvagal Theory. Ida being Dorsal Vagal, Pingala the sympathetic system, and the Sushumna with the Ventral Vagal. For someone to live predominantly with the Ventral Vagal system they would require balance within the ANS, awareness of the system going out of balance, and skills to find balance. Equally they would need to understand their triggers, habits and patterns, and deal with them, healing trauma, as well as discharging pent up energy from the system. They would also need to eat, and live in order to minimise fluctuations. In other words, they would need to follow a diligent yogic lifestyle.
Kundalini energy is said to reside in the root chakra which, among other things, is concerned with our survival and unconscious. In the case of a traumatic incident, it is our very survival instincts that receive a massive burst of energy. We run, we fight, or we freeze – in other words, we activate the sympathetic nervous system and / or the dorsal vagal. Ida or pingala. If we attempt to raise Kundalini energy before we are ready, then we risk dis-regulating our ANS further. Rather than igniting the bliss of the Ventral Vagal, we activate fear, anger, our demons and tendencies to self-medicate.
Similarly, if we have not worked through our unconscious, releasing Kundalini is not a good idea. By definition, the unconscious is below the level of our awareness – these includes aspects of our self hidden in our shadow, ego, habitual ways of behaving, triggers, unresolved trauma. Kundalini Yoga is very often called the Yoga of Awareness – if you want to know who you really are, then you need to do the work. And that means becoming aware of your unconscious, and working through it. Sending a bolt of powerful energy through the unconscious before we are aware of its contents is insane.
As a TRE practitioner, I am used to working with the autonomic nervous system. In TRE we activate the natural tremoring system of the body to discharge repressed energy in the ANS, thus restoring balance and regulation to the system. Very often, what I see when I work with clients resembles the descriptions of a physical (kriya) Kundalini rising. Limbs moving of their own accord. The body contorting into yogic like positions. It can be an overwhelming experience for people as effectively their body takes over, directed by the primitive energy of the ANS, healing itself. It takes skill to allow the body to do this whilst still retaining overall mental executive function or control. Some people freak out, and it overwhelms them. Others dissociate from the intensity of feelings aroused. This is the power of the the nervous system, the first chakra, Kundalini energy. This is also where the danger lies – trying to force it unsupervised or before we are ready.
Full Kundalini awakenings are extremely rare, despite what people tell you. Partial awakenings, or movement of Kundalini is more common and may be felt as a sudden insight, or feelings of overwhelming love for humanity, or even finding the persistence to continue with a difficult situation. For a genuine Kundalini yogi, this should be enough. There should be no rush to force it. Rather there should be enjoyment in unraveling the strands of what has come to make us what we are, in balancing our nervous system, body, breath, and lifestyle. Committed practice to awakening the Sushumna or stabilising the ANS in the Ventral Vagal part. Steady progress towards awareness that may or may not be supported by an eventual Kundalini awakening. Listening to and working with Kundalini energy that speaks gently to you, in dreams, coincidences, inner prompts, directing you onwards when you’re ready.
Focusing your Yoga practice around Kundalini energy can give it a whole new dimension. In addition to healing the body, we also heal our self. For those seeking to understand themselves, life, and the Universe, Kundalini Yoga is a powerful, safe path to follow. But you must be prepared to be patient, to do the work, and to focus on the journey more than the destination.
For more information about Kundalini Yoga, we offer a comprehensive 220 hour Teacher Training as well as weekly online sessions. For more information about Kundalini Yoga, check out this article, Learn why we do not teach or associate with Yogi Bhajan’s Kundalini Yoga here.