Kundalini awakening is probably the most common type of spiritual emergency. The Spiritual Emergence Network Newsletter reported that 24% of their hotline calls concerned kundalini awakening experiences. [1] In the Hindu tradition, kundalini is spiritual energy presumed to reside at the base of the spine. When it is awakened, it rises like a serpent up the spine, and opens the chakra psychic centers situated along the spine from the tailbone to the top of the head.

As each chakra opens, new levels of consciousness are revealed. Since the consciousness of most people is fairly restricted, the opening of the chakras is accompanied by consciousness expansion and purification of the limitations or impurities that correspond to each chakra.
(Brant Cortright, Ph.D., Psychotherapy and Spirit, p. 161)

It is associated with physical symptoms including:

  • sensations of heat
  • tremors
  • involuntary laughing or crying
  • talking in tongues
  • nausea, diarrhea or constipation
  • rigidity or limpness
  • animal-like movements and sounds

Kundalini arousal most commonly occurs as an unintentional side-effect of yoga, meditation, chi kung or other intensive spiritual, particularly meditative, practices. Some theorists include psychotherapy, giving birth, unrequited love, celibacy, deep sorrow, high fever, and drug intoxication to also be triggers, and some believe kundalini awakening can occur spontaneously without apparent cause.

Bonnie Greenwell, Ph.D., is a transpersonal therapist whose work focuses on kundalini awakening problems. I concur with her view that the term kundalini is most applicable to problems specifically associated with meditative practices. When Dr. Greenwell was queried about a case which included symptoms such as shaking at night, which can occur in kundalini awakening, she responded,

If the person had presented me with a description of an awakening experience, if he did exercises such as meditation, yoga, or a martial art regularly, or if he experienced strong meditative states where he went beyond concentration into stillness or a sense of unity, then I would be more likely to consider it Kundalini. Kundalini Quest

The DSM-IV, in Appendix I, includes "qi-gong psychotic reaction," which is similar to kundalini awakening. (qi-gong or chi Kung is an ancient Chinese moving meditative practice). Meditation and yoga have also been associated with problematic experiences of non ordinary consciousness (see Lee Sannela, The Kundalini Experience: Psychosis or Transcendence?).

Stuart Sovatsky, PhD Director of the Kundalini Clinic, notes,

That some problems arise as a result of the most auspicious of spiritual experiences, long documented in diverse religions, must, in such cases, also be considered.
(Word from the Soul:
Time, East/West Spirituality, and Psychotherapeutic Narrative)

Unlike those suffering from psychosis, individuals experiencing kundalini are,

typically much more objective about their condition, communicate and cooperate well, show interest in sharing their experiences with open-minded people, and seldom act out. (Stanislav and Christina Grof, Spiritual Emergency: When Personal Transformation Becomes a Crisis)

Kundalini awakening can resemble many disorders, medical as well as psychiatric. The symptoms can mimic conversion disorder, epilepsy, lower back problems, multiple sclerosis, heart attack or pelvic inflammatory syndrome. The emotional reaction to the awakening of kundalini can be confused with disorders involving anxiety, depression, aggression, and organic syndromes.

Bonnie Greenwell, Ph.D. did her dissertation study of individuals who had a kundalini awakening. She summarizes the clinical issues that she observed in her book, Energies of Transformation: A Guide to the Kundalini Process

She describes a number of key featrues of kundalini awakening which were difficult for people in her study:

1. Pranic movements or kriyas
Prana is the Hindu word for vital energy. As intense energy moves through the body and clears out physiological blocks, some people experience intense involuntary, jerking movements of the body, including shaking, vibrations, spasm and contraction.

2. Yogic Phenomena
Some people find themselves performing yogic postures or hand mudra gestures which they have never learned or could not do in a normal state of consciousness. Similarly, they may produce Sanskrit words or sounds. Unusual breathing patterns may appear with either very rapid or slow, shallow breathing. Some people may not breathe at all for extended periods.

3. Physiological Symptoms
Kundalini awakening often generates unusual physiological activity which can present as heart, spinal, gastrointestinal, or neurological problems. Internal sensations of burning, hypersensitivity to sensory input, hyperactivity or lethargy, great variations in sexual desire, and even spontaneous orgasm have been reported.

4. Psychological Upheaval
Emotions can swing from feelings of anxiety, guilt, and depression (with bouts of uncontrollable weeping) to compassion, love, and joy.

5. Extrasensory Experiences
Some people experience visions of lights, symbols, spiritual entities. Auditory sensations may include hearing voices, music, inner sounds or mantras. There may also be disruption of the proprioceptive system, with loss of a sense of self as a body, or an out of the body experience.

6. Psychic Phenomena
A person may experience precognition, telepathy, psychokinesis, awareness of auras and healing abilities.

7. Mystical States of Consciousness
A person may shift into altered states of consciousness where they directly perceive the unity underlying the world of separation and experience a deep peace and serenity. (see Karin Hannigan, Ph.D. for additional description of these)

The sudden onset of these experiences led many in Greenwell's study to become confused and disoriented.

In some cases, the psychological upheaval is so acute that it resembles a psychotic episode. But as with other spiritual emergencies, medication can further complicate the process (see medication). Dr. Greenwell suggests that it would be therapeutic for the individual to study some of the Eastern theories and descriptions of kundalini. Her other recommendations follow the basic treatment guidelines for all spiritual emergencies (see Lesson 5),

Look for ways to discharge this energy by running, exercising, gardening, or working with something solid like wood or clay. I would suggest doing a regular meditation practice, and letting the process develop and teach him. . .The best support is a balanced lifestyle and a commitment to live one's life in alignment with the vision it brings — that is, if you have a heart-opening or a visionary experience, instead of being attached to holding onto it, ask yourself what you can bring into the world as service to it. . .Think of it as if the amps have been raised in your electrical system. This is why balance, taking care of ourselves, being in nature, and regular physical exercise all help. We may have to change old patterns to meet the invitation to a new kind of energy flow and engagement with spirit in our lives. (Nighttime Shakes)

She also suggests creative activities such as art, music, or writing for expressing it.

If the kundalini is associated with a specific spiritual practice, such as yoga, then consultation with a teacher who also has mental health training would be advisable. Learning some basic yogic breathing practices, under the supervision of a knowledgeable yoga teacher, can help guide this energy. Kundalini awakening offers a profound opportunity for expansion of creativity and intelligence, emotional depth, and a call to service in the world.

Kundalini Awakens — A Personal Account
by Ruth Trimble

The WWW Library of Religion and Spirituality contains articles and interviews on kundalini awakening and links to resources such as the Kundalini Clinic.

1 Lukoff, D. The SEN Hotline: Results from a telephone survey. SEN Newsletter, March 1988.

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