Kundalini and transpersonal development: Development of

a Kundalini Awakening Scale and a comparison between

groups

Laura Sanches & Michael Daniels

Development of a pilot psychometric instrument, the ‘Kundalini Awakening

Scale’ (KAS) is described. The KAS was administered to groups of 24 Yoga teachers,

37 Yoga students, 22 people following other spiritual traditions, and 28 people from a

general population. Results indicated that kundalini experience was highest in the

group of people from other spiritual traditions. Second highest were the Yoga

teachers, followed by Yoga students and, finally, the general population. There was

also evidence that kundalini experience increases with years of Yoga practice (not

age), and with a regular regime of meditation. The group following other spiritual

traditions showed greater evidence of more disruptive and negative kundalini

experiences. It is suggested that this may result from their following a relatively

unstructured path of development, in contrast with the Yoga groups which follow a

safer, structured approach to kundalini arousal.

‘This mechanism, known as Kundalini is the real cause of all genuine spiritual

and psychic phenomena, the biological bases of evolution and development of

personality, the secret origin of all esoteric and occult doctrines, the master key

to the unsolved mystery of creation, the inexhaustible source of philosophy, art,

and science, and the fountainhead of all religious faiths, past, present and

future.’ (Krishna, 1993, p.257)

Introduction

In Yoga and Tantra traditions, kundalini is an energy that is said to lie dormant

in the base of the spine. It is believed that this energy is, for most people, in a non-

active or a semi-active state and that its full awakening leads to a totally different state

of consciousness – a state where the subject is said to be free from all causality, from

Transpersonal Psychology Review, Vol. 12, No. 1, 73-83. (April 2008) [Preprint Version]

the dualities of joy and suffering. This state is called samadhi and the yoguin who

attains it is freed from the karmic cycle of rebirth and death.

These notions of samadhi and of kundalini are intimately related with the chakra

system. Chakras are considered energetic centres and the seven main ones are

supposedly located along the vertebral column. It is believed that kundalini lies

dormant in the first chakra, at the base of the spine, and once it is aroused it should go

through all of these main chakras until it reaches the sahasrara at the top of the head.

When the yoguin is able to make the kundalini permanently reside in this last chakra,

then samadhi is obtained. Iyengar, a well known Yoga master describes the state of

samadhi as ‘seeing the soul face to face, an absolute, indivisible state of existence, in

which all differences between body, mind and soul are dissolved’ (Iyengar, 2002, p.

4). Wilber (e.g., 1995) calls it the non-dual and Aurobindo (e.g., Dalal, 2001) refers to

it as the supermind.

References to kundalini in the literature can be traced back to the Upanishads,

the commentaries on the Vedas (the sacred scriptures of the Hindus), written more

than 2000 years ago. It is believed in Yoga philosophy that if kundalini is not safely

released, in the body and mind of a person who has prepared for this awakening, then

many dangers can arise. These dangers include mental, emotional and physical

perturbations that can actually be so intense as to inflict death on the person who goes

through them. Gopi Krishna suffered one such spontaneous awakening of kundalini

as a consequence of his regular meditative practice. He described his experiences as if

energy of a much higher voltage than the body was used to deal with had been

released, causing all sorts of disruptive alterations in his mental and physical health

(Krishna, 1993). Evelyn Underhill, who elaborated a study on Catholic mysticism,

seems to share this view when she speaks about the ‘immense strain which exalted

spirit puts upon a body which is adapted to a very different form of life’ (Underhill,

1911/1995, p. 59).

In the human body, according to Yoga, there are several nadí. These are energy

conductors (the equivalent of what acupuncture calls meridians) which form part of

the chakra system. Along the vertebral column there are 3 main nadí: ida and pingala

Transpersonal Psychology Review, Vol. 12, No. 1, 73-83. (April 2008) [Preprint Version]

on the sides and sushumna in the middle, following the line of the spinal cord. In

order for kundalini to be successfully aroused it would be expected to go through

sushumna. But, according to Krishna (1993), it sometimes rises to the sahasrara

chakra through one of the other two nadí. According to his explanation this is what

accounts for some of the differences in the symptoms described by different

individuals: an awakening through pingala (the solar nadí) would cause the person to

feel a burning heat, for example, while an awakening through ida (the lunar nadí)

would, on the contrary, produce a feeling of unbearable cold.

Krishna also argues that any deformity that might exist in the body or mind of

the person who goes through the awakening will most probably be magnified, due to

the process that is started by the kundalini, which performs a sort of purification or

atonement in the body of the individual, preparing him or her to live a totally different

way of life.

Gopi Krishna experienced a spontaneous burst of kundalini as a consequence of

his meditative practices. Wilber (1995, p.255) suggests that ‘meditation (or

transpersonal development in general) is a simple and natural continuation of the

evolutionary process, where every going within is also a going beyond to a wider

embrace’. If we take meditation, as he says, to be a continuation of evolution, and if

meditation might cause a kundalini arousal, then it is reasonable to suggest that

kundalini might be an important part of that evolution.

This study is based on the assumptions that kundalini might be a common

underlying factor of mystical experiences, that it is possible to identify a certain

number of typical symptoms of a kundalini awakening and that the differences

between mystical experiences among various traditions are caused not only by the

different interpretations of the same phenomenon, but also by different ways of

arousing the kundalini in combination with different physical and psychological

characteristics of each individual.

Rawlinson (1997, 2000) draws a useful distinction between different types of

religious or spiritual traditions. He talks about hot and cool traditions and structured

and unstructured ones. The hot traditions believe in the importance of a relationship

Transpersonal Psychology Review, Vol. 12, No. 1, 73-83. (April 2008) [Preprint Version]

to a transcendent Other (e.g., God or Gods), the cool ones attribute salvation only to

an inner process of individual growth. The structured traditions propose that a specific

path or method should be followed in order to obtain salvation or liberation while the

unstructured ones believe that there is no particular path or way to God or to

liberation. The hot-cool and structured-unstructured distinctions combine together so

that we can usefully talk of hot-structured, cool-structured, hot-unstructured and cool-

unstructured traditions. Examples of these may be found in both Eastern and Western

cultures although, as Rawlinson recognizes, most traditions don’t fit totally into a

single category.

Based on this model it can be suggested that people who belong to any type of

hot tradition will most probably interpret a kundalini awakening as a divine (or

possibly demonic) intervention of some sort (Gopi Krishna himself said that some of

his experiences seemed undoubtedly to have come from some divine source). On the

other hand, people who come from a cool tradition will most probably attribute

kundalini awakening to some internal source.

If we assume that kundalini may be a source of mystical experiences, then

structured traditions might have been developed with the aim of safely stimulating

and releasing kundalini. That certainly is the case of Yoga, where all the physical,

respiratory, mental, and energetic techniques that are used clearly aim to perform the

function of creating a healthy body and mind, capable of controlling and safely

releasing kundalini. The unstructured traditions, on the other hand, might have

resulted from the experiences of people who went through spontaneous and

uncontrolled kundalini awakenings. These may be said to happen naturally either

because it seen as God’s will (for the hot-unstructured) or simply because it is part of

our innermost nature (for the cool-unstructured).

There are two main theoretical approaches to transpersonal development. One

sees transpersonal development as a spiralled path (e.g., Washburn, 1990, 1995.). The

other argues that it follows a linear ascending process (e.g. Wilber, 1996). For

Washburn (1990), who based his studies mainly on the Judaic-Christian traditions of

the West, transpersonal development involves some regressive phenomena and can be

Transpersonal Psychology Review, Vol. 12, No. 1, 73-83. (April 2008) [Preprint Version]

seen as a return of the ego to the unconscious dynamic ground, which has always been

present but became repressed during ego development. For Wilber, who based his

model mostly on Eastern philosophies, transpersonal development need not involve

any type of regression, since what occurs is an ascent into a fundamentally higher

state of consciousness.

In the light of Rawlinson’s distinctions between structured and unstructured

traditions, we can say that the differences between these two models might be due to

their describing two different forms of kundalini awakening. Washburn seems to have

based his studies on the spiritual development of people who belonged mostly to

unstructured traditions (Catholic mysticism for example) while Wilber seems to have

based his studies on much more structured meditative paths (such as Buddhist

meditation).

Daniels (2005) recognizes the differences between these models by arguing that

‘Washburn’s theory is consistent with much of the clinical data and undoubtedly

represents many people’s experience of transpersonal development especially,

perhaps, those who do not follow a structured path of meditation (for whom Wilber’s

theory may have greater appeal)’ (ibid. p.209). These clinical data may well reflect

the experiences of people who have been through spontaneous kundalini awakenings,

since those that have deliberately sought such experiences using a structured path of

spiritual practice may be less likely to search for clinical help but rather attempt to

deal with whatever problems they might face within the context of their own spiritual

tradition.

Kundalini and Mystical Experience

Kundalini is generally understood as an energy that influences both our bodies

and minds. As such, there are a number of physical and psychological characteristics

that may be expected to identify kundalini arousal. The characteristics that were

chosen for this study are the ones that have most frequently been described in the

scientific and mystical literature as being related to kundalini phenomena. A person

who experiences a kundalini arousal will not necessarily exhibit all the mentioned

symptoms, but at least a few of them are expected to be present.

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Some of the classic symptoms of a kundalini awakening include: sensations of

some form of energy (almost like an electric current) circulating along the spine or the

arms and hands or, sometimes, stored in the genital region; seeing lights in the

exterior environment; seeing lights surrounding the body or inside it; perturbations in

the digestive and the excretory systems; feelings of an incapacity to control the mind

or the body; feelings of unbearable heat or cold in certain parts of the body.

According to Krishna (1993) kundalini arousal might also be responsible for all sorts

of paranormal phenomena, such as hearing voices or sounds, having visions,

telepathic experiences and prophetic dreams. If kundalini is an important factor in

transpersonal development, then kundalini may also be responsible for feelings of an

expanded, higher or deeper state of consciousness.

In Underhill’s (1911/1995) study of Catholic mysticism there are descriptions of

experiences that are very similar to Gopi Krishna’s descriptions of his kundalini

awakening. In the writings of St. John of the Cross on the Dark Night of the Soul

(2003), there are also some similarities between the type of sufferings he mentions

and the ones described by Krishna. In St. Teresa of Ávila’s book Interior Castle

(1989), the soul is compared with a castle with seven mansions which bear some

resemblance to the chakra system. For example, she mentions that once the soul

reaches the fourth mansion ‘the important thing is not to think much, but to love

much’ (1989, p. 76). In the chakra system it is also at the fourth chakra (the anahata

chakra) that feelings of love and devotion towards the divine (bhakti) are said to

reside.

Thomas, Brewer, Kraus and Rosen (1993) studied transpersonally developed

people both in India and England. Their findings suggest that there are no real

differences between Eastern and Western people who go through transpersonal

development: both groups have the same probability of experiencing crisis in their

development, and both are just as capable of attaining the higher stages of

development. The differences don’t seem to be in the culture (East vs. West) but in

the type of path that each individual chooses to take within that culture. Unfortunately

their study doesn’t mention the type of path that each of the individuals had chosen,

although it is mentioned that one of the English participants who reported having a

Transpersonal Psychology Review, Vol. 12, No. 1, 73-83. (April 2008) [Preprint Version]

spiritual crisis was an Anglican clergyman and one of the Indian participants who

didn’t report having any spiritual crisis was living in an Aurobindo ashram. This

possibly supports the view that the structured traditions (e.g., Aurobindo) may not

emphasise regressive phenomenon in their path of spiritual development.

Gopi Krishna’s case also corroborates this view: he was an Easterner, following

an unstructured path, and he experienced a spiritual development similar to those

described typically by the Catholic mystics in the West following a similarly

unstructured type of path.

Lee Sannella (1992), a medical doctor, describes a study on kundalini based on

the physio-kundalini model of Itzhak Bentov, a biomedical engineer who studied a

number of symptoms and developed a neurological explanation for them. There are,

however, some differences between these symptoms and the classical descriptions of

a kundalini awakening. In Bentov’s and Sannella’s studies, symptoms of having some

form of energy circulating through the legs and feet were frequently mentioned and

came to be considered as part of the kundalini awakening. Yet they recognise that, in

the classical literature about kundalini, these feelings are usually described as

occurring only in the upper part of the body – the arms and hands and, mainly, along

the spine. Sannella tries to account for these differences by saying that this physio-

kundalini syndrome might only be a part of the more complex phenomenon of a

kundalini awakening.

Both Sannella (1992) and Murphy (1992) give descriptions of cross-cultural

episodes that could be interpreted as kundalini awakenings – for example an African

tribe who performs a dance that is said to produce similar effects to a kundalini

awakening. Sannella (1992) also talks about some of the experiences of Catholic

mystics and says that kundalini could have been a possible cause for them. Sannella

recognises that ‘there is indeed a remarkable uniformity in the descriptions of the

transformative process from widely disparate traditions’ (ibid. p. 9) and gives as an

example of this the presence of light, which tends to appear across all traditions as

associated with mystical experience.

Transpersonal Psychology Review, Vol. 12, No. 1, 73-83. (April 2008) [Preprint Version]

Bentov also believes in the possibility that the human species might be evolving

to higher stages of consciousness and, echoing Krishna’s statements, he suggests that

the ‘kundalini effect is a part of the development of the nervous system’ (Bentov, in

Sanella, 1992, p. 129). This means, as Krishna (1993) says, that a full development of

the individual has to include these processes, modifying the nervous system to adapt

to a new mode of functioning.

There have also been some case studies (Ossof, 1993; Scotton, 1996; Waldman,

Lannert, Boorstein, Scotton, Saltzman, & Jue, 1992) which describe kundalini

awakenings, mostly in people who have followed a relatively unstructured path of

meditation or other spiritual technique. Most of these people had severe symptoms

causing them stress and a limiting of their normal lives, which has made them search

for therapeutic help and, in some cases, may even be initially mistaken for someone

having a psychotic episode.

Thalbourne and Fox (1999) correlated panic attacks and kundalini, using their

own scale to measure the level of kundalini arousal. They found a ‘strong association

between the kundalini experience and the occurrence of panic attacks’ (ibid. p. 112).

They also report that people experiencing heart attacks and people having kundalini

experiences often share the same fears, like the fear of losing control or of going

insane. Further, they found a positive correlation between transliminality (a variable

indicating permeability of psychological boundaries, which has previously been

associated with schizophrenia and manic-depression) and kundalini, but they say that

it is not known if kundalini underlies transliminality or if transliminality triggers

kundalini. They also compared their kundalini scale with other measures of

psychopathology, namely the Manic-Depressiveness Scale and the Magical Ideation

Scale and found that scores on the kundalini scale were positively correlated with

these measures.

One of the reasons for these findings could be the emphasis that the Thalbourne

and Fox scale places on physical symptoms which, although only a part of the

kundalini experience, can be the most distressing, especially for people who don’t

possess a coherent frame of explanation for them. Their scale presents some questions

Transpersonal Psychology Review, Vol. 12, No. 1, 73-83. (April 2008) [Preprint Version]

on what would probably be disturbing experiences (like hearing voices, or seeing

auras) without any consideration as to whether these were felt to be positive or

negative. Also their scale doesn’t specifically have any item relating to positive

changes or to the more subtle changes of consciousness which are also said to be part

of the kundalini experience.

There is evidence that spontaneous kundalini experiences do not always lead to

pathological consequences. Greyson (1993) compared a group of psychiatric patients

with a group of people who had near-death experiences (considered in a previous

study to present high levels of kundalini arousal) using a 19-item questionnaire based

on Bentov’s model. The psychiatric patients, in general, reported lower kundalini-type

experiences than the NDE group, and the psychotic patients in particular had the

lowest scores. Greyson suggests that ‘these data also bolster the claim that kundalini

is a non-pathological force that produces a unique pattern of physiological and

psychological effects’ (ibid. p. 54). He also concludes that ‘certain specific physio-

kundalini symptoms can be identified as being particularly helpful in differentiating

kundalini awakening from mental illness’ (ibid. p. 56).

In another study, Greyson (2000) tried to find some neuropsychological

correlates of the physio-kundalini syndrome. He used his 19-item questionnaire with a

sample of 321 participants recruited among the members of the International

Association for Near-Death Studies. He found the people reporting high levels of

kundalini arousal also showed a tendency to have high scores on certain

neuropsychological variables: measures of fantasy proneness, dissociation, absorption

and temporal limbic connection. He concludes that ‘it appears that kundalini arousal is

accompanied by a distinctive neuropsychological profile’ (ibid. p. 132).

One possible criticism of these two studies is that they both used a sample of

NDErs who perhaps present a different profile from a population of non-NDErs with a

kundalini awakening. Therefore Greyson’s results might not be due to the kundalini

awakening as such, but more to the NDE itself.

Due to the possible limitations in the kundalini scales developed by Thalbourne

and Fox, and by Greyson, this study reports on the pilot development of a new scale

Transpersonal Psychology Review, Vol. 12, No. 1, 73-83. (April 2008) [Preprint Version]

of kundalini experience (the Kundalini Awakening Scale). In particular, this scale

aims to incorporate both negative and positive aspects of the kundalini experience and

to include not only physical symptoms but also those of a more transpersonal nature.

This scale is then used to compare groups that may be expected to differ or be similar

in their degree of kundalini experience.

The following main hypotheses were examined:

1. A group of Yoga teachers will score higher on kundalini experience than a

group of Yoga students.

2. A group of Yoga practitioners will have similar levels of kundalini experience

to a group of practitioners from other transpersonal traditions. This hypothesis

was formed to test the assumption that all transpersonal development may

involve kundalini awakening, whether or not spiritual practice involves any

explicit attempt to arouse kundalini.

3. Both a Yoga group and a group from other traditions will score higher on

kundalini experience than a group of people who don’t meditate and who

don’t take part in any form of transpersonal activity or practice.

4. Those following a highly structured spiritual path (Yoga practitioners) will show less negative manifestations of kundalini experience than those following a more unstructured spiritual path.

This study can be divided in two parts: the first where the Kundalini Awakening

Scale was developed and the second where the differences between these various

groups were tested.

Development of the Kundalini Awakening Scale (KAS)

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