Emily Lauderback Stewart
In 2008, I experienced an unsupported kundalini awakening, which is when life shifted dramatically. At the time, I had never heard of kundalini energy, nor was I on any kind of conscious or intentional spiritual path. When the incident occurred, I was terrified. Terrified of many things that I could not explain. From that point forward, what I knew of life had been altered inexplicably. I had a deep knowing that it was a result of that mysterious event that occurred under the Aquarius Full Moon. Being in my body was now somewhat overwhelming. I was aware of sensations throughout my physical being that I was not familiar with feeling, nor had any frame of reference for what I was experiencing. Certainly much of the terror was rooted in the question, “Had I gone crazy?!”
I learned that a kundalini awakening is what I experienced nearly a year later in describing the event to a friend. He reacted to my story by nonchalantly stating, “Oh. You had a kundalini awakening. That’s all that was.” Once I had the language, I was able to research and learn about this dramatic and mysterious event that had clearly altered me and my life.
Within a few months, while walking through Barnes & Noble one afternoon, a book nearly leapt off the shelf at me: Kundalini Rising: Exploring the Energy of Awakening. This text provided for my very limited Western mind and experience an in-depth explanation as to what kundalini energy is, and its inherent power and impact. Reading the Introduction while in the store provided a context for my own experience and significant comfort. I was not alone.
Kundalini Rising Introduction by Tami Simon ©2009 Sounds True
In 1984, I needed the book Kundalini Rising, and it didn’t exist. I was twenty-two years old, and I had just returned home from participating in a series of intensive meditation retreats in Sri Lanka, India, and Nepal. I was in a very strange condition (at least I thought it was strange). I had developed a case of the “shakes,” which meant that my body would twitch and contort of its own accord. The shakes would get worse whenever I meditated, to the point where I would find myself shaking and then twisting into weird positions during sitting practice. I consulted with various teachers, and I was told that what I was experiencing was the natural releasing of blocked energy in the body. I should simply relax and let the process unfold. A couple of meditation teachers mentioned that what I was experiencing was sometimes associated with “kundalini” beginning to awaken in the body, and again, I should just relax.
Relax? I wanted to know everything there was to know about kundalini. Was it a good or bad sign that I was shaking and contorting? Why did some people say that the awaking of kundalini could be dangerous? Why was kundalini so often compared to snake coiled at the base of the spine? Was the “rise” of kundalini just a metaphor, and if so, a metaphor for what transformative process?
What I discovered at the time was that there were few comprehensive resources available on the topic of kundalini. Mostly what I found were yogic texts that had been translated from Sanskrit and felt to me ancient and distant, their meaning hard to decipher. I also found some individual accounts of kundalini awakenings that were quite fascinating to read but didn’t help me contextualize or map the process in a way that enabled me to understand my own experience. What I wanted was a contemporary resource guide, a book on kundalini that could help me understand the experience in Western language and from many different vantage points.
Here is the book I wish I’d had twenty-five years ago. Gathered into one volume, Kundalini Rising comprises twenty-four essays on different aspects of the kundalini experience, including what transpersonal psychologists have to say about kundalini; understanding the yogic brain from a scientific perspective; the relationship between near-death experiences and kundalini awakening; understanding the relationship between kundalini energy and sexual energy; yogic exercises to catalyze the kundalini process; the role that kundalini awakening plays in the unfolding of our highest human potential; and more.
It is now time for our understanding of kundalini to be broad and multi-disciplined, for our discussions about kundalini to come out of the realm of esoterica and to enter ordinary discourse. The primary reason for this is that more and more of us are experiencing spiritual awakenings of all kinds, identity-shattering experiences that leave us open to the mystery of being beyond name, shape, or form. These intense experiences “re-wire” us; they bring with them changes not just in our mental self-structure (our mental sense of who we are) but in our energetic self-structure (our felt sense of who we are). When we experience intense spiritual openings, movements and changes occur in our subtle body; at the energetic level of our being, kundalini begins to stir, and rise.
It is my belief that kundalini is on the rise, literally—that more and more people are having experiences of spiritual awakening. I base this belief on reports that I hear from contemporary spiritual teachers along with the increased public acceptance and growing popularity of practices such as meditation, energy healing, and kundalini yoga—all practices that are designed to dissolve our solid sense of self and open us to the transformative power of awareness. Such spiritual awakenings are inevitably accompanied by openings in the energetic channels of the body. It is as if our physical body, our energetic body, and our sense of boundless being are all synced up, interpenetrating and affecting one another in every way.
While kundalini is most often associated with the snake (the term itself is Sanskrit for “that which is coiled”), in traditional Hindu mythology, kundalini is sometimes referred to as a goddess—a fierce and powerful energy that works according to her own sense of timing and evolutionary needs of the situation. Her movement through the body can be thunderous, destroying whatever energetic attachment is obstructing her free flow.
When this energy began to awaken in me, I felt afraid. (All these years later I sometimes still shake during meditation, but the good news is that I no longer feel worried when this happens.) What I have since learned is that the experience of shaking and involuntary movements (called kriyas in yogic literature) is a perfectly normal part of the awakening process. Kundalini is intense energy moving through the body and clearing out energetic blockages. There was never any reason for me to be panicked or afraid. And yet at the time, I lacked information. My hope is that this collection of essays on kundalini rising will help demystify the kundalini experience for you, providing you with the helpful information and contextual understanding you need to support your own process.
I have one further hope for this collection of essays. It is my experience that reading about kundalini can actually help catalyze the awakening process. It is as if once we understand the energy that lies within us and the pathways though which it can travel in our subtle body, we have an ability to visualize and flow with the process with heightened sensitivity. May Kundalini Rising help activate this natural unfolding of our expanded human potential in you, for the sake of the whole.
Now, nearly 10 years later, I am still working to integrate an awakened kunalini and the profound impact it continues to have on my life. I am grateful to have recently found Lissa Rankin, MD's website and an article posted in September, 2017. Her post confirms for me that this phenomenon is on the rise currently and more resources are needed: especially for those of us in western culture.
Kundalini & Spiritual Emergency: What Doctors, Psychologists, and YOU Need to Know
Ted, Dennis, and I all feel that it’s important to raise awareness about kundalini, spiritual emergence, and spiritual emergency, because very few psychologists or psychiatrists I’ve met have ever heard of such things. In 1994, the DSM-IV listed “Religious or Spiritual Problem” as a diagnosis and “Qigong Psychotic Reaction” as a particular manifestation of it (the Chinese term for it is Zou huo ru mo—read about it on Wikipedia). This particular diagnosis was apparently included in the DSM-IV because it was noted that people practicing Qigong sometimes had an unusual reaction that sounds, by its definition, very similar to some sort of “kundalini process” where something goes wrong. The DSM-5 has expanded upon this in a section called “Culture-Related Diagnostic Issues.” We think it’s imperative to bring more awareness of these issues to Western psychiatrists and psychologists who have not been taught about them.
Ted Esser is a wealth of knowledge about esoteric spirituality and transpersonal psychology, and he has been a wonderful mentor and friend to me as my journey down the rabbit hole of spirituality has gotten more and more mysterious. I asked Ted if I could interview him about kundalini as a way to raise public awareness about something that is happening more and more frequently out in the mainstream, beyond the safe havens of yogi masters and ashrams that are experienced in knowing how to support people through a process like this, since it’s possible that what happened to Dennis could happen to you, your loved one, your patient, or your client. It’s important that we understand the complexity that accompanies the spiritual emergence process so we can recognize, support, and facilitate it, rather than pathologizing it, drugging it, or resisting it. Entire books have been written about kundalini, and Ted wrote a whole PhD dissertation about it, so this will be a very limited overview, but we hope it will at least help educate doctors, mental health providers, and anyone who is experiencing kundalini or a spiritual emergence process personally or with a loved one.
How do we accelerate the spread of awareness of kundalini in the mainstream discourse?
Kundalini needs to be described both in secular, spiritual, and Western religious terms in order to meet people where they are. We need to demystify and normalize kundalini in the West within the fields of transpersonal, integral, humanistic, and other forms of psychology, other sciences, and various additional avenues of secular discourse. A few examples of describing kundalini within Western-inspired frameworks over the years include the work of Stuart Sovatsky (transpersonal psychology), Itzhak Bentov (general science), Gopi Krishna (Western perspective & Hindu) and Philip St. Romain (Christianity) among others.
What is kundalini?
Briefly speaking, kundalini can be thought of as a reservoir of prana (Sanskrit: “life-energy/life-force”) that is located in the area of the perineum. This subtle bioenergy, as Western researchers have called it, is experienced as a spiritual or divine energy during an initial kundalini awakening, but is not necessarily experienced as being spiritual in nature prior to this—in other words, intensified experiences of prana can feel unusual, but quite mundane. The term “kundalini” comes from an evolving Sanskrit terminology—its 5th century BCE roots denote the name of a snake-deity meaning, “bowl or water-pot.” Thereafter, the term’s use evolved into a feminine-gendered deity that had the shape of a circular, serpent-like ring or bracelet, shaped like a coiled rope, and was associated with Goddesses like Durga, for example. Kundalini, as we understand it today, found its expression in Hatha yoga in about the 15th century. There is no single word meaning “kundalini” in the English language.
Kundalini is a very complicated subject. It can be helpful to briefly describe the differences between “kundalini arousal” and “kundalini awakening.” A kundalini arousal (known in Sanskrit as pranotthana—heightened life-energy) is temporary—from a few minutes to several weeks—and it does not always have the fundamental, paradigm-shifting, self-realization effects of a full awakening, yet it can be very powerful, even life-changing. In a true kundalini awakening the energetic blockage near the perineum has been permanently opened, initiating a (usually) longer “kundalini process” during which the fundamental non-dual nature of the individual’s relationship to their and the cosmos’s innermost reality is subjectively and dramatically revealed. The process can be relatively smooth for some, but for others, it can often be very challenging, mentally and physically, especially for those who are not properly prepared or well-trained. For some of these people the process can become very disruptive to their professional and personal lives, gyrating from being debilitating painful to shockingly blissful for an extended period of time. An important key to understanding the phenomena is appreciating the extremely varied spectrum of how the process can manifest. One day is not necessarily like the next.
At this point it’s important for us to de-pathologize kundalini’s reputation in some quarters by explaining the ideas behind the phrases “kundalini process” and “kundalini syndrome.” Kundalini is not an illness, but when various conditions are not right, the process can trigger various physical or psychological maladies, known as aspects within the “kundalini syndrome.” So, it is more accurate to discuss the signs of a kundalini awakening or process versus the symptoms of a kundalini syndrome if the psychological or physical indications are present. To add some complexity, the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive—one’s experience of them can shift back and forth.
Kundalini syndrome can show up somatically in ways that have been referred to in some communities as “shamanic sickness,” where often atypical physical manifestations show up in the body as hard to diagnose physical illnesses or pains that can morph from one place or type to another—appearing and disappearing, sometimes in seemingly anomalous, hard to diagnose ways.
Another potential manifestation of kundalini syndrome can be the triggering of what is called a “spiritual emergency” or crisis. This takes many forms, such as prolonged anxiety, or more seriously, in for example, referencing Tibetan integrative psychiatry’s understanding, there can be blockages in the subtle bioenergetic channels that connect the heart to the brain. The symptoms in this example can mirror what is sometimes diagnosed as bipolar or schizoaffective disorders. Western transpersonal psychology has identified ways to diagnose, and at times, successfully work with these manifestations.
On the other hand, a smooth kundalini process catalyzes a “spiritual emergence,” where a person’s ability to sense their surroundings in fundamentally new ways occur, facilitating a paradigmatic shift in their self-understanding, including how one experiences nature and other beings by way of such things as clairvoyance, telepathy, increased synchronicities, heightened dreams, etc. The process clears the way for psycho-spiritual and physical healing, manifesting in more and more spontaneously loving, self-actualized behavior. To be clear, a spiritual emergence process is not always triggered by prana in ways that are obvious to the experiencer.
Why are we seeing more and more people experiencing this phenomenon?
There is a long history of the suppression of information about how to experience kundalini or unusually intense expressions of the Holy Spirit in the West, especially among women and the working and middle classes. Globalization, with its cultural mixing, information sharing, and novel experimentation and adaptation of kundalini practices have gone hand in hand with the increases in the numbers of reports about the phenomena that we are seeing in recent decades. There is also the understanding that subtle bioenergy can be knowingly or unknowingly transmitted to another person (Sanskrit: shaktipat)—this may be playing a part in the increased numbers as well.
How would someone know if they were experiencing a kundalini process or kundalini syndrome?
An important initial step is to as quickly as possible contact a trusted and specifically-trained spiritual teacher, mental health provider, and doctor (both naturopathic and allopathic). They may be able to refer you to other very important health care providers like an acupuncturist, an Ayurvedic doctor or a chiropractor, for example. [Resources are listed later in this interview.] In the course of my doctorate work, I created a Kundalini Status Questionnaire that transpersonal psychologist Stuart Sovatsky and I used to help identify if someone in the study had experienced a kundalini awakening, had pranotthanic activity, or had other kinds of related exceptional (spiritual) human experiences (EHEs). The information found there (and in a slightly abbreviated form, below) can provide an important part of what is needed help guide a trained practitioner to determine how to go forward with a client, patient or student who has had a dramatic opening of this sort. The questionnaire can also be used as a bullet-pointed listing of some of the possible risks and benefits associated with entering or continuing practices that aim at catalyzing a kundalini awakening and process.
It is also vital that the experiencer take on a very active role in the course of their care and process. Becoming as educated as possible about this very complex and nuanced topic has important, positive benefits for their ongoing experience. Going over this list below as a layperson can be helpful, but does not replace working with someone who is well-trained in the field. Some items are more important than others; in addition, there are many nuances to be found in the combination of the items listed below to take into account. That said, some of the signs to look for in order to evaluate if you may be having a kundalini awakening (in addition to what has been outlined above), are included in the list below. Roughly speaking, the greater number and more dramatic the experiences that are found in the following five categories, with an emphasis on the energetic items found in categories 1 and those experiences found in category 5, the higher the likelihood one is having a kundalini awakening, rather than pranotthanic activity. You can access the research list below—it was derived from: Ted Esser publications.
Feeling rushes of energy, like electricity, fire or warm liquid flooding the body, especially in the area of the spine or the core of the torso (usually moving up the body in some way, but it can also move down it or back-and-forth).
Dramatic rushes of pleasurable (or painful) warm (or hot or cold) sensations that feel like a thick liquid (or energy or fire) flowing in the body that may sometimes cause sweating or shivering.
The sensation of a snake (or snakes) going up the spine, the body, or out of the top of the head.
Sensations that can start in the feet and legs, or pelvis, and move up the spine (in a straight or wavy pattern like a caduceus), up to the top of the head, over and down the forehead to the nose and face, down to the throat, and terminating in the abdomen (it may stop anywhere along the way or skip around).
The sensation of ants crawling or air bubbles traveling up the spine or elsewhere in the body.
The dramatic sensation of subtle energy centers (chakras) or channels (nadis—like energetic blood vessels) opening up—it may feel ecstatic or cause a light or heavy burning sensation.
Pulsating pressure, pain or blissfulness in the sacrum.
Involuntary body movements (kriyas).
Feelings of tingling, itching, burning or tickling on the skin or in the body.
Visions of lights, symbolic images, flames, spiritual guides.
Everything in the field of vision becomes illuminated, scintillating, vibrating (perhaps causing everything to seem to be connected).
Feeling that one’s nervous system is overstimulated.
Inwardly hearing the sound of chanting, celestial music, Sanskrit words, sacred sounds or tones, bees buzzing, flute playing, waterfalls, birds, thunder, kettle drums, animals.
Performing spontaneous sacred rituals (that you may have never seen before).
The spontaneous occurrence of breathing patterns: e.g., rapid breathing, shallow breathing, deep breathing, or the prolonged retention of breath (pranayama).
Increased or decreased metabolism.
Gastrointestinal disorders, nausea, diarrhea.
Nervous energy, hyperactivity.
A marked increase or decrease of appetite and/or thirst.
Recurring pains, stiffness and/or tension occurring anywhere in the body, but especially in the back, neck, head, stomach, or big toes.
Numbness, restlessness, cramps or pain in the limbs.
Headaches and/or unusual pressure-spot sensations in the head (it can also feel like wearing tight headbands or a tight helmet).
Increased sensitivity to sound, light, smells, tastes.
Increased EMF (electrical) sensitivity.
Increased sensitivity to being around other people (with the perception that you are picking up their moods, general disposition or thoughts).
Unusual smells emitting from the skin.
Alterations of sleeping patterns.
The tip of the tongue spontaneously moving to the palette or backward in the throat.
Tasting a sweet liquid secretion coming from inside the throat area.
A popping sensation in the sinus cavity above the palette.
Performing spontaneous, involuntary hatha yoga postures (asanas that you may have never seen before) or sacred dancing.
Performing spontaneous, involuntary yogic hand movements (mudras that you may have never seen before).
Performing spontaneous, involuntary yogic contractions (bandhas) in the anus, solar plexus or neck.
Involuntary, spontaneous chanting (or mantras), laughing, crying, deep sighs or yawns, animal-like utterances, glossolalia, or speaking fluently in a foreign language you are unfamiliar with.
Alterations of eating patterns.
Intensified or diminished sexual desires.
Spontaneous erections (Painful or non-painful) or ejaculation—sometimes without outside or conscious provocation.
Orgasms caused by dramatically flowing energy (for men, it may not involve ejaculation).
Feelings of weightlessness or heaviness.
Eyes spontaneously rolling up in the head (often followed by visions).
The feeling that one’s body boundaries are expanding.
Racing (or just the feeling of racing) or painful heart problems.
Temporary loss of eyesight.
The sensation and/or knowing that there is a vastly intelligent force behind any of the above items.
Physical problems that are atypical and have proven difficult to diagnose and treat because they are not consistent with known illness and that may they come and go spontaneously, including activation of latent illnesses (the diagnosis may be psychosomatic).
Feeling large, even overwhelming waves of compassion, joy, bliss, sexuality, gratitude, forgiveness, harmony, and/or unconditional love (which may feel unrelated to any personal issues).
Feeling overwhelming waves of anxiety, anger, alienation, guilt or depression (which may feel unrelated to any personal issues).
Intensification of unresolved psychological issues.
Fear (or fearlessness) of death or insanity.
Unusually precise and/or ease in concentrating your attention—or experiencing confusion and difficulty concentrating.
Spontaneous transcendence of reactive patterns, addictive behavior, problematic habits, social conditioning and/or egoic habits.
Dramatically awakened creativity, inspiration and/or productivity.
Heightened sensitivity to the moods of others.
An awakened harmony or desire for harmony with the earth and/or nature.
A spontaneous increased interest in spirituality, religion and/or philosophy.
Spontaneous altered states of consciousness, including trance states or mystical experiences.
Increased paralysis during meditation.
A general heightened awareness.
Thoughts may speed up, slow down or stop entirely.
Experiencing a paradigmatic shift of awareness, often with an interest in sharing new spiritual experiences with other people.
Feelings of grandiosity or increased feelings of high self-esteem or self confidence.
Impulsive thoughts or actions based on mystical or intuitive sources.
Highly confident decisions based upon intuitive sources that turned out to be “good” or “bad” decisions.
Spontaneous heightened awareness about your inner nature or psyche.
A feeling of preparation for some future event and/or a coming together of one’s life events that may involve others’ benefit.
Spontaneous feelings of detachment and/or abiding in a “witness consciousness.”
Increased effortless patience and satisfaction with “what is” despite outer circumstances.
Either gentle, moderate or intense levels of trance-like states that bring peace, joy, and waves of bliss (these may occur during or after meditation, before going to sleep, while dreaming or after waking up, or spontaneously at other times).
Increased vivid or lucid dreams or visions, sometimes with unusually meaningful, geometric, and/or spiritual content; also there may be meaningful dreams with snakes, volcanoes, earthquakes, bombs, lightning, fire, water, animals or other spiritually meaningful content.
A diagnosis of an atypically manifesting mental illness, marked often by an awareness of one’s changed condition while it was happening (“Am I going crazy?”), while largely remaining functional, cooperative, and interacting well with others, rarely acting out.
Heightened instances of:
Spontaneously acquired new or enhanced anomalous healing abilities.
Spontaneous out-of-body experiences Spontaneous remote viewing
Increased synchronicities Spontaneous bilocation Spontaneous channeling Spontaneous psychokinesis An increase in other paranormal events, psychic abilities (siddhis) An increase of experiencing other unusual phenomena such as seeing spirits, etc.
“High Level” Mystical Experiences
Experiences of the Divine (while in a light, energy, void or in everyday life)
Experiences of divinities, avatars, and/or mythological figures
Absorption of consciousness into profound states of unity and peace
Nondual realization or abiding (unitive consciousness)
The absorption of consciousness into mystical states of unity and peace (sometimes while bathed in light, energy or a void)
The absorption of consciousness into a universal energetic matrix
Clear perception of existential or cosmological ideas that match reports from well-regarded mystics across traditions and through time
Experiencing physical existence as positive, serene and dream-like (possibly experiencing the dream-like aspects as being problematic or unsettling)
A profound sense of I Am That or a pure and open consciousness with no specific identity OBEs or visions into what one perceives be higher dimensions, heavens, and/or alternate universes
As health care providers, we don’t want to spiritualize real mental illness and miss necessary treatments for people at risk, yet we also don’t want to pathologize something that might be a genuine spiritual experience. How can doctors and psychologists learn to tell the difference between spiritual emergency or kundalini syndrome and psychopathology?
This requires extensive training because of the many factors and nuances involved. There is an online course you can take with one of the researchers responsible for making the changes to the DSM-IV in the area of Spiritual and Religious Problems, David Lukoff.
The American Psychological Association recently published an article on the subject called, “Spiritual and Religious Competencies for Psychologists” that Cassi and David contributed to here.
You can contact David through his website here.
If some of our readers are struggling with a kundalini process or kundalini syndrome, what can they do to get help?
Spiritually-trained psychologists, psychiatrists, spiritual counselors and integrative medicine practitioners experienced in working with kundalini can be found at the Spiritual Emergence Network.
Other organizations working in the areas of spiritual emergence, crisis, and kundalini assistance and research include:
Are you available for personal consultation if anyone wants to do spiritual counseling with you directly? If so, how can they reach you?
Yes! They can read about some of my work and contact me through my website. Thank you for the opportunity to be in touch with your readers!
Lastly, these websites have been shared with me as invaluable resources to the kundalini awakening process: