Consciousness, Kundalini Yoga & Body Development

Medha Editor’s Note: With the public hooked onto scandals where sexuality vis a vis spirituality became a central focus of public discourse, it is fitting that we take a look at the deeper philosophical side of the issue. Below is an exemplary paper tracing the outlines of the nature of Kundalini yoga, Tantra and Indian spirituality’s harnessing of these energies. Stu Sovatsky (California Institute of Integral Studies) is just the man, being both a serious student of Eastern/Hindu practices, as well as an acclaimed practitioner of alternative therapies in the West.  

Republished, with permission, from Infinity Foundation

Consciousness, Kundalini Yoga & Body Development
by Stuart Sovatsky, PhD

Presented at Brain, Consciousness, Neuroscience Conference

Chennai, India, March 9, 2001
(this scholar’s work was sponsored by the Infinity Foundation, Princeton, NJ)

That is called [Yogic developmental] action of the body in
which reason takes no part and which does not originate as
an idea springing in the mind.

To speak simply, yogis perform actions with their bodies,
like the movements of children.
Jnaneshvar, 1987, p.102


In this paper I hypothesize that the so-called “practices” of sahaja (“innately-arising”) Kundalini (“ultimate creatrix” originating at the spine’s sacral base) Yoga (and cross-tradition similars, e.g., Judaic davvening, Tibetan tumo heat, Chinese tai chi, Islamic zikr, Quaker “quaking,” the whirling of the Dervish, etc.) constitute auto-developmental movements and bodily maturations consistent with those of intrauterine gestation, infant movements, and teen-aged puberty. Although these “practices’ are typically learned by rote mimicry of “standard” Yoga poses, breathing exercises, moral guidances, or meditation techniques, according to the tradition and contemporary clinical reports, they can emerge endogenously-animated by prana or Kundalini, as it were–as the 13th century adept, Jnaneshvar notes above. I assert that these Yogic kriyas or “developmental actions” (and cross-tradition similars) constitute what might credibly be termed “postgenital puberties” of the neuroendocrine system and, thus, the matured embodiment of citta, the “light” of consciousness itself in various yogically-defined energies and secretions: ojas, virya, auras, amrita.-soma (the substance of primary worship in the Rig Veda) among them.

As such, Kundalini Yoga provides another context in which to consider consciousness-body interactivity through future GSR studies of the activated spine, and perhaps even the biochemical analysis of body fluids of Kundalini yogis, in keeping with those already undertaken by McClelland & Kirshnit 1987; Rein & McCraty 1994; Rein, McCraty & Atkinson 1995 on salivary immunoglobin A, as well as “rejuvenation” melatonin studies by Pierpaoli (Klatz & Goldman, 1996, p. 29), and the National Institute on Aging (US) “Nun Study” on reduced incidence of Alzheimer’s and other degenerative diseases attributed to the spiritual lifestyle of this population.


According to the theory of human development proposed in Kundalini Yoga, Kundalini is the name for the guiding impetus in embryological development that quickens its activity as the neural groove forms the rudiments of the spinal cord as blastulization and gastrulization of the fertilized egg manifest. In contemporary terms, it might be termed, a “meta-DNA.” When the fetus is fully-formed, Kundalini,–which is traditionally given a “mothering” appellation–sequesters Herself at the posterior node of the fetal spine (the muladhara chakra, the “root center”) and becomes dormant. Thereafter, the more general life energy of prana is said to guide human physiology and maintenance-level growth. When growth is especially rapid, prana enters a heightened condition called pranotthana (“uplifted, intensified life-energy”), as is visible in the glow of infants, pregnant women, the purported glow of saints, and during genital puberty as pranot-thana matures the individual into his or her own fertility and thus, “adulthood,” in the biological sense.

Yet, Kundalini Yoga claims that further stages of human development, affecting the neuroendocrine system (and consciousness) in particular, are our natural birthright, but will only manifest when the individual’s life activities-his or her ways of expending bodily energies-are in alignment with “dharma.” In this so-empirical of body-inclusive spiritual traditions, the positive results of one’s Yogic practice implies that one has been living a “dharmic” way of life. Yet, as we shall see, such positive results, like pregnancy or teenaged puberty, engender difficult maturational challenges as part of one’s progress. As physician and yogi, Lee Sannella noted in his book, Kundalini: Psychosis or Transcendence?

Tissues are torn, blood vessels severed…the heart races…there is moaning, crying…A severe injury? No, only a relatively normal birth. The description sounds pathological because the symptoms were not understood in relation to the outcome: a new human being.


[A man’s] body is swept by muscular spasms. Indescribable sensations and [even] pain run from his feet up his legs and over his back and neck…Inside his head he hears roaring sounds… suddenly a sunburst floods his inner being…He laughs and is overcome with bliss.


A psychotic episode? No, this is a psycho-physiological transformation [Kundalini], a rebirth process as natural as physical birth [this time] the outcome [is, however,] an enlightened human being. (Sannella, 1976, p. 1)

And just as Freud chose to name the fundamental developmental force “libido” or “yearning,” so too does Chapter 7, v. 11 of the Bhagavad-gita–as personified in the words of Krishna, “Dharmaviruddho bhutesu kamo ‘smi bharatasbha.” (“I am the passion [kamo, desire, yearning] in beings that is aligned with universal law.”) According to Freud, this yearning is experienced as food hungers, eliminative urges and foremost, sexual desires based in genital puberty, the hallmark of biological adulthood. Kundalini Yoga merely reopens the matter of human development whereby the spine, hypothalamus, hypoglossus, pineal and cerebral lobes are seen as capable of undergoing “puberties” with all the alterations in physiology, identity, and existential life purpose and even mortality itself, that were attendant to genital puberty, but now with a more spiritual emphasis.

In its efforts to be culturally-inclusive, the American Psychiatric Association now includes the Chinese correlate to Kundalini activity of “qi-gong psychotic reaction” and disorders of dhat, jiryan, sukra prameha, and shenkui (various spiritual/endocrine maturation disorders which, according to medical-psychiatric theories in the subcontinent and in China, relate to [in my terms,] the postgenital puberty noted below) in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual -IV Appendix I.

These postgenital puberties, as I term them, are, specifically, the internal mudras (“delight-gestures”) known as khecari, shambhavi, and unmani mudras, and related Yogic processes, such as pranotthana, Kundalini, urdhva-retas, (postgenital maturation of endocrine secretions), anahata-nad (“spontaneous developmental utterance”) and shakti chalani (“movement of charismatic force.”) Thus “postgenital” kama or desire can be understood as the yearning for “truth,” “God,” “love,” “enlight-enment,” etc., while the internal mudras are the physiological manifestations of progress or maturation toward such aspirations, when dharmic life supports the body enough to engender such manifestations, or perhaps via a kind of sudden triggering via a dramatic life event (near-death experience, extreme grief, inspiring moments, etc.) or shakti-pat (“charismatic influence,” “Baptism by fire” in Christian terms), an interpersonal energetic effect of the so-matured on others.

As we shall see, viewing the psycho-physical phenomena of Kundalini Yoga as puberties helps resolve various dilemmas in transpersonal developmental theory, particularly regarding the relationships between sexuality and spirituality, the body-consciousness nexus, and between the ego (what Freud explicitly called the “genital primacy” ego) and the Self (or Buddhist no-constant-self, or Soul). For, in the long and challenging “prepubescence” that follows genital puberty, and particularly in midlife–with its wonderments about a true identity and any purpose to life beyond personal survival, wealth, and sexual pleasure–spirituality can deepen or, for some, is born for the first time. Thus, the concerns of the adolescent of sex, career, affiliation, and identity, are often replicated at another level of sophistication, from midlife on.

The psychoanalytic reduction of spirituality to the ambiguous product of “sublimation” must certainly be questioned if spirituality is to be seen as rooted “naturally” in the body. The Jungian view of a purely psychically transformative “alchemy” under-appreciates the role of the body and must also be referred to deeper endogenous roots if spirituality is to escape the terminology of “processes” and “techniques.” Even the Yogic and meditative “practices” must be rescued from such superficial enframements. In Kundalini Yoga, spirituality is considered a “natural,” body-positive aspect of human development, not a derivative of sexuality, a set of techniques, practices, or mere doctrinal beliefs. However radical the bodily phenomena of Kundalini may seem at first, they provide us with a way to substantiate such a claim. And, although transpersonalist Michael Washburn concludes in Transpersonal Psychology in Psychoanalytic Perspective that,

No one knows [my emphasis] for sure why the first half of this journey [egoic maturity] is completed by almost everyone and the second half [ego transcendence and spiritual-power embodiment] by only a few…. The path of transcendence may be a path that is still “under construction.” It may, that is, represent the future of the species, a future into which only a minority of individuals have ventured. (Washburn, 1994, p. 318)

A quick sampling of those commonly believed to have walked the “second half” of this path, including: Buddha, Mahavira, Buddhaghosa, Christ, Thirumoolar, Nagaarjuna, Socrates, Pythagoras, Plato, Eckhart, John of the Cross, St. Francis, Theresa of Avila, Hildegard of Bingen, Rumi, Gandhi, Lao-tzu, Mirabai, Patanjali, Ramana Maharsi, Ramakrishna, Ananda-maya-ma, Irina Tweedie, Dalai Lama, Shri Aurobindo and The Mother and innumerable yogis and yoginis, reveals one commonality: they have each achieved a transformed sexuality, a “postgenital puberty,” as I term it.

But try to move “full maturity” much beyond the “ground” of the fifth and final psychoanalytic stage of genital puberty, as many transpersonalists do, and psychoanalysis (and the vast majority of all people) warns we walk onto thin air. Extend the physical ground synthetically, and the psychedelic mysticisms of McKenna, Leary, and the shamanic and Yogic alchemists take root, perhaps even Prozac. Make of them what you will. Consider Yoga (or, for example, tai chi) as merely healthy exercises lacking in developmental import, and much is lost. If seen as credibly endogenous, however, the vast range of Kundalini Yoga bodily phenomena reveals the gradually steepening physical ground of the “more spiritual” stages of development, thus finishing the “construction” of Washburn’s path and adding flesh to the more meditative spiritualities and archetypal psychologies which have underwritten the transpersonalist’s advances thus far.

Furthermore, if these slow-developing Yogic maturations are innate, yet unaccounted for, the consequences could radiate throughout our current model of the developmental span and its entire hermeneutic economy, and not just pertain to some eccentric “transpersonal level.” For example, gaining “backbone,” a metaphor for gaining character, might now be considered the literal physio-spiritual maturation of the spine, part of its “puberty.”

And, perhaps, as Gopi Krishna, author of numerous popular books on this subject maintains, Kundalini is on an evolutionary developmental scale. Furthermore, as Aurobindo, Nietzsche, Teilhard, Neumann, Gebser, Wilber, and others described, such evolution might be far more of a spiritual nature than mere Darwinian adaptation would permit. Yet, even within Darwinism, evolutionary theorist Donald Symons conjectured the following regarding the origins of how genital puberty sexuality was first decoupled from fertility cycles for early homo sapiens:

If one views the matter in terms of ultimate causation, and assumes that permanent group-living is adaptive for some reason, then, all other things being equal, selection [Darwinian natural election] can be expected to favor the most economical of the available mechanisms that results in permanent sociality. One possible mechanism is for a formerly episodic reward to become permanent, but in terms of time, energy, and risk this seems to be a very expensive solution if the reward is sexual activity. It is [would have been, but still is?] much more economical [from a biological perspective] to alter the reward mechanism of the brain itself, so that the sight, sound, or smell of familiar conspecifics [members of the same species] come to be experienced as pleasurable. (Symons, 1979, p. 102)

As we shall see, the hypothalamus (which monitors hunger, thirst, sexual desire, aggressive urges, and blood oxygen levels)–the Symonsian “reward mechanism of the brain”–is the loci of several Yogic puberties. Following from Symons, these puberties could be on an evolutionary scale and congruent with Darwinian principles whereby a “sense perception sexuality” emerges, as described in many religious traditions, and in great detail in Tantra-Kundalini Yogas.

Perhaps even Kundalini Yoga itself must be wrested from its own indigenous tangle of competing views which have come to depicting it too as a system of mere techniques, more than as awesome phenomena of Nature (or “Supernature,” for those who prefer superlative, but confusing differentiations) that they are. For, in spiritually-preoccupied India (and various other mysticisms), the descent further into the body has held mixed interest, with the recent exception of Shri Aurobindo and the Mother’s image of both descending and ascending developmental forces, and the nondualistic yogis whose esoteric interpretations I now approach.

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