The Theory Underlying Kundalini Yoga

Kundalini yoga embraces the principle that we are more than just our physical bodies. In addition to the physical body, we have a number of other "bodies"—layers and sheaths that are normally imperceptible to the human eye. These subtle bodies overlay and interpenetrate one another. Sometimes referred to as etheric bodies, they are related to such areas as the emotional, mental, and spiritual aspects of ourselves. The yoga tradition maintains that contained within these bodies is also the blueprint for our entire development, present in the form of "seeds" that we brought forward into this life from past lives. One of the goals of yoga is to bring harmony to all the various aspects of the self that are contained within these various bodies.

Within the tradition of yoga lies a body of knowledge that might be referred to as the "Subtle Anatomy of Yoga." According to this esoteric anatomy, we are animated by a virtually countless number of vessels and channels that supply energy to all of our bodies. In the physical body, these vessels and channels are the blood vessels, nerve passageways, and other anatomical conduits that are known to medical science. On a more subtle level, we possess a nearly countless number of channels through which vital life energy, or prana, flows. These channels are called nadis ("channels"). Various authorities estimate these channels to be at different numbers. Most traditional sources maintain that there are 72,000 nadis in all, while some others maintain that there are several hundred thousand or more—even as many as billions.4 In any case, it is easy to see that the nadis are virtually infinite, taxing the ability of the mind to map or to envision them in their totality.

Within this anatomy of man's subtle being, there are certain channels and confluences of nadis that are particularly important. Three channels that run along the spine form the most important passageways of energy in the body. These are the sushumna ("most gracious"), ida ("comfort"), and pingala ("tawny") nadis. The sushumna is the central of these three nadis, running from the base of the spine to the crown of the head. It is the channel through which the kundalini energy flows. Running alongside and spiraling around the sushumna so that they intersect one another at key points lie the ida and pingala nadis. The ida nadi begins at the base of the spine, where it flows along the left side of the body, coils around the central sushumna nadi, and terminates in the left nostril. The pingala nadi originates at the base of the spine, where it flows along the right side of the body, coils around the central sushumna nadi, and terminates in the right nostril. The ida and pingala channels represent feminine and masculine energy, respectively.

In the average person, unawakened to the energy of kundalini-shakti, energy flows only through the two side channels, ida and pingala. The energy is believed to flow alternately through each of these two channels for periods of roughly one hour and 45 minutes to two hours at a time, during which period the breath through one nostril is dominant.5 This creates a rhythmic flow of energy through the body. One of the goals of the practice of pranayama, or breath control, is to help balance and regulate the flow of energy through these two channels. The goal of kundalini yoga is to awaken the kundalini serpent energy that lies coiled at the base of the spine so that it might rise up through sushumna, resulting in enlightenment.

Along the midline of the body at strategic points lie a series of psychoenergetic centers known as chakras (cakra, "wheel" or "circle" in Sanskrit). The chakras lie at the points where ida and pingala intersect one another as they coil around sushumna. Other nadis also converge at the chakras, so that the chakras might be likened to ganglia or plexuses of subtle energy channels. The chakras are frequently compared to energy transformers: They take in the vital energy of prana from the atmosphere around us and transform it so that it can be circulated throughout and used by both the physical and subtle bodies. According to many authoritative sources, there are seven major chakras that lie along the midline of the body and progress from the base of the spine to the crown of the head.6

The first chakra, muladhara ("foundation" or "root support" in Sanskrit), commonly referred to as the root chakra, originates at the base of the spine. The root chakra is concerned with our physical vitality and survival. The second chakra, svadhisthana ("dwelling place of the self"), commonly referred to as either the sacral or the sexual chakra, is situated in the pelvic bowl, about two inches below the navel. The second chakra is associated with our sexuality and connection to other people. The third chakra, manipura ("the city of gems"), referred to as the solar plexus chakra, is situated in the solar plexus. This chakra is associated with our sense of self-esteem and power. The fourth chakra, anahata ("unstruck sound"), or the heart chakra, is located in the center of the breast between the two nipples— an area frequently referred to as the heart center. The heart chakra is associated with love and compassion. The fifth chakra, vishuddha ("pure"), or the throat chakra, is situated in the hollow in the center of the throat. This chakra is associated with communication and creativity. The sixth chakra, ajna ("command" or "authority"), known as the brow or third-eye chakra, is situated deep in the center of the head at a level between the two eyebrows. The sixth chakra is associated with intuition and our ability to communicate mind-to-mind with other beings and the spirit world. The seventh chakra is the last chakra. It is known as sahasrara ("thousand-petaled"), or the crown chakra, and is located at or just above the crown of the head. The crown chakra is associated with our connection to universal spirit, the source of our being.

The seventh chakra is referred to metaphorically as the "thousand-petaled lotus." It is the highest of the chakras. When the kundalini energy rises up through the central sushumna channel, the kundalini fully activates, charges, and harmonizes all of the chakras in the body in its upward ascent. The feminine energy of kundalini-shakti stored at the base of the spine finds union with shiva, the masculine principle of consciousness. When this occurs, a man achieves self-realization and enlightenment.

A primary goal of many yoga practices is to prepare the practitioner for the flow of kundalini energy up through the spine and the important energy centers that lie along it. This is why many physical yoga postures are designed to support optimum strength, flexibility, and stability of the spine.

The following illustration depicts schematically the pathways of the three central channels of energy and the location of the seven major chakras that lie along the spine:

Fig. 7.1: Yoga Subtle Anatomy—the Chakras and Central Energy Channels

The kundalini energy lies coiled at the base of the spine, like a cobra. For this reason, it is sometimes referred to as the serpent power. It is the primeval energy of the universe and a bridge of transformation from the self to the infinite. Some authorities maintain that kundalini-shakti lies coiled three and one-half times with its head facing downward. Others claim that it lies coiled as many as eight and one-half times. Whatever the number of coils, the purpose of kundalini yoga is to release the energy that is contained in the coiled serpent power. Uncoiled, the head of kundalini-shakti races upward, like the head of an uncoiling cobra, and finds union with the thousand-petaled lotus at the seventh, or crown, chakra. In the process of this upward rising, kundalini-shakti can give off tremendous energy in the form of heat and light. This movement of kundalini is often compared to a variety of phenomena, such as a streak of lightning or the release of an intense stream of steam.

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