Kundalini Shakti in the West: By Dr. Harsh K. Luthar
The notion of Kundalini Shakti is at the heart of yoga and is embedded in virtually all Eastern traditions regardless of the name or label that is given. If we carefully examine any school of yoga, tantra, or various traditions (Shakti, Shaivite, Kashmiri Shaivism), there will usually be some descriptions of Hatha Yoga, Pranayama, Kriyas, Mudras, Mantras, and different types of meditations on the Chakras (energy centers).
In the Shakti traditions, detailed descriptions are given of the various aspects of the visions of the Goddess that arise in meditation. Even in the school of Advaita Vedanta, which does not depend on the practices associated with Shakti Yoga, we see that the great scholar/saint Adi Shankracharya has written hymns to the Goddess who represents Shakti, the divine power.
At a very practical level, the notion of the Divine Mother, Shakti, the Goddess, is intertwined with most Indian Philosophies. Hatha Yoga Pradipika, for example, is one of the classics of Kundalini Yoga and describes how one moves from the physical aspects (Hatha Yoga) of practice to the mental aspects (Raj Yoga) of self-discovery. In this school of thought, one starts with various types of Yoga postures, Mudras, and Pranayama to strengthen the nervous system and the body and then moves to higher mental and spiritual meditations. The idea is to clear the path for the Shakti to freely move upwards from the lower Chakras in the body to higher Chakras along the spinal column. If this is done methodically, it results in super conscious experiences including visions of angels, celestial planes, and the Goddess Herself.
As far as I know, Swami Vivekananda in the late 1800’s introduced the idea of Kundalini Shakti in the West when he came as a delegate to the Parliament of Religions, which was held in Chicago in 1893. The Parliament was the first inter-faith gathering in the world with all of the world’s major religions represented.
The term Kriya Yoga, a method to awaken the Shakti, was later popularized by Swami Yogananda who came to the U.S in the early 1900s, settled in California, and found the Self-Realization Fellowship. Awakening the Kudnalini Shakti is central in this tradition as well, although they do not necessarily engage in very heavy pranayama exercises.
From the mid 1900s to the late 1900s and up until the present, the number of swamis and yogis from India coming to America grew from a trickle to a flood and now, of course, Kundalini Yoga or some form of it is taught in most cities and towns and the word “Chakras” has entered the mainstream of English language.
Kundalini related literature from the East started to be translated into English in the 1900s. One of the earliest translations which is still widely available today was by Arthur Avalon (Sir John Woodroffe), published in 1919 in London, England. It is a translation of an esoteric text and describes the process of raising the Shakti by a variety of Kriyas, Mudras, and Pranayamas.
In the mid and late 1900s, a number of scholars and practitioners of Kundalini Yoga have translated classical texts. One example is that of Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, a brilliant Sanskrit scholar, who has advanced graduate degrees from both Indian and American Universities. He has translated a number of ancient works on Shakti including one of the revered Goddess texts called, “Tripura Rahasya”. Pandit Rajmani Tigunait is a disciple of Swami Rama who founded the Himalayan Institute which is located in Honesdale, Pennsylvania.
Besides these, there are now literally thousands of books on Kundalini Yoga available from a variety of people belonging to different schools of thought. In the past, many of these teachings involving very subtle psychological and physiological processes were kept secret in India. Today, however, there is enough literature on the topic freely available on the Internet to satisfy everyone’s curiosity.
One example of this is on the personal section of the homepage of Professor Kurt Keutzer of UC Berkeley ( http://www.eecs.berkeley.edu/~keutzer/personal.html). One can find a wealth of information on Kundalini there along with Professor Keutzer’s thoughts on the subject.
Generally, it should be kept in mind that although there are vast quantities of information available on Kundalini, there is no substitute for the deep knowledge of Shakti Yoga which comes only from many years of study and practice of meditation.
As a practical matter, Kundalini Yoga, especially with a focus on strenuous bodily practices involving Hatha Yoga and Pranayama is not suitable for everyone and can cause a variety of physical and possibly psychological problems. Having an experienced genuine teacher is a must on this path, if one is serious about the practices which raise the Kundalini Shakti.
Sri Ramana Maharshi, the great Indian Sage of Arunachala, discouraged people from practices of Pranayama and Kundalini Yoga and instead taught that the aim of all yogas and tantras could be achieved simply by a reflective self-inquiry where one focuses attention on one’s own sense of being arising from the inner quest to know the answer to the question, “Who Am I?” Still, for those who wished to pursue Kundalini Yoga, Sri Ramana pointed out that the source of the Shakti and the Mind are the same and that Source is the Heart.
So whatever one’s spiritual path is, including the path of Shakti Yoga, one ends up exactly in the same place, where one already is, in the Heart of Reality that is one’s own Self.