on 19 February 2010
According to Kate Thomas, it was Sir John Woodroffe, a British official and barrister who served in the Indian court system as a judge, who first introduced the phenomenon of Kundalini to a Western readership. Writing under the penname of Arthur Avalon, Woodroffe produced in his book The Serpent Power (first published in London, 1919) an influential study of Kundalini yoga, translating the texts of two tantric treatises (the Shat-Cakra-Nirupana and the Paduka-Pancaka). Though intended as a serious scholarly work, the book stimulated "an experimental interest amongst an enthusiastic general readership of theosophists, esotericists, occultists, and would-be Western yogis". Later the book "came under the scrutiny of the Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung, who linked the concepts of the chakra system and the dramatic symptoms of Kundalini with his own psychoanalytic theory on what he termed the process of individuation". Since the 1960s, the Kundalini phenomenon increasingly became part of a Western countercultural interest in Eastern mysticism, and has more recently found expression within transpersonal psychology (e.g. the therapist Stanislav Grof "notes that the experiences of many transpersonal LSD sessions bear `striking resemblance' to phenomena recorded in various schools of Kundalini yoga") and the New Age Movement, with the latter producing a plethora "of questionable books on how to arouse the Kundalini force" (The Kundalini Phenomenon, pp. vii, ix-x).
"Kundalini" is a Sanskrit term, literally "coiled", which in Indian yoga is conceptualised as an unconscious universal force (Shakti), and symbolised as a sleeping serpent coiled in a state of potency at the base of the spine, hence the descriptive term "serpent power". Tantric and Yogic exercises are seen as both preparatory to, and activating methods for, the awakening of Kundalini, which is progressively linked (theoretically through a formulated system of subtle energy points known as "chakras", said to correspond to physical locations along the spine and culminating at the top of the head) to the development of consciousness - the aim being Self-Realization. A function of the yogic exercises is to purify and strengthen the body and nervous system, otherwise the awakened (or more likely, partially awakened) Kundalini can cause severely disruptive, or even disabling, physical and psychological effects.
It was the scholar of the history of yoga, Georg Feuerstein, who noted that, "In view of the fact that the kundalini experience is claimed to depend on universal structures of the body [Yoga envisions the human body as part of a complex hierarchic system of interconnected "sheaths" (kosha), each vibrating at a different frequency], we must assume that it was encountered by mystics throughout the ages" (Encyclopedic Dictionary of Yoga, 1990, p. 189). Thus the Kundalini phenomenon extends beyond tantric and yogic conceptual schemes and "can be discerned as a fundamental potency in the spiritual process" (ibid.).
Kate Thomas confirms the above observation, as she had experienced the Kundalini phenomenon as a spiritual process at first-hand - an experience that appears to have occurred naturally, without any recourse to tantric or yogic exercises, and in the midst of everyday life in the West. Of interest to the reviewer is, in the light of that experience her subsequent approach to the Kundalini phenomenon proves both cautionary and critical. Her concern is with the potential hazards and counterfeit experiences of forced and premature Kundalini awakening, as well as with those who exploit others in the name of spirituality. The rational/mystical approach of Kate Thomas exposes flaws and distortions in the writings of many accepted "authorities" on the subject of Kundalini.
The chapter headings "Potential Hazards to Spiritual Growth", "Dysfunctional States of Consciousness", and "Incomplete Forms of Enlightenment" provide a fair indication of the content of the book. Thomas's comprehensive survey includes a critique of sexual, magical, shamanistic, psychotropic, yogic, and breathwork practices, and her review of well-known (and lesser-known) literature on the subject of Kundalini could prove uncomfortably discerning to those who prefer sensationalism to realism. As the tantric experimenter Charles Breaux rightly observed, the mere awakening of the power of Kundalini "does not automatically insure spiritual perfection. This primordial power may indeed be venomous, activating unconscious contents which may cause severe psychological imbalances ..." (quoted in The Kundalini Phenomenon, p. 154).
I recommend this book as essential reading to anyone interested in the Kundalini phenomenon and the spiritual process; and to those who are not afraid to make a revaluation of, and think more clearly about, what actually does constitute spiritual authenticity. But I leave the last word to Kate Thomas:
"People are frequently dazzled by the spurious - by the purported experiences of well-known [gurus and spiritual teachers] and their apparent knowledge and expertise. They cannot discriminate between the lesser and the greater, the counterfeit and the genuine, the half-baked and the fully-fledged, and therefore ingest indiscriminately the distorted concepts proffered them by fakes and ignoramuses" (ibid., p. 187).