Kundalini Crisis – A Modern Phenomenon?

Classical esoteric literature describes kundalini as a normally dormant force that resides at the base of the spine, and that when awakened, can cause a variety of mental, emotional, physical and spiritual effects. Kundalini is said to be the biological mechanism behind enlightenment.[1]

According to some modern accounts (e.g. Lee Sannella), kundalini should only be awakened as a gradual process, under the guidance of an experienced teacher. If a kundalini awakening occurs when an individual is not properly prepared, it can cause negative effects, including fear, disorientation and psychosis – a ‘kundalini crisis.’[2] However it is not clear that problems with kundalini were ever mentioned in classical texts. The most well-known descriptions of kundalini crisis are modern biographical accounts, such as that of Gopi Krishna (1903 – 1984), an Indian yogi and mystic who wrote about his own long-lasting kundalini crisis which included symptoms of depression, insomnia and psychosis-like states.[4]

Scholars have argued that because the ancient traditions provided gurus to supervise kundalini awakenings, the classical literature did not focus on problems associated with the phenomena; it was assumed that with proper context and proper guidance, the process would lead to positive outcomes.[3] Hence, the lack of an appearance of kundalini crisis in ancient texts.

So is kundalini crisis a thoroughly modern phenomenon?

Did it only emerge when lay people started practising esoteric techniques? Is it a unique problem that results from the practice of ancient spiritual techniques in modern contexts? Or is it simply an attempt to put a spiritual/religious overlay onto contemporary understandings of psychopathology, the “nervous system” and “stress”? Do any ancient texts refer to kundalini problems? I am not an expert in Tantra or classical texts, so perhaps there are references that I am missing.

If anyone has any information on the history of kundalini crisis prior to the 20th century, please share!

[1] B. Greyson, “The Physio-kundalini Syndrome and Mental Illness,” The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology 25, no. 1 (1993): 43-58.

[2] L. Sannella “Kundalini: Classical and Clinical.” In Spiritual Emergency: When Personal Transformation Becomes a Crisis, eds. S. Grof and C. Grof (New York and Los Angeles: Tarcher, 1989), 99-108.

[3] Greyson, “The Physio-kundalini.”

[4] G. Krishna, The Awakening of Kundalini (Ontario: Institute for Consciousness Research, 2001): 96-97.

Also, in The Healing Gods, Gunther Brown cites examples of kundalini problems related to hatha yoga and pranayama: “Although many instructors tout yoga’s safety, some yoga proponents warn of physical, psychological, and spiritual risks. Swami Swatmarama, of Yoga Vidya Gurukul University, cautions that performing pranayama in hatha yoga awakens kundalini energy rapidly: “But if one is not prepared to take on this high level energy awakening then this may have negative effects on mind and body.” Swami Narayanananda is more specific about what negative effects might entail: “if a person does not know how to check the currents and to bring down the partly risen kundalini shakti to safer centers, one suffers terribly and it may ruin the whole life of a person or lead one to insanity.” C. Gunther Brown, The Healing Gods: Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Christian America (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013), 133.

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