How to survive a Kundalini Awakening
They're sold as a pleasant form of light erotic trance, but the reality can be much gnarlier.
Anya is a C-level tech executive working in Paris. In April of this year, she was going through a turbulent phase of her life, dealing with the break-up of a relationship as well as professional stress. She decided to ‘double down on self-care’, and ramped up her spiritual practices – yoga, meditation, sound baths, fasting. She meditated for 2-3 hours a day and fasted for three weeks. She felt her energy building up, and her need for sleep lessening.
One night, she woke up feeling a sudden surge of energy in her body. She felt filled with bliss and electricity. It reminded her of an experience she’d had two years previously, when she went to a hatha yoga retreat in Bali. She recalls:
When I was laying in bed in Bali, I suddenly realized that there was this energy sensation, like electromagnetic waves, pulsating through my body. There was a clear perception that the energy was accumulating at the base of my spine. It was pretty intense – my body was jumping off the bed.
But the next day at the Bali retreat, she’d gotten COVID for a month, so the ‘process’ had diminished, and she had gone back to her normal life in Paris.
Now, in 2023, she woke up with a similar blast of energy. She felt like whatever process had begun in Bali was continuing. She decided to do some of the tantric yoga practices she’d learnt there – ‘it retrospect this was a stupid idea’.
I realized there’s an immense amount of energy in my body, but also that I no longer identify with my physical identity. And I would switch between a blissful feeling of unity, and panic about the fact I no longer identify with myself.
The next day, she walked around Paris in a blissful state, and passed the meditation studio she attended. Why not join the session? But as she sat there meditating,
It felt like a Chernobyl in my brain. Like a runaway reaction that couldn't be stopped. I felt like my skull couldn't sustain the pressure and would explode, and my brains would splurge all over the walls. A friend came up to me afterwards and asked if I was OK because my eyes were flickering. He said ‘you looked like an alien when you came out of the meditation’. He and I both wondered if I was having a psychotic episode, because I kept repeating ‘I’m not real, this table isn’t real’ and so on. I went on a date that evening, to a Gerhard Richter exhibition. And the paintings were vibrating. It was incredible! The date must have thought I was a nut.
For the next month, while her terrestrial life was falling apart, Anya was ‘floating on Cloud 9’. Eventually she tried to make sense of what she was going through, and what to do about it. She found the phrase ‘spiritual emergency’, and that helped her, and she also came across the phrase ‘kundalini awakening’. It led her, she says, ‘ to some strange parts of the internet’.
WTF is a Kundalini Awakening?
If you do mindfulness or yoga, or take psychedelics, or even if you don’t, you may have a spiritual / mystical / ecstatic experience. For some it can be blissful, for some it can also be bewildering, involving bursts of energy, sleep disruption, derealization, ego inflation, archetypal material from the unconscious, involuntary and sometimes painful physical symptoms, telepathy, seeing spirits or hearing voices, and so on.
When this happens to a Westerner, in a culture that is largely ignorant of such experiences, it can be frightening and isolating. People have to figure out for themselves what is going on and what to do about it.
Western medicine doesn’t have many terms for such experiences, beyond pathological ones, like manic episodes or psychotic breaks (and these labels might not always be entirely wrong). Beyond western medicine, people find other labels or frames – ‘spiritual emergency’, ‘shamanic awakening’ or ‘Kundalini Awakening’.
I personally have gone through experiences for which I found the term ‘spiritual emergency’ helpful. Those experiences did not involve the sudden blast of electric energy and somatic symptoms that Anya described. For some, that sort of experience is helpfully described as a ‘Kundalini Awakening’. But what does that term / diagnosis mean and how can people know if it’s accurate and helpful for them, or not?
Extremely brief history of Kundalini Yoga
Like any ancient religious terminology, the meaning of ‘kundalini’ has shifted over the centuries, since it first appeared in Indian tantric Saiva texts in around the 7th century AD. There, it refers to a ‘dormant “vital power’ that rises up the spinal column when ‘aroused’, sometimes yielding strong transformative personal experiences. According to tantric literature, there’s a central energy channel running up the spine through various subtle energy centres, described as ‘chakras’, which the kundalini energy rises through, purifying and transforming the individual.
Tantric practices were considered the most hardcore and dangerous of all contemplative practices, only for ascetics with a high tolerance for risk and a fearless dedication to spiritual progress or the attainment of occult power. As contemporary Indian teacher Sadhguru put it:
Kundalini Yoga is the most potent form of yoga, and the most dangerous. Without expert guidance, nobody should ever attempt it. What can be life transforming can also be life destroying. If kundalini rises, the dimensions of your life will change so rapidly that you must make external adjustments equally rapidly, or things will apart. But the problem is everyone wants the highest form of yoga. There are practices suitable for ascetics, and practices suitable for householders.
In 1968, the idea of ‘kundalini awakening’ was popularised, packaged and brought to Westerners by a young Sikh teacher called Yogi Bhajan, who launched a spiritual movement in the West called 3H (it stood for Happy Healthy Holy). That movement, which attracted thousands of followers, taught some practices under the name ‘Kundalini Yoga’ which he claimed could increase students’ energy. However, it seems the Yogi was really ‘increasing energy to cause mischief’, as Jiddu Krishnamurti put it. Ater Yogi Bhajan’s death in 2004, he was accused of having raped several female followers, while also becoming immensely rich and acquiring 20 luxury cars. An internal investigation found that the claims were probably true.
Kundalini yoga is still a thing – it was in the news last year when Los Angeles kundalini teacher Guru Jagat died, having spent the pandemic spreading anti-vax Q-anon conspiracies. Here’s a documentary on her story. The hip new thing, according to Vogue, is ‘Kundalini Activation Process’, which from videos I’ve seen on social media looks like a sort of Jedi erotic massage rather than a shattering transformation of the self.
Kundalini awakening and spiritual emergencies
The idea of kundalini awakening as a spiritual crisis became more familiar in western culture from the 1980s onwards, through the life and work of Christina Grof. She had what she later described as both a ‘spiritual emergency’ and a ‘kundalini awakening’ after the birth of her first child. Here she is talking about it:
Christina and her then-husband, Stanislaf Grof, published Spiritual Emergency in 1980, which was a ground-breaking collection of essays by everyone from Ram Dass to a young Jack Kornfield on psycho-spiritual crises and how to navigate them.
In my brief research, I would suggest ‘Kundalini Awakening’ can mean at least four different-but-related phenomena:
1) A release of cosmic libido
This is what you see advertised on ‘kundalini awakening’ or ‘kundalini activation’ on YouTube, Instagram and TikTok, and it seems closer to hypnotically-induced trance, ecstatic dance, or Holy Roller Pentecostalism to me. The person goes into a mild trance through the ritual and suggestion of the teacher, and then writhes around orgasmically in a pleasant way.
People talk about ‘spiritual orgasms’ following this sort of kundalini awakening, and a few people embark on a sexual rampage and ‘get stuck in their lower chakras’, in Anya’s estimation. I have seen this happen too.
2) An ecstatic release of energies buried by trauma
Gordon Curtis had a successful life as a husband, father, author and executive coach, but his model life was built on a childhood filled with physical and emotional trauma. One day September 2013, he was flying back from a conference on a plane, and the trauma became too much. He let go and surrendered to God, and felt ‘like lightning had struck right through me and replaced any negative emotions with pure oneness and love.’
I was in this exalted state for five months, and it was extremely physical – my body was shaking and my brain was being zapped. There were paranormal phenomena, downloads from the Akashic Records. I thought I was enlightened. Then after five months it was like someone just flicked a switch, and I was in the dark night of the soul. That lasted eight years.
In 2021, he met his partner Kate West, who had been through a similar sort of awakening – the falling apart of a successful conventional life, a sudden massive influx of energy accompanied by physical manifestations like shaking and kriyas (postures and movements which in this case are involuntary), and spiritual and paranormal phenomena.
They both took a long time to make sense of what they had gone through – was it a physical illness, was it a mental pathology. ‘I even thought it might be rabies at one point’ says Kate. But they have decided it was a Kundalini Awakening, which they make sense of as a spiritual phenomenon – an awakening of the cosmic force of the universe – which often occurs to people dealing with trauma – like Anya and Christina Grof. Gordon says: ‘From what we’ve learned, yoga is not necessarily the trigger or the impetus. It is more likely due to global stress and trauma. ‘
The psycho-physical manifestations sometimes associated with a Kundalini Awakening – shaking, twitching, kriyas, floods of emotions and buried memories – could be interpreted as a trauma resolution, as the soul knocks down habitual ego defences and integrates previously repressed psychic energy. This psychic energy is, in Kate and Gordon’s interpretation, the divine force of the universe, and the crisis can involve the activation of spiritual / paranormal phenomena. Most of the attendees at Kate and Gordon’s online kundalini support group said they’d experienced unusual phenomena like telepathy, strong intuition, remembrance of past lives, and seeing or sensing non-human entities, and hadn’t experienced such phenomena before their crisis.
If Kundalini Awakening is a form of trauma response / spiritual awakening, then it potentially happens to many millions of people. Gordon suggests that a high percentage of the people who presently pass through the western psychiatric system for treatment are in fact experiencing Kundalini Awakenings.
3) Energy-like somatic experiences (ELSEs)
A third way to understand Kundalini Awakenings – similar but somewhat different to the previous interpretation – is simply as ‘energy-like somatic experiences’ (ELSEs) which commonly arise during spiritual practices.
This is the attitude taken by the Varieties of Contemplative Experience (VCE) research project run by Willoughby Britton and Jared Lindahl at Brown University. Their famous study from a decade ago looked at the unusual experiences that sometimes arise during meditation practices.
In their study, 62% of interviewees reported ELSEs, which the authors categorized as ‘a type of sensation moving throughout the body or throughout a body area described with language of vibration, energy, current, or other related metaphors’. The VCE project doesn’t label all these experiences as Kundalini Awakenings, because the authors note that is just one cultural interpretation of such experiences, and other traditions like Tibetan Buddhism, Taoism or Vipassana make sense of these psycho-physical energetic phenomena in similar but slightly different ways.
This sort of ‘ELSE’ is quite common in psychedelic experiences as well. According to the soon-to-be-published Entheofest’s 2022 survey – at present the biggest survey of psychedelic usage in the world – 30% of people who take psychedelics report trembling and shaking while on the drugs. Why should meditation and psychedelics provoke this sort of trembling or shaking? We don’t know, because western medicine has no real understanding of the concepts of energy. It could be connected to trauma, the authors suggest. But it may not always be an ‘awakening’ , in the sense of a spiritual rebirth. Sometimes it’s just an experience and the person goes back to their life.
4) Kundalini Awakening as the rare fast-track to enlightenment
Scott Britton was a 31-year-old tech start-up founder living in New York and powering his way to a successful entrepreneurial career, when he drank ayahuasca one night in March 2019. During the trip, his body shook, and it carried on shaking in the days afterwards.
I was running a start-up with 50 employees, and my body would be shaking during meetings. I couldn't sleep. I felt like I was like tripping. I would hear noises. Eventually I had to build out the executive team of my company (Troop.ai) so I could focus on figuring out what was going on with me.
Initially, he thought something was physically wrong.
I went to a bunch of doctors – neurologists, epilepsy specialists. No one could tell me what was wrong. I Googled ‘shaking during meditation’ and one article mentioned kundalini energy, so I started to research that. Western doctors had never heard of it. My executive coach told me to try breath work, but that just aggravated it. No one could tell me what to do, not even a kundalini yoga place I visited. Finally after a year I met my present spiritual teacher, who told me I needed to calm my energy down with QiGong. That was the first person who told me something that made sense to me.
This is how Scott makes sense of the experience, which to some extent he is still undergoing:
I believe this was essentially a divine intervention. It was like: ‘You're going on the spiritual path. You don't have a choice. We are going to make the experience so prominent physically that this has to become the most important thing in your life’. And that's what it did. It redirected me.
For him, it has been a totally life-changing, disturbing, humbling and purifying experience:
it feels like It's a sentient energy that knows what is the next thing that I'm ready to process. I was an incredibly healthy guy and never got sick. I have gotten the shit kicked out of me health wise. So many ailments, so many problems. But all of those experiences were effectively lessons to reach the next phase of my evolution…Things like attachment to having a thriving body. There are many humbling experiences that seem to have an intelligent ordering of like, ‘oh, you're holding on to that? Okay cool, we're going to ZAP you there’.
Scott believes that this sort of utterly-transformative kundalini awakening experiences ‘happen to a mature soul who wants to come to Earth to have rapid spiritual expansion, that maybe has even reached levels of enlightenment in past lifetimes’. He thinks such experiences are rare. Others I’ve spoken to have suggested a ‘full kundalini experience’ happens to about one in a million people – according to this theory, there are roughly 8000 people on the planet going through it.
What helps and doesn’t help?
There are, therefore, some similarities and some differences in people’s use of this term. But the important thing is - does it help them cope with their experience and their life?
There could be times when a ‘Kundalini Awakening’ diagnosis could be unhelpful. Professor Matthew Johnson, a psychedelic researcher at Johns Hopkins University, recalls one participant in a trial he was running having a difficult trip which involved shaking. One of his co-researchers told the participant ‘that sounds like a kundalini awakening’. Matthew tells me:
She had never heard of it until my colleague suggested it as a possibility in a conversation. She took the suggestion seriously, and read all sorts of websites and books about it. She reached out saying she was alarmed because she had read in a book that you can die from kundalini.
Anya, who we met at the beginning of the article, says she doesn’t see people necessarily becoming wiser or better after such experiences. She says that in her network, people after such awakenings can sometimes veer off into two directions – either spiritual nihilism (nothing really matters, nothing is real), or spiritual hedonism (I am alive with the orgasmic energy of the universe and am going to have sex with everyone). She says she herself fell victim to Messianic delusions, briefly.
And as the idea of ‘Kundalini Awakening’ becomes more popular on social media, I can imagine a situation where it becomes like Tourettes, which became a trend on teen TikTok and led to a mass psychogenic epidemic of teenage girls involuntarily ticking during the pandemic, One can already find TikTok videos like ‘five signs you’re experiencing a kundalini awakening’.
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But on the whole, the people I spoke to for this article did find the term helpful. I asked them all what advice they would give to others who might read this article and identify with some aspects of their stories.
Anya told me: ‘I think among the best reactions were people just literally just holding space for me and validating my experience.’ Kate West and Gordon Curtis agree that finding a supportive community has been crucial – and they invited me to the online kundalini awakening support group they run. Here is the advice the group members offered:
‘Don’t fear it, it makes you contract and makes it harder for kundalini to do its work.
‘Call out with your soul and ask for help.’
‘Whatever you’re feeling is OK, there are no bad parts – welcome everything.’
‘Find your people, your community, and realize we are normal people going through a normal experience.’
‘Trust the process, trust that some divine force is doing this and it’s far more powerful than your brain.’
‘Find an anchor. For me, it was the Grofs’ book Spiritual Emergency, which was a lifeline for me.’
‘Find an outlet for your energy – for many people it’s creative pursuits.’
‘Be willing to adapt. We can’t continue with our old unhealthy habits.’
‘Trust yourself above anyone else’s opinion. Become your own master.’
Scott Britton says: ‘Surrender to the process you are in. A transformational metamorphosis of your being. The more you try to fight it and resist the interferences in your life, the more difficult it will be.’
But for some, kundalini-type experiences do not always and necessarily mark a conversion to a totally new and more spiritual life. Anya, for example, is still figuring out what to make of it. She tells me:
I put it on a shelf. It freaked me out initially because I could feel that power, and felt it brings an enormous amount of responsibility. And I didn't feel safe to tap into it. I didn't feel ready for it. I had the intuition that I need to go back and work on my actual emotional issues before disappearing into the spiritual space, that there was a real danger of spiritual bypassing. There are obviously practices that you can do if you want to ramp up the energy, but my decision was to not engage in any of them until I feel that I'm centered, balanced and reasonably healed.
As William James wrote a century ago in ‘The Energies of Men’ more than a century ago, western medicine doesn’t have any real understanding of ‘energy’, and what diminishes and increases it in people’s lives. It still doesn’t. This ignorance leaves the entire field of ‘energy healing’ to alternative health, wellness and spirituality. We don’t really understand disruptions to normal energy functioning, both ecstatic and awe-ful. We’re slowly figuring it out, as individuals, groups and cultures. My own final advice would be: find what terminology and coping practices work for you.
Here’s the VCE Project / Cheetah House page on ELSEs which has a list at the bottom of what people find helpful in coping with ELSEs
Kate West is collaborating with my colleague Katrina Michelle on a movie about messy awakenings and KAs, called When Lightening Strikes. Watch the trailer here and if you feel called, help to get it funded and completed!
Kate and Gordon mentioned they were helped by Craig Holliday’s teachings and videos on kundalini awakenings – he’s a therapist who went through the washing machine himself.
This is Scott Britton’s excellent account of his experience over the last four years:
After the paywall (yes, part of integrating with this world means making a living!) I’m attaching the video of my full conversation with Scott Britton, you can watch a clip of it below. Paid subscribers also get a free copy of the concluding chapter of Breaking Open: Finding a Way Through Spiritual Emergency.