Q&A: Kundalini Yoga and Chakras

September 24, 2015    BY Pandit Rajmani Tigunait

Q:  After reading your book Tantra Unveiled, as well as several other books on tantra, I have the impression that the goal of tantra is to awaken kundalini. That is also the goal of kundalini yoga, so I’m wondering what the difference is between tantra yoga and kundalini yoga.
It is true that both tantra and kundalini yoga aim at awakening kundalini shakti. They also share other characteristics. For example, both schools are based on a common philosophy: shaktism, which holds that the Divine Mother is the highest reality. Further, according to both schools the human body is a living shrine, the repository of boundless energy, most of which remains dormant. This dormant energy is called kundalini shakti, and the relatively small amount of active energy is called prana. Yogis of both paths use their active energy to try to awaken their dormant energy. Yogis of both paths have a positive view of the world—they view it as a manifestation of the divine force. Thus, everything that exists is divine, beautiful, and the source of joy. The inability to experience the presence of the Divine within or without is called ignorance and is the source of bondage. Overcoming this ignorance and experiencing the beautiful and blissful Divine in every aspect of life is called liberation. How they lead you to liberation is what distinguishes the two paths.

Those on the path of kundalini yoga depend heavily on the techniques of hatha yoga, and in this context hatha yoga means the practices related to asana, pranayama, bandhas, and mudras. Aspirants following the path of kundalini yoga believe that the body itself is the best tool to awaken the dormant energy of kundalini shakti. They describe kundalini as a sleeping serpent. And because snakes are cold-blooded creatures, as the temperature drops, snakes become stiff and cannot move. That is what has happened to kundalini shakti. Those on the path of kundalini yoga say that this serpent is hiding within us in the fireplace called the muladhara chakra, but the fire here is almost extinguished—all that exists is layers of ash covering a still-glowing coal. Before you can awaken this serpent, they tell us, you have to blow away the layers of ash and allow the heat to radiate until it warms the serpent and the serpent begins to move. As it emerges from hibernation it becomes conscious of itself and its surroundings. And because it has just awakened from its long slumber, it is hungry. So it devours sloth, inertia, hopelessness, and all other forms of darkness and heaviness. The result is spiritual awakening.

The layers of ash are blown away in kundalini yoga by practicing vigorous pranayama, and the prerequisite for practicing pranayama is mastering asanas, especially the sitting postures. To strengthen and purify the nervous system you practice bandhas and mudras, advanced techniques developed in the tradition of hatha yoga. This method of awakening kundalini is purely physical and requires technical accuracy. If you are successful, you will experience a surge of energy along your spinal column. And if the body (heart, lungs, kidneys, endocrine glands, and the nervous system) is in good health, you will experience this movement of energy as blissful. However, if your nervous system is blocked and your emotions are not stable, then this movement of energy may damage the nervous system or cause hallucinations. Even when you are physically and emotionally fit and do not experience any side effects from kundalini awakening, you still have a major task to accomplish, because this awakening causes you to become energetic. Your stamina and endurance will increase, and if you don’t have a good understanding of the higher dimensions of life, this energy will make you productive only at the physical level. Therefore the challenge in kundalini yoga is to learn how to channel that energy so that it becomes an instrument of spiritual awakening.

Tantric yogis also believe that the body is a living shrine. Even though the body’s potential is infinite, tantra recognizes that individual bodies have their own limitations. Very few people in the world are perfectly free from fatigue, disease, and a tendency to procrastinate. Most of us are confronted with obstacles in one form or another. Tantrics therefore  attempt to make the best use of all available means and resources—both internal and external—to remove these obstacles and make the body and mind healthy, strong, and happy. In addition to employing the techniques of hatha yoga, tantric yogis also include the techniques of meditation, visualization, rituals, mantra recitation, and prayer.

In hatha-based kundalini yoga there is a sense of victory; in tantra yoga there is a sense of surrender.

Tantrics do not treat kundalini as mere energy; they view it as the Divine Mother herself, and from the beginning of their quest they cultivate an attitude of love and devotion toward kundalini shakti. They may do an intensive practice, but that practice is always accompanied by the sense of self-surrender. Unlike the practitioners of kundalini yoga, tantrics are gentle. They attempt to awaken kundalini shakti like a hungry baby lovingly attempts to awaken its mother. Thus the distinction between kundalini yoga and tantric yoga is that the former is more physical, vigorous, gross, technical, and has no component of love and devotion, while the latter is more spiritual, gentle, and subtle, and is always accompanied by love and devotion. In hatha-based kundalini yoga there is a sense of victory; in tantra yoga there is a sense of surrender.

Q:  I have seen the chakras depicted in a number of books. Sometimes they are elaborate, sometimes quite simple. The colors also differ. How can I tell which of these depictions is accurate? Are the chakras two-dimensional as pictured in books or are they three-dimensional? Are they real?
The question of whether the chakras are real, what color they are, and whether they are two- or three-dimensional can be answered only if we know what the chakras are made of. They are definitely not part of the physical body—no surgeon has so far found even a trace of a chakra. According to the scriptures, the physical body is superimposed on a subtle body, and the chakras are located in this subtle body. They are energy centers, the connecting hub at which the major energy channels of the subtle body come together. The word “chakra” means “wheel”; each chakra is a wheel of the life-force. The energy concentrated at these chakras nourishes both the physical body and the mind.

In our physical world there is nothing that describes the characteristics and functions of the chakras, and so to communicate their knowledge and experience yogis had to resort to some sort of depiction that could be understood. Accordingly, in the scriptures each chakra is depicted as a concentrated field of energy which manifests in the form of sound and light. Sound in all cultures is considered sacred, and from this concept comes the idea of the sacred word, or mantra. Light too is associated with the sacred. Whenever we think of light we associate it with color, and the entire spectrum of light that illuminates the physical realm can be divided into seven bands of color. Experientially yogis may have known the chakras in an entirely different way, but to communicate this experience they had to lend it shape and color, and so the chakras came to be depicted in their present form. In reality, however, there is nothing like a fixed shape or color.

In our physical world there is nothing that describes the characteristics and functions of the chakras, and so to communicate their knowledge and experience yogis had to resort to some sort of depiction that could be understood.

According to the scriptures, the chakras are radiant fields of energy. Moreover, this radiant energy is intelligent. The power of will, the power of knowledge, and the power of action are intrinsic to these energy fields—they are self-guided and self-illuminating. It is from these fields of energy that the forces of healing and nourishment flow to both body and mind, and that is why the scriptures describe the energy at these centers as deities or goddesses. Thus, the clear-cut answer to your question is that none of these depictions are perfectly accurate. The chakras are neither two-dimensional nor three-dimensional, because dimension corresponds to the physical world and our sense perception. In one sense, they are real, for they are based on the direct experiences of the sages who perceived them through the eyes of intuition. In another sense they are not real but simply symbolic representations of a pure energy field.

Pandit Rajmani Tigunait
Spiritual head of the Himalayan Institute, Pandit Tigunait is the successor of Swami Rama of the Himalayas. Lecturing and teaching worldwide for more than a quarter of a century, he is the author of fourteen books, including his recently-released The Secret of the Yoga Sutra, and his autobiography Touched by Fire: The Ongoing Journey of a Spiritual Seeker. Pandit Tigunait holds two doctorates: one in Sanskrit from the University of Allahabad in India, and another in Oriental Studies from the... Read more>>