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Kundalini Awakening: An Emergent Phenomenon

Robert Davis

Kundalini Awakening (KA) is an energetic transformative experience recognized in various traditions, especially among Eastern meditative, Hindu tantra, and Yogic practices. Traditional literature conveys “Kundalini” (i.e., Sanskrit for “coiled up”) as a broader phenomenon encompassing a large variety of spiritual experiences and nondual meditation states. Despite variations in Kundalini concepts across traditional scriptures, a common feature is the ascent of Kundalini through a central energy channel in the spine, activating the chakras (i.e., Sanskrit for energy centers) to purify and balance them (Sivananda, 1994). This process has been reported to lead to deeper self-understanding, spiritual awakening, and expanded consciousness by those who have experienced a KA (James, 1916; Stace, 1960; Lukoff, 2009; Taylor & Egeto-Szabo, 2017).

Kundalini awakening can manifest spontaneously or be induced via a process referred to as shaktipat-diksha, or the “descent of power,” and entails the transmission of “infinite Consciousness” from an enlightened master to the individual (Wallis, 2017). The guru’s guidance and specific yoga practices (such as meditation, mantra repetition, breathing, postures, and chanting) are believed to be potentiated by the awakened Kundalini, assisting in the process of purification. The awakening of Kundalini energy can also be triggered by intense emotional stimuli, like devotion, love, shock, childbirth, psychedelics, or abuse. (Taylor, 2015; Grof & Grof, 2017; Woollacott et al., 2021).  The journey is deemed complete when the individual consistently experiences elevated knowledge and indescribable joy, with the Kundalini energy stabilized in the “crown center of Universal Consciousness.” This signifies the attainment of the highest spiritual awakening in the Kundalini tradition, referred to as the state of samadhi or enlightenment, the experience of intimacy with all things and absorption into the state of absolute nonduality (Wollacott et al., 2020).

Kundalini Awakening: Signs, Symptoms, and Consciousness

The complex energetic phenomenon of KA has gained increased attention in recent times, owing to its capacity to trigger significant alterations in perception and consciousness. This interest has fostered a multicultural perspective aimed at comprehending spiritual experiences and their transformative impacts, which culminated in the inclusion of the Religious or Spiritual Problem diagnostic category in the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). That is, clinicians are now encouraged to consider the patient’s cultural factors, religious beliefs, and practices, as well as their “spirituality,” as “essential components of psychiatric history taking” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

Psychologist David Lukoff, a specialist in “spiritual emergency” who co-authored this DSM category defined mystical experiences like a KA this way: “The mystical experience is a transient, extraordinary experience marked by feelings of being in unity, harmonious relationship to the divine and everything in existence, as well as euphoric feelings, noesis, loss ego functioning, alterations in time and space perception, and the sense of lacking control over the event” (Lukoff, 2009).

More specifically, several diverse experiences can accompany KA, each presenting unique characteristics and effects that may include:

Pranic Movements (Kriyas): These are involuntary bodily movements like shaking, vibrating, and contracting, which occur as energy flows through the body.

Yoga Phenomena: Spontaneous enactment of yogic postures or hand gestures, even without prior knowledge or ability to perform them in a normal state. Unusual breathing patterns, rapid or slow and shallow, might also arise (Lukoff et al., 1995).

Physiological Symptoms: Uncommon physiological responses, including heart, spinal, gastrointestinal, or neurological disturbances. This could encompass sensations of burning, heightened sensory sensitivity, excessive activity or lethargy, and fluctuations in sexual desire (Lukoff et al., 1995).

Psychological Symptoms: Emotional fluctuations encompassing anxiety, guilt, depression, as well as compassion, love, and joy (Taylor & Egeto-Szabo, 2017).

Extrasensory Experiences: Elevated sensitivity to both internal and external stimuli, potentially leading to experiences that seem paranormal. These could involve synchronicities, visions with archetypal or symbolic significance, telepathic occurrences, perceiving spiritual presences, auditory perceptions of sounds or voices not originating externally, and visualizing entities not materially present (Greyson, 2000; Lindahl et al., 2017; Taylor, 2015; Grof, 2017).

Mystical States of Consciousness: Transitions into altered states where individuals directly perceive the inherent unity in the world. These states entail profound peace, serenity, unconditional love, and a sensation of transcending temporal and spatial boundaries (James, 1902; Stace, 1960; Lukoff et al., 1995; Griffiths et al., 2019; Yaden & Newberg, 2017). Indeed, KA is linked to a diverse array of mystical, psychological, physiological, and transformative encounters. However, the journey is intensely personal, leading to a spectrum of effects among individuals. This was evidenced in an investigation of spontaneous sensory, motor, and emotional occurrences during meditation among 80 meditators from a singular Tantric Yoga tradition who underwent a Kundalini-related experience (Maxwell & Katyal, 2022). Among the array of reported experiences, it’s worth noting that the highest prevalence was observed in positive mood shifts (69% of participants). This rate surpassed the 32% reported for “mood and energy swing” in a “kundalini awakening” group (Woollacott et al., 2021) and the 46% for “positive affective states” among individuals reporting “awakening experiences” (Taylor & Egeto-Szabo, 2017). Additionally, the subjects reported comparable occurrences of motor experiences (29-41% of all participants, with 61% experiencing at least one type) when compared to other studies, such as 66% for bodily “manifestations” (Poloma & Hoelter, 1998), 37% for involuntary movements (Lindahl et al., 2017), and 48% for “rushes shaking the body” (Woollacott et al., 2021). Many participants also recounted spontaneous experiences with unusual attributes, such as out-of-body experiences, “visions,” “abnormal environmental illumination,” and hearing spiritual voices or music. These encounters present a challenge when attempting to reconcile them with models of kundalini linked solely to sensory characteristics.

Credit: Boris Radivojkov/

Kundalini Awakening and Consciousness

The correlation observed in recent research between KA and consciousness aligns with the philosophical perspectives of Walter Stace and the psychological insights of William James regarding mystical experiences (James, 1902; Stace, 1960). A fundamental facet of this concept involves the disappearance of the physical and mental attributes of ordinary consciousness, giving way to an “undifferentiated pure consciousness.” This state is characterized by several attributes: 1) transcendence of space and time, 2) objectivity and reality, 3) a sense of peace, bliss, and joy, 4) encounters with the holy or divine, and 5) the inexpressibility of the experience (James, 1902; Stace, 1960).

Building upon this initial process, a framework proposes the emergence of two distinct stages: firstly, the dualistic mystical state, which combines heightened self-awareness with an awareness of thoughts and objects; and secondly, the unitive mystical state, where awareness blends with objects (Foreman, 1998b). More specifically, the relationship between KA and consciousness underscores the capacity for spiritual development, self-realization, and an extended awareness frequently linked to this phenomenon, as follows:

Energetic Transformation: Energetic movement is believed to create a more integrated flow of energy throughout the body and mind. As a result, individuals may experience heightened awareness and a deeper connection to their inner selves (James, 1902; Lukoff et al., 1995; Sivananda, 1994).                                                                                                                                                            

Activation of Higher Centers: The awakening of Kundalini is said to activate the crown chakra, which is believed to be associated with spiritual consciousness, a sense of transcendence and interconnectedness, and insights into the nature of reality (James, 1902; Stace, 1960; Sivananda, 1994).

Expanded States of Consciousness: During KA, individuals may enter altered states of consciousness, which can include feelings of unity, euphoria, deep peace, and a sense of timelessness. Some report experiencing mystical and transcendent states of consciousness; a dissociative-type of conscious awareness of leaving the body, and/or of being aware that you are not your body (Stace, 1960; Taylor, 2017; Kason, 1994; Grof & Grof, 2017; Woollacott et al., 2020).

Spiritual Evolution: A KA is often viewed as a step in the spiritual evolution of an individual, a transformative journey that leads to states of enlightenment (samadhi), where they directly experience the absolute, nondual nature of consciousness. (Taylor, 2017; Grof & Grof, 2017; Woollacott et al., 2020).

The relationship between KA and consciousness, along with the corresponding notions of a mystical experience put forth by James (1902) and Stace (1960), was validated in a study that examined firsthand testimonials from 40 scientists and scholars who underwent spiritually transformative encounters (Tressoldi & Woollacott, 2023). Substantial shifts in self-perception and the understanding of reality were documented as follows: 1) A dissolution of personal self-boundaries was reported by 85% of participants, and 62.5% of them described a feeling of “boundless oneness,” frequently characterized by pure, unconditional love, bliss, and luminosity, 2) 60% of individuals perceived reality as unified, indicating a sense of interconnectedness, 3) Some participants characterized the experience as replete with energy, intelligence, and transcendence of time, and 4) All individuals regarded their encounters as authentically real.

Some individuals might undergo profound transformative experiences, while others could experience more subtle shifts in consciousness. Particularly intense shifts in conscious awareness, which exhibit certain commonalities with individuals who report near-death experiences, frequently result in enduring and lasting alterations to an individual’s perception of self and the surrounding world.

Given the deeply personal nature of KA, the outcomes can vary significantly. Some individuals might undergo profound transformative experiences, while others could experience more subtle shifts in consciousness. Particularly intense shifts in conscious awareness, which exhibit certain commonalities with individuals who report near-death experiences (Greyson, 2000; Taylor, 2015; Kason, 1994 [AV1]; Davis, 2019), frequently result in enduring and lasting alterations to an individual’s perception of self and the surrounding world (Taylor & Egeto-Szabo, 2017). For these reasons, it is not surprising that a KA may lead to radical changes in religious and philosophical views, relationships, and career paths. 

Transformative Outcomes

Drawing from the limited preliminary investigations involving individuals reporting KA experiences, it is commonly depicted as a predominantly positive occurrence that facilitates profound and enduring shifts in their personal and philosophical convictions (McClintock et al., 2016; Taylor & Egeto-Szabo, 2017; McGee, 2020).  These transformations encompass a range of affirmative attributes and alterations, including a heightened sense of purpose and meaning in life; connectivity with family, friends, and the natural world; disposition to serve others; the engagement in spiritual pursuits; a divergence from materialistic lifestyles; and belief in immortality, among others (Edwards & Woollacott, 2022; Woollacott et al., 2020; Taylor & Egeto-Szabo, 2017; McGee, 2020; Khalsa et al., 2008; Khanna & Greeson, 2013; Lifshitz et al., 2019). These shifts are accompanied by emotional transformations, encompassing a broader encounter with love (transitioning from ego-centric to unconditional love), heightened self-acceptance, increased positive emotions, and a reduction in the intensity of fears and anxieties. Such profound transformation holds the potential to impact careers in various ways, ranging from assimilating fresh viewpoints into current trajectories to embarking on entirely novel paths centered around consciousness or aiding others from this evolved vantage point (McGee, 2020; Edwards & Woollacott, 2022; Tressoldi & Woollacott, 2023).

Indeed, not all individuals engaging in practices like meditation or yoga experience an intense, energetic KA. If it does occur, the effectiveness and quality of the transformational process can vary greatly based on the individual’s personality, emotional state, and life circumstances. Moreover, independent studies have verified that a majority of their participants reported psychological turmoil or trauma as a significant factor that they believed led them to have the experience (Greyson, 2000; Taylor, et al., 2015; Kason,  1994; Woollacott et al., 2020). This consistent finding further supports the potential for these experiences to yield deep, transformational shifts that can result in long-lasting therapeutic change. In one study, for example, evidence of positive transformational after-effects on well-being was examined in 152 participants who reported having a KA (Corneille & Luke, 2021). The overwhelming majority (90%) reported the experience to have had a predominantly positive impact on their well-being in the short term, and an even higher percentage (98%) reported long-term positive effects. The participants described the entire energetic awakening experience as mystical, which included feelings of expansion, conscious awareness leaving the body, and a sense of being enveloped in light or love. Several key triggers for these experiences included focusing on spiritual matters, being in the presence of a spiritually developed person, and engaging in intense meditation or prayer (Corneille & Luke, 2021).

Collectively, these results not only support the opinion that a spiritual or KA experience facilitates overall positive short and long-term effects on well-being but also shifts one’s intention towards developing more positive ways of living. It should be emphasized, however, that the biological mechanisms facilitating such rapid transformations, enabling the sudden shift of an extensive network of neural connections and thereby changing an individual’s entire perspective and approach to life, remain poorly understood.

Kundalini Awakening: Spiritual Emergency and Psychopathology

Distinguishing between KA and psychosis is essential due to the wide spectrum of non-ordinary consciousness states. While spiritual experiences and KA are no longer considered psychopathological, diagnosing them accurately remains challenging. This difficulty arises from the overlap with psychopathology and the lack of clinicians well-versed in spirituality who are biased toward interpreting intense transformative experiences as mental health problems (Johnson & Friedman, 2008; Menezes & Moreira-Almeida, 2010). Thus, the diagnosis of spiritual experiences and KA in the Religious or Spiritual Problem diagnostic category in the DSM (American Psychiatric Association, 2013) can be tenuous in many cases due to our continued limited understanding about these experiences, both within the medical communities and general public.

While initially blissful, a profound KA can result in significant harm, both mentally (anxiety, memory issues, and mood swings, etc.) and physically (sleep problems, gastrointestinal issues, and changes in sexual desire, etc.), resulting in spiritual emergency (SE). Psychologist Stanislav Grof introduced the term “spiritual emergency”, denoting both crisis and potential heightened awareness or spiritual emergence. According to Grof, “If we use the observations from the study of non-ordinary states, and also from other spiritual traditions, they should really be treated as crises of transformation. If properly understood and supported, they are actually conducive to healing and transformation” ( Grof & Grof, 2017).

While initially blissful, a profound KA can result in significant harm, both mentally (anxiety, memory issues, and mood swings, etc.) and physically (sleep problems, gastrointestinal issues, and changes in sexual desire, etc.), resulting in spiritual emergency (SE).

Unfortunately, there is a lack of comprehensive research on the phenomenology and energetic effects of spiritually transformative experiences like KA, which contributes to limited support from the psychological and medical community for those who are experiencing an SE. Moreover, the clinician’s lack of understanding spiritual experiences like KA, and the significant distinctions between SE and psychosis, are especially problematic for patients experiencing both: 1) psychotic states with mystical features (possibly psychopathological), and 2) non-pathological SE related to a SE or KA (Lukoff, 1985). Improper treatment could harm either group, and may trigger negative symptoms in positively perceived awakening experiences, or intensify the negative symptoms of SE (Johnson & Friedman, 2008; Grof & Grof, 2017). Cofounder of a Kundalini Clinic, Psychiatrist Lee Sannella, emphasized this concern by stating: “There are many undergoing this process who at times feel quite insane. We must reach such people, their families, and society, with information to help them recognize their condition is a blessing, not a curse” (Sannella, 1992).

The distinction between SE and psychosis becomes more evident by examining the relationship between KA and consciousness and the associated positive transformational after-effects on well-being mentioned prior. Those who exhibit such attributes tend to manifest objectivity and a willingness to share their experiences. Conversely, those inclining towards psychosis often exhibit secretive conduct, an obsession with ambiguous subjective elements, and challenges in conveying their experiences to others (Storm & Goretzki, 2021; Bronn & McIlwain, 2015; McClintock et al., 2016).

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Neural Correlates

While the most fundamental questions about mystical experiences may remain beyond the scope of a purely reductive explanation, researchers have attempted to uncover potential biological correlates that could point toward possible underlying mechanisms. In an attempt to find a brain circuit for spirituality, for instance, changes in activity, connectivity, and neural oscillatory processes within the default mode network (DMN) highlight the intricate interplay between brain function and profound states of consciousness. The DMN is a network of brain regions that is active when an individual is not focused on the outside world (e.g., states of mind-wandering, daydreaming, or self-referential thinking) and the brain is at wakeful rest.

It has been proposed that stilling brain activity within the DMN leads to reduced filtering mechanisms and ego-centered processing, allowing for novel interactions in other brain areas that could facilitate what’s often described as “self-transcendence” or a sense of unity with a larger, interconnected whole (Barrett & Griffiths, 2018; Woollacott & Shumway-Cook, 2020). More specifically, reduced neural activity within the areas of the brain that play a role in aspects of self-identity and spatial perception, could be connected to the transcendence of the individual that often accompanies introvertive mystical experiences (Barrett & Griffiths, 2017; Davis, 2019).

Interestingly, cortical areas within the DMN have been associated with some aspect of internal thought which may be related with “self-transcendence,” that mediate profound states of consciousness. For example, 1) The medial temporal lobe is associated with memory; 2) The medial prefrontal cortex has been associated with theory of mind, and the ability to recognize others as having thoughts and feelings similar to one’s own; and 3) The posterior cingulate is thought to involve integrating different kinds of internal thoughts (Raichle, 2015).

Another theory is that the brain features a “God spot,” or one distinct region responsible for many aspects of spiritual experiences. The deep subjective essence of intense oneness and enhanced self-transcendence, for instance, has been reported to occur when the activity is reduced from a space-occupying tumor in the inferior parietal lobe (IPL) of the brain – an area vital for sensory perception and integration (Newberg, 2018). According to several neuroscientists (Newberg, 2018; Persinger, 2001), this perceptual distortion occurs when one is no longer able to differentiate between their inner self and external reality, and the sense of self-transcendence. Interestingly, only patients who had tumors removed from their IPL showed a greater tendency towards religious and spiritual beliefs and experiences (Newberg, 2017).

In another study, researchers used lesion network mapping to map complex human behaviors to specific brain circuits based on the locations of brain lesions in 88 patients (Ferguson et al., 2021). Of the 88 patients who had neurosurgical resection to remove a brain tumor, 30 showed a decrease in self-reported spiritual belief, 29 showed an increase, and 29 showed no change. The researchers discovered a connection between self-reported spirituality and a brainstem region called the periaqueductal gray; an area linked to various functions such as fear, pain modulation, altruism, and unconditional love. Lesions affecting nodes within this area either decreased or increased self-reported spiritual beliefs. It’s worth noting that these broader neurological-perceptual associations were substantiated through a cross-sectional online survey involving more than a thousand meditators. This survey revealed that a range of reported experiences, including mystical/transcendent, social/relational, physical/perceptual, spatial/temporal experiences, and extended human capacities, are both widespread and significant among those who undergo them (Vieten et al., 2018).

The convergence of these findings opens avenues for exploring the human experience, and the interplay between brain function, cognitive processes, and profound states of consciousness from a neuroscientific standpoint. If the brain is indeed hardwired for spiritual experiences, the next question is whether a KA is a normal part of the physical evolutionary experience, or an innate physiological coping mechanism to manage times of crisis to help maintain the survival of humanity (Davis, 2019).


The field of research into the physical and mental health aspects of spiritual phenomena, particularly in the context of KA and associated experiences, is still in its early stages. It is critical, however, that by addressing the interrelationship of biological, psychological, social, and spiritual aspects, a more holistic understanding of human experiences related to KA will emerge within a Science of the Subjective; a new science that incorporates current scientific principles with the subjective experience and intuition (Jahn & Dunne, 1997).

The integration of consciousness and the physical universe within a comprehensive scientific framework represents a paradigm shift that recognizes consciousness as a dynamic force that shapes reality, extending beyond brain biochemistry. This model would encompass both objective and subjective experiences to define and elucidate consciousness, a fundamental element of the human individual – be it energy, spirit, or another facet – ultimately redefining prevailing notions in both science and spirituality. 

Spiritual experiences, such as the concept of a KA, have demonstrated predominantly positive transformations in one’s personal and philosophical values and beliefs. Initially, focusing on altering attitudes, beginning with the acceptance of individuals undergoing KA experiences, holds promise for us all by contributing to a more compassionate and values-driven society.

The vision is for those who have spiritual experiences to serve as models for others engaged in their own spiritual quests, and sharing these experiences may inspire and guide others on their journeys of self-discovery and spiritual exploration, benefiting not only those directly involved, but also, humanity at large—an evolving paradigm shift.


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Author’s Biography

Robert Davis, Ph.D. served as a professor for the State University of New York for over thirty years, where he conducted research in the behavioral and neurosensory sciences. He has authored or co-authored more than 30 presentations and 60 papers, which include invited lectures at Harvard, Cambridge, and Peking University. Davis was also awarded numerous grants to support research. He has published three books: 1) The UFO Phenomenon: Should I Believe? 2) Life after Death: An Analysis of the Evidence, and 3) Unseen Forces: The Integration of Science, Reality and You. He has also decided to turn his book, Unseen Forces, into a documentary called The Consciousness Connection with Emmy Award winner Dave Beaty of Dreamtime Entertainment and Wilson Hawthorne of Eyeland Telemedia, Inc.

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