The Methodology and Physiology of Kundalini Yoga and the Significance of the Pineal Gland
For centuries, people across the globe have practiced the art of meditation and yoga. Although the true origin of the practice may never be ascertained, many believe that the first formalized branches of meditation and yoga have their foundations in the East (Wallace, Fisher, 1983). Scholars have since divided the history of Yoga into four periods. The Vedas, the scriptures of Brahmanism, a precursor to Hinduism, were introduced during the aptly titled “Vedic” period. The Vedas preached of attaining an advanced understanding or enlightenment over the human condition (Radhakrishnan, 1957). From the Vedas, the Upanishads were written, during the “Pre-Classical” period. The Yoga Sutra, a further refined doctrine of attaining enlightenment, was written during the Classical Period. The Yoga Sutra consisted of an Eightfold path of Yoga, similar to the Eightfold path of Buddhism. Among the Eightfold path of Yoga, instructions regarding but not limited to social restraint, purity, exercise, and contemplation were offered. (Radhakrishnan, 1957).
A fundamental shift in approach was undertaken during the transition from the “Classical” period to the “Post-Classical” period (1). Popularity in Yoga was increasing and during the early nineteenth century Yoga was introduced to the West. With its introduction, its focus was shifted from an ultimate goal of liberation from illusionary reality to that of coping and accepting the environment he or she has found themselves in (1). Guru Swami Sivananda, a Malaysian doctor, opened Yoga schools in America and Europe. Most prominent of his works was his modification of the principles, which defined Yoga. Again, there was a shift from surpassing Maya (illusionary reality) to better everyday living. His principles included Savansana, proper relaxation; Asanas, proper exercise; Pranayama, proper breathing; Proper diet; and Dhyana, positive thinking. Savansana became a prolific writer on the subject, authoring over two hundred books. Among his disciples was Yogi Bhajan, who began teaching and popularizing Kundalini Yoga in the 1970’s.
Emerging from the Kashmir region of India, Kundalini is a Sanskrit term, which translated in English means ‘serpent power’. A strong motif within the Kundalini tradition, which will be expanded upon within this paper, draws strong correlations to the actual practices found within the yoga. A definition found within the Concise Oxford Dictionary of the English Language describes Kundalini as ‘the energy of our natural physical beingness – the life energy of each cell of the Physical Body.’ Kundalini is very distinct from other forms of yoga and meditation. Unlike more passive forms of yoga such as Transcendental meditation and Zen Buddhism, Kundalini Yoga requires intense concentration and at times strenuous physical exertion in order to deliberately manipulate the energy within the human body (Krishna 1971).
Although Kundalini Yoga arose from the lineage of Indian teachings, it is not exclusive to one particular region or culture. The energy that Kundalini represents is known as “ki” in Japan, and “chi” in China. The Hopi Indians of North America believe that humans are imbued with a spirit or energy. They believe that this energy is a person’s bond with the Universal Self, but that the bond is severed by the door at the top of the head that closes, whereby the person falls from communion with the Universal Self (5). The Greek messenger god, Mercury was seen holding a staff known as a Caduceus, which had a pair of snakes rising along its shaft. A variation on the theme can be found in the alchemical symbol for metamorphosis, Mercury’s Serpent. The thirty-two degrees found within Freemasonry are said to be analogous to the thirty-two vertebra that comprise to spinal cord, as the initiate graduates his or her understanding they rise in degrees, much like the energy, or ‘shakti’, discussed within Kundalini Yoga that is said to rise along the spinal cord (5). The seemingly coincidental motifs of serpents or rising energy along a staff or spine come into striking clarity as the physiological effects of Kundalini Yoga are explained.
In a San Francisco university experiment, Peter Arambula, Erik Peper, Mitsumasa Kawakami, and Katherine Hughes Gibney, investigated the physiological effects of Kundalini Yoga. Their subject, a fifty-nine year old Japanese Yogi with over thirty years experience with Kundalini Yoga, was fitted with abdominal and thoracic strain gauges, an electrode for an EEG was attached to his earlobe while his heart and pulse rate were recorded by a small photoplethysmograph attached to the right thumb. The patient’s physiological responses were recoded for a fifteen-minute recorded session utilizing Kundalini Yoga practices, as well as both a three-minute pre- and post-baseline reading. There was a significant lowering in respiration rate from pre-baseline reading of eleven breaths per minute and a post-baseline reading of thirteen breaths compared to the five breaths per minute allowed during the fifteen minutes while performing Kundalini Yoga. This slowed breathing was concentrated in the abdominal region and less focused in the thoracic region. This slower, abdominal breathing is the proper breathing techniques of experienced participants of meditation (Ram Dass 1971). Arambula feels that this deeper abdominal breathing brings about the enhanced alpha waves, which were recorded during the session. A theory seconded by R. Fried in his 1987 paper, The hyperventilation syndrome: Research and clinical treatment.
Shanahoff Khalsa DS. at The Institute for Nonlinear Science at the University of California, advocates the clinical possibilities Kundalini Yoga offers (2005). He references studies that investigated the slowed relaxed breathing techniques of Kundalini Yoga in application to patients suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder. Khalsa reports that not only were obsessive-compulsive symptoms were lowered, “other symptoms, including anxiety and depression, were also significantly reduced.” (2005). An established connection between the deliberate control of respiration practiced in Kundalini Yoga and positive mental and physiological results have been posited, but what is the cause of this reaction?
While conducting research in physiological correlations toward Kundalini Yoga, Czechoslovakian researcher and author of, Stalking the Wild Pendulum, Itzhak Bentov came across a groundbreaking discovery. He describes the mechanics of his experiment using a ballistocardiograph, “A subject sits on a chair between two metal plates, one above the head and one under the seat, 5 to10 centimeters from the body. The two plates of the capacitor are part of a tuned circuit. The movement of the subject will modulate the field between the two plates. The signal is processed and fed into a single channel recorder which registers both the motion of the chest due to respiration and the movement of the body reacting to the motion of the blood in the heart-aorta system.” (1977).
Bentov wrote that as blood is pumped into the aortic blood vessel upward toward the head, there is a corresponding minute upward push, which rises up the spine. the blood then rescinds and flows back down to the bifurcation of the aorta. This pushed the body downward. These movements, although almost imperceptible, are known as micromotions. He registered these movements on the ballistocardiograph between 0.003 and 0.009 millimeters. This up and down flow oscillates the body up and down on a natural rhythm of seven cycles per second, more mechanically defined as seven hertz. Bentov calls this rate the ‘heart/aorta pulsation’. The slightest movements can alter this heart/aorta pulsation. When Bentov’s patients entered the deep, non-moving states of Kundalini meditation aortic pulsations syncopated to the heart/aorta pulsation of seven hertz. It is with this pulsation that Bentov feels a distinct signal is sent to the brain. He states that when the internal micromotion creates ripple, which travel through the aortic blood, reaches the head, travels through cerebral spinal fluid, and creates acoustic waves that have the possibility to converting into to electrical signals to be read by the brain. Bentov states this pulsation ripples across the roof of the lateral ventricle, creating a current that stimulates pleasure centers like the amygdala, and hippocampus of the limbic system surrounding the lateral ventricle. In reflection of Bentov’s work, Swami Satyananda Saraswati, Founder of the International Yoga Fellowship and the Bihar School of Yoga, drew connections between Bentov’s patients practicing Kundalini Yoga and their syncopation with the heart/aorta pulsation to the fact that this “may give rise to the bliss and ecstacy reported by meditators whose shakti awakens.” (1977).
Although the triggering of pleasure centers within the limbic system due to the ripples created by the micromotions of the heart/aorta pulsation witnessed during Kundalini Yoga may be the end result of the breathing practices, the path that this oscillating energy along the spine is what gives Kundalini its terminology. The rising of energy, whether considered as a snake writhing along a staff as the Greeks did (Hall 1920), or vibrations within the blood (Sarawati 1977), is the critical component of Kundalini Yoga.
In addition to ‘serpent power’ another interpretation of Kundalini is ‘coiling”. A common Hindu belief that at the base of every person’s spine rests a coiled serpent is thematic in Kundalini Yoga due to the deliberate focusing that the yoga places on raising energy along the spine- the staff, it’s allegorical counterpart. This energy is considered to rise up the spine, along seven incremental receptor sites, known as charkas. These seven charkas, Sanskrit for “wheel”, are thought maintain their own particular frequency of energy. It is through a harmonization of these frequencies in a rising and incremental manner that brings alignment to the body and mind. These seven charkas have analogous physical components when compared to glands within the endocrine system. In a bottom-up orientation that runs from the tip of the coccyx to the pineal gland, these charkas and the locations thereof, are believed to parallel glands within the endocrine system. The muladhara root chakra mirrors the testis in men and the ovary in women; the spleen chakra relates to the pancreas; the adrenal gland is located at the chakra of the solar plexus; the heart chakra relates to the thymus; the throat chakra has a counterpart with the thyroid gland, while the brow and crown chakras relates to pituitary and pineal glands gland respectively. Interestingly enough, there are corresponding colors assigned to the charkas, colors which mirror those found within the electromagnetic spectrum, with violet serving as the color of each system’s height of intensity.
Other theories speculate the energy that travels from chakra to charka is actually signals traveling from ganglions, located within or near the accompanying glands. Dorsal root ganglia, also known as spinal ganglia, run along the spine and contains cell bodies of sensory nerves, which provide relay points and act as intermediary connectors between peripheral and central nervous systems. It is in the seventh chakra, the crown or Sahasrara chakra that is believed to hold the key in unlocking Enlightenment and obtaining pure consciousness. The Sahasrara charka is symbolized detachment from illusion. Under Hindu belief, once Kundalini rises to the seventh chakra Samadhi, or union with God, is reached. This final chakra, the pinnacle of Kundalini Yoga, is associated with the pineal gland. We now must ask, what is the physiological attribute of the pineal gland that allows it to be considered analogous with the ‘thousand petaled lotus’ of Yogic tradition?
In French philosopher Rene Descartes’ seminal work, A Treatise of Man, he claimed the pineal gland to be the “seat of the soul”. He goes further implicating the pineal gland to facilitate as the mediator between mind and body. In Indian tradition the third eye is known as gyananakashu, the “eye of knowledge”. This third eye is analogous with the brow and crown charkas, and is referenced as the dot seen on the foreheads of Shiva, Buddha, as well as practicing bodhisattvas. Tilaks are also worn by practicing Hindus in honor of the third eye. The fact that Hindu faith teaches that when opened, the third eye of Shiva will destroy physical reality (3). Physical reality in Hinduism is considered illusionary and therefore the destruction thereof facilitates a deepened understanding or enlightenment (3). Through this chakra or third eye, the pituitary gland serves as an almost physiological soothsayer. The pineal gland’s most commonly acknowledged biological contribution is often considered melatonin production, the hormone that strongly affects our circadian rhythms. However there is anther chemical that pineal gland secretes that may hold the secret connection between itself, Enlightenment, and Kundalini Yoga.
Dimethyltryptamine, commonly referred to as DMT, has a Schedule I drug classification, which makes it illegal to manufacture, sell, buy, or distribute. Despite its prohibition in the United States of America, plants which contain traces of DMT are used in Ayahuasca brews during spiritual ceremonies found in South America. Ayahuasca brews are made with Psychotria viridis, a type of vine with naturally-occuring levels of DMT. The Psychotria viridis vine which contains DMT is where Ayahuasca derives its meaning, as the “vine of the souls” (19). Again we find a reference to DMT acting as a catalyst toward attaining enlightenment and a higher sense of understanding. DMT, which is naturally found within the pineal gland, is the common link between this enlightenment and the charkas, which find their analogous counterparts within the organs of the endocrine system- the pineal gland being the chief of these charkas. DMT is secreted from the pineal gland by the enzyme tryptamine-N-methyltransferase. Interaction with dimethyltryptamine induces strong psychotropic reactions including but not limited to intense visual and physiological hallucinations, time disorientation, sythesesia, as well as possible fundamental shifts in perspective and opinion (19). Philosopher and author of numerous books covering entheogenic studies, Terrence McKenna, was quoted in regards to the effect of DMT on the human mind, “The ordinary world is almost instantaneously replaced… Nothing in this world can prepare one for the impressions that fill your mind when you enter the DMT sensorium.”
Professor of psychiatry and researcher, Dr. Rick Strassman, who coined DMT as the “spirit molecule”, has performed investigations involving DMT and human ingestion. While Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of New Mexico’s School of Medicine in Albuquerque, Strassman administered four hundred intravenous doses of DMT to sixty patients over a five-year period. The dosages were .05mg per kg of body weight. Through these experiments, detailed in Strassman’s book, DMT: The Spirit Molecule, Strassman feels that the internal production of DMT acts as a vehicle to reach other states of consciousness, “Keep in mind that a spirit molecule is not spiritual in and of itself. It is a tool, or a vehicle. Think of it as a tugboat, a chariot, a scout on horseback, something to which we can fix our consciousness – A spirit molecule also leads us into spiritual realms. These worlds are usually invisible to us and our instruments and are not accessible using our normal state of consciousness.” Here we have a recurrent theme and promising evidence that all the aforementioned experiences, biological components, and yogic practices mentioned within this paper serve to reach altered or enlightened states of consciousness, and they are reached through activating an endogenous release of dimethyltryptamine from the pineal gland where it is produced. It is this activation and production of DMT within the pineal gland that is the ultimate goals in Kundalini Yoga, which acts to facilitate an opening of the third eye or brow chakra- the counterpart of the pineal gland itself.
Despite the mentioned enlightening psychological benefits found in Kundalini Yoga, there are several dangerous side effects due to prolonged Kundalini Yoga. Based on discussions Itzhak Bentov held with psychiatrists he has stated that he estimates, 25 to 30 percent of psychiatric patients are institutionalized schizophrenics due to the unexpected arrival of symptoms that parallel those reached while activating the brow chakra, its biological counterpart the pineal gland. He feels, “the human nervous system has a tremendous latent capacity for evolution. This evolution can be accelerated by meditative techniques, or it can occur spontaneously in an unsuspecting individual. In both cases, a sequence of events is triggered, causing sometimes strong and unusual bodily reactions and unusual psychological states. Some of these people who meditate may suspect these reactions are somehow connected with meditation. Others, however, who develop these symptoms spontaneously may panic and seek medical advice… Unfortunately, however, western medicine is presently not equipped to handle these problems. Strangely, in spite of the intensity of the symptoms, little or no physical pathology can be found.” (1979).
Through the schools of Humanistic and Transpersonal psychology the term “Kundalini Syndrome” has arisen. Believed to be occurring to those who have prolonged and/or intensive spiritual and contemplative practices Kundalini Syndrome hosts a symptomology that unfolds over the course of several months, possibly years. The psychologically destabilizing effects this syndrome has on the mind Transpersonal psychologist Stanislav Groff has termed a “spiritual emergency”. Symptoms include subjective changes in body temperature, a feeling of an electrical charge or current running through the body, persistent sexual arousal syndrome, tremors, changes in respiratory function, intense mood swings, and depersonalization. (Greyson 1993). In the article, The Physio Kundalini Syndrome and Mental Illness, Dr. B. Greyson feels that during the formative years when many of the ancient texts concerning Kundalini Yoga were written, the practices were uniformly committed under the supervision of a guru, or teacher. It is our western adoption of the practice and the often-solitary nature we relate meditation with that has left us vulnerable to Kundalini Syndrome. “Kundalini should only be awakened by a gradual process under the guidance of someone who has first-hand experience with it; otherwise, a Kundalini awakening in a body and soul not properly prepared can produce negative effects, including psychosis.”
Greyson goes on to speculate that the majority of westerners who suffer from the psychosis brought about by kundalini syndrome are those who are predisposed to suffer from or are already exhibit symptoms of mental illness, often showing signs of a narcissistic pathology prior to experimenting with kundalini yoga. Despite these risks, the substantial benefits and psychological implications thereof offered through Kundalini yoga merit more clinical research, in addition to encouraging the practice of Kundalini yoga in one’s life with the proper guidance and instruction.
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