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Kundalini: The energy of transformation

Yogic practices are designed to bring an inner transformation that encompasses all aspects of one’s life. To a Western mind, understanding how such transformative experience occurs through a series of techniques is particularly challenging without a foundation of metaphysical anatomy. Most importantly, even though there are physiological correlates to the other metaphysical anatomical structures, the energy of transformation, or Kundalini energy, is thought to be beyond the scope of physiological studies. Nevertheless we can measure the effects of such energy from emotional, cognitive and physiological changes to signs of higher consciousnesses and spiritual maturity.

An important concept in understanding the transformative changes that occur in the oscillatory activity of the breath, the brain and the heart, is coherence. In physics, coherence is the ordered distribution of energy in a waveform. This can be observed in oscillatory systems that vary sinousoidally at a stable frequency and amplitude. Thus, any system that shows coherent activity is conserving energy and performing optimally.

Psychophysiologically, coherence is characterized by increased synchronization, harmony, and efficiency in the interaction within and among physiological, cognitive and emotional systems (McCraty, 2006, p. 3). The transformation begins when the breath, the brain and the heart become balanced and coherent, and the Kundalini energy, residing in the lowest energy center, comes to life.

The Balanced Breath

     The transformation begins as one becomes aware of one’s breathing, a process that usually occurs under autonomic control. Gradually, this awareness is extended for longer periods of time, and the breath becomes steady, deeper and longer; the breath is said to become coherent. Physiologically this results in a very efficacious pulmonary system, with maximum absorption of oxygen and prana. However, the effects of such awareness also encompass the cycle of breathing and control of the ANS.

     So far, our discussion of the nostril cycle has centered on the alternation between left and right nostril dominance and the benefits of regular alternation of the breath. However, we have not carefully explored the possibility that the breath may flow through both nostrils simultaneously, in a harmonious and balanced state. Normally, between changes in nostril dominance the breath circulates equally through both nostrils for a brief period of time ranging from 1 to 4 minutes. Through Yoga practice, the breath flows evenly through both nostrils for longer periods of time (Mukti Bodhananda, 1999, pp. 57,91). Furthermore, the differences between right and left dominance become smaller, as organs become full of prana and exhibit optimal metabolic activity, and neither of the two branches of the autonomic nervous system is stressed. Even in the presence of nostril dominance, a tendency towards exhibiting some airflow in the congested nostril is also a sign of a more balanced state.

Changes in the nostril cycle can have several meanings depending on the background of the individual and context. Extended periods of time where the breath flows exclusively through one nostril can have different meanings depending on context. For example, Swami Mukti Bodhananda(1999) and Swami Sivananda (2005) introduce a practice they refer to as Swara Sadhana. In this spiritual practice, the Yogi is instructed to breathe through the left nostril throughout the whole day, while breathing through the right nostril the whole night. This technique overcomes the body’s natural tendency to become overheated during the day and overcool at night and is thought to bestow various spritual and physical benefits (Mukti Bodhananda, 1999, p. 102). If the breath of an advanced Yogi is flowing through the Sushumma Nadi for a long period of time, it means that this energy channel is being charged with Kundalini energy. However, this may not hold for some other individual for whom activity in the Sushumma might mean that death is coming soon (Mukti Bodhananda, 1999, p. 59). In both cases, there is transcendence of the body but at different levels of consciousness. Furthermore, activity in the Sushumma also relates to the mind becomes “one-pointed”, fully immersed in contemplation of the environment or metaphysical energies. At this point, both spiritual and criminal tendencies can arise (Mukti Bodhananda, 1999, p. 56) depending on the level of consciousness. These observations suggest that the flow of the energy through the Sushumma can have various effects in the body and the mind, which could not be explained simply in physiological terms. The main difference between the Yogi and the average individual lies in the intense practice of the Yogi to learn to control the prana and direct it accordingly. Even if we find a physiological correlate of the Sushumma Nadi, it would be a challenge to Western psychology to explain how the resulting changes in cognition vary so greatly.

The Balanced Brain

     A balanced state has marked physiological changes in brain physiology and functioning. Given our understanding of the nostril cycle and the brain hemispheres, breathing through both nostrils means that both hemispheres of the brain are working together harmoniously. Anatomically, this means that there is enhanced activity in the corpus callosum, the brain structure that connects both hemispheres. It has been found that the times during the transition of nostril dominance, this structure is in fact more active (Goleman & RJ, 1979). Task such as creative thinking and problem solving are thought to require both the left and right hemisphere functions (Gadzella, 1999).

    The foundation to understand a balanced and coherent brain state lies in understanding overall patterns of wave-like activity, measured primarily by electrical activity using an EEG. Such activity is categorized by the frequency of oscillation of the brain waves. Brain coherence relates to a uniform pattern of activity throughout the brain; and if such uniformity is persistent, a tonic rhythm is thought to be present (Austin, 1999, p. 89). In a balanced brain, we expect high levels of activity passing through the corpus callosum as well as tonic rhythms. Along with changes in brain physiology, we can also expect relevant changes in endocrine system activity, which is greatly modulated by the brain. Finally, from the discussion of the effect of changes in nostril cycle on catecholamines and pituitary hormones, we can also expect marked changes in the endocrine secretions.

 As the Yogi gains control over the ANS and prana, he can voluntarily divert a greater flow of prana into any region of the body, including the brain. This can potentially lead to an intensification of brain activity (Krishna, 1993, p. 200) and to a coherent state with high levels of intrahemispheric activity and more efficacious metabolic functioning. The physiological changes that occur in the brain, the main component of the central nervous system (CNS), support higher levels of awareness and occur in parallel with increased coherence in the breath and the heart.


The Brain and Sleep

 
     Understanding the importance of sleep, Yoga also provides a series of techniques to enhance sleep and relaxation, as well as using this state of awareness to further elevate consciousness. As one enters sleep, the nostril cycle is complemented by patterns of REM (Rapid Eye Movement) and NREM (non REM) activity. Even though the purpose of sleep remains unknown is clearly has a restorative effect in the brain, with the hypothalamus being suggested as the regulator of rhythms during sleep (Clifford, Scammell, & Lu, 2005). This observation also supports a possible connection with the nostril cycle, which is also modulated by hypothalamic activity. In individuals with no Yoga experience, right nostril dominance correlates with REM sleep while greater activity in the left hemisphere, whereas left nostril dominance correlates with NREM sleep (Shannahoff-Khalsa, Gillin, Yates, Schlosser, & Zawadzki, 2001). In one study, Atanasov & Dimov (2003) showed that synchronization of sleep and nostril cycles occurs during the REM phases of sleep, with one period of the nasal cycle corresponding to one or more sleep cycles. Research has yet to produce a comprehensive theory to explain such close relationships. Nevertheless, Yogis claim to fully comprehend the nostril cycle and its physical correlates with activity patterns in the nadis at night. For instance, one of the benefits of practicing Swara Yoga is that the Yogi can sleep without tranquilizers and work without becoming fatigued (Mukti Bodhananda, 1999, p. 6).

     Nostril dominance is strongly influenced by lateral posture (Mohan M. S., 1991), with right side postures stimulating the Ida nadi, and left side postures stimulating the Pingala nadi. Thus, we can expect that any predisposition to sleep in a particular posture will have an impact on the nostril cycle, as well as on the brain and the heart. As noted above nostril flow is greatly influenced by the nature of daily activities, which explains the high degree of variability found in studies that explore the nostril cycle at daytime. However, during sleep, breathing patterns are allowed to fluctuate without influences from daily activities or the semiconscious control over the breath, which makes the study of the nostril cycle at night particularly appealing.

     For individuals with no Yoga experience it is recommended that they fall asleep on the right side, stimulating the Ida Nadi, because right nostril dominance can be associated with a stressed state (Shannahoff-Khalsa D. S., 2007, pp. 175-176). However, Swara Yoga practitioners are recommended to have the Pingala nadi active at night when practicing Swara Sadhana (Sivananda, 2005). The process of sleep is so relevant to the practice of Yoga that a particular technique, called Yoga Nidra, was developed to promote awareness even during the process of sleeping including the stages of deep sleep. The practice of Yoga Nidra can also be understood as technique to lengthen the time spent on the hypnagogic and hypnopompic stages, that is, the stages between wakefulness and sleep. Some relevant aspects of this practice are the constant examination of thought patterns, as well as control of prana, and proprioceptive awareness throughout the body in the absence of external stimulus. Various Yoga gurus, such as Swami Veda Bharati and Swami Rama, have consciously produced delta waves under laboratory conditions, demonstrating that they can not only consciously alter their brain state, but also, remain fully conscious during stages that are characteristic of deep sleep.

    These observations suggest that one of the primary functions of sleep is the balancing of the nostril cycle, and hypothalamic activity, resulting in more coherent activity in the body. Even if a Yogi does not practice Yoga Nidra, higher levels of consciousness and coherence resulting from Kundalini energy activity would also result in extended levels of awareness during sleep, especially during the hypnagogic and hypnopompic stages.

The Balanced Heart
     
     The heart directly interacts with the autonomic nervous system including the Vagus nerve. Any excitatory activity in those systems increases heart rate and blood pressure, while inhibitory activity has the opposite effect. Similar to the breath and the brain, coherence in the heart manifests as changes in heart rate variability (HRV), with stable pattern of sine-wave activity. Furthermore, a high level of coherence in the heart is coupled with emotional balance, alertness, and improved cognitive abilities (McCraty, 2006, pp. 9-11).

    Heart coherence can be measured using the HRV power spectrum, which divides heart activity into several frequencies, with very low frequencies representing sympathetic activity and high frequencies representing parasympathetic nervous system activity. In particular, coherent activity manifests as increased activity in the low frequency band (around .1Hz), with no major peaks in the very low or high frequency bands (McCraty, 2006, p. 8). This means that neither of the two branches of the ANS is overstressed. From this, we would expect higher intrahemispheric activity, as well as higher brain coherence to be coupled with heart coherence. This is precisely what McCraty (2006) observed when he describes that in coherent states, brain alpha rhythms exhibit increased synchronization.

Yoga also places emphasis on the heart. One of the energy centers, the Anahata chakra, which is related to the thoracic plexus, has a strong connection with the heart. Furthermore, many of the Yogic practices stimulate the Vagus nerve, having a direct impact on the heart. As proprioception increases, the Yogic practitioner also becomes more aware of this area, paying particular attention to changes in heart rate and the effects of blood pressure changes. Numerous Yogic demonstrations of autonomic nervous system control involve the heart, sometimes even showing marked changes in physiological functioning that would lead to death in inexperienced individuals (Rele, 1931).

Awareness and Consciousness

    A common change occurring in the breath, the brain and the heart is a new level of awareness. Physiologically, this manifests as enhanced sense perception, with marked changes in how external information is processed. In Yogic terms, the Pingala is thought to direct awareness towards external objects. Furthermore, awareness can also be internal, driven by activity in the Ida nadi (Mukti Bodhananda, 1999, p. 30). Physiologically, this manifests as enhanced proprioception, including heightened awareness of the body, such as activity in the skeleton-muscular system and the internal organs (Bhole, 1989). Furthermore, we can expect such proprioception to be balanced equally among both sides of the body if enhanced proprioceptive senses are connected with brain hemispheric balance. In Yoga, awareness goes beyond sensations acquired through the physical body, and thus their scientific exploration is challenging. Enhanced awareness includes being aware of movements of prana in the body and also in the environment, including the awareness of thought processes.

    Closely related to awareness is consciousness. Etymologically, to be conscious of something is to share knowledge of it with someone else or with oneself. Among the many definitions discussed by Zeman (2001), the definition of consciousness that is more compatible with Yoga is “awareness of awareness.” In Yogic terms, the spiritual growth occurs as one gradually elevates one’s consciousness through disciplined practices. Furthermore, each chakra, or energy center represents a level of consciousness, which is transcended as the Kundalini energy ascends through the Sushumma nadi. A measurable effect of increased levels of consciousness is the transcendence of the physical existence. This interpretation is present throughout Yogic literature. Swami Mukti Bodhananda (1999, p. 85) explains the Kundalini awakening as the separation of energy from matter. Similarly, Swami Vishnu-devananda (1988, p. 230) describes that after gaining control over prana, the mind can send nerve current without the Ida or Pingala nadis, which is the means by which the Yogi gets rid of the bondage of matter. Among the changes that are thought to occur as physical existence is transcended, yogic literature explains that there is also an increased intuitive ability beyond psychological understanding, as well as siddhis, or extra-sensory perceptions (ESP) be explained by known physical or biological mechanisms. In almost all the cases when psychic abilities are reported, individuals have little or no control this ability and they cannot exhibit it by choice, or even remain fully alert or conscious through the phenomena (Krishna, 1993, p. 384). In the words of Swami Vishnu-Devananda (1988, p. 277), intuition “transcends reason and brings knowledge and wisdom”. The aim of Yoga is to continue elevating the level of consciousness, leading to the understanding of the nature of reality.

Cause and Effect
    A natural question that arises in the Western scientific mind is the direction of cause and effect. Do physiological adaptations in the brain cause changes in the heart or is this relationship reversed? Is the control of the Vagus nerve the cause of changes in the heart and the brain or is the control of the Vagus nerve simply an effect of such changes? But thinking in simple linear cause-and-effect may be inappropriate in understanding Yoga experiences. Changes in the physical body are thought to be just a mere symptom of deeper changes in mental functions and spiritual progress.

The Continuing Journey

After the ascent of serpent energy through the Sushumma, the Kundalini energy reverts back to the base of the spine, bringing the Yogi back to normal consciousness. The Yogi has now taken a peek at the nature of reality and balanced the intuitive, holistic and subjective Eastern mind and the Western logical, objective and analytical mind. Even after transcending time and space and the fear of death, the spiritual journey of the Yogi continues with challenges beyond our understanding, deepening even further the knowledge of the breath, the brain and the heart.

Source

Suárez‐Rubio S. From Eastern Metaphysics to Western Psychology: The Brain, the Heart and the Breath. Cornell University (thesis). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University. 2007.