Krishnamacharya on Kuṅḍalinī The origins and coherence of his position

By Simon Atkinson

Is it acceptable to criticise the teachings of respected teachers?

In India, students prostrate before a guru. In the west, we show respect in other ways. A key indicator is how we spend our time. We are unlikely to practise and study with a teacher for long, or invest time investigating their teachings, if we do not respect that teacher.

One of Krishnamacharya’s principal students, T.K.V. Desikachar, profoundly influenced me. I saw Desikachar speak only several times but since the 1990s I’ve been taught by teachers trained by him and his students. My life would be very different without that teaching.

I’ve been fascinated by Krishnamacharya’s teachings on kuṇḍalinī since I read Desikachar’s Heart of Yoga. Out of respect, I studied Desikachar’s writings on kuṇḍalinī and the texts he referenced, principally the Yogayājñavalkya. I’ve been learning Sanskrit since 2001 so I critically analysed translations of the Yogayājñavalkya by Desikachar and A.G. Mohan, and studied texts including the Haṭha(yoga)pradīpikā. I analysed teachings from workshops with respected teachers including Paul Harvey, A.G. Mohan and Srivatsa Ramaswami. I analysed their writings and studied academic publications. I wrote this book in a sincere attempt to share what I learned.

Given my respect for T.K.V. Desikachar, I expected to find evidence supporting his presentation of kuṇḍalinī. I found, however, that his translation of sections of the Yogayājñavalkya on kuṇḍalinī is inaccurate, misrepresenting where that text locates kuṇḍalinī and contradicting what Krishnamacharya wrote. Desikachar also misrepresented the Śrīvaiṣṇava polymath Vedāntadeśika, whose teachings are inconsistent with Krishnamacharya’s position on kuṇḍalinī. I came to that conclusion after studying Vedāntadeśika’s texts and consulting the pontiff of a Śrīvaiṣṇava ashram.

In their translation of the Yogatārāvalī, T.K.V. Desikachar and Kausthub Desikachar claimed that “All texts confirm that it is the Prāṇthat indeed moves into the Suṣūmnā (beginning at the Mūlādhāra Cakra and terminating at the Sahasrāra Cakra), and not the Kuṇḍalini.” That is not true. Several texts support Krishnamacharya’s position but some are inconsistent regarding kuṇḍalinī’s nature and location. Other texts describe kuṇḍalinī as energy that rises.

My book is neither a defence of Krishnamacharya’s position nor a diatribe. I took an open- minded view of the tradition from within as fairly and accurately as possible. Although it is an academic study, it is not entirely theoretical. It explores how Krishnamacharya’s position on kuṇḍalinī influenced how yoga is practised.

As the book is published, I have mixed feelings. I feel satisfied that many years of enquiry has come to fruition but I feel some trepidation. I hope that followers of T.K.V. Desikachar and A.G. Mohan will appreciate that in critically analysing their writings, I mean no disrespect. I hope practitioners would rather know the truth, even if it means admitting their teachers are fallible.

Thus, I offer my book to the yoga community with an attitude of vairāgya. Please make of it what you will.

Simon Atkinson “Krishnamacharya on Kuṇḍalinī – the Origins and Coherence of his Position”, Equinox, 2022


Krishnamacharya on Kuṇḍalinī by Simon Atkinson (Equinox, 2022), a review by Michael Hutchinson

This scholarly text by Simon (SA) takes an exemplary approach, combining Western critical thinking with an Indian respect for traditional sources. It is good to see an approach that is, on the one hand, respectful and sympathetic yet, on the other, exhaustive and unsparing. SA’s work is supported by many years of painstaking personal research at home and in India and shows an adherence, while looking from inside our tradition, to strict neutrality as regards to which authorities are most sound and credible.

This book holds many revelations. Firstly, I was unaware that, in looking for sources on kuṇḍalinī, Krishnamacharya (K) and his students TKV Desikachar (D) and AG Mohan (M) were working within a very wide Vaishnava tradition with potentially dozens of texts to draw upon. Following his introduction, SA begins with the only text I was aware of that mentions the location of kuṇḍalinī, the Yoga Yājñavalkya (YY). Here SA critically dissects the relevant passages in the translations offered by D and by M. Firstly, although the text is clear, D introduces some doubt regarding the location of kuṇḍalinī, by placing it near the perineum, when the YY locates in near the navel. M, on the other hand, leaves the question of whether or not kuṇḍalinī rises up the suṣumnā hinging on one possibly replaced word in the critical edition of the YY by Divanji.

Doubts both on the location of kuṇḍalinī and on its effects remain in doubt as SA proceeds to examine further Vaishnava texts. This 3rd chapter is an education in the inconsistency, often internal, of these texts. SA traces these inconsistences to the way the kuṇḍalinī concept was borrowed from Shaivism and inserted into these Vaishnava texts, one of which SA describes scathingly as reading ‘like a draft in need of editing’. At this point, I realised the enormity of SA’s mission to attempt to build a consistent picture. The passages on which K drew were ones in which kuṇḍalinī is too active to be considered merely a blockage, however, I also felt sympathy for K, who had the task of commenting on a Shaiva concept that has become a major element in public awareness of Haṭha, while remaining true to his Vaishnava tradition.

Looking now at Haṭha and its relation to Rāja Yoga, SA examines the Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā of Svātmārāma (the HYP) and its statement (III, 111) that ‘kuṇḍalinī rises with great force.’ Here, SA agrees with M that the work haṭhāt (ablative) refers to the force with which kuṇḍalinī rises, not to any force needed to make it rise.¹ A major insight highlighted by SA is that the equivalence which D taught us, of avidyā in Patañjali’s Rāja approach and kuṇḍalinī as a blockage in the Haṭha approach to Samādhi, is neither obvious nor widely appreciated. This insight by his father, the identification of the burning of the seeds of the kleśa-s with the impact of Agni on kuṇḍalinī, which unifies Haṭha and Rāja Yoga, gives great strength and authority to our tradition. However, looking again at kuṇḍalinī, K also recognised both a Haṭha view of it as something to be burnt and a śakta view of it as a force, a form of Prāṇa.² I also liked that SA quotes Claude Maréchal as explaining how the way K and D taught us to breathe with bandhas³ brings about the union of prāṇa and apāna, vital to arousing kuṇḍalinī.

Chapter 5 is the outcome of a further exhaustive search by SA into the serpent myths of India and the way different view, or even models of kuṇḍalinī could have arisen. He ends with a quote from a modern work of Kashmir Shaivism⁴ arguing that kuṇḍalinī is not destroyed, she if awakened and ‘the evil nature of her power is transformed’.

Our teacher, D, was named by K after the distinguished Viśiṣṭādvaita sage and prolific writer Vedānta Deśika (c1268-c1369). I found this chapter most intriguing and revealing. I now understand that, in contrast to the Advaita of Adi Sankara, in the Viśiṣṭādvaita of K’s ancestor Rāmānuja, māyā, illusion, isn’t seen as unreal, but as deceptive, enchanting, as representing this wonderful world in which we are embodied and which has us all in thrall, unless we can see through it⁵.

SA investigates the whole relationship between māyā, avidyā and, potentially, kuṇḍalinī. In Viśiṣṭādvaita, avidyā does not occlude our consciousness but does restrict it; we see, but not fully6. Our consciousness is squeezed within the coils of avidyā. SA then describes how he looked exhaustively in various treatises, either by or based on Vedānta Deśika, for references that D might have used. Even having looked in all of these, there were still some that D listed that SA found to be ‘not easily accessible’ So he obtained an audience with India’s leading pandit on Vedānta Deśika’s work, who knew of no further references. By the end, SA is concluding that ‘to truly respect D, we must correct his work’. I agree, if a work is worth having, it is worth correcting; we must always be moving forward.

In SA’s final chapter, we are led to concluding that interoceptive experiences of cakra-s and kuṇḍalinī are individual and that we cannot be too precise about them. As regards the location of kuṇḍalinī, it may be capable of manifesting in any of the three places, crown, navel and mūla, as mentioned in various texts. What are we really talking about SA quotes K describing kuṇḍalinī awakening as ‘like a muscle releasing’. This statement makes a lot of sense to me; it seems to describe the release of an internal tension, possibly an existential fear, following which one can feel, think and be more clearly. Experiencing such a release interoceptively, I’m sure it would be very easy to confuse and conflate the release blockage and the sudden energy surge. Is there any single right answer that applies to everyone, we are led to ask?

Who should be reading this book? Certainly, anyone who wants to take a broad and well-informed view of the subject of kuṇḍalinī from the perspective of their own practice and definitely anyone who presumes to teach about it from a non-Shaiva standpoint. It isn’t, however, just about kuṇḍalinī. An appreciation of the way K was able to unite Haṭha and Rāja Yoga, which SA describes in Chapter 4, should be in the mind of everyone who teaches in this tradition. This understanding is really part of our foundations and something that makes us a unique force within the world of Yoga.

Michael Hutchinson, Pamber Heath, 4th July 2022.

1 This principle, I argue, can apply to Haṭha as a whole, Haṭha isn’t a force you that apply (to yourself), but the force within you that you can awaken; it’s the ‘Yoga of the Force’.

2 My attempted synthesis here would be to suggest that the awakening of kuṇḍalinī is transformative. Both blockage and energy are aspects of prakriti, according to the guṇa-s, it can change from one to the other.

3 My own researches show this breathwork to be a conscious exaggeration of the natural human breathing cycle.

4 Silburn, L., The Energy of the Depths (1988)

5 This is in keeping with some of the ideas that D taught us on his visit to the UK over Easter 1992. 6 ‘as through a glass, darkly.’ I, Corinthians, 13:12, KJ Ed.

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