Not included in this review: Forms of yoga other than Kundalini Yoga. For a review of related evidence, please visit Natural Standard's Complementary Practices Database, or click on these links to selected topics: Yoga, Meditation, Relaxation therapy.
Kundalini Yoga is one of many traditions of yoga that share common roots in ancient Indian philosophy. It is comprehensive in that it combines physical poses with breath control exercises, chanting (mantras), meditations, prayer, visualizations, and guided relaxation. It is an elaborate system focused on healing and "purifying" the mind, body, and emotions. Kundalini Yoga incorporates many aspects of other forms of yoga as well as related techniques of meditation and relaxation. It also offers teachings for all aspects of life including diet (vegetarian), serving others, and yogic life skills such as conscious parenting and partnering. However, the emphasis is more on breathing and meditation exercises, and less on challenging physical postures to build strength or flexibility, as is the emphasis in some other forms of yoga. Kundalini Yoga uses kriyas, specially formulated sets of exercises. There are traditional Indian kriyas and there are adapted Western versions.
Kundalini Yoga is advocated as a way to keep the body in good condition and train the mind to be resilient and flexible in response to stress and change. Advocates claim that it increases oxygen capacity, boosts blood flow, balances the glandular system, strengthens the nervous system, and increases self-awareness, vitality, peace of mind, concentration, and self-confidence. It is recommended for people of all ages.
The word "kundalini" stems from a Sanskrit term meaning "circular, coiled". It refers to the concept of the original creative energy of the universe, which is believed to be coiled up in a dormant state at the base of the spine in the coccyx. The practices are intended to awaken and activate this primal energy. It is believed that as kundalini awakens it uncoils and rises upward through the body, purifying the person in body, mind and spirit.
The famous Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung was interested in Kundalini Yoga as a supplement to his psychological theories. In 1932, Jung gave a series of lectures on Kundalini Yoga in Zurich (published under the title The Psychology of Kundalini Yoga by Princeton University Press in 1966). Yogi Bhajan, founder of the 3HO Foundation, introduced Kundalini Yoga in the West in 1969 with the goal of helping ordinary people to live healthy, conscious lives.
While research in the broader field of yoga has documented benefits for stress reduction and quality of life in a variety of health conditions, including cancer, there has been little formal research in the techniques specific to Kundalini Yoga. More studies are needed to evaluate the contributions of Kundalini Yoga practices in health.
Kundalini Yoga regards the human being as having an energy system through which the energies of life circulate.
There are two basic kinds of energy of interest in Kundalini Yoga: prana and kundalini.
Prana is the name for the life force or vital energy. Prana is believed to circulate through a network of energy channels called nadis, which roughly parallel the nervous system. Prana is taken in through the breath (the term "pranayama" refers to a variety of breathing exercises used in Kundalini Yoga).
Kundalini energy, the original creative force of the universe, is a powerful and transformative force, which is only aroused through diligent and dedicated practice of Kundalini Yoga.
Prana and kundalini energy, when awakened, circulate through three major nadis (the ida, the pingala, and the shushumna), which begin at the base of the spine and intertwine as they make their way to the crown of the head.
There are seven major energy centers where the nadis intertwine called chakras. These are vertically aligned up the center of the body from the base of the pelvis to the crown of the head. The chakras are like spinning discs or spheres of energy, and function like portals or gateways through which energy enters and leaves the body. Each chakra is believed to govern and energize a particular part of our physiology.
The chakras, their locations, and the biological systems they are believed to influence are as follows:
First charka: Location: perineum. Influences: urogenital system.
Second chakra: Location: just below navel. Influences: urogenital system.
Third chakra: Location: solar plexus. Influences: digestive system.
Sixth chakra: Location: forehead. Influences: central nervous system.
Seventh chakra: Location: crown of head. Influences: central nervous system.
There are lesser nadis, which spread out from the major nadis bringing prana throughout the body. There are many smaller chakras as well, such as in the palms of the hands and finger tips.
The seven chakras are also believed to be connected to seven subtle energy bodies, believed to comprise the human aura or energy field surrounding the body. These subtle bodies are believed to be layered over the physical body, beginning at the surface of the skin and extending out several inches.
With proper practice of Kundalini Yoga and much patience, it is believed that the powerful kundalini energy lying dormant at the base of the spine awakens and makes its journey up through the chakra system, in turn fully energizing each chakra and enabling the person to realize his or her potential as a fully integrated, spiritual being.
These uses have been tested in humans or animals. Safety and effectiveness have not always been proven. Some of these conditions are potentially serious, and should be evaluated by a qualified healthcare provider.
One case series report, but no formal clinical trials, suggests that breathing techniques used in Kundalini Yoga may help people with angina pectoris reduce symptoms and need for medication (1). Formal clinical trials are needed to explore this application of Kundalini Yoga before a conclusion can be made regarding efficacy.
A specific breathing technique of Kundalini Yoga reputed to help prevent heart attacks was examined in one study to determine its effects on heart function. The technique is a one breath per minute respiratory exercise with slow inspiration for 20 seconds, breath retention for 20 seconds, and slow expiration for 20 seconds, for 31 consecutive minutes. The technique was found to stabilize the heart's electrical wave patterns, which may have preventive value in heart health. More studies are needed to determine whether this exercise has tangible effects on heart-related problems (2).
Breathing exercises are an important part of Kundalini Yoga. There is some evidence from studies with healthy volunteers that use of certain breathing techniques (e.g., breathing solely through one nostril or the other) may improve different aspects of cognitive functioning (3;4). More studies are needed to determine if these techniques can reliably be used to improve cognitive performance and possibly aid in treating cognitive and nervous system disorders.
There is evidence from one small clinical trial where Kundlini Yoga was practiced (combination of asana, pranayama, and meditation), suggesting benefit in depression (5). More trials are needed to establish whether this is a viable therapy for depression before a recommendation can be made.
One small study suggests improved sleep quality with the help of a regime of Kundalini Yoga practices (6). However, there is insufficient evidence on which to base recommendations for or against this intervention for insomnia.
Two small clinical trials have examined a specific multi-faceted regime of Kundalini Yoga techniques for obsessive-compulsive disorder. These two studies suggested broad psychological benefits (reduced anxiety and depression) from the practices as well as reduced symptoms of OCD for up to 19 months (7;8). Both studies were limited by small sample size, inadequate control group, and incomplete description of randomization, therefore more studies are needed before recommendations for or against this approach can be made for OCD.
* Key to grades
A: Strong scientific evidence for this use B: Good scientific evidence for this use C: Unclear scientific evidence for this use D: Fair scientific evidence for this use (it may not work) F: Strong scientific evidence against this use (it likley does not work)
Tradition / Theory
The below uses are based on tradition, scientific theories, or limited research. They often have not been thoroughly tested in humans, and safety and effectiveness have not always been proven. Some of these conditions are potentially serious, and should be evaluated by a qualified healthcare provider. There may be other proposed uses that are not listed below.
Many complementary techniques are practiced by healthcare professionals with formal training, in accordance with the standards of national organizations. However, this is not universally the case, and adverse effects are possible. Due to limited research, in some cases only limited safety information is available.
The breathing exercises can be adapted for a wide variety of specific needs, including for people who are bed-ridden or wheelchair-bound. The techniques are believed to be safe during pregnancy and breastfeeding when practiced under the guidance of expert instruction - in fact, the popular Lamaze techniques are based on yogic breathing.
Some of the breathing techniques can induce an altered state of consciousness. People with mental disorders should use these techniques only under the guidance of a qualified teacher of Kundalini Yoga.
The postures used in Kundalini Yoga are generally considered to be safe in healthy individuals when practiced appropriately, and have been well tolerated in studies with few side effects. However, some yoga positions and postures should not be used by people with certain conditions or illnesses. People with disc disease of the spine, fragile or atherosclerotic neck arteries, risk for blood clots, extremely high or low blood pressure, glaucoma, detachment of the retina, ear problems, severe osteoporosis, or cervical spondylitis should avoid some poses. Any yoga should be supervised by a well-qualified teacher.
Teachers of yoga are generally not medically qualified and should not be regarded as sources of medical advice for management of clinical conditions.
Friedell, A. Automatic attentive breathing in angina pectoris. Minnesota Medicine 1948;31:875-881.
Shannahoff-Khalsa, D. S. An introduction to Kundalini yoga meditation techniques that are specific for the treatment of psychiatric disorders. J Altern.Complement Med 2004;10(1):91-101.
Shannahoff-Khalsa, D. S., Boyle, M. R., and Buebel, M. E. The effects of unilateral forced nostril breathing on cognition. Int J Neurosci. 1991;57(3-4):239-249.
Jella, S. A. and Shannahoff-Khalsa, D. S. The effects of unilateral forced nostril breathing on cognitive performance. Int.J Neurosci. 1993;73(1-2):61-68.
Devi S, Chansouria JP, Malhotra OP, and et al. Certain neuroendocrine responses following the practice of Kundalini yoga. Alternative Medicine 1986;1(3):247-255.
Shannahoff-Khalsa, D. Complementary healthcare practices. Stress management for gastrointestinal disorders: the use of kundalini yoga meditation techniques. Gastroenterol.Nurs. 2002;25(3):126-129.
Shannahoff-Khalsa, D. S. and Beckett, L. R. Clinical case report: efficacy of yogic techniques in the treatment of obsessive compulsive disorders. Int J Neurosci. 1996;85(1-2):1-17.
Shannahoff-Khalsa DS, Ray LE, Levine S, and et al. Randomized controlled trial of yogic meditation techniques for patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder. CNS Spectrums 1999;4(12):34-47.
Nespor, K. and Cs, emy L. [Alcohol and drugs in Central Europe--problems and possible solutions]. Cas.Lek.Cesk. 8-22-1994;133(16):483-486.
Bernardi, L., Passino, C., Wilmerding, V., Dallam, G. M., Parker, D. L., Robergs, R. A., and Appenzeller, O. Breathing patterns and cardiovascular autonomic modulation during hypoxia induced by simulated altitude. J Hypertens. 2001;19(5):947-958.
Maevskii, A. A. [A complex of breathing exercises (hatha yoga) to arrest the developing attacks of dyspnea in bronchial asthma]. Klin Med (Mosk) 1995;73(4):87-88.
Puskarich, C. A., Whitman, S., Dell, J., Hughes, J. R., Rosen, A. J., and Hermann, B. P. Controlled examination of effects of progressive relaxation training on seizure reduction. Epilepsia 1992;33(4):675-680.
Bulavin, V. V., Kliuzhev, V. M., Kliachkin, L. M., Lakshmankumar, Zuikhin, N. D., and Vlasova, T. N. [Elements of yoga therapy in the combined rehabilitation of myocardial infarct patients in the functional recovery period]. Vopr.Kurortol.Fizioter.Lech.Fiz Kult. 1993;(4):7-9.
Sharma, I. and Singh, P. Treatment of neurotic illnesses by yogic techniques. Indian J Med Sci. 1989;43(3):76-79.
Reilly, R. Acute and prophylactic treatment of migraine. Nurs.Times 7-20-1994;90(29):35-36.
Winterholler, M., Erbguth, F., and Neundorfer, B. [The use of alternative medicine by multiple sclerosis patients-- patient characteristics and patterns of use]. Fortschr.Neurol.Psychiatr. 1997;65(12):555-561.
Schumacher J. Rehab for the heart. Yoga Journal 1985;(May/June):15-17.
Telles, S. and Naveen, K. V. Yoga for rehabilitation: an overview. Indian J Med Sci. 1997;51(4):123-127.
Anonymous. Yoga relieves RA. Pulse of the Montana State Nurses Association 1991;May:2518.
Anonymous. Yoga, meditation, help teen sex offenders. J Psychosoc.Nurs.Ment.Health Serv. 1999;37(6):6.
Nespor, K. [Occupational stress in health personnel and its prevention. Possible use of yoga]. Cas.Lek.Cesk. 8-3-1990;129(31):961-964.
The information in this monograph is intended for informational purposes only, and is meant to help users better understand health concerns. Information is based on review of scientific research data, historical practice patterns, and clinical experience. This information should not be interpreted as specific medical advice. Users should consult with a qualified healthcare provider for specific questions regarding therapies, diagnosis and/or health conditions, prior to making therapeutic decisions.