When the Kundalini (the she-serpent) is woken by the [engagement] of the three locks, the breath, turned inward and entering the central channel, is set free from the duality of coming and going
In this śloka we are introduced to Kundalini, the cosmic she-serpent who has coiled around our sacrum and fallen asleep. Unfortunately, Kundalini gets a really bad rap. Because she is a snake, she is a prime target for those conservative Christians of all stripes (i.e., both Catholics and Evangelicals) who wish to dissuade people from doing Yoga. It was the serpent, you probably remember, who tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden. I remember reading an anti-Yoga article which said, and I paraphrase from memory: “when you deal with Kundalini you’re summoning an evil demon. I mean, c’mon. It’s a snake! What more do you need to know?” To which I would reply that the story in Genesis is not everybody’s story. Different cultures often have different takes on things, be they animals, body parts (remember the feet!), astrological phenomena, etc. So in Indian culture and iconography the snake is not the symbol of evil and treachery. On the contrary, the snake (especially the cobra) is revered and respected for the powerful, fearsome predator that it is. Skeptics and literal-minded people also have a gripe with Kundalini. Sure, the notion of a cobra sleeping while wrapped around the root of your sacrum in three coils may seem silly. To the skeptics. I would say: “Chill out! And get over yourself, thinking you’re so smart. It’s an allegory, for chrissakes.” And then I would go on to relate the allegory like so:
It’s a love story, really, that for most of us has been left half-finished. Way back in the beginning those aspects we now ascribe to masculinity and femininity were not discreet and separate. They existed intertwined and in harmony, pulsing at a supremely high frequency. But due to a forgotten cataclysm the two entities somehow became disentangled, and separated, and they began to drift apart. As they drifted apart the feminine aspect which would come to be known as Kundalini began to cool, and condense, and took the form of a serpent. Eventually she found a post, coiled herself around it three times, and fell asleep. There she sleeps, waiting to be wakened and reunited with her lost love.
In Indian mythology and cosmology there is a lot of projecting of concepts on to the human body. One of these projections is the notion that the spinal column is a sort of pole (in the planetary sense) at each end of which resides our masculine and feminine attributes. The pairing is know as Śiva/Shakti. Śiva resides at the top at the crown of the skull. He embodies the (supposedly) masculine principles of logic, rational thinking, empiricism…. all that. Shakti, who has taken the form of Kundalini, resides at the bottom, at the base of the spine. She embodies the (again, supposedly) principles of intuition, inspiration and raw power. It’s as if you took the left and right brains and situated them at the bottom and top. Śiva is the intellect that designs plans, Shakti is the power to execute them.
Naturally we will be our best selves when both poles are activated and working harmoniously. But unfortunately most of us go through life with our intuition and inspiration laying dormant. One of the fundamental aims of all systems of Hatha Yoga, which broadly means Yoga with postures (and thus of course includes Ashtanga Yoga) is to awaken Kundalini and reunite her with Śiva. To integrate our Masculine and Feminine natures. Our Yang and our Yin, to use Chinese terminology. She must be roused, and the path which leads her back to Śiva must be cleared. The path happens to be the spinal column (described in this śloka as the Central Channel) and this is why so many Yoga postures and sequences are devoted to spinal flexion and extension. And here is an absolutely key concept that so many skeptics miss: The literal and the figurative interact sympathetically. So if the literal spine is supple, strong, and open then the figurative central channel will be cleared for Kundalini to ascend.
In the commentary on Śloka III we described the nadis and the Central Channel, also known as Sushumna nadi, which is superimposed over the spinal column is the most important one of all. As stated above, this is the path Kundalini takes to be reunited with Śiva but it is also a most important passage for our Prana. With the last clause of the śloka “set free from the duality of coming and going,” Adi Śankaracharya shows that even though the treatise is about Yoga, he remains an Advaitia Vedantin at heart. Remember, advaita literally means “not two.” We will see in the coming ślokas more and more Adi Śankaracharya’s agenda of transcending dualities.
In the next edition’s śloka, which has particularly lovely imagery, we will delve into exactly how the working of the bandhas rouses Kundalini…..