So what does an ancient parable about snakes and lazy husbands have to do with your yoga practice? Here's why we "awaken the snake" in Kundalini.
In the West, we often think of the masculine principle as active and creative, while the feminine is passive and receptive. But in hatha yoga, these are reversed: The goddess Shakti (literally "power") creates and nourishes the world, while her spouse, the god Shiva (the "auspicious one") is her silent audience.
Shakti and Shiva are the stars of an old parable that epitomizes the practice and goal of hatha yoga. Briefly it goes: In a cave at the foot of mythic Mount Meru, the axis of the Hindu universe, the goddess rests after creating the world. She's pictured as a slumbering serpent wound three-and-a-half (sometimes eight) times around herself, and therefore called kundalini, or "coiled one." When the time is right, she awakens and laboriously ascends to Meru's summit, where she's reunited with the waiting Shiva.
What do serpents, mountains, and unhelpful husbands have to do with yoga? Each of us is a composite of Shiva/Shakti energies. While we refer to them as distinct, they are actually inseparable complements, like the north and south poles of a magnet. When they are in balance, our lives are harmonious and joyful; but when one is set over and above its mate, we suffer from heartrending feelings of fragmentation, alienation, and loss.
Shakti's climb and ultimate reunion with Shiva represents, in the context of our practice, the gradual awakening to and realization of our authentic Self. In our case, kundalini is at the base of our spine, "asleep" to our infinite potential but coiled like a spring under pressure, eager to spring to life. Meru is compared to our spine, the "axis" of our body, a universe in miniature. In turn, our spine is an image of the "ladder" of consciousness, starting at the bottom of the spine, where kundalini nests, and extending to the transcendent abode of Shiva at the pinnacle of self-knowing.
Many traditional texts make the spiritual conquest of Meru seem akin to the scaling of Everest and discourage all but the most dedicated from attempting the climb. But all of us have, in our heart of hearts, the longing to be whole and—as sincere yoga practitioners—all the mountaineering equipment we'd ever need. If we can't march all the way to the top, at least we can get a good way up from base camp.
Richard Rosen, who teaches in Oakland and Berkeley, California, has been writing for Yoga Journal since the 1970s.