Bruce Greyson, MD
Abstract: Near-death experiences (NDEs), transcendental experiences on the threshold of death with profound implications for both patient care and religious belief, have been hypothesized to be related to a biological process known in the Eastern traditions as kundalini arousal. In a test of this proposed association between kundalini and NDEs, a sample of near-death experiencers acknowledged significantly more symptoms of a physio-kundalini syndrome than did comparison groups, including a sample of hospitalized psychiatric patients.
Near-death experiences (NDEs) are profound spiritual or mystical experiences that many people report as they approach or start to cross the threshold of death. The contents and after-effects of NDEs suggest that they are more than just hallucinations. The contents do not appear to be influenced by past religious beliefs, but do have a profound effect on religious or spiritual beliefs after the experience. Near-death experiencers (NDErs) also report a consistent positive change in attitude toward the transition from life to death.
There is still no accepted scientific cause for NDEs. As complex a phenomenon as the near-death experience does not lend itself to a simplistic mechanistic explanation. Despite the psychological or physiological interpretations of the NDE proposed by some authors, the experience is almost universally regarded by those who report it as spiritually authentic. This not necessarily paradoxical, as the measure of an experience’s authenticity is not the nature of its trigger, but rather its ability to promote authentic spiritual growth. One of the most consistently documented features of the near-death experience is its profound range of after-effects, including decreased fear of death, decreased competitiveness, decreased interest in personal gain, and increased joy of life, altruism, and interest in spirituality.
Some investigators in the field of consciousness and near-death studies have suggested that the significance of the near-death experience may be its role as a catalyst for human evolution. They view the reported mental, physical, and spiritual after-effects of NDEs as indications of an accelerated development in near-death experiencers of intuitive functioning on a different order, and as similar to changes traditionally reported by people awakening to a higher-order state of consciousness. But if evolution of consciousness implies the continuing biological evolution of humanity, then personality transformations should be accompanied by signs of biological transformation.
In Eastern spiritual traditions, the biological mechanism of both individual enlightenment and evolution of the species toward higher consciousness is called kundalini, a potential force that once awakened can produce a variety of mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual effects. The ancient yogic texts described a life energy present in all living beings called prana; corollary energies have been identified in many other cultures, such as huo and chi of Tibetan yogis, quaumaneq of Eskimo shamans, incendium amoris and photismos of Christian mystics, Henri Bergson’s élan vital, and the more recent terms “bioenergy,” “bioplasma,” and “orgone energy.” Kundalini was described as a normally dormant mechanism or organizing principle that could be activated or aroused under certain conditions, to strengthen or purify an individual’s prana, transforming its effects upon the individual. Comparable potential forces or organizing principles also have been described in other traditions, for example, as shakti, the Odic force, the Holy Spirit, the Pearl of Great Price, the Serpent Power, the Rod of Aaron, the Sacred Fire, Osiris, and the Sun Behind the Sun.
Kundalini has been held responsible for life itself,  the sexual drive, creativity, genius, longevity, and vigor, and our evolution toward an ultimate, magnificent state of consciousness The dormant kundalini is said to be situated at the base of the spine, and when aroused can travel upwards along the spinal cord to the brain, where it can stimulate a dormant chamber of the brain (the brahma randhra), leading to biological transformation and immensely expanded perception.
Kundalini and Near-Death Experiences
Eastern traditions have developed elaborate lifelong practices and lifestyles with the intent of awakening kundalini; this is, in fact, the implicit purpose of yoga. However, the same ancient Eastern traditions have also recognized that when the brain is deprived of oxygen, kundalini as the life force in rare circumstances may actually rush to the brain in an effort to sustain life. In fact, one unorthodox yoga sect practices suffocation by tongue-swallowing in the hope that kundalini would rush to their brains and produce enlightenment, a practice that may have a Western counterpart in la petite mort, in which a considerable number of adolescents die each year seeking orgasmic initiation by asphyxiation.
This theoretical arousal of kundalini by life-threatening crisis has traditionally been regarded by most Eastern philosophers as dangerous. In Eastern traditions, kundalini would ideally be activated at the appropriate time by a guru who can properly guide the development of that energy. If awakened without proper guidance, as Kenneth Ring believes happens in a near-death experience, kundalini can be raw, destructive power loosed on the individual’s body and psyche.
Though the vocabulary of the kundalini hypothesis is foreign to Westerners, the process bears some resemblance to the Christian concept of the Holy Spirit. The process of kundalini awakening is essentially a spiritual one, outside the domain of science. However, its traditional roles as the vehicle of evolution, if guided, or of psychosomatic havoc, if spontaneous, should be accompanied by observable physical and psychological effects.
The Physio-Kundalini Syndrome
Because Western medicine does not acknowledge the Eastern concept of kundalini or even the Westernized physio-kundalini model, symptoms of kundalini arousal are often diagnosed as physical and/or psychological problems that fit within the Western allopathic diagnostic categories. For example, the shaking, twisting and vibrating so well known to experiencers could be diagnosed as a neurological disorder. It is also hard to recognize the energy presence because it manifests itself in so many different patterns. Because its symptoms mimic so many disorders of the mind and body, even people familiar with the kundalini concept are unsure whether they are witnessing rising kundalini energy or disorders of the mind and body. However, taking psychotropic medications to alleviate symptoms, on the assumption that these represent a psychiatric disorder, may disrupt the natural healing mechanism of kundalini activation.
Three decades ago, biomedical engineer Itzhak Bentov formulated a scientifically verifiable version of the kundalini concept, which he called the physio-kundalini hypothesis; psychiatrist and ophthalmologist Lee Sannella developed the physio-kundalini model further, collecting cases, experimenting with ways to help channel it, and outlining research strategies. While both scientists acknowledged that the physio-kundalini concept is less comprehensive than the classical kundalini model, they argued that its simplified, mechanistic description made it more accessible to scientific study.
Following up on Kenneth Ring’s suggestion that NDEs can arouse kundalini, I measured features of NDEs and features of kundalini arousal in people who had had near-death experiences and in two comparison groups. The participants in this research included 153 people who had had NDEs, 55 who had come close to death but did not have NDEs, and 133 people who had never come close to death.
I gave all 321 participants the NDE scale to identify the presence of a near-death experience and quantify its depth. The NDE Scale, with a range of 0 to 32, has high internal consistency and correlation with other measures of NDE, reliably differentiates near-death experiences from other reactions to a brush with death, and produces scores that do not change over decades.21 The 153 participants identified as NDErs had a mean score of 16.7 on the NDE scale, whereas the 55 participants classified as not having an NDE had a mean score of 2 on the NDE scale. The third group of 113 participants had never come close to death.
I analyzed responses of NDErs and control subjects on a nineteen-item questionnaire that I based on the Bentov-Sannella physio-kundalini model.22 This questionnaire includes motor “symptoms,” such as spontaneous body movements, strange posturing, breath changes, and the body getting locked in to certain positions; somatosensory symptoms, such as spontaneous tingling or vibrations, orgasmic sensations, progression of physical sensations up the legs and back and over the head, extreme heat or cold, pain that comes and goes abruptly; audiovisual symptoms, such as internal lights or colors that light up the body, internal voices, and internal whistling, hissing, or roaring noises; and psychological symptoms, such as sudden bliss or ecstasy for no reason, and speeding or slowing of thoughts; and expanding beyond the body and watching the body from a distance.
As a group, near-death experiencers reported experiencing almost twice as many physio-kundalini items as did either people who had had close brushes with death but no NDEs, or people who had never come close to death. As a check on whether the physio-kundalini questionnaire might be measuring nonspecific unusual experiences, I also analyzed the responses of a group of hospitalized psychiatric patients; they reported the same number of physic-kundalini items as did the non-NDEr comparison groups.
There were two additional unexpected comparison groups in my studies, as shown below: people who claimed to have had NDEs but described experiences with virtually no typical NDE features; and people who denied having had NDEs but then went on to describe prototypical near-death experiences. In their responses to the physio-kundalini questionnaire, the group that made unsupported claims of NDEs were comparable to the non-NDEr comparison group, while the group that undeservedly denied having NDEs were comparable to the group of NDErs. In regard to kundalini arousal, then, having a near-death experience mattered, but thinking you had one didn’t.
Table: Physio-Kundalini Syndrome Index
Here is a breakdown of all the items on the Physio-Kundalini Syndrome Index in four categories of motor symptoms, somatosensory symptoms, audiovisual symptoms, and mental symptoms. Three of the four motor physio-kundalini symptoms were acknowledged significantly more often by NDErs than by the two comparison groups:
Table: Physio-Kundalini Syndrome Index: Motor Symptoms
While some somatosensory physio-kundalini symptoms, such as spontaneous orgasmic sensations, ascending anatomic progression of sensations, and unexplained isolated temperature changes, are more commonly reported by NDErs than by the comparison groups, the differences were not statistically significant, possibly because they are either too infrequent in any group, as with temperature changes so extreme as to burn other people, or too common in all groups, as with spontaneous unexplained pains and tingling or vibratory sensations:
Table: Physio-Kundalini Syndrome Index: Somatosensory Symptoms
With the exception of unexplained internal noises, which were reported significantly more often by NDErs than participants in the comparison groups, audiovisual physio-kundalini symptoms were acknowledged either so commonly by all groups, as with internal voices, or so rarely, as with internal lights or colors, that differences between groups were not significant:
Table: Physio-Kundalini Syndrome Index: Audiovisual Symptoms
Finally, with regard to psychological physio-kundalini symptoms, sudden unexplained positive emotions, changes in thought processes for no apparent reason, and watching oneself from a distance or “witness consciousness” were reported significantly more often by NDErs than by either comparison group; whereas sudden unexplained negative emotions and the “greater body” experience were not reported with significantly different frequency by the different groups:
Table: Physio-Kundalini Syndrome Index: Psychological Symptoms
In summary, 10 of the 19 symptoms on the physio-kundalini syndrome index, most notably the motor and mental symptoms, were significantly more common among the NDErs than among the comparison groups: assuming strange positions, becoming locked into position, changes in breathing, spontaneous orgasmic sensations, ascending progression of sensations, unexplained heat or cold moving through the body, internal noises, sudden positive emotions for no reason, watching oneself as if from a distance, and unexplained changes in thought processes. These ten items then may be useful indicators of kundalini arousal.
Also of note, among the 153 near-death experiencers, there was a significant positive correlation between NDE Scale score and number of physio-kundalini symptoms reported. That is, those with deeper NDEs reported more physio-kundalini symptoms.
Social psychologist Kenneth Ring and his student Christopher Rosing reported almost identical results in their Omega Project: near-death experiencers reported experiencing almost twice as many physio-kundalini items as did people who had close brushes with death, but no NDE, and people who had never come close to death.23
Here then we have near-death experiencers reporting precisely the kind of physiological changes that are associated in Eastern traditions with the bioenergy that drives evolution. From verbal reports of such evidence as patterns of physiological functioning and disease history, as well as physio-kundalini manifestations, we can identify which items best differentiate NDErs from comparison groups.
The data from this study22 demonstrate that a number of physio-kundalini symptoms derived from classical descriptions of kundalini arousal are reported more often by NDErs than by comparison populations. This finding corroborates the anecdotal evidence of previous investigators that NDEs are associated with kundalini. It must be borne in mind that the physio-kundalini syndrome, this consistent pattern of physiological and psychological symptoms, is connected with the classical kundalini arousal of Eastern spiritual traditions only by theory and circumstantial evidence. A true measure of kundalini awakening, such as an enduring state of higher consciousness, is beyond our current ability to measure.
Although in theory the physio-kundalini syndrome may imply spiritual evolution, in practice it often denotes a crisis requiring adjustment. While there has been little scientific literature on kundalini, there has been even less from a clinical perspective. What has been written by physicians and therapists suggests that common physio-kundalini symptoms and individuals’ responses to those symptoms are often mistaken for physical and mental illnesses, with tragic results.24 Given that the increasing frequency of near-death experiencers was estimated by a Gallup Poll more than a quarter century ago to be 5% of the adult American population,25 this study suggests that the physio-kundalini syndrome may be far more common in Western society than previously imagined.
This documentation of the frequency of kundalini and of its association with events such as the near-death experience may foster greater awareness of kundalini among the scientific and medical professions. Studies of kundalini phenomena should be enlarged to encompass other populations at risk, such as combat veterans, heart transplant patients and those with terminal illnesses, and individuals following spiritual paths. Further research and dialogue among scientists and clinicians may help individuals experiencing kundalini arousal to cope with the psychophysiological rises and fulfill the promise of spiritual growth.
Finally, based on those findings, it is possible that future work in this area could lead to vital new insights into the evolution of humanity toward a different order of consciousness, echoing a major theme in many books written about the near-death experience: that the importance of the near-death experience is not its association with death, but its implications for life.26
University of Virginia Health SystemDivision of Perceptual Studies 210 10th Street NE, Suite #100Charlottesville, VA 22902-5328Phone: 434-924-2281Fax: 434-924-1712Email Address: firstname.lastname@example.org
 Greyson, B. “Near-Death Experiences and Spirituality,” Zygon: Journal of Science and Religion, Vol. 41, No. 2, June 2006, 393-414.
 Kelly, E. W., Greyson, B., and Kelly, E. F., “Unusual Experiences Near Death and Related Phenomena,” in Kelly, E. F., Kelly, E. W., Crabtree, A., Gauld, A., Grosso, M., and Greyson, B., Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007, 367-421.
 Greyson, B., op. cit.
 Ring, K., Heading Toward Omega: In Search of the Meaning of the Near-Death Experience. New York: William Morrow, 1984.
 Blackmore, S.J., Dying to Live: Near-Death Experiences. Buffalo: Prometheus, 1993; Woerlee, G.M., Mortal Minds: The Biology of Near-Death Experience, Buffalo: Prometheus, 2005.
 Helminiak, D., “Neurology, Psychology, and Extraordinary Religious Experiences,” Journal of Religion and Health, 1984, Vol. 23, No. 1, March 1984, 33-46.
 Ring, K., op.cit.; Ring, K., and Valarino, E.E., Lessons From the Light: What We Can Learn From the Near-Death Experience. New York: Plenum/Insight, 1998.
 Grey, M., Return from Death: An Exploration of the Near-Death Experience. London: Arkana, 1985; Grosso, M., The Final Choice: Playing the Survival Game. Walpole, N.H.: Stillpoint Press, 1985; Ring, op.cit.
 Kason, Y., Bradford, M., Pond, P., and Greenwell, B., “Spiritual Emergence Syndrome and Kundalini Awakening: How Are They Related?” Proceedings of the Academy of Religion and Psychical Research Annual Conference, 1992, 85-118; Kieffer, G., “Murphy’s ‘Impossible Dream’ of a Great Evolutionary Leap,” Ascent, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1992, 1-8; Murphy, M., The Future of the Human Body: Explorations Into the Further Evolution of Human Nature. Los Angeles: Tarcher, 1992; Sannella, L., The Kundalini Experience: Psychosis or Transcendence? Lower Lake, CA: Integral Publishing, 1987.
 Krishna, G., The Biological Basis of Religion and Genius. New York: Harper and Row, 1972.
 _______, The Awakening of Kundalini, New York: E.P. Dutton, 1975.
 _______, What is and What Is Not Higher Consciousness. New York: Julian Press, 1974.
 _______, The Biological Basis of Religion and Genius, op.cit.; Krishna, G., The Awakening of Kundalini, op.cit.
 _______, The Secret of Yoga. New York: Harper and Row, 1972.
 Dippong, J., “Dawn of Perception: A True Rebirth,” Chimo, Vol. 8, No. 4, 1982, 31-37.
 Kieffer, G., “Kundalini and the Near-Death Experience,” Journal of Near-Death Studies, Vol. 12, No. 3, Spring 1994, 159-176.
 Krishna, The Awakening of Kundalini, op.cit.
 Ring, K., Heading Toward Omega, op cit.
 Whitfield B.H., Spiritual Awakenings: Insights of the NDE and Other Doorways to our Soul. Deerfield Beach, FL: HCI, 1995.
 Bentov, I., Stalking the Wild Pendulum: On the Mechanics of Consciousness. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 1977; Sannella, L., The Kundalini Experience. Lower Lake, CA: Integral Publishing, 1987.
21 Greyson, B., “The Near-death Experience Scale: Construction, Reliability, and Validity,” Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, Vol. 171, No. 6, June 1983, 369-375; Greyson, B., “Near-Death Encounters With and Without Near-Death Experiences: Comparative NDE Scale Profiles,” Journal of Near-Death Studies, Vol. 8, No. 3, Spring 1990, 151-161; Greyson, B., “Consistency of Near-Death Experience Accounts Over Two Decades: Are Reports Embellished Over Time?”, Resuscitation, Vol. 73, No. 3, June 2007, 407-411; Lange, R., Greyson, B., and Houran, J., “A Rasch Scaling Validation of a ‘Core’ Near-Death Experience,” British Journal of Psychology, Vol. 95, No. 2, May 2004, 161-177.
22 For data analysis, see Greyson, B., “Near-Death Experiences and the Physio-Kundalini Syndrome,” Journal of Religion and Health, Vol. 32, No. 4, Winter 1993, 277-290; and Greyson, B., “The Physio-Kundalini Syndrome and Mental Illness,” Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, Vol. 25, No. 1, 1993, 43-58.
23 Ring, K., and Rosing, C., “The Omega Project: An Empirical Study of the NDE-Prone Personality,” Journal of Near-Death Studies, Vol. 8, No. 4, Summer 1990, 211-239.
24 Greenwell, op. cit.; Grey, op. cit.; Sannella, op. cit.
25Gallup, G,, Jr., with Proctor, W., Adventures in Immortality: A Look Beyond the Threshold of Death. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982.
26 Whitfield, B., Full Circle: The Near-Death Experience and Beyond. New York: Pocket Books/Simon and Schuster, 1990; Whitfield, B., Spiritual Awakenings: Insights of the NDE and Other Doorways to our Soul, op. cit.; Whitfield, B., The Natural Soul. Pittsburgh: Sterling House, 2009; Ring, K., Heading Toward Omega, op. cit.; Grosso, M., op. cit; Grey, op. cit.
Bruce Greyson, MD is Professor of Psychiatric Medicine,Carlson Professor of Psychiatry & Neurobehavioral Sciences, Director, Division of Perceptual Studies Department of Psychiatry & Neurobehavioral Sciences at University of Virginia Health System
University of Virginia Health SystemDivision of Perceptual Studies 210 10th Street NE, Suite #100Charlottesville, VA 22902-5328Phone: 434-924-2281Fax: 434-924-1712Email Address: email@example.com