What Is Kundalini Yoga?
There aren’t many things that retain their full potency when they are blended together. Ok, maybe Pert shampoo and conditioner. Maybe Simon and Garfunkel. Maybe cronuts, but that’s about it. In yoga, Kundalini is the exception.
Kundalini yoga is a blend of Bhakti yoga (the yogic practice of devotion and chanting), Raja yoga (the practice of mediation/mental and physical control) and Shakti yoga, (for the expression of power and energy).
A well-taught Kundalini yoga class leaves you feeling like you’ve gone to therapy, had an awesome workout in the gym, made it to your yoga mat and enjoyed a fun singing session with friends. The purpose of Kundalini yoga is to provide a modality by which people can achieve their maximum creative potential, free themselves from Karma (the lasting effects of past actions) and realize their life purpose. Experiencing a Kundalini awakening is like being given the secret code to always winning a blue ribbon, along with a get-out-of-jail-free card, at which point you gleefully fire your life coach because now you know more than he does.
Is That a Snake in Your Spine or Are You Just Glad to See Me?
To understand how Kundalini works you first have to understand that you have a snake in your spine. The Sanskrit word kundal means “circular,” and it can be a noun for a coiled snake. The feminine kundalī means a ring, bracelet, or coil of rope. This concept was adopted as kundalinī into Hatha yoga in the 15th century and, by the 16th century, was used in the Yoga Upanishads.
So the term Kundalini means “a spiritual energy or life force located at the base of the spine,” which is usually conceptualized as a coiled-up serpent.
The practice of Kundalini yoga is supposed to arouse the sleeping Kundalini Shakti from its coiled base through the six chakras that reside along the spine, and through the seventh chakra, or crown. Chakras are wheels, or hubs of energy, along which energy or prana, travels like a superhighway to distribute energy throughout the body.
Like a snake being charmed out of a basket by a bansuri, Kundalini weaves and coils, waking up energy and clearing stagnancy along the way. Without the fangs.
These days Kundalini yoga is a synthesis of many traditions, and the kriyas and meditations in Kundalini Yoga are designed to raise complete body awareness to prepare the body, nervous system, and mind to handle the energy of Kundalini rising. Many of the physical postures are designed to activate the navel, spine, and focal points of pressurization on meridians (energy points). Through breath work (pranayama) and the application of yogic locks of energy (bandhas), the release, direction, and control of the flow of Kundalini energy is achieved.
The technique of alternate nostril breathing (left nostril, right nostril) which is described as a simple breathing technique, is one of these often-utilized techniques. When you’re dealing with a stuffed up nose, there’s nothing simple about breathing out of one nostril. Especially the one plugged up. I’ve found the simplicity comes through first attempting, then practicing. This type of breathwork is taught as a way to cleanse the nadis, or subtle channels and pathways, to help awaken Kundalini energy. Probably the last thing you want to do when you’re congested, but can be quite helpful!
On Wearing White in Kundalini Class
A traditional Kundalini yoga class, if photographed from above, would look like a sea of albino ants swarming a hill. It looks like your typical stereotype of a cult, but actually it’s the opposite. Kundalini yoga supports its practitioners wearing all white, so people come to classes in white head coverings, skirts, shirts, and flowing white pants. As Yogi Bhajan said, “Colors create an uncontrollable action in your subconscious mind of inspiration, productivity, and expansion. Colors have an effect on consciousness. We wanted to develop a very fast, progressive, spiritual, and technical method of all the colors, so we have adopted the one color of the seven colors, which is white.”
We in the west basically wouldn’t have any idea or access to Kundalini yoga if it weren’t for Yogi Bhajan.
Born Harbhajan Singh Khalsa, in Kot Harkan, India, to a Sikh medical doctor father, and a Catholic educated Hindu mother, his fairly wealthy family owned much of the property in their village and served as landlords. At that time, and the centuries prior, the practices and techniques of Kundalini yoga were passed down in a very secretive, elitist way from teacher to well-selected student. Yogi Bhajan received these teachings firsthand and mastered them by the age of 16 ½.
The exact origin of Kundalini yoga is unknown, but historical records, referred to as the Upanishads, a sacred Vedic collection of writings dating back to 1000 B. C., cited the science of Kundalini energy and spiritual philosophies. The expression of these was developed over time as a body science, now referred to as kriyas or actions. In other types of yogic practices, these may be referred to as asanas. The word Upanishads has a literal translation similar to that of the word asana: sitting down to hear the teachings of the master. The root of the word asana literally means to sit close to (the teacher).
In the late 1940s, the violent upheaval of India forced Harbhajan Singh Khalsa’s family to flee Punjab (what is now Pakistan) to New Delhi, and in the next number of years, he joined the Indian Civil Service and began working for the government. Yogi Bhajan was offered a position as a new yoga studies department at the University of Toronto in Canada where he emigrated in 1968.
When I took my first Kundalini Teacher Training, I admit that I knew the suggested dress code ahead of time. But of course, being the spiritual skeptic that I am, I showed up wearing black yoga pants, a gray tank top, and a black leather motorcycle jacket. I was slightly disappointed when I wasn’t asked to leave. In fact, I felt welcomed by my fellow teacher trainees and facilitators.
A number of years later, when I brought my boyfriend at the time to a Spring Equinox Kundalini class I forgot to tell him about the white clothing requirement. So, of course, he showed up in a bright electric green shirt, looking like a yoga skittle in a sea of white. As he was cringing and I was laughing, three-quarters of the class came up to him with huge smiles and said, “Oh, you’re new! Welcome!”
Unlike the dress code at the Four Seasons in New York, no one said anything, patronizing or otherwise, that may have suggested that what he was wearing was at all not on par. How could they, really, when their master teacher has been described (among many things) as, “a holy Sikh rebel”?
If rebels have the utmost discipline, then perhaps that description fits Yogi Bhajan. When his promised position at the University of Toronto fell through, he immediately began teaching yoga at local YMCAs, co-founded a yoga center, and helped to create eastern Canada’s first Sikh temple — all in 90 days.
After having a spiritual vision in his travels to Los Angeles, he knew clearly that what the western world needed was Kundalini yoga.
Kundalini: It Starts With Tuning In
Even if you’re not striving to be like Mr. Poirot, the Belgian private detective from an Agatha Christie novel, who doesn’t need a more neutral mind? Most of us take better care of our vehicles than we do our minds. By clearing and neutralizing our minds, we’re less susceptible to the five causes of unhappiness: Lust, Anger, Greed, Pride, and Attachments. And maybe we find we’re kinder to the cashier, to our fellow cars in traffic, and to our kids and family members, as well as to ourselves.
All Kundalini classes begin with what’s called “tuning in.” This is done with a chant, recited in a seated position, hands at heart center (rub palms together first), eyes closed: Ong Namo Guru Dev Namo
As Master Kundalini Yoga Teacher, Gurmukh from Hollywood, CA translates, “bowing to the truth within you; your relationship to your own destiny.”
Kundalini Kriyas (Practices)
- From a seated position, extend arms overhead and shake your arms, your entire upper body, your head. “Shake like you’re made of jello,” says Gurmukh. Like animals in the wild, this type of shaking is how fear, anxiety, and other emotions are moved through and out of the body. It’s also supporting great mobility in the spine. When we have a healthy spine, we have a healthy mind.
- Shoulder Stand, when done properly, the yogic masters say that 15 minutes of shoulder stand equals 2 hours of sleep.
- Seated in Rock Pose (shins tucked underneath), bring hands to shoulders, elbows out wide and with a tall spine, inhale and turn spine to the left, exhale and turn spine to the right. It’s like your spine is a vertical blade in the center of a blender. This is a great one to do every single day.
- Deep Squats, with hands at heart (you can rollover the yoga mat to slide under your heels if needed), spine long, bend your knees to drop your bottom towards the ground. Keep your head upright and inhale as you lower down, exhale to come up.
- Spinal Flexion, from a seated cross-legged position, this is the way your spine would move if you were riding a camel. Since we’re sorely lacking in camels these days, try moving your chest forward (head does not move), then back with your arms alongside you. For maximum health of your spine. This helps open your diaphragm, chest, and shoulders as well. Imagine you have a very bumpy ride. Or an uncoordinated camel.
Kundalini Mantra Meditation: Sa Ta Na Ma
This next one is a wonderful seated meditation using the mantra: SA TA NA MA
These sound currents represent the five primal sounds of the universe: Sa=infinity, Ta=life, Na=death or transformation, Ma=rebirth.
Seated in a cross-legged position, extend your arms out in front of you with the palms facing down, say or whisper “Sa.” Then move straight arms alongside ears with the palms facing in. Say or whisper “Ta.” Then move straight arms out to sides, palms facing down, with the middle fingers in line with your shoulders. Say or whisper “Na.” Then bring straight arms back down, say or whisper “Ma.” This particular blend of movement, chanting, and meditation is balancing your brain using your hands. It’s a great meditation to do when you wake up on the proverbial wrong side of the bed.
Learn more with Gurmukh’s Master Class.
Embracing the Kundalini Blender
Much like I imagine Prell’s efforts and countless attempts to find the best working combination of shampoo and conditioner, or determining the right ingredients to create the perfect Cronut, we’ve got to be willing to jostle our comfort zone if we want to change. No doubt, your first Kundalini Yoga class could be a very weird experience.
But in order to shed what’s no longer working for us, at some point we’ve got to be willing to embrace the blender.
In the words of Yogi Bhajan, “The process of growth through Kundalini Yoga is a natural unfolding of your own nature. The blocks to that growth are your attachments to the familiarity of the past, and your fear of the expanded Self. As you practice Kundalini Yoga you will grow. Like a snake, you will need to shed old skins to be more of who you are.”
Signs of a Kundalini Awakening
Lately, there has been a buzz around the word kundalini and what it means to have a “kundalini awakening.” Is it dangerous? How do I know if what I’m experiencing is kundalini, or something else entirely? What do I do if my kundalini energy is waking up?
Lots of “symptoms” get blamed on kundalini – from muscle spasms to seeing colors vividly to not being able to sleep. Likely, it’s not the kundalini energy itself that is causing problematic symptoms, but the physical, energetic, and mental blockages that are not allowing that energy to flow. Kundalini energy is divine feminine energy that awakens the awareness that exists in all of us. When we experience kundalini “symptoms,” that energy is knocking on the door to get our attention and awareness so that we can make positive changes. When that happens, we can become who we are meant to be and wake up to our destiny.
The soul has taken a body and come here for a reason, and if you are not living out that purpose, kundalini can show up as disruptive so you can change course. It’s a (sometimes not so gentle) reminder so that we don’t sleepwalk through life.