Kundalini – is this the perfect form of yoga therapy?
There are many different forms and modalities of yoga. Some are more familiar than others. Generally, our ideas of yoga fall into two categories – syncopated movements with breath and some sort of flow, referred to often as “vinyasa”. Or a series of static poses held to a count of five inhalations and exhalations, referred to often as ‘hatha’.
Kundalini yoga does not fit into either of these descriptions. It is neither a flow or static. Rather, it’s built on a series of sequences– that are fueled by a particular style of breathing called, ‘breath of fire’ – more on that later!
You may not have heard of Kundalini yoga because it’s not as prevalent as other styles but you might have seen some of its students. They are dressed in white from the head to the toe and often have their heads covered in white headgear.
Kundalini yoga is heralded by fans as the most regenerative, invigorating style of yoga available. You’ll see its epicenters in places like LA or NYC, and devotees include Russell Brand, Demo Moore and Gwyneth Paltrow.
Before we delve into what Kundalini Yoga is… let’s explore how it began:
A brief history of Kundalini Yoga:
When looking at a practice that is close to 5,000 years it is not surprising that when we drill down the exact history and origin is unclear. This speaks to the practice Kundalini, which like many styles relies on an oral history and in what part of the world the story was tracked.
That said, we do know that the early mentions of Kundalini dates back to the Vedic (a large body of religion text originating in ancient India) collection of writings known as the Upanishads (c. 1,000 B.C. – 500 B.C.). Within these writing, the science of Kundalini is described as a combination of energy and spiritual philosophy. So these Upanishads – which literally means ‘sitting down to hear the teachings of the masters’ – is how Kundalini came to life. Students sat down with masters to hear about this science that could be woven into the practice of life to build clarity, positivity and focus.
Over time, this body of discussion became a physical expressions of the same sort of awakening that the conversations had sparked. The physical manifestation looked at ways to awaken the body, similar to how the mind and spirit was awakened.
What was created was a series and sequencing of actions called the “kriyas”.
Unlike today, these teachings were not available to everyone. Rather, this was secretive study and accessible only to the financial or intellectual elite, which is why the history of Kundalini is not that transparent or clear.
How did Kundalini come to the West?
What is known and documented about the practice of Kundalini is how the practice of Kundalini was brought to the West. A Sikh born in the Punjab region of India in 1929 named Yoga Bhajan is attributed to sharing its healing attributes of this style of yoga with the West.
There were however, roots of Kundalini yoga already in existence through a practice called “Laya Yoga” which was the “yoga of awareness”. Having this as a vernacular allowed for the spread to Kundalini to be quick and powerful. Yogi started to teach to early influencers on the West coast, specifically LA, which he moved to after a brief teaching stint in Toronto in 1968. When in LA, in 1969 he founded 3HO (Happy, Healthy, Holy Organization) which is still in existence today.
Once in LA, he promised young urban hippies that this ancient practice would free them of their ‘misery and build vitality and radiance’. He built a billion-dollar industry and passed away in 2005. Over a decade after his death, his sexual exploits are being investigated by his followers and are the subject of a novel, release in August 2020.
The foundational movement of Kundalini yoga is the Kriya?
The movement of Kundalini is an expression of spirit and energy called a “kriya”. It’s the foundation of the practice and consists of a set of 13 postures that bring breathing and deep abdominal strengthening movements together.
Kriyas links the breath to movement, as well as including the locks (holds) within the body. This is where students hold or tense certain area of the body and focus on holding and then releasing energy.
Kriyas also incorporates the use of sound through chanting. These chants or ‘mantras’ guide the practitioner into a form of concentration and meditation. It places an intention to the movement and can cause a deeper intensity in both the breathing and movement.
Kriyas then incorporate movement, breath, meditation and chanting in one set of sequences. Because of the intensity of all of this combined, it is said to strengthen vitality and increase consciousness.
The sequencing of kriyas are designed to have predictable and replicable impact for the student, so you can receive the same benefit each time you practice. There are no variations and the sequences themselves are quite rigid.
That said, there are many different kriyas available within the Kundalini practice that can be practiced individually or combined to build a class with a particular healing focus. Thousands of kriyas exists and are usually designed to unblock energy or heal a particular part of the body. There are kriyas designed to support the kidneys or other internal organs, balance your endocrinal or nervous system, to increase flexibility of the spine and much more.
These movements allow the Kundalini to awaken through the exploration of breath, exercises, physical postures, chanting and meditation.
What is the Kundalini Rising and Kundalini Energy:
“Kundalini” is the Sanskrit word meaning “coiled snake.” In early Eastern religion it was believed that each individual possessed a divine energy at the base of the spine. This energy was thought to be the sacred energy of creation, something we are born with, however it can often be buried by the trials and tribulations of everyday life. Kundalini looks to “uncoil the snake,” putting us in direct contact with the divine or in the secular sense, in line with our purpose and best form of ourselves.
The kriyas unlock energy, uncoil the ‘serpent’ from the base of the spine, and on the way unlock the seven chakras that are believe to be energy centers through the body. The chakras exists at; the root of the spine, the perineum, naval, chest, throat, between the eyebrows and the top of your head. Each has an associated color, organ and intent. When this energy is unlocked energy is released, unblocking your limitations and connects you to your purpose.
Because of this supposed connection to the divine, Kundalini Yoga is often considered a practice where there are not only physical benefits but also the awakening our Higher Self. It can often be confused for a religion and has some people think of it as more of a cult. There are many data-driven physical benefits to the practice that is physical in nature and can definitely be enjoyed outside of the religious. It is a spiritual practice, which is one of the reasons that it became popular in the 1960s and why it remains a popular practice today.
What is the breath of fire (Kapalabhati) and how is it used in Kundalini yoga?
The breath of fire is one of the fundamental breathing techniques used in the practice of Kundalini Yoga – it guides and drives the practice. If you haven’t pracitced it before, it’s really invigorating and can be really challenging.
The best way to
describe it as a rhythmic breath with equal emphasis
on the inhale and exhale, no deeper than sniffing. It’s done by pumping the
naval point towards the spine on the exhale and releasing the naval out on the
inhale – working your solar plexus back and up toward the
spine. The upper abdominal muscles also pull in and up.
It’s practiced through the nostrils so it’s amazing for keeping your sinuses cleared. It’s often suggested that students close their eyes so that there is no distraction and that the breath becomes the singular focus.
It’s a challenging style of breathing (pranayama) at the beginning because it can often become similar to hyper ventilating… and it’s rigorous.
Once there is a solid foundation for breath of fire, adding the Kundalini movements and chants to the sequencing becomes easier.
Who are the gurus?
In today’s culture, the person most well known within the Kundalini community is Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa, (born in 1943 as Mary May Gibson in Downers Grove, Illinois). She is a teacher of Kundalini Yoga and the co-founder and director of the Golden Bridge Yoga Center in Los Angeles, the author of two books and three DVDs. In her life as a Kundalini Yoga teacher based in Los Angeles, Gurmukh developed a celebrity clientele. She gave private instructions to Madonna, Courtney Love, Gwyneth Paltrow, David Duchovny, Annette Bening and Rosanna Arquette
Benefits of Kundalini
From Prevention magazine, there are really interesting data points and studies done on looking at the potential benefits of Kundalini yoga – since it is such an intense practice. It may sound a little woo-woo but there’s science to backs up these claims: A 2018 study from the International Journal of Yoga Therapy suggests that Kundalini yoga can help reduce symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder, soothing feelings of restlessness and edginess. Moreover, a 2017 study, which followed 26 people taking Kundalini yoga classes for three months, found that practicing this form of yoga can help decrease cortisol levels and perceived stress. And finally, some research suggests that Kundalini yoga may also help prevent cognitive decline and ease depression symptoms.
So is Kundalini a yoga practice, a cult or a religion?
It’s a yoga practice however, there are many pieces that are part of the adopted practice that feel as though they are based more in cult-like philosophies. Let’s take the idea of wearing hear coverings and wearing white.
1. Covering the head focuses the energy at the third eye.
Yogi Bhajan, the father of Kundalini Yoga in the West, emphasized the importance of head coverings during practice as a means to focus and contain your energy and clarify your thoughts, creating a meditative focus at your third eye.
2. A snugly-tied turban creates a natural cranial adjustment.
According to the technology of Kundalini, a tightly tied turban stabilizes the many tiny bones in the skull, which affect our neurological system and electromagnetic field. Proponents claim that a light pressure on the cranium provides a sense of calm and wellbeing.
3. A turban can symbolize your devotion to your practice.
Rituals like covering your head and sitting facing an altar or sacred space, may help set the stage for a deeper practice by signaling a transition from the physical to spiritual world.
Yogi Bhajan claimed that your aura extends nine feet around your body, but the color white extends your aura by an extra foot, providing more protection from harmful energy and projects your positive energy out to inspire others and attract prosperity into your life.
And finally, along the same line of questioning – what is the deal with spiritual names.
Yogi Bhajan said: “…when one asks for a spiritual name, that name actually describes the destiny of that person.” Making the choice to receive a spiritual name is taking a step toward leaving old patterns behind and connecting with your Infinite self… or so it’s said.
This definitely exists as a guru based practice, with certain beliefs and structures. That said, it does not have to be practiced in such a strict manner – you can enjoy the benefits of the practice without adhering to the doctrine of its guru(s).