As a teacher of Kundalini Yoga, I am often asked what it’s like. Most people asking this question either have not heard of it, being a lessor popular style of yoga, or if they have, they associate it with a crazy amount of breathing or as a cult for white people wearing turbans. (Yes I have actually heard the word, “Kultilini.”) I often find myself responding to their questions about Kundalini Yoga by saying, “It’s this weird kind of yoga, with some breathing and chanting and body movements that you’re probably not used to. You might hold your arms up in positions for a really long time which can be really hard, but it’s great. Trust me. Try it!” (A real salesperson I am.)
While my response is technically true, I started to wonder if I really do think it’s weird. I mean, I love weird, so it’s not like that’s bad thing, but if I really like Kundalini Yoga and believe it can help others, maybe I need to rethink how I answer these people’s questions. This blog post is all about me getting to the bottom of Kundalini Yoga’s weirdness.
A Little Background
I first stumbled upon Kundalini Yoga in 2011 after a friend suggested I check it out. He’d experienced a class which included gong relaxation and thought I would love it. I did. I don’t know why exactly, but it felt freeing, opening, awakening. I had been going through a fairly monumental transformation which had begun in 2009, the Jungian kind that happens in your mid to late 30’s, the one where you finally enter “adulthood” and leave your “childhood” behind. My life plans had exploded in front of me so I was well positioned for a new beginning. I was feeling unfulfilled in my career wanting to do something that felt meaningful, that helped others, taking a much needed dating break after the wrong partner choices, and trying to reconnect with my long-neglected creative self. I was definitely searching for answers and the strength to get through this transition, and Kundalini Yoga entered my life at just the right time.
I don’t remember all the details of that first class. I do remember sitting most of the time, aligning my inhales and exhales with different repetitive movements and mumbling through the foreign mantras that we were instructed to chant. Coincidentally, I’d been taking voice lessons, working with the healing properties of sound to release stored emotions and awaken my inner singer, so I was primed for this type of experience where we get to make sounds with our voices. Even if I wasn’t chanting things correctly at the outset, it felt amazing to create and to release sound. Behind the scenes, my mind wasn’t able to wander back to its regular hamster wheel of thoughts. It was too busy focusing on the correct pronunciation of the unfamiliar sounds — the perfect kind of meditation for me.
I also remember my eyes being closed for most of it, a general instruction for Kundalini Yoga, and feeling totally open and free to just let myself go deep into it, even if I didn’t know what I was doing, or worse, looked crazy. It was as though my ego had temporarily left my body. Desperation can be a great motivator for sure, and I was definitely desperate for something to help me find the answers to what I was supposed to be doing in life. If you told me to do cartwheels for an hour, I probably would have done it, except I can’t do a cartwheel. So there I was, chanting, breathing, flopping my arms, twisting my body and not caring about my “problems” that faced me outside of class. When it was over, I knew I’d be back for more.
And so the story goes for many of us who’ve experienced Kundalini Yoga. I did go back, a few classes a week, every week, challenging myself physically, moving and releasing physical energy long-stored in hidden pockets of my body and clearing my mind of unproductive thoughts. I kept peeling back layers of myself and revealing more of who’d I’d lost touch with long ago. I found myself finally connecting to my creative energies in ways that were liberating and life-changing, going deeper with my guitar lessons, learning to love my voice, writing my first few songs, plowing through the first draft of a novel and volunteering in my community. I started eating better, drinking less alcohol, losing weight, and feeling phenomenal. I bought my first gong in 2012 and completed teacher training in 2013. As Russell Brand might say, I was a Kundalini junky.
What About that Religious Cult Part?
Oh yes, so am I in a cult? Short answer: no — and you can skip to next subheading. For the long answer, read on.
In the process of revealing more of myself to me, I began to trust in myself and honor the questions that were coming up for me. As a decidedly “non-organized religion” person, (more on that in Devoted to Love,) teacher training did create some confusion about the overlapping elements of Sikhism and Kundalini Yoga. I remember one of the first things I did when I started to dig into Kundalini Yoga was to look up information about Sikhism online. It had never been discussed specifically in class up until teacher training, but I was curious early on about these gurus who were casually referred to and why so many practitioners wore turbans on their head. After perusing the Wikipedia page on Sikhism, I was relieved to find that it sounded like a religion I could resonate with, equality for men and women and a rejection of the belief that “any particular religious tradition has a monopoly on Absolute Truth.” That still didn’t mean that I was becoming a Sikh (nothing against Sikhs, it’s me, not you!), but at least I could relax knowing that if some of its principles were woven into my yoga practice, I wasn’t unknowingly subscribing to some belief system that conflicted with my personal principles.
In Kundalini Yoga, we chant many Sikh mantras as well as some Hindu and English. They are all beautiful and positive and intended to uplift so if anything my only concern with using them is cultural appropriation, but that’s a subject for another day. Some of the Sikh practices like growing the hair long and wrapping the hair in a turban are practiced by many of my fellow yoginis, but it is merely a lifestyle choice and not a requirement. Our teacher training textbook clearly states that while there’s a relationship between the yoga and Sikhism, just like there’s a relationship between yoga and Hinduism, there is no requirement to become a Sikh in order to become a teacher or practitioner. Many Kundalini Yoga practitioners have chosen to become Sikh as a part of their personal journey, but many of us have not. To confuse matters more, Yogi Bhajan created Sikh Dharma, which is essentially Sikhism interwoven with yogic and ayurvedic prescriptions to achieve a happy, healthy and holy life, (this is where the all white clothing comes in). Again, recommended, not required. With all this going on, I can understand why people are confused! P.S. I do recommend many of the happy, healthy, and holy lifestyle suggestions. Cold showers can be life changing if you can handle them, and the yogi tea recipe is a studio favorite.
So What’s So Weird About Kundalini?
Before answering this, I decided to consult with Dictionary.com about the meaning of weird to make sure I was attributing it correctly according to the true meaning of the word. The definition goes like this, weird: an adjective 1. “involving or suggesting the supernatural; unearthly or uncanny. 2. fantastic; bizarre. 3. Archaic. concerned with or controlling fate or destiny. a noun 4. fate; destiny. 5. fate.”
I am going to be real honest here, I was not consciously aware that “weird” meant this many things until I got to this subheading and decided to look it up to use the definition in this post. I have always limited its usage to “bizarre.” So when I referred to Kundalini as weird I was talking about it affectionately as weird, bizarre, different, on the edge, unique, special. I don’t think of weird as bad. I embrace it. Just ask my family and friends, I’m the weirdo of the bunch, I have 6 gongs. I think it’s fair to say that many people likely walk out of their first Kundalini Yoga class thinking in the back of their head, Hmmm, that was sort of weird, but I liked it. With my newly enlightened view of the definition of the word weird — supernatural, unearthly, fantastic, destiny — I am even more convinced that Kundalini Yoga is definitely weird.
More Breath of Fire, seriously?
Let’s just get this one out of the way. Breath of Fire. A rapid breath, usually through the nose, giving equal attention to the inhale and exhale, where the navel will gently pump and fan the flames of your inner fire (NOTE: this is slightly different than Kapalabhati and Bellows Breath). Most people love it, a few do not. Some people don’t want to do it, and some people should not. While there are many different breaths performed during Kundalini Yoga kriyas and meditations, Breath of Fire seems to be the one everyone remembers. It can seem to dominate certain classes. It is a very powerful breath that cleanses the body and strengthens your magnetic field. If it’s not something you can or want to do, that doesn’t mean you cannot reap the benefits of a Kundalini Yoga class. Just switch out long deep breathing for Breath of Fire. I know several people who enjoy Kundalini Yoga but who cannot do Breath of Fire. There, that was easy.
But My Arms Hurt!
A Kundalini Yoga class can be physically challenging. It can also be extremely gentle and meditative. You never quite know what you’re going to get when you walk in the door, which I admit, might be frustrating. The good news is that you are supposed to make the practice your own. If you’re not up for holding your arms out to your sides for 11 minutes, then take a break. It really is your choice, and no one should ever feel bad about what they do or don’t do in a yoga class. If you know that you can push yourself, and you want to, then you should. You will come out the other side of the experience with a profound new sense of your personal strength, but more importantly, your determination and your commitment to you. If you need to take it easy for whatever reason, that is equally affirming in developing your ability to trust your intuition. Listen to your heart I like to say.
The postures themselves may seem unusual compared to the more common hatha asanas, but there’s a reason for this. In Kundalini Yoga we refer to a series of asanas (postures) as a “Kriya.” The purpose of the Kriya is multifold and is designed to move subtle energy in your body, to heal, and to release whatever it is that is holding you back from being your best self — emotions, trauma, etc. I can’t proclaim to understand the scientific workings of the hundreds of Kriyas that exist. Some are clearly working on the body’s different energy centers or Chakras while others work on the nervous system or the glandular system. In some of my research I’ve stumbled across information suggesting that by exhausting targeted muscles we can fully release the energy that is being stored there. Perhaps this is a part of it too. Because I am a curious sort, I will continue to explore what’s happening inside our bodies when we perform these Kriyas. For those of you less concerned with the details, just listen to yourself. Tune into the energy within when you’re doing a Kriya and when one in particular resonates with you try practicing it for 40 days straight. Let me know how you feel after that!
What if Purple is My Favorite Color?
Do I have to wear all white and wrap my head in a turban? Yogi Bhajan said many things about wearing all white and why wearing a head covering is important. White is said to project your aura an extra foot and help reflect what is outside so that you can go within. The turban is believed to help you have greater control over your 6th Chakra. These are all good reasons to wear white or wear a head covering, and if they resonate with you, you should give them a try. When I first began practicing Kundalini Yoga, I played around with tying a scarf around my hair and wearing white. It felt symbolic in my early years of practice in that I was shedding my old self and transforming into the new me. I felt liberated by releasing habits that weren’t supportive and pursuing dreams that had long been dormant. The “yogi look” was mostly something adorned during yoga class, but occasionally my new attire made its way into the wardrobe cycle and became a sign, a badge of honor, to the outside world to stop putting me in that box defined by my career and the lifestyle I was trying to separate from. Of course tying the hair up in a scarf was also a really convenient way of masking a bad hair day.
Now that I care less about the “image” I am presenting to the outside world, I find that I sometimes want to wear white and sometimes blue, or purple, pink or even aqua. There is a purity that is associated with white and while I recognize its power to draw a specific response — usually reverence — from those who view you wearing it, I don’t necessarily want to perpetuate an unearned sense of authority or admiration. Wearing all white can be a way to feel pure, to connect with your divinity and to allow others to see you as such. If this is helpful to you, then rock your whites! I practice operating at the heart level and to discern from that space. I also consciously choose to challenge the systems that we reside within. Ultimately they are boxes, and most boxes are no good. Engaging in a “white is good,” “black is bad” dialogue is something I am purposely steering away from, even if done for very good reasons. The cool thing about this subject is that wearing all white is weird but so is wearing all purple.
What Exactly Are We Saying?
For those of you newer to yoga as a whole, the chanting might seem a little weird to some people, but it’s not really weird to yoga. Yes, we might sing our little hearts out more in Kundalini Yoga than in some other yoga styles, but from my experience, when people allow themselves to express sound in a room with other people, something magical happens. We begin to connect with one another on a very different level than we did before. Here’s a sweet little article that dives a bit more deeply into the reasons singing together is profound. Our heart beats actually get into sync with one another! I like to think that we are becoming one with sound or perhaps simply remembering that we are all one by connecting our voices. At a time when our divisions are tearing communities apart, I wish we could sing together more regularly to help us remember and to feel our connection to one another. This world would be a much happier place.
If that’s not enough to make you want to chant in a room with other beautiful souls, there’s another key benefit to chanting mantras out loud or even silently which is to help quiet the mind. Filling your mental activity with holy mantras or positive affirmations is going to prevent it from your regular and habitual thoughts of fear, anger, self-doubt, etc. Similar to a mindfulness meditative practice, it also gives your mind a break from those other mundane “mantras” that take over your thoughts, like reviewing your to-do lists or dwelling in the past or in the future. Yogic mantras allow you to fill your brainspace with words with a higher purpose which helps in aligning your body, mind and soul. So cool.
Kundalini Yoga is the Yoga of Awareness
The bottom line is this. If you want to become a Sikh, bless you. If you want to become a Catholic, bless you. If you want to be Jewish, bless you. If want to be a Hindu…you get the picture. If you want to wear white, wonderful! If you want to wear blue, or purple, pink or even aqua, love it! If you want to wear a turban, so cool! If you only wrap your hair when you don’t have time to do it, genius! And if you just want to be weird, Goddess bless you!
Getting back to that definition of weird for one last moment, “supernatural, unearthly, fantastic, destiny.” Kundalini Yoga is often referred to as the “Yoga of Awareness.” What does this mean exactly? I won’t speak for everyone, but I know that in a Kundalini Yoga class I’ve been able to feel the connection between myself and what I refer to as the Divine, some may call it God, the Universe, Spirit or the Infinite. In that awareness of the Divine, I’ve been able to see myself more clearly, I’ve been able to feel my connection to others more deeply, and I’ve been able to magically reconnect with my soul’s purpose, or my destiny. This is really important work. I will go so far as to say that everyone should be doing it. Now is Kundalini Yoga the only way to get there? Of course not. But if you are looking for a pathway there, you should feel welcome trying out Kundalini.
Enjoy it in all of its weirdness. It’s the age of aquarius, baby.