Demystifying the Buzz About Kundalini Yoga
Aug 31, 2014 10:15PM
By Devpreet Kaur
Photo by Sacred Journeys Photography, Yardley, P.A.
An article titled “The Ultra-spiritual Yoga Celebs Love,” published in the March 26, 2013, issue of Well+Good (WellandGood.com), describes how kundalini yoga has been gaining momentum, with Hollywood actors like Russell Brand, Demi Moore, Miranda Kerr, Reese Witherspoon and Cindy Crawford singing its praises. Several other articles and blog authors have reported that Rachel McAdams, Christy Turlington and Andie McDowell credit the approach, at least in part, for their youthful appearance. While they are very visible fans, few people understand properly or even know what kundalini yoga is, even though it has been practiced in the U.S. for nearly 50 years.
This article aims to demystify kundalini yoga and help the reader to discern if they could benefit from its practice.
What is Kundalini Yoga?
In the Upanishads, a collection of Vedic texts that originated in India as far back as 5 B.C., kundalini is described as a flow of energy and consciousness that exists within each of us. All types of yogic traditions seek to raise the kundalini energy.
Kundalini yoga is a raj yoga, a legitimate, royal yogic lineage. For thousands of years, kundalini yoga was veiled in secrecy, passed along verbally from master to carefully chosen disciple until Yogi Bhajan broke with tradition. Upon coming to Los Angeles from India in 1969, he saw how disillusioned young people were—“turning on and dropping out” with drugs—and decided that he had to help. He began to share kundalini yoga’s age-old secrets. When he was attacked for revealing the practices, he replied, “I am in the desert and I have water. How can I not share it?”
Kundalini yoga is also considered the yoga of awareness because practitioners learn to calm the mind and bring it to a single-pointed, inward focus where they can hear and befriend their own true, divine nature.
Kundalini yoga is seen as a spiritual yoga because it does not compromise on the importance of encompassing all of the eight limbs of yoga during every class. In fact, teachers vow not to improvise or compromise the tradition, but to teach kundalini exactly as the teachings were given by Yogi Bhajan.
In the 1960s, when various types of yoga were first introduced in the West, they were intentionally watered down due to a fear of being misconstrued as religion. To this day, few people know that the literal meaning of the word yoga is “to yoke the finite (physical) to the infinite (Source, God or one’s Soul).” That definition is unnerving to some, and to gain acceptance, yoga was often simply touted as a new type of exercise with emphasis placed on the postures (asanas), only one of the eight limbs of yoga.
Yoga has been practiced for millennia, but it was not until Patanjali’s writing of the Yoga Sutras, sometime between 200 and 600 A.D., that the eight interrelated practices of yoga were codified as a system to develop the body and mind. To this day, nothing short of the eight limbs is considered a bona fide yoga practice. However, popular techniques in the West still tend to emphasize cultivating the body without chanting and meditation or cultivating the mind through meditation without building physical vitality through exercise. Neither emphasis was ever intended and can lead to imbalances.
How is Kundalini Yoga Different?
There are 22 or so legitimate yoga traditions or lineages plus any number of improvised and fusion styles being practiced today. Kundalini yoga is a comprehensive tradition that cultivates a deep and authentic experience.
Four points of distinction can be made about kundalini yoga. First, the form appeals to both genders and is accessible to all levels of physical conditioning. Second, while there are very few “pretzel poses” in kundalini yoga, it is as physically challenging as the practitioner wants it to be. Third, the eyes are closed during much of the practice, allowing the practitioner to go deep inside, feeling the body and connecting with the breath and other sensations, rather than looking around and judging oneself and others. Fourth, the teacher doesn’t touch or physically correct students. All postural changes are verbally presented to the entire group so that practitioners learn to listen closely and modify or refine their postures themselves.
The Kundalini Yoga Experience
During each class the teacher gently guides students through a kriya, a yoga sequence practiced in a specific order for a specific length time to create desired effects or outcomes. Each class incorporates asanas, the physical postures; mudras, hand positions that guide energy flow; mantras, chanted sounds that vibrate the meridians, or energy centers, inside the mouth and head; drishti, visual focal points that stimulate the glands to secrete hormones; pranayamas, breath control techniques; dharana, mental concentration; pratyahar, sychronization of the senses; and dhyana, meditation.
There are hundreds of kriyas, or complete sets, with names like, “Opening the Chakras,” “Disease Resistance,” or “The Stress Set for Adrenals.” In every one-and-a-half hour class, each kriya activates, balances and promotes health in the body and creates awakening and absorption in spirit (samadhi).
Yogi Bhajan was quoted as saying, “The power of kundalini yoga lies in the actual experience.” While this is true of most things, this is especially true of kundalini yoga because the experience defies words. The Well+Good article, like so many others, wasn’t entirely accurate but aptly summarized the quality that keeps some people coming back to the form: “The element that seems to really draw people in is kundalini’s emphasis on self-awareness and actualization… It’s a promise that appeals to creative types and celebs, but also to anyone who’s concerned with how to realize their talents and live their best life possible.”
Illegitimate versions of kundalini yoga have been popping up since it started to become popular, and this has only added to the confusion about the tradition. Some teachers are adding components of kundalini yoga to other forms and creating classes called Hot Kundalini, Kick-ass Kundalini and others. This is exactly what Yogi Bhajan warned against. These hybrids are not tested and true, nor are they likely to produce the desired results. For a genuine kundalini yoga experience, be sure that the teacher is certified by the Kundalini Research Institute (KRI), which is a scientifically driven institute that collaborates with major medical institutions like Stanford and Harvard universities to demonstrate the benefits of kundalini yoga on the brain, mind and body.
Devpreet Kaur is a recovered pharmaceutical executive, author, corporate trainer and workaholic whose life was forever changed for the better in 1994 when she attended her first kundalini yoga class. She is a registered yoga teacher, certified by the Kundalini Research Institute to teach kundalini yoga and meditation. Connect at DevpreetKaur.com.