Kundalini yoga has its origins in Tantric and of the Shaivism or Shiva focussed Hindu faith. It also has strong links to Sikhism. It is a widely practiced form of yoga and finds popularity amongst many worldwide celebrities, it’s appeal in its deeper contemplative framework, coupled with a sprinkling of Bhakti (love) yoga. Expect some dancing and laughter!
Whilst the concept of ‘Kundalini’, meaning ‘coiled’ or ‘snake like’ has its origins in the ancient ‘Vedic’ and ‘Upanishadic’ texts of at least 1000 BCE, it was formalised more recently by ‘Yogi Bhajan who was born Harbhajan Singh Khalsaa, a Sikh Prince from Northern India (now Pakistan). Yogi Bhajan first brought the system to the attention of the west, in Canada during the 1970’s, as an antidote to the excesses of the post hippy period in North America. Yogi Bhajan is said to have wanted to move away from the perceived restrictive inner sanctum approach of learning without the emphasis on guru worship.
Central Components of Kundalini Yoga
This yoga practice has both a physical and spiritual emphasis with its central premise the notion of a repository of energy, which resides at the base of the spine known as ‘serpent’ energy. The aim of the practice is to liberate in a controlled way this coiled feminine energy enabling it to rise through successive, ascending chakras located along the length of the spine. The female energy Shakti, re-unites with Shiva the masculine energy at the crown and the universe beyond, at which point self-realisation is said to be achieved.
Some caution is required however in preparing the body for the liberating and potentially overwhelming effect of rising prana as it moves up the spine, opening each chakra in turn and having a specific effect on the aspiring yogi.
A simple analogy is to consider the body as a network of circuits or channels (nadis), the electricity/energy (prana) flowing within, where the circuits cross to distribute energy (chakras) and with controls and fuses (bandas and mudras) for safe and effective operation. For optimum health the wires have be free from obstructions (granthis).
Three principle circuits are identified, though there are many more; these are ‘Pingala’ associated with the male aspect; ‘Ida’ associated with the female aspect and ‘Sushumna’ the central channel (nadi). The aim of kundalini yoga is to facilitate the flow of energy up this central channel.
Kriya meaning ‘act’ is a central premise in most yoga systems and is sometimes incudes acts of cleansing. Kundalini yoga differs from the more traditional hatha yoga systems in that it views these individual acts as part of a greater ‘technology’ with each act or practice completed precisely to achieve the desired effect.
Typically these involve:
- Mantra - the repetition of sacred chants.
- Yantra - the contemplation of a visual device or mystical diagram.
- Pranayama to control the flow of energy through breathing. techniques.
- Bandha – the physical or mental engagement of locks and seals.
- Mudra – physical gestures and focus.
- Asana - physical postures.
- Meditation – higher stages of contemplation and inner focus.
Why do practitioners wear white and cover the heads?
Firstly, Yogi Bhajan emphasised the need to not be distracted by the energies and influences associated with bright colours. So unlike a westernised fashionable approach to yoga using bright colours, all colours are instead collated into the universal colour of white.
Secondly, Yogi Bhajan directed his sadhana (students) to cover their heads to contain the energy within, focussing instead on Ajna the third eye or guru chakra. As a practising Sikh this would seem to have sat comfortably with the spiritual significance of wearing a turban and dedication of the ‘Self’ to the guru within.
What might a typical Kundalini class be like?
Typically four-six stages are identified which sometimes overlap:
- Tuning in
- Warm up
- Closing chant
- Tuning in
A typical kundalini yoga class will start with a period of inner focus (or tuning in) whereby students are encouraged to observe the silence within and without. Not so easy in our very busy lives and equally busy minds.
The chanting of sacred sounds or texts used to focus the mind and energy, Gurmukhi the language of the Sikh holy book is used throughout. Of special significance are the mantras:
Adi Mantra - ‘Ong Namo, Guru Dev Namo.’
“I call upon my own inner guidance, the guru within me.”
‘Sat Nam’ - a founding bija (or seed) mantra that connects the words ’Sat’ meaning truth and ‘Nam’ meaning identity. Translation
“I Iive/am connected to my true self or soul.”
Guru Guru Wahe Guru Guru Ram Das Guru
“Wise is the one who serves infinity.”
There are many more.
- Warm up
Warm up exercises then follow, aimed at preparing the body and mind for the progression to a series of ‘kriya’. These might involve stretching and breathing exercises.
These are acts, grouped into sets and will typical involve physical postures (asana), breathing (pranayama) and meditation.
Asana are employed in a similar vein to most hatha yoga practices, but when compared to Hatha and Vinyasa styles of yoga for example, Kundalini yoga is is often considered a more spiritual practice, with postures held for longer periods with a longer deeper focus on breath control and mantra (chanting).
The importance of breath awareness is emphasised throughout, starting with basic awareness techniques that allow the breath to be observed and slowed to around four breaths a minute, when the meditative state is approached. More advanced techniques such as the ‘breath of fire’, similar to ‘Kapalabhatti, may also be used.
A period of relaxation then follows leading to meditation. Towards the close you will encourage to simply ‘spend time with yourself’ quietly observing, followed by some un-abandoned dancing and laughter.
- Closing Chant
A final chant closes the session.
What are the benefits of Kundalini Yoga?
- Liberating and enabling energy flows is directly linked to our complete holistic health. Blocked energy flows equals poor physical and psychological health.
- Mantra – enables inner focus, calm and stress relief.
- Pranic flow in chakras improves willpower and positivity and specific benefits associated with each ascendant chakra.
- Flexibility and strength in the spine, which also help stimulate our immune systems.
- Pranayama – helps tone the respiratory apparatus and brings both calm and vitality to the body.
- Laughter – this is a happy joyous form of yoga, which is arguable the best medicine of all.
Some important points for those new to class
- When you first attend a kundalini class you may well be the only student not wearing white. Don’t panic, you will most likely be made welcome as a ‘newbie’ rather than as an ‘outsider’.
- Approach and practice at you own pace, there is no competition but with yourself, which is ultimately counter-productive and not what any form of yoga is about.
- Take time for quiet self-reflection between kriyas and notice what’s going on both inside and outside of you.
- Be present, in your body in your mind and with each breath, each informs the other and is ultimately the union we call yoga. Try to gauge your bodies’ response to each progressive act or kriya with acceptance and without judgement.
- Accept that ‘the system’ has both a passive and active phase; the aim is to sense the subtle flow of prana in the spine and ultimately the whole of you. Be patient.