Kundalini yoga

I remember my first yoga class. It was pretty straightforward: go to class, bend, stretch, be a little blown away by how simple-looking things were harder than expected, fidget in savasana with one eye open to see what everybody else is doing, roll up mat, and leave. As it became a regular practice the bending and stretching got deeper, and the fidgeting in savasana became more infrequent, basically.

I also remember my first kundalini yoga class. It was at a Virgin Active gym in London, oddly enough, and I walked in entirely unfamiliar with this arm of the practice. I mean, how different could it really be? ‘Probably a gentler sort of hatha.’ Instead I found a big man in a white kurta who led us through a seated series of manta and gentle arm…waving. I left disappointed at not having even broken a sweat, resentful about having wasted an hour on a ‘workout’ that clearly wasn’t a workout. I think a lot of the people who were in the class came in with similar expectations, and left similarly aggrieved, because the class was dropped off the gym schedule not long after, replaced by another Body Pump class (which I went to, much happier). Not surprising then that I didn’t think much of kundalini yoga after that, and when I had it mentioned to me I’d glaze over, remembering only that first underwhelming experience and writing it off as yoga for geriatrics. How wrong I was.

My next run-in was a decade later, probably because the memory of that first class had receded far enough into the haziest bits of my recollection that I was open to even considering it again. I was also a decade older (shocking), and exploring the other side of my yoga practice, having finally understood its role as more than just a bum-tamer. This time I didn’t go to a class, I took one at home via the RA MA TV website, a self-badged "centre for yogic science and technology” in California’s Venice Beach (now also in Mallorca, Spain) that beams out kundalini classes to a dedicated worldwide fan base and is at the forefront of the new wave of LA-based wellness brands like Moon Juice and Café Gratitude. America’s West Coast has long-held a reputation for its openness to more ‘out-there’ health and beauty treatments, and RA MA’s online classes come peppered with lots of LA-speak, easily parodied, without a doubt, but also so transformative that you parody it at your own peril if you don’t at least first give it a go.

But what is it, really?

Kundalini is the Sanskrit word for “energy”, literally the coiled serpent of primordial energy that sits at the base of your spine, a reservoir of untapped creative potential, and your first indication that this is one of yoga’s more esoteric limbs. In essence kundalini energy is the bedrock of our consciousness, and as it coils and travels up our spine and transforms, so does consciousness transform with it.

I’ve found that a healthy suspension of disbelief is essential to early dabbling in kundalini yoga, because years of conditioning will have you going “but how?” It is good to go into it feeling small, and leaving room for the possibility that there is, in fact, still so much to learn, and anyway, as you practice you’ll feel little shifts that in turn spiral into larger transformations, and suddenly your sneer of skepticism flips right around into genuine curiosity and no small amount of awe. This isn’t yoga as you know it. There are no downward dogs, and chaturangas and shoulder stands. Or actually, sometimes there are but those are mere physical preludes to the real stuff: kriyas. Kriyas are a combination of sound, movement, and breath designed to awaken that kundalini energy that’s sitting at the base of your spine, helping it travel up your body until it gets where it needs to go. Teachers often have a given name, often wear white, and sometimes wrap their heads in a turban or some sort of covering (not essential). None of this is essential. There is no abstinence or celibacy in kundalini yoga, rather it is championed as a “householder’s practice”, and sex, wealth, and a general sense of abundance are all seen as part of a balanced life.

Unlike traditional yogic streams, kundalini yoga first appeared in the late sixties, when Yogi Bhajan (his given name), a Sikh former customs inspector, “brought” the practice to America from India, and pitched it as an alternative to psychedelic drugs (fun!). The knowledge predates him, of course, but Yogi Bhajan is credited with bringing it to the masses, and was guru to most of today’s best-known teachers. These far-out roots aren’t particularly helpful when talking about the practice, if I’m honest, but these super-specific kriyas straddle meditation and movement in an extremely prescriptive way that, in today’s time-poor, high-anxiety environment, feels spot on. Anxious? There’s a kriya for that. Low sex drive? There’s a kriya for that too. Want to sort out wonky hormones? Guess what, there’s a kundalini answer for that as well and it works. Some of these therapies will be familiar to those who’ve dabbled in other yoga, like breath of fire, or the cat-cow spine flexes. Some less so, like holding your arms up for eleven or twenty-one minutes while mentally chanting a mantra.

Classes begin with chanting “ong namo guru dev namo” three times, before then segueing into the kriya/s. You’re meant to practice most for 11 minutes or more, but I will admit to never really making it past the three- or five-minute mark thanks to the repetitive movements that cause quads and triceps to burn like hellfire. Props to everyone who stays up all the way, but my arms aren’t there yet. It is all sort of hard to follow sometimes, but you just need to…go with it. There is one “sat nam” to close, and then, when you’re done, you lie in savasana, so that, at least, is a constant. 

Why do it? Because, put simply, it works. I spent my first few classes stressing about all of it, and stressing, also, that I didn’t have an in-person guide to correct my form or arm angles, or whatever. Was I even doing it correctly? It takes time, but you start to see, it is an experience, and everyone’s experience of it is different. The goal of these kriyas isn’t to achieve some abstract ideal of physical or emotional perfection, but to build awareness and to quieten the chatter. I’ve always struggled with meditation, and I found these moving meditations much easier to get into than a quiet, seated meditation. I do those too, but I couldn’t to start. I can’t speak for everyone, but for me the practice helped me release a lot of shit I’d been carting around with me, and to let go of even more behavioural patterns that weren’t doing very much for me. Is it for you? I don’t know, but there is a wealth of knowledge online to help you find out if it is, and if you’ve made it this far, you’re clearly curious enough that perhaps you owe it to yourself to try.

The RA MA website has loads of free content and classes to practice along with at home (plus check out the giant gong behind the teacher; it was originally custom-built for Van Halen), and Guru Jagat, the studio’s founder, published a book that is a good starting point for the inquisitive. Invincible Living is an illustrated guide for even those who don’t give a fig about chakras with a good roundup of basic intended to help you enhance your own creativity, vitality, and radiance. Even the mantras that accompany them, she writes in the book, are merely vibrational codes, something that most people on the subcontinent are familiar with. “No dim lighting, nag champa, or Buddhist statue required.”

Find Invincible Living on Amazon here.