From white turbans, to chanting and eccentric celebrity endorsements, you may be surprised to learn that Kundalini Yoga is not as “far out” as it appears at first glance.
Perceived as an exclusive club, or an ultra-spiritual practice reserved for die-hard yogis, this style of yoga is often passed up by the average yoga student. In fact, Kundalini Yoga is designed to help you overcome everyday problems and is a perfect compliment to any yoga practice.
What Is Kundalini?
Before we get into the specifics of Kundalini Yoga, it is important to understand the ancient concept of Kundalini energy.
From the Sanskrit word meaning “coil,” Kundalini is conceptualized as a coiled snake resting at the base of the spine. This energy is believed to be the primal life force, which lies dormant in each individual. (1).
When “awakened” the Kundalini energy rises through the energy centers (chakras) of the body - up to the top of the head (crown). This rising is associated with spiritual enlightenment, unlocking of previously unknown abilities and the breaking down of personal limitations. (2)
Where Does The Kundalini Tradition Come From?
What became known as “Kundalini Yoga” in the 20th century is in fact a synthesis of several spiritual traditions designed to awaken the Kundalini energy: combining techniques from Hatha Yoga, Tantric visualization and Laya Yoga meditations. (3)
Kundalini Yoga was introduced to the Western World by Yogi Bhajan, when he emigrated from Pakistan to Canada in 1968. It is said that upon encountering the spiritual suffering rampant in North America the Kundalini Master decided to break the centuries old rule against teaching yoga publicly: convinced that this technology was the most effective means to heal their complaints.
He went on to found the organization 3HO - “Healthy, Happy, and Holy” - which continues to spread the Kundalini lifestyle as outlined by Yogi Bhajan nearly 50 years ago. (4)
"Kundalini Yoga is the science to unite the finite with Infinity, and it's the art to experience Infinity in the finite."- Yogi Bhajan
Yogi Bhajan’s teachings were not reserved to the practice of yoga: he included in-depth guide for how to live your life based on the 3HO Kundalini philosophy.
From directions on how to raise children to how to dress and even how to brush your teeth, this lifestyle guide has become the basis for countless Kundalini communities around the world. (5)
The most striking feature of the Kundalini devotee is their head-to-toe white dress. This is no accident, Yogi Bhajan promoted wearing white specifically for its visibility.
However, white was also chosen for more symbolic reasons: it is the combination of all the colors of the rainbow (which are used to represent the chakras), and when worn it is believed to help support the development of consciousness. (6)
The Yoga Of Awareness
Yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan differs from other styles of yoga popularized in the West in that it targets the mind, soul and energy centers rather than the physical body.
If you have partaken in a yoga class before, you’ve already had a taste of some of the techniques employed by Kundalini Yoga: such as breathing exercises (pranayama) and meditation.
“There's nothing which can be more precious in you thanyour own relationship with your own consciousness.” - Yogi Bhajan
Kundalini Yoga is known as the “Yoga of Awareness” as its aim is to help you reestablish a relationship with yourself. Increasing your awareness of your physical, emotional and mental state enables you to unlock your potential and ultimately experience your True Self. (7)
The focus of the practice is to prepare both the body and mind for the rising of the Kundalini energy. The postures (asanas) are chosen to compress certain points on the body, activating the energy channels (nadis) and centers (chakras) to allow the Kundalini to flow. (7)
Is Kundalini Yoga For Me?
You do not need to take on the entire Kundalini lifestyle to benefit from its practice. Many people frequent Kundalini Yoga classes without ever donning the signature white head covering, or converting to a vegetarian diet.
Kundalini Yoga is designed to help you overcome the stresses of everyday life and tackle the challenges thrown your way. Whether you desire to improve your relationships, your work life or increase your self-esteem, Kundalini provides the tools to help realize your goal. (7)
If you are someone who suffers from an injury or illness which makes more physical styles of yoga inaccessible, Kundalini Yoga is an ideal option for you. Called the “yoga householders,” the sequences can be performed by anyone ages 5 to 105. (7)
The actual practice is not focused on alignment or physical performance, rather you are encouraged to work at your own level - tuning in with how your body and mind are responding to the exercises.
What Can I Expect From A Kundalini Yoga Class?
A typical Kundalini yoga class lasts between 60-90 minutes, during which your instructor will guide you through a structured set of exercises which are designed to target a particular problem, or bring about a specific 8)class follows the same basic structure: (
Mantras are words or phrases which, when spoken aloud, are believed to affect consciousness and inspire a particular feeling by creating specific vibratory frequencies. These frequencies act on the energy in the body, and ultimately bring about changes in the physical body. (9)
Every class closes and begins with the chanting of mantras, while others are used throughout in combination with postures and breathing techniques.
To open the practice, the Adi Mantra (“Ong Namo Guru Dev Namo”) is chanted three times. Translated to “I bow to the subtle divine wisdom, the divine teacher within,” these words are used as a means to “tune in” with your inner guru and the intuitive knowledge within. (10)
Pranayama is the practice of consciously controlling the breath in order to alter the flow of energy in the body. There is a direct connection between the activities of the mind and the pattern of the breath: by changing the way you breathe you can change your state of mind. (11)
After the opening chant, students are led through different patterns of inhalation and exhalation, sometimes in combination with certain yoga postures (asanas) in order to prepare the body for the main practice.
A common pranayama used in Kundalini Yoga is the Alternate-Nostril-Breathing (Nadi Shodan), which serves to cleanse the energy channels and prepare them for the rise of Kundalini: with one nostril blocked, the air is exhaled then inhaled, then repeated on the opposite side. (12)
A Kriya is a sequence of postures, mantras, breath and meditation designed to target a particular theme. This deviates from your typical hatha flow class in that it has a specific order and is performed the exact same way every time. (12)
“The word kriya means action. It is an action that leadsto a complete manifestation like a seed leads to a blood,a thought into actuality, a desire to commitment.” - 3HO.org
After the warm-up is complete, the Kundalini teacher leads the class through one of the Kriya. The Sanskrit names for the poses are rarely used: instead students are guided into the poses with precise directions and, if needed, demonstrations. (12)
The exercises often involve moving in and out of postures along with the breath - this encourages the flow of Kundalini. However, occasionally poses are held for extended periods of time as a means to build endurance, and in themselves may serve as a meditative focus. (13)
#4 Relaxation And Meditation
After completing the Kriya, students are instructed to take a pose for deep relaxation (lying on the back or stomach). This period of quiet and stillness gives the body the opportunity to integrate the effects of the kriya.
Students are then guided through one of the hundreds of meditations passed on by Yogi Bhajan: each one tailored to address a specific need. Kundalini Yoga offers meditations to alleviate stress, increase energy levels and even heal a broken heart. (14)
The meditations may include hand positions (mudras), arm positions and specific breathing patterns, or a combination of all three. They vary greatly in length; with some lasting as little as 3 minutes while others go on for over an hour. (14)
“Meditation is the art of breaking habits, to purifythe mind and to take care of day-to-day things.” - Yogi Bhajan
The average class includes 11 minutes of meditation.
#5 Closing Song
Every class is wrapped up by singing the Blessing song: “May the long time sun shine upon you”. The recitations of these words is believed to help ground the mind and prepare you to return to the activities of everyday life.
Finally, “Sat Naam” is chanted three times. Roughly translating to “Truth Is My Identity,” it serves as a nod of recognition to your underlying nature as being one with the cosmic whole.
While Sat Nam is commonly used as a greeting in Kundalini communities, when employed as a mantra it is believed to awaken your soul and guide you towards your destiny. (8)
What Are The Benefits Of Practicing Kundalini Yoga?
The practice of Kundalini Yoga is associated with the multitude of health benefits universal to all styles of yoga. Scientific studies have shown that a consistent yoga practice including meditation: (15)
- Promotes weight loss
- Reduces stress and anxiety
- Improves memory and cognitive function
- Increases immunity
- Regulates sleep (16)
- Enhances respiration, and
- Lowers blood pressure
Due to its focus on meditation, Kundalini Yoga practitioners are able to reap the full benefits of these practices. Transcendental meditation has been found to be particularly effective in reducing levels of stress and anxiety; (17) and following a Kundalini practice participants showed increased muscle relaxation. (18)
Both breathing techniques and meditation have been demonstrated to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS): our “rest and digest” response, in contrast to our “fight-or-flight” response. (19)
When the PNS is active, the body enters a state of restoration which facilitates digestion, cellular metabolism and sleep. (20) This can be thought of as the physiological aspect of “bringing the body into balance,” allowing the various systems to perform the vital functions necessary for optimal health.
How To Start Your Kundalini Yoga Practice?
Yogi Bhajan himself said that the purest source of knowledge is experience: Thus, the best way to get to know Kundalini Yoga is to try out a practice for yourself.
"In Kundalini Yoga the most important thing is your experience. It goes right to your heart. No words can replace your experience. Your mind may accept the words or it may not, but your consciousness will not accept just words." - Yogi Bhajan, The Aquarian Teacher Training manual, p 20
There is likely a studio near you that offers classes, or you may want to start out by following a video at home. YouTube offers a wealth of free sample Kundalini classes, or you can check out the 3HO website to purchase videos from the organization.