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Introduction to Kundalini: The Yoga of Awareness

03/26/2015 06:04 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2015
Blend Images - Dave and Les Jacobs via Getty Images

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What is the first thing you think of when you hear the word "yoga"?

Stretching? Juice bars? Pseudo-Eastern spirituality? Tight pants on skinny girls pre-brunch? Yoga today is an urban trend, growing quickly in popularity since the turn of the 21st Century. The irony of yoga's "now" status as a popular workout is that the practice is among the oldest rituals known to man. Today's polished yoga centers and Bikram studios are only the latest incarnation of a tradition that has adapted to fit changing cultures for thousands of years. Nations have risen and fallen. Religions have come and gone. The apple of ideas has passed from Eve to Newton to Jobs. But yoga, in some form or another, has remained.

Nobody knows for certain how long yoga has been around. But as far back as our records indicate, archeologists have discovered evidence of yoga as both a physical and spiritual practice. Among the oldest records are engravings of yogi-like figures dating over 5,000 years ago from the most thriving cities of the era, Mohenjo Daro and Harappa, in the Indus Valley Civilization (present day India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran). The development of yoga runs parallel with the rise of Eastern spirituality, and - prior to the centralized political power of religion we see today - was considered a method of direct connection with the divine. The spirit-body connection is the foundation of yoga (the word "yoga" itself is the Sanskrit word for "union"), and it remains the longest lasting spiritual practice in operation today. But, I mean, juice bars are cool too.

"Here is the greatest of altars, the living, conscious human body, and to worship at this altar is far higher than the worship of any dead symbols." - Swami Vivekananda

What exactly is Kundalini Yoga?

Yoga has dozens of variations in philosophy and style. Some yogas (like Bikram) are structured as a physical workout. Others (like Jivamukti) put an emphasis on meditation. Kundalini Yoga is little of both, but with an added emphasis on consciousness that activates energy centers throughout the body. Kundalini class can be a good workout, but its teachers and students (often wearing white turbans) participate in each kriya with a quiet reverence more akin to a temple than a gym. If you like your physical exercise to come with a side of spiritual enlightenment, Kundalini Yoga might be for you.

"The primary objective [of Kundalini] is to awaken the full potential of human awareness in each individual; that is, recognize our awareness, refine that awareness, and expand that awareness to our unlimited Self. Clear any inner duality, create the power to deeply listen, cultivate inner stillness, and prosper and deliver excellence in all that we do." -Kundalini Research Institute

A brief history of Kundalini Yoga

Kundalini is known as a niche form of yoga that is growing in popularity in pockets of New York City and Los Angeles. But Kundalini, perhaps more than any other yoga, has a long and fascinating history. There is no philosophy (physical or otherwise) that has been more durable than Kundalini Yoga. Unlike most ancient religious philosophies, Kundalini does not hold onto any strict rules or dogmas. The pure nature of Kundalini has allowed each generation for thousands of years to find personal meaning in the practice. The objective is decentralized and selfless - help people actualize their Higher Self. Kundalini does not claim to be the way; it is simply a way, one tool on each individual's journey to personal discovery. Going to a class today feels so fresh, relevant and forward thinking, you would think it was a hybrid Eastern-Western concept developed specifically for the 21st Century.

"Kundalini" is an ancient Sanskrit word that literally means "coiled snake." In early Eastern religion (long before Buddhism and Hinduism) it was believed that each individual possessed a divine energy at the base of the spine. This energy was thought to be the sacred energy of creation. This energy is something we are born with, but we must make an effort to "uncoil the snake," thereby putting us in direct contact with the divine. Kundalini Yoga is the practice of awakening our Higher Self and turning potential energy into kinetic energy.

Today's Western definition of yoga is limiting, describing a specific type of exercise. But to the ancients, yoga was a sacred spirit-body connection. Their goal was not fitness. It was direct connection with Brahman, the God-like spirit within us. No religious buffer between man and God was considered necessary. Just practice. Of the many yogas that developed over the past 5,000 years, Kundalini was considered the most sacred.

The exact origin of Kundalini Yoga is unknown, but the earliest known mention dates to the sacred Vedic collection of writings known as the Upanishads (c. 1,000 B.C. - 500 B.C.). Historical records indicate that Kundalini was a science of energy and spiritual philosophy before the physical practice was developed. The word "upanishads" literally translates to "sitting down to hear the teachings of the master." The first Kundalini classes were just that. Masters sat down with students and gave oral recitation of spiritual visions. This was a popular practice in ancient Vedic society (and would be replicated centuries later by a couple guys named Buddha and Jesus). Over time, the body science of Kundalini Yoga was developed as a physical expression of the Upanishad visions. From its origin, Kundalini Yoga was not taught publicly. It was treated as an advanced education. Students were required to go through several years of initiation before they were prepared to learn the spirit-body lessons of the Kundalini masters.

For thousands of years, the science of Kundalini was kept hidden, passed on in secret from master to a chosen disciple who was considered worthy. Teaching Kundalini outside the secret society of Indian yoga elite was unheard of. The public was not prepared, it was believed, to access such powerful knowledge. Kundalini was veiled in secrecy until one morning when a holy Sikh rebel named Yogi Bhajan wrapped a white turban around his head and took a one-way flight from Punjab, India to Toronto, Canada in 1968.

Yogi Bhajan

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In Western Kundalini, Yogi Bhajan is like the American Blues, the point from which everything else derives. Without him, it's no stretch to assume that Kundalini Yoga would still be unknown in the United States. While visiting California in the late 1960's, Yogi Bhajan witnessed the hippie cultural revolution, many of whose principles he recognized from his own Sikh upbringing. He observed two things. #1) As evidenced by their search for expanded consciousness, young people in America were longing to experience God. #2) Aided by drugs and half-baked mysticism, they were going about it all wrong.

Yogi Bhajan knew that teaching Kundalini Yoga outside the sacred Indian lineage was forbidden. But during a meditation on a weekend trip to Los Angeles in 1968, he had a vision of a new spirituality that combined ancient knowledge with modern practicality. He awoke from the meditation with inspiration. He would teach Kundalini to the west, proclaiming, "It is everyone's birthright to be healthy, happy, and holy, and the practice of Kundalini Yoga is the way to claim that birthright." His weekend visit to Los Angeles turned into a permanent residency. Within the next two years he would establish the 3HO (Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization) Foundation and the Kundalini Research Institute. He was just getting started.

Yogi Bhajan taught over 8,000 Kundalini Yoga classes. He established the first teacher training program in 1969 and personally trained thousands of yogis and future teachers. Several of his students, including Gurmukh Kaur, went on to launch their own yoga studios, and many Kundalini classes around the world today are taught by yogis who trained directly under him.

Yogi Bhajan's influence extends beyond yoga. He wrote a handful of books, established International Peace Prayer Day and worked with several international governments on projects to bring peace and mindfulness to world affairs. Yogi Bhajan believed we each have a responsibility to better society through mindfulness and compassion, and he dedicated his life to making his vision of practical spirituality a reality. After his death, the U.S. Congress passed a bipartisan resolution honoring his contributions to the world.

"Kundalini Yoga is the science to unite the finite with Infinity." -Yogi Bhajan

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Kundalini philosophy: The yoga of awareness

To understand the philosophy behind Kundalini Yoga, let's follow the trail to the first historical texts to mention it by name - the Upanishads. Written by several unknown authors over the course of 500 years (between 1,000 and 500 B.C.), the Upanishads (similar to the Vedic literary scriptures) are a collection of oral teachings on the spiritual nature of reality.

The Upanishads, originally passed from masters to students following deep meditative visions, are square one for Eastern spirituality. The central concepts of Hinduism, Buddhism and other traditions trace their origin to the Upanishads. So does Kundalini.

As the "yoga of awareness," the philosophical purpose of Kundalini is to awaken your Higher Self. Each individual, it is believed, is an energy center for Brahman (God-like creative consciousness). By using the scientific methods developed by Kundalini masters over thousands of years, we are able to disconnect from the worldly Ego and connect directly with Universal Brahman.

Wait. How can a physical exercise connect me with, for lack of a better word... God?

In the tradition of Kundalini Yoga, God is not a personified deity in the sky. Not even close. The essence of God is the same essence of us. God is creative consciousness, the energy from which all things flow, including ourselves. We can access Brahman because it is already part of us. In other words, we are each individual expressions of the same collective energy. Kundalini is the method to shake off our false Ego narrative of separation and experience the true nature of our existence. Not bad for a little stretching, right?

"Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate." -Carl Jung, author of The Psychology of Kundalini Yoga

Top 5 practical reasons to do Kundalini Yoga

"Okay cool," you're probably thinking. "This ancient and divine stuff sounds far out. But how will Kundalini Yoga benefit my life?" Fair question. For starters, it's a great workout. The meditations included in each class are also great. But the health benefits of Kundalini are an added bonus. Here are a few other reasons to practice...

1) Expanding your presence expands your life.

Kundalini's connection to your core energy allows you to approach each day with a strong sense of individual truth. This presence is obvious to those around you and will result in new opportunities and an expanded reality.

2) Instant inspiration.

I walk away from each class with a clarity of mind that breaks through old mental patterns and inspires new ideas.

3) Having a community keeps you in check.

Most of us spend part of our day around negative people who drag us down. Regular contact with a positive community on a spiritual path will lift you up and remind you what is important.

4) Magic happens outside your comfort zone.

Kundalini Yoga is full of surprises. You might be stretching one day and screaming the next. The spontaneous nature of each class keeps you light on your feet and ready for anything.

5) Everyone is a teacher (yes, even you).

Yogi Bhajan said that he did not teach Kundalini to attain disciples. He taught in order to train new teachers. Kundalini reminds us that we each have an important message to share with the world. By finding your voice, and having the courage to share it, you will transform your life and the lives of those around you.

Kundalini techniques

Stretching, breathing, jumping, running, dancing, yelling, chanting, meditating. Any given Kundalini kriya contains a variety of activities. A typical class is focused on control of breath,expansion of energy and alignment of the chakras.

The typical class is 60-90 minutes, structured as follows:

  • 5-10 minute warm-up (often including spiritual teachings from the instructor)
  • 30-45 minute kriya (the workout itself)
  • 5-15 minute Savasana relaxation (try not to fall asleep)
  • 11-31 minute meditation (this could include mantras or hand mudras)

According to 3HO, the following guidelines should be followed during each Kundalini Yoga class:

  • Tune-in with the Adi Mantra: Chant Ong Namo Guru Dev Namo three times before beginning any warm-ups, kriyas, or meditation.
  • Kundalini Yoga is the yoga of awareness. Listen to your body; do what works for you.
  • Challenge yourself to extend just past whatever you think your limits are. For instance, if you think you can only do one minute of an exercise, then try for one minute and ten seconds.
  • Follow the directions! Keep the order and type of posture. Do not exceed the stated times. If you wish to shorten an exercise, shorten all exercises in the kriya proportionally (i.e., cut all times in half or quarter).
  • In a class, feel free to ask for clarification on an exercise or other aspects of the practice.
  • Drink water as needed between exercises.

"May the long time sun
Shine upon you,
All love surround you,
And the pure light within you
Guide your way on."

- Kundalini Yoga farewell blessing

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