As I’ve mentioned before, I began practicing yoga to help with my martial arts. I started out with “regular” hatha yoga. It was a great help, improving my flexibility and balance tremendously. I knew that there were other styles of yoga, but few of them had classes available in the area. One style kept popping up…kundalini. I read some articles comparing it to qi gong, a component of Chinese martial arts that I had been practicing for a couple of years. I was intrigued. Watching videos on YouTube, it became apparent that it was quite different from the more traditional hatha yoga. In fact, some hatha purists referred to it as “kundalooney”. My interest was unabated, however, and I found that there was a class in Lakewood. That’s a fair distance from home, around 100 miles, but I wanted to experience kundalini yoga for myself. The first class was interesting, enough so that I went back the next week. That happened to be a special class, one focusing on white tantric yoga. It was one of the more remarkable experiences of my life, and I have been learning and practicing kundalini yoga ever since.
Kundalini yoga was introduced to the West by Yogi Bhajan in 1969. Prior to that, its practice was mainly restricted to the Sikh people of the Punjab region in India. Sikhism is a monotheistic religion founded in the 15th century by Guru Nanak. Many of the mantras used in kundalini yoga are drawn from the Sikh scripture, the Guru Garanth Sahib, but Sikhism is not in any way a prerequisite to the practice of kundalini yoga. Without going into unnecessary detail about Sikh religious tenets, there are two things that bear mention. Sikhs, both men and women, commonly wear turbans. Women will sometimes simply cover their heads with a scarf and men, less frequently, might wear a small cap called a kufi. Non-Sikh students of kundalini yoga often adopt this practice for the classroom, although it is certainly not a requirement. Most kundalini yoga classes will have at least a few people who are practicing Sikhs, and they are not in the least offended if non-Sikh students choose not to cover their heads. Many of the mantras used in kundalini yoga are drawn from the Sikh scripture, the Siri Guru Garanth. These are in Punjabi, so they sound a little different than the Sanskrit mantras used in other forms of yoga. It is common for yoga students to greet each other with “namaste”. Literally translated, this means “I bow to you”. It is generally explained as “the spirit in me recognizes and acknowledges the spirit in you”. In kundalini classes, “namaste” is replaced by “sat nam”. This is pronounced to rhyme with “but mom”, and means “truth is my identity”. It is more than a greeting, being a bij, or seed mantra.
I’ll cover a lot more about kundalini yoga in future posts. For now, I would like to focus on one particular kundalini exercise called the spinal awakening series. What might be called a flow or vinyasa in hatha yoga is termed a kriya in kundalini. Kriya literally means “completed action”. Most kriyas consist of multiple parts, and the spinal awakening series is no exception. It requires minimal training, and is accessible to anyone. I have been performing this kriya every morning for several years as a warm-up to my full morning practice. You don’t even need to leave your bed!
The breathing technique in the video is called “breath of fire” or “agni prana”. It’s use is restricted almost entirely to kundalini yoga. I have never encountered it in a hatha class. It is often described as panting like a dog, and taught as “happy puppy”. I struggled with learning it that way. The video briefly mentions pulling in at the navel point, and that is really the key to breath of fire. Imagine that there is a balloon in your stomach. and you pull your navel in to force the air out of the balloon, then relax to allow it to fill again. Another key is to not focus too much on the exhale. Breath of fire is often done in classes for ten minutes or more. If the inhale and exhale are not kept approximately even, it will be difficult to continue for that length of time. A little more force on the out breath is OK, and promotes “taking out the trash”. Try it….your spine will thank you for it!