Breathing New Life into Life
I am delving deeply into my Chi Gung practice with renewed vigor these days, studying with the legendary Tai Chi and Chi Gung master Robert Chuckrow, who happens to be a member of Cate’s extended family. Cate called me one fine day, “You have to meet Robert!”. And it has been a cascade of blessings ever since.
I actually met Robert at the Tai Chi Farm festival in upstate New York many years ago, where he autographed one of his earlier books for me. Robert is the author of ‘Tai Chi Walking: A Low-Impact Path to Better Health, The Tai Chi Book, Tai Chi Dynamics and his latest masterpiece, which he finished in March, ‘Tai Chi Concepts: Hidden Strength, Natural Movement, and Timing.’ His website https://chuckrowtaichi.com has a wealth of excellently written articles and intriguing videos on a variety of topics that we have been exploring with great interest. His recent talk on nutrition, as also detailed in his articles, was especially fascinating to me.
Along with offering valuable input and instruction whenever he can make it to our Friday MKY Chi Gung practice sessions, Robert has generously invited our members to his own classes, so please let us know if you are interested; we are all learning so much! Robert is a treasure trove of knowledge, skill and refined wisdom, having studied with the most accomplished Chi Gung and Tai Chi masters in the world, including those credited with first introducing and perpetuating the Asian martial arts for chi cultivation in the West.
As a long-time physics professor and writer, Robert succinctly explains and demonstrates the subtle nuances of these techniques and reveals important insights, some of which have never before been elucidated in English. Robert teaches with grounded commonsense, delightful humor and an intriguing touch of mysticism. He emblazons his own bold signature on the ancient Taoist arts, as many of the great masters have done, and this has served to take my own practice and understanding to a whole new level. He continues to develop and progress these arts by combining concepts from physics, body work and movement traditions, synthesized with his unique, highly tuned process of inquiry.
Robert brings the Taoist arts vividly alive for us by constantly emphasizing discovery and experimentation. His own tireless sense of wonder encourages us to explore new vistas of consciousness in every session. With characteristic enthusiasm, he models how to make the practice ever fresh, ever new, as we unlock the powerful flow of healing Chi in countless ways. Even if I live 300 years or more, I could never run out of new things to explore: That’s the secret Robert manages to impart. Each insight he shares goes far beyond the practice floor, and when applied comprehensively, leads to a strong life, well lived. As we endlessly explore and polish our practice, we polish our lives.
Please join us in this fascinating process of self-discovery. ----- Savitri
Kundalini Yoga engages me: the breath work opens me up; the mantras inspire me; the movement enlivens and challenges me; the meditations shift me; the internal, silent repetition of Sat Nam (I am Truth) brings me back to who I am again and again. The engagement is what makes it such a doable practice. If I'm not fully engaged, I'm distracted. If I'm distracted, my thoughts take over -- and that is not what I want in my spiritual practice.
In this series, I explain 5 of the elements that make Kundalini Yoga an all-consuming, enjoyable, beautiful and healing practice. Each ingredient is, on its own, good for you. And together, they are a recipe for physical, mental, spiritual health and happiness.
PART ONE: BENEFICIAL BREATH OF FIRE
Breath of fire is a breath practice that is used throughout Kundalini Yoga. The three things I love most about it are: 1) how practicing it interrupts my churning mind, 2) how I feel a little buzzy and wonderful after a round of it, and 3) how it helps me through challenging postures.
It's an activating, fueling, fast (about the speed of a panting dog), belly-moving, and audible breath, usually done through the nose. With all that going on, it's actually difficult to let the mind wander. You're in it. You're present.
In addition to how it brings presence, breath of fire offers MANY tangible benefits, including:
Like everything in this practice, it's in the experience of it. So, try it (unless you are menstruating, pregnant, or fewer than three months post-partum, in which cases breath of fire is contraindicated). Here are two ways to learn or continue to move toward mastery of this awesome breath:
And you'll love it! You'll love doing it. You'll love the benefits. You'll love how it brings you in the moment. And, if you're like me, it'll help you fall in love with the practice of Kundalini Yoga.
PART TWO: BEAUTIFUL MANTRAS
When I first began my Kundalini journey, the mantras (sacred sounds) were a strange and confusing element to me. My first teacher used to shout out Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Wahe Guru with no explanation. Back then, I regarded mantras as an inaccessible aspect of a powerful practice that I could just choose to tune out, and in so doing, not embrace the full “weirdness” of it all.
Little did I know that mantras would enter my heart and remain there ever-available for my healing, for my soothing, for my transformation. In fact, much to my surprise, mantras became the most accessible aspect of my practice. Over the more than two decades I’ve practiced, my body and mind have been in different states. I’ve experienced minor injuries, fluctuating strength and flexibility and my mind has moved all over the spectrum from chaotic to peaceful. At times, I’ve had to pull back from a robust physical practice. At times, the mere suggestion of sitting in silent meditation will send me running away from the mat. But mantras — Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Wahe Guru — are always there in my consciousness, rising to the surface when needed, redirecting my distracted mind, reminding me that I am a spiritual being, and bringing a feel-good aliveness to every cell.
The word mantra means mind projection, and that definition tells so much of the story. In Kundalini Yoga, we repeat sacred sounds to bring our attention to beautiful and uplifting messages and to give our bodies the experience of a higher vibration than our everyday thoughts and language achieve. We draw on an extensive cannon of mantras, which come mostly from sacred Sikh texts. Although they come from a religious tradition, these mantras are for people of all faiths. They access something deeper — heart and soul — than tenets.
The above beautiful mantras, along with many others, are another tool in the toolbox of things that make Kundalini Yoga, oh-so-engaging and therefore oh-so-doable. There are three ways to work with mantras in a Kundalini Yoga practice.
Bringing mantra in in these ways has an impact. Like everything in this blog series, they add to the mix a way of staying in the moment.
In addition to bringing us into presence, each mantra carries with it a specific benefit.
Sat Nam, which I will discuss more in depth in Part 5 of this blog series, brings us into alignment with our authentic self.
Gobinday Mukunday lists qualities of divine energy and works to cleanse the subconscious mind and break through deep-seated blocks.
Chattr Chakkr Vartee speaks of divine support and helps to release fear.
Pavan Guru reminds us of our life force and the nourishment of the breath. It is said to increase energy.
Sat Narayan is about the sustaining force in the Universe and it serves to protect the heart and allow us to go with the flow.
You can sample my favorite musical versions of each of the above mantras here. Enjoy them. Enjoy the beauty. Enjoy the effects. Enjoy that they are available to us, to make our Kundalini practice that much more meaningful, real, and high.
PART 3: TARGETED SEQUENCES
When we teach Kundalini Yoga, we teach from manuals and books. We don’t wing it or decide what posture we want to do when. We use prescribed sequences, called kriyas. Almost everything is delineated — how to breathe, how to arrange the body, the hands, the fingers, where to focus the eyes, and how long to do all of it.
Why do we do this? Because each kriya is a special alchemy. A kriya is a series of exercises that lead to a specific effect. My teacher, Hari Kaur Khalsa, called them “divine recipes.” Each of these recipes yields a defined result. The outcomes can be physical, energetic, mental, psychological, or spiritual. Some examples of Kriyas are:
Knowing the potential benefit of a kriya adds to my engagement with my practice. When I know what I’m working toward, I’m more committed. So, this is part of my case for Kundalini. It’s another piece of the puzzle, another motivation, another point of focus, another way to go within.
I don’t know how many kriyas have been recorded, but I do know that after more than 20 years of practice and 11 years of teaching, I still discover new ones.
Here’s an example of a short sequence, Kriya to Experience the Original You.
To experience the original you. This kriya, in particular, motivates me. To experience the original me is one of my priorities in life. Who am I? How can I discard the junk, the baggage, the conditioning that doesn’t fit? How can I be the most confident in my most authentic self?
I believe that this series of exercises would help me answer those questions. I believe it because I’ve experienced that these kriyas work, that Kundalini Yoga works. To get the full benefits of any kriya, it must be practiced every day for 40 days. It’s said that if you practice Kriya to Experience the Original You for 120 days, “you will gain great vitality, personal excellence and a new concept of who you are.”
It’s about pouring yourself in, your whole self into the kriya, and trusting that this particular sequence will bring the healing it promises. Let Kundalini Yoga kriyas be a vessel for your healing.
PART 4: ACTIVE MEDITATIONS
If all you know of meditation is the stereotype of “close your eyes and empty your mind,” it could feel impossible. The Kundalini approach to meditation is quite different, and in my opinion much less intimidating than other forms. Each Kundalini meditation (and there are many) has, like a kriya, a specific intention or outcome. In order to achieve the outcome, there is a combination of tools, which can include an eye focus, a breath pattern, a hand position, an arm movement, and/or a mantra. Having those tools what makes the meditations easier. The tools hold us every step of the way and keep us from straying into a torrent of thoughts.
This is so key for me. See, I didn’t go into this yoga in order to meditate. I wasn’t interested in meditation or convinced of the benefits of it. I wanted to move and feel good. But as I’ve experienced these meditations and trained, I’ve become more and more interested and more and more convinced -- to the point that Kundalini Meditations have become an imperative in my life and more than that, they’ve become a reminder of magic. But I can only get to the magic by doing and I’m only willing to do what feels doable and stuff only feels doable when I know I’ll feel engaged. (This is why reorganizing my bathroom cabinets hasn’t gotten done. Not so engaging for me.)
Here are some Kundalini Meditations to try that draw on tools to engage you.
Meditation to Conquer Self-Animosity
Draws on an eye focus, a breath pattern, and a hand position.
This meditation is particularly helpful in dealing with self-sabotage. Here how:
Meditation to Experience & Project the Original Self
Draws on an arm position and a mantra.
Practice this meditation in order to return to your True Self.
Meditation to Open the Heart
Draws on an eye focus, a mantra, and an arm movement.
This meditation is for those times when you feel your heart has closed and you need to re-initiate the flow of love.
Part 5: FOCUS ON YOUR TRUTH
In Kundalini Yoga, we often focus on the mantra Sat Nam (Truth is my identity). We silently repeat it to ourselves; we chant it aloud powerfully while pulsing the navel; we stretch the sound out as we close class. In my opinion, knowing one’s Sat Nam, one’s Truth is paramount in practice and in life — more important than any other benefit we gain from coming to the mat.
Knowing our Truths is the only way we will live authentic lives and fulfill our purposes. I’m sure there are folks who had their Truths affirmed throughout their childhoods, and as they separated from their parents had the inner resources to stay with it. But I think what’s much more common is parents and society projecting onto their kids and then kids growing up not trusting their own senses of who they are. So we have Kundalini Yoga to come back to it.
We have Kundalini Yoga to train our minds to not be pulled off center by our thoughts…
We have Kundalini Yoga to open our hearts so that we can love who we are…
We have Kundalini Yoga to get our energy flowing so that we have the energy to fuel our Truth…
We have Kundalini Yoga to challenge ourselves physically and as we do, we shift; and as we shift the layers of untruth fall away…
We have Kundalini Yoga & Sat Nam to reorient to our Truths.
The focus on Truth is for me the most profound aspect of practicing and teaching Kundalini Yoga. It’s not just a workout. It’s not just stress relief. It’s not just increasing flexibility. It’s not just energizing. It’s the authentic trajectory of our lives. Sat Nam.
My mother used to do this thing when I was upset. She'd wiggle her fingers in my face and say, "Re-laaaaaaaaax. Re-laaaaaaaaax." I HATED it! It had the opposite effect and just enraged me more. One time it infuriated me so much that I kicked a radiator with my bare foot -- thinking, "That'll show her" -- and broke a toe.
In those moments, I obviously did need to relax, but I couldn't choose to. My mind was too chaotic and overrun by emotion to slow down enough to focus on relaxing. And those wiggly fingers were soooooo annoying.
My mom had such wonderful instincts as a parent and raised me with so much compassion, with such great values, and with infinite grace. Misfires were extremely unusual, but this was one of them in my opinion.
Why did "re-laaaaaaax" drive me up-the-wall, over-the-deep-end, and into a radiator?
Because it was a command, a command that negated my feelings. Instead, my mom could have let me say my piece and listened and been a little stealthier at getting me to calm down. She could have slowed her own breathing down, monitored her internal experience, rather than trying to dictate mine.
When you're with someone who's upset, a great gift and a healing is to focus on your own mental state and shift yourself into a relaxed place. If you're stable enough and strong enough in your calm, you influence the upset person surreptitiously. You can set the tone and even the rhythm of breath for the both of you.
I learned this technique in a children's yoga training with yoga teacher and special needs educator Allison Morgan. Allison told us a story about being called into a classroom to evaluate whether a girl (let's call her Jane) with problematic and disruptive behavior could stay in a mainstream classroom. She'd been hearing about Jane for weeks. Jane's teachers were so upset about this "uncontrollable" child. The principal was getting complaints from the parents of other children in the classroom. There was a lot of anxiety around Jane. On the morning that Allison went into the classroom to evaluate Jane, she talked to herself and silently to Jane. She slowed her own breathing down. Allison sat behind Jane as she breathed long and deep and projected thoughts like: "It's okay, Jane. Just be yourself. All you have to do is be yourself. It's okay."
And what happened? Jane worked at her desk quietly and did not cause any disruptions. She had never behaved like that before.
Allison explained that this was because of a phenomenon called entrainment, when one's internal rhythm syncs up with an external rhythm. The strength of Allison's focus and intention and the power of her breath calmed Jane down without her even knowing it.
What does this mean? It means we can do so much with our breath.
One day, a woman came to yoga and was clearly stressed. She peered into the studio from the foyer, saw everyone settling in on their mats, and said, "I really shouldn't go in there. I shouldn't be anywhere near here. I'm a ball of anxiety."
"That's what we are here for," I said. "This is exactly where you should be."
I didn't just mean that the teachers are here for her to help her calm down her nervous system and access her breath. I meant all of us, all of the students. After over an hour together, we rub off on each other. Our breaths can sync up. Those who can access a deep breath do, and they do it for all of us.
Off the mat, though, you have to be a little slick about it. If my daughter is having a moment and I shift into an obvious, conscious deep breath-- letting my torso expand and audibly inhaling and exhaling, she's onto me and she's not having it. "Don't do that yoga [expletive deleted] with me!" A big, deep breath can be the equivalent of the wiggly fingers. I have to do it quietly and imperceptibly. There's an art to it because I can't be so calm that I appear blank, either. My daughter wants to feel heard (as I did, as we all do) and know that her anger or agitation matters. I need to outwardly reflect active listening and inwardly calm myself. (P.S. I don't mean to suggest that I always make the right, artful choice. If only... )
I think about the potential of this, such a simple technique, and I get really inspired...
A young woman has just been let go from her job and is hyperventilating in the lobby of the office building. You ask if she's alright, listen to her intently, and most importantly, inwardly focus on slowing down your own breathing. A young boy is frantic at the playground unable to find his favorite toy truck. You ask if you can help, listen to him intently, and most importantly, inwardly focus on slowing down your own breathing. Your spouse, your child, your sister, your brother,
your mother, your father is angry about a perceived injustice. Very angry. You let him or her know that you understand; you listen intently, and most importantly, you inwardly focus on slowing down your own breathing.
We can do this everywhere we go -- schools, offices, restaurants, subways, etc. Imagine. We can breathe deeply for each other. When we breathe long and deep, we are helping to heal the world. (As long as we're slick.)
Cate discovered Kundalini Yoga by accident over 20 years ago and was surprised and thrilled by how engaged, energized, and inspired it made her feel. She's been practicing ever since. In 2008, Cate completed her Level 1 (200 hr) teacher training with Hari Kaur Khalsa of Hari NYC. In 2012, she broadened her knowledge with a very special Holistic Hatha Yoga training (300 hr) with Amy Witmyer of Sacred Space. Kundalini Yoga is her home, her go-to sanctuary, her point of peace and insight. She believes that it is a wonderful tool for busy times and busy minds.