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.
Every time I practice I work with my mind. I try to remain focused on the sacred by feeling my breath, by turning my eyes up and in to the third eye, by repeating sat nam (truth is my identity). When distracting thoughts arise, I refocus, reorient to the sacred.
Yesterday, though, when I came to class, the usual tools didn't quite work. My mind was churning over how to fix some pressing problems and on some tasks that I could not put off anymore. Then there was some self-judgment mixed in. Why did I put them off in the first place? What's wrong with me?
It didn't matter that I know better than to be hard on myself. It didn't matter that I know that when I'm hard on myself I only compound the anxiety. It didn't matter because the truth is it's not about knowing better. It's about embodying better.
Yesterday, my mind needed some extra help to embody better. Fortunately, Kathy (Harjot) was teaching the Kriya for All Chakras, and the kriya provided an additional framework for my messy, suffering mind. (Without direction, I contend that most minds will go to messiness and suffering to different degrees.) The kriya provided the focal points of the chakras, energy centers, and I was able to experience my presence, and in presence I found relief.
As we moved through the chakras, with Kathy's inspiration, I used visualizations to make each energy center's quality feel more real, and I used affirmations to remind myself that I (like everyone) am blessed with these qualities.
I wanted to share with you the visualizations and affirmations I used yesterday because they may be helpful to you. I hope these tools serve you when you need them most. I hope they bring you back into present moment awareness, back into an embodied state, when the mind threatens to overtake you.
(If you're reading this and thinking, what the heck is a chakra? No worries. Please check out Kathy's Blog, Floating Along the Chakra Cruise for more background. )
First Chakra, Root Chakra, Sense of Safety
With any exercise that involves the base of the spine (such as pulling root lock, spinal flexes, crow pose, and body drops), visualize thick roots shooting down and out from your base (if you're standing, your feet; if you're seated, your sits bones) and into the rich soil. Repeat to yourself: I am rooted. I am held. I am safe.
Second Chakra, Sacral Chakra, Source of Creativity
With any exercise that involves the pelvis (such as sufi grind or frog pose), envision a beautiful body of water within. Then, see a single pebble drop in its center and see perfect, concentric circles emanate out and out and out. Affirm: I am in flow. I am inspired. I am creative.
Third Chakra, Navel Chakra, Source of Will Power
With any exercise that involves the navel center (such as stretch pose, spinal twists, or leg lifts), see a fire at the belly. See your effort as stoking the fire that fuels your dreams and goals. Say to yourself, I am strong and determined. I persevere. I keep up.
Fourth Chakra, Heart Chakra, Center of Compassion
With any exercise that involves opening the chest or directing energy to the heart (such as cobra, holding the hands in prayer, or ego eradicator), envision a bright sun swirling at the center of your chest. Visualize that sun as melting any and all ice around the heart, any ways in which you've gone numb or stopped feeling. Repeat to yourself: I am open to love. I am love.
Fifth Chakra, Throat Chakra, Speaking Truth
With any exercise that involves the neck or chanting (such as head rolls and head turns and singing mantras aloud), see a lotus flower. Visualize the lotus at the throat opening, opening, opening with infinite layers of petals. Affirm: I speak my truth with confidence.
Sixth Chakra, Third Eye Chakra, Intuition
With any exercise that involves bringing energy to the brow point (such as bowing the head to the mat or holding the hands in prayer with the thumbs gently pressing the center of the forehead), envision a third eye. Imagine that your physical eyes disappear and your only vantage point is the third eye. Trust that what appears in your mind's eye, whether it's colors or images, is coming from the intuitive space. Repeat to yourself.: I see the way. My soul knows the way.
Seventh Chakra, Crown Chakra, Connection to Spirit
With any exercise that involves the crown of the head or directing energy to the crown (such as the arm position in the photo above and many meditations), visualize a beam of light entering from the heavens and into the top of your head to illuminate the center of the brain. Say to yourself, I am connected to spirit.
Eighth Chakra, The Aura, Magnetic Field of Protection
With any exercise that involves sweeping the arms around the body or extending the legs beyond the base (such as breath of fire with lion's paws or wide leg, life nerve stretch), see your aura, extending nine feet in every direction -- a beautiful bubble, a force field of protection. Understand your movement as clearing the aura. Affirm: I am protected. I am radiant.
Please make these visions and words your own. Trust that you can guide yourself into presence even in the most anxious moments. Sat Nam.
Any amount of Kundalini Yoga and meditation that you do is beneficial. But I want you to gain everything you can from this amazingly rich tradition. I want you to experience all the promised benefits. I want it to infect your whole life so that you reach the full potential of your vitality and creativity.
Good news. There is a way. There is a way to accelerate your Kundalini Yoga practice, to receive more benefits: begin a 40-day Daily Practice or Sadhana.
What is a 40-Day Sadhana? It is the consistent practice of the same kriya (sequence) or meditation for 40 days in a row without missing a day. If you miss a day, you have to go back to day one.
It is said that in order to get the full benefits of any given practice, you must do it every day for 40 days. According to yogic wisdom, it takes 40 days to the remove any of the bad habits and blocks that might prevent the outcomes from fully emerging. It takes 40 days to retrain the mind.
Forty days is significant, and not just according to Kundalini Yoga. In the world of religion, this number represents a threshold for fasting and prayer. In psychology, researchers have shown that one's personality could be changed through handwriting exercises done over a 40 day period.
In this world, in these times, there are so many distractions, so many options, so many reasons not to roll out the mat and stay with the same process over time. So when we do, we conquer all that. We conquer our egos. When we commit and build up our discipline muscle, we see that we can do anything, and we see that this yoga works like magic.
It does. It works like magic. I've experienced myself -- such specific and deep change within. Magical! I've seen it in my students and private clients. Magical!
Aquarian Sadhana is a practice which was given to us by the Master of Kundalini Yoga, Yogi Bhajan in 1992. He believed that we needed this practice in order to keep up with these times -- fast-paced, confusing, stress-filled times -- and live our lives as victories.
In short, it is a specific two and a half hour practice during what's called the amrit vela, or the ambrosial hours 3:30-7am. (At MKY, we make it a little more doable by starting at 5 or 5:30am.) Here's how the practice breaks down:
Yogi Bhajan said, "The greatest reward of doing sadhana is that the person becomes incapable of being defeated. Sadhana is a self-victory, and it is a victory of time and space. Getting up is a victory over time, and doing it is a victory over space."
If you are learning about Aquarian Sadhana for the first time, you may find some of its aspects extreme or strange. I know how you feel. I felt the same when I first learned of it and started practicing it.
I was first introduced to this practice in Teacher Training, and it was a requirement. Truth be told, I didn't have a great attitude about this requirement. I had all kinds of internal complaints about it.
If you want to learn more about Aquarian Sadhana, I recommend the book Original Light: the Morning Practice of Kundalini Yoga by beloved devotional artist and Kundalini Yoga teacher Snatam Kaur. She goes into depth and unpacks each aspect of the practice based on her lifetime of experience, growing up in a Kundalini Yoga community and studying directly with Yogi Bhajan. There are so many beautiful nuggets to take from this book, but here is one of my favorites: "It is through a daily spiritual practice that is consistent, like the heartbeat, that we change the psyche to know -- on an elemental, psychic, physical, chemical, and spiritual level -- that we are in fact putting the soul first."
I encourage you to read this book or any other about this beautiful gift from Yogi Bhajan, Aquarian Sadhana. But more so, I encourage you to experience it. Join us or find a sadhana near you. Sat Nam.
This week and last I've been teaching and practicing the following kriya (sequence of exercises). I LOVE it!!!!! It's for your spine, the navel, the aura, and your kundalini (the full potential of your vitality). What else could you ask for? I encourage you to do it. Prioritize it. Bypass the questioning mind and roll out that mat. Do it everyday. Do it for yourself!
Think about showing up for yourself and doing the work as an act of self love. Yogi Bhajan said, “Those who practice discipline have to be very generous to themselves. Discipline should never be rigid. Discipline should be self-acknowledging, so that you can go along with it.” Many Blessings!
Co-owners and Instructors of Montclair Kundalini Yoga, Cate Baily and Savitri Narayan Kaur. See their bios here.