I want to say a word about community today. I've said before that our yoga community is kindred spirits coming together to practice and dwell in sacred space, to prioritize ourselves, inner and outer peace, and authenticity. But I'm feeling now that the word "kindred" may feel exclusionary.
When I started my Kundalini Yoga Teacher Training, almost a decade ago, I felt that I wasn't "kindred" enough to really be part of the group. Others were deeper. Others understood more. Others wore turbans and all-white. Others knew all the mantras by heart.
I remember hoping the topics of vaccinations and ice cream didn't come up --vaccinations because my kids are vaccinated and I knew many on a natural, holistic path don't agree with that; ice cream because my kids have been known to have a Pavlovian response to the music of the ice cream truck coming down our street and they've been known to fervently chase it down clutching money I'd given them to purchase crap with crazy dyes and high-fructose corn syrup.
Quick Aside: I realize that some of you reading this (some of you whom I care for very deeply) will be thinking that I poisoned my children. I respect your opinion and your right to make choices for your body and your family. We are all doing what we think is best.
The point is: we are all one, whatever choices we make. Some of us eat meat; some of us don't; some of us wear glitter eye shadow; some of us don't; some of us drink coffee; some of us avoid caffeine; some of us are immersed in the teachings of Kundalini Yoga; some of us just like to chant sometimes and don't really understand what we're chanting about. It's all okay. It's all kindred.
We all have that longing to go deep within ourselves, to understand the way forward and what's True. If Kundalini Yoga feels like your way in or that it may be your way in, that's what brings us together in community. Each of us is equal in this community and we each bring our own gifts to the table. Kindred.
If you're thinking about coming to class for the first time but worried that you're not going to be an instant part of the community, let me put your mind at ease: You will be.
If you've been coming to class but you still feel somehow separate, let me remind you that we are all one. That is one of the sutras of Kundalini Yoga: Recognize that the other person is you.
If you're considering the Kundalini Yoga Teacher Training but worried that you'll have to keep quiet about certain aspects of your life, let me assure you: All are welcome! All histories are understood.
May the Truth in you guide you, Kindred Spirit!
Meditation terrifies some people. They think they won't be able to do it "correctly" because they can't stop their inner dialogue in its tracks. Given that, they imagine that meditating will be just sitting with their thoughts. The idea of being bombarded by mental chatter without the distractions that modern life usually provides -- social media feeds, work, emails, household to dos, etc. -- seems like torture.
These are misconceptions. And I'm on a mission to disabuse folks of these misconceptions.
First of all, you don't have to stop your inner dialogue in order to meditate "correctly" or get the benefits of meditating or enjoy meditating. I have been practicing Kundalini Yoga for about 20 years and meditating a lot for nine of those years, and I have yet to experience a cessation of thoughts. Even so, I LOVE meditation, and it has been my rock.
Second, if you choose a Kundalini Meditation, you are not just sitting with your thoughts. You have tools to distance yourself from the monkey mind.
Most Kundalini Meditations offer a position of the arms or hands to maintain. Then, there's a specific breath practice. Frequently, there's also a designated eye focus to manage. And finally, there's usually either a chanted or silent, internal mantra attached. Each of these tools serves to bring you out of the stress of the everyday mind and into a more neutral, blissful state.
Let me unpack a Kundalini Meditation to show you what I mean.
Take Meditation for Tuning Up the Frontal Lobe of the Brain for example. And let's use Michael A. Singer's term the "neurotic inner roommate" to personify and understand the mind's fluctuations.
Before I begin my meditation, my neurotic roomie is front and center chattering away, talking to me about all the other things I should be doing instead of sitting and meditating. I get into the position. I raise my arms to shoulder height and turn the left palm down and the right palm up (as shown above.) I know I'm supposed to hold this for 11 minutes. "Hmmmm," says Roomie. "How are you going to do that? Eleven minutes is a long time. That's going to get difficult. I don't like difficult."
I begin the prescribed breath of fire. Breath of fire itself takes some attention to maintain, and it starts to get a little crowded for Roomie, who's still fairly determined to be heard ("You really should have finished the kids' laundry. What kind of mother are you anyway?").
There's no eye focus indicated for this meditation, but I use the third-eye dristi -- beneath the closed lids, I direct the eyes up and in (as if trying to see through the center of my forehead). This is my favorite focus. The sixth chakra, the center of intuition, is located here at the brow point. Directing the focus toward this intuitive space is pushing Roomie back even further until it's hanging onto the door jam -- clinging for dear life: "Listen to me!!!!!! Everything's a mess!!!!!!! So much to deal with!!!!!!!!."
So, I bring in the big guns... Mantra. When I practice breath of fire, I like to use the mantra Wahe Guru. It seems to fit well with the speed of breath of fire. Wahe Guru means "a great celebration of the energy which moves me from darkness to light." Silently and internally, I match Wahe Guru to the breath.
Wahe Guru. Wahe Guru. Wahe Guru. Wahe Guru. Wahe Guru. Wahe Guru. Wahe Guru. Wahe Guru. Wahe Guru. Wahe Guru.
Now, the Neurotic Inner Roommate is starting to get the picture. It releases its grip on the door jam and retreats to the background, into a back corner mumbling -- still lobing thoughts at me but they are muted and distant and without force.
My thoughts don't stop, but I change my relationship to them. My roomie doesn't move out, but my Higher Self is taking up more space. I'm focused on Wahe Guru, a positive, ancient sound which affects my consciousness. I'm elevating with breath of fire. I'm creating a picture of myself keeping up, keeping my arms up even when the going gets tough.
Roomie might emerge from its corner at points along the way, and I'll have to refocus my eyes, intensify the breath of fire, or remember Wahe Guru. And, of course, in this position, my shoulders will fatigue, and I'll have to talk Roomie out of putting them down. The point is it's a non-linear process that, in my experience at least, doesn't feel like pure serenity.
So, please forget about the goal of thoughtlessness. In the Kundalini world, we accept that the mind will be fast with thoughts, and we provide tools for not letting them take over. The tools don't stop the thoughts. Instead they take away their power to injure and their power to divert you from your sacred moment.
I've been thinking about my New Year's Resolution and trying to craft the perfect one. I know what I want, but I also believe that it matters how I express it to myself in my head. The words that carry my intention matter.
Here's the big picture of what I'm going for: I want my whole life to be my practice. I want to be present, true, and kind as often as possible. I want to make nourishing, healing choices for my body and mind as often as possible.
A tall order...
There's a school of thought that one should break down one's goals into practical steps, in which case I'd phrase my resolution like this: I resolve to look at my phone less and listen openly to my children more; to speak my Truth, rather than say what people want to hear; to eat fewer salty snacks and sweet treats, and drink more green juice; to watch less TV and listen to more mantra.
That might work.
But already I'm thinking about the stuff I left out, like making the laundry a mindfulness practice and cooking more.
I find it tough to get the language just right.
If creating a resolution is tricky, then keeping one is even trickier. Most resolutions don't stick. I've dropped quite a few resolutions myself over the years.
Even though we work on resolve in Kundalini Yoga (when we work on the navel center, center of discipline and commitment), it can still be difficult to stay the course.
Even though we stress keeping up in Kundalini Yoga (and we practice keeping up by literally holding our arms up in the air for surprising lengths of time), we can still give up on our resolutions.
Even though we work on our egos in Kundalini Yoga, we can still succumb to that voice in our heads and let it drown out the intentions of our Higher Selves.
Our resolutions must reflect our True Selves, our Higher Selves, and then we must commit. How?
How can we compose just the right resolution?
And how can we stick to it beyond the initial burst of enthusiasm the first week of January?
I want to know. So, I asked my teacher, Dharma Devi, to create a workshop around the topic of New Year's Resolutions for us. I am happy to say that she said yes, and we will have her guidance and inspiration on how we can shape our futures and stay true to what we promise ourselves.
I hope you'll join us on Sunday, January 8 from 2-5pm for Shakti Dance™, The Yoga of Dance: Shed Internal Barriers and Manifest Your Intentions. Click here for more information and to sign up right now.
Those of you who've come to my classes know that I LOVE chanting. I LOVE chanting loudly, and I don't care if I'm off key. I LOVE how I feel when I chant -- transported out of my everyday mind and lifted out of the fog. I LOVE offering the technique of singing sacred sounds to my students because I see on your faces how it moves you into a different state of mind and being.
Well lately, I've been learning about something that is said to be even more powerful than the mantras we chant in class. Within the Kundalini Yoga tradition and given to us by Yogi Bhajan, there are longer mantras called Shabds. When these Shabds, or sacred prayers, are recited, the sound itself becomes the teacher, the Guru, that which brings us from darkness to light. This is why when these longer mantras are discussed, they're often referred to as Shabd Guru.
I've been reading up on the benefits of Shabd Guru, and what I've discovered is VERY COMPELLING. Everything I've found suggests that these prayers have profound healing benefits. This reminds me of what one of my teachers always says about food to help her students remember to only take in what is nourishing: "Drink your medicine. Eat your medicine." In the case of the Shabd Guru, we sing our medicine.
Here's a taste of what I've learned about Shabd Guru so far:
From the article What is Shabd Guru?
"Affirmations and positive statements are helpful and good to use. Mantras are effective and gradually create changes. But the Shabad Guru is unique. The patterns are a perfect weave of rhythm, sound, tone, focus, and meaning. There is nothing as effective and universal as those patterns to program the consciousness to be in alignment with the soul."
From the article Benefits of Shabd Guru
"When we sing, chant or recite the Shabad Guru in a relaxed and mindful manner, we become aware of our full range of feelings, our inner stories, our concepts and the voice of our higher self our intuition... the Shabad reorganizes all of that mental and emotional energy into an Infinite pattern. We start to see ourselves and our lives in the context of a timeless, Divine play."
From the article Shabd Guru
"The Shabad Guru is a special kind of technology. In the body it produces vitality; in the complex of the mind it awakens intelligence and develops wisdom and intuition; in the heart it establishes compassion; in each person’s consciousness it builds the clarity to act with fearless integrity."
There's also an article called A Quantam Technology of Sound that I found impossible to excerpt, but is definitely worth a read. Beautiful description of how sound affects the different systems of the body.
Two examples of Shabds... The only one I've experienced to date is So Purkh, which is a Shabd that women chant for the men in their lives. I had kind of a knee jerk reaction to that the first time I heard about it. Why are we chanting for men? Why aren't we chanting for ourselves? It felt unfeminist somehow. But then, I realized that whenever we chant we elevate ourselves, of course. And I heard stories of true shifts that emerged during 40 day dedications to So Purkh. You can read about So Purkh more here.
This Sunday, in a workshop we're hosting, I'll learn the Shabd Bhand Jammee-ai, which is chanted to uplift women and is said to free us of insecurities. Yogi Bhajan taught that every woman should know Bhand Jammee-ai. If it resonates with me, I may embark on a 40 day practice of chanting Bhand Jammee-ai. This is a sample of one beautiful musical version of the prayer by Gurunam. Sound as guru entices me.
I LOVE that chanting and healing from chanting is easy. We don't have to hold our arms up for an hour or work our navel centers to exhaustion to experience change. That work is important too, but with chanting we learn some new words and sing. What a joy to heal so easily!
The hard part is the 40 day commitment, because our minds want to derail steadiness. That's where the challenge lies.
The vastness of the teachings of Kundalini Yoga and the healing they provide never cease to amaze me. I continue to be grateful that I happened upon a Kundalini Yoga class almost 20 years ago and fell in love.
This image is my kids sitting on some rocks in Acadia National Park this past summer. It was after a screen-free day -- hiking, trying to find the perfect walking sticks, having contests for who could balance on a bumpy rock wall the longest without falling, and skipping stones. Simple pleasures. Seeing them sit by the water together doing nothing but look and breathe fresh air made me feel happy and grateful. It was a special moment. But can I feel grateful all the time?
Yogi Bhajan said, "The attitude of gratitude is the highest truth." I think he said that it's the highest because it can be the hardest. It's not automatic to shift into gratitude and count your blessings when you're overwhelmed by negativity. Although it's not in our best interest, we can feel drawn into the darkness. Darkness can be enticing in its way. But we can try to shift. We can wake up every morning with gratitude for a new day. We can list the gifts in our lives every night before we go to sleep. We can have an intention of gratitude, if not a consistent attitude of gratitude.
Some people have the idea that Kundalini Yoga is easy. This is true in one sense and very untrue in another.
It's true because we are most often sitting in easy pose and not jumping into chaturanga or kicking into handstand.
It's not true because we have many extremely pressurized exercises -- holding our arms up for 11 minutes or more, for example.
These exercises are part of the reason Kundalini Yoga works for me. Granted, I'm not excited when I'm the student and one of these comes up. I go through a whole mental process in those 11 minutes. It can start with discouragement (sometimes internal cursing). Then I shift into a silent pep talk - "I know can do it. I've done it before. I'll be so happy I kept up. Be honest. Not lazy." That mental state morphs into a determined commitment, and every once in awhile, commitment transforms into a euphoric feeling that I could stay in it forever.
It's become clear to me that I need to go through that process, so that I can experience my strength and remember that I am strong -- that I can conquer my mind. Some of us need the intensity of this practice in order to be fully present for a spiritual experience.
Yogi Bhajan's words tell us the greater purpose of these powerful exercises:
"I know that without pressure, carbon can never become a diamond. If you think you cannot stand the pressure, then you do not know ... you are a human being, because the human body... (has) been made to withstand extreme pressure to crystallize the consciousness."
To crystallize the consciousness. To reach our highest. To experience that part of us that is beyond the thinking mind.
Blog by Cate Baily
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. Click here for more complete bio.