Saturday, May 11, 2013

Kundalini Yoga - the yoga for the householder

Interesting article published in "The Times" (UK) on Kundalini yoga, the yoga for the householder as described by Harbhajan Yogi :

Forget Bikram, with its 40C heated rooms, and forget Ashtanga, with its lunges and push-ups. The yoga class to be seen in now is Kundalini — “the yoga of awareness”. This is yoga as it was practised by the hippies in the 1960s, with chanting and the promise of spiritual awakenings. Only this time around, the classes take place in high-end yoga studios in Manhattan, LA, Primrose Hill and Chelsea. Thought to be particularly helpful for people struggling with emotional stress, addictions or anxiety, it’s being embraced by City types and celebrities. Demi Moore was spotted leaving a class at Santa Monica’s Golden Bridge studio last week and is sometimes seen carrying the trademark sheepskin yoga mat that Kundalini fans favour. The comedian Russell Brand has described it as “highly psychological, and very beautiful ... and real, and trippy”. Classes at the ├╝ber fashionable Triyoga in London are hugely popular. Meanwhile, Siri Sadhana Kaur (devotees often adopt a spiritual name), one of the organisers of the Great British Kundalini Yoga Festival ( says the popularity of the practice is spreading faster than you can chant “ong na mo guru dev na mo” (the mantra which signals the beginning of class). “A few years ago, most people in the community knew each other but that’s not the case any more,” she says. “There are teachers and turbans everywhere.”
Indeed, Kundalini enthusiasts can be identified by their brilliant white kit (worn to expand one’s “auricradiance”, which is, in case you were wondering, the way in which you reflect positive energy out into the world) and the turban-like headdresses. These are designed to “hold in” positive energy — and to pay homage to Yogi Bhajan, the Sikh guru who first brought Kundalini yoga to the West in the Sixties. Sheepskins have become an accepted accessory too and often serve to create a “sacred space” to practise on; they’re also quite good for providing extra support for your back. Some devotees even put crystals around their mats, for maximum spiritual effect.
Which is not to say that only hardened spiritual seekers need apply. “Yogi Bhajan introduced Kundalini as the ‘yoga for the householder’,” says Martha Chester, a Kundalini teacher who holds sessions at the Breath of Life natural health clinic on Wimpole Street in Central London. With no physically challenging poses, or “asanas”, to master, the other thing that makes Kundalini so accessible is that “you don’t have to spend three years meditating in a cave to feel the effects. You can do a three-minute breathing technique in the comfort of your home and you’ll still get an immediate benefit”.
The New York Times bestselling self-help author Gabrielle Bernstein has begun using Kundalini meditation in her lectures and workshops. She began attending classes in New York and soon found herself taking the teacher training “so that I could pass on the tools of this technology to my readers to apply in their own time”. She shares blogs of her favourite meditations on her website, and plans to include some in her next book.
Describing the practice as “a detox of all the stagnant energy and limiting beliefs that we hold in our bodies”, Bernstein (Kundalini name Jiwan Joti Kaur) says moving through these can be an intense experience. “People will often cry in class,” she adds, while Brand has said he finds the sessions “overwhelming”. One friend of mine even tells me that she experienced what felt like a panic attack when her fellow students crowded around her to “get Claire’s Kundalini up” in her first class. Chester frowns when I describe this. “People can have all sorts of interesting experiences, yes, but it sounds like she was made to feel very self-conscious. Once the breath gets moving, it can unlock a lot of pent-up emotions. You might suddenly feel like actually everything’s not ‘fine’ or that perhaps you didn’t properly deal with a source of heartache. But done in a class where the teacher is properly trained, it can absolutely be the best place to do it.”
One explanation for Kundalini’s rapidly increasing popularity is that it appeals to the well-to-do lost soul, and Moore and Brand have certainly faced a few public challenges of their own.
So what happens in a class? I had my introduction to Kundalini on a retreat in Ibiza, and 30 minutes into the first class I was wondering whether I’d come to the right place. The often jerky “kriyas” (exercise sets), which we’d repeat for anything between three and 11 minutes (or longer), combined with, yes, lots of deep breathing, chanting and funky sitar music, could hardly be described as “yoga” — at least, not as I knew it. There was no downward dog. And yet, as in any form of yoga, the goal is to get the “prana”, or life force, moving around the body, Chester explains. “Prana gets blocked for many reasons, which can cause pain, both physically and emotionally. Breath, sound and movement can all be used to get it moving — and Kundalini uses all three, which is why it’s so effective.”
Chester often works in conjunction with Sam Kankanamge, an osteopath with 20 years of experience, who refers patients he thinks will benefit from a one-to-one session. “They might have problems with their digestion or issues with fertility,” he says. “Once somebody has practised Kundalini, I find I can work with them on a much deeper level.” Meanwhile, most of his patients are suffering from what Kankanamge describes as “City syndrome — where the body is constantly stressed, which manifests in aches and pains, headaches and a compromised immune system”. He says different kriyas work like a “prescription” for these more general complaints.
Oliver Rogers, a 45-year-old investment banker, first tried Kundalini five years ago — at Kankanamge’s insistence. “I resisted for ages, because I didn’t think yoga was my thing,” he says. He’s since repaired an Achilles tendon injury that his doctor told him would stop him playing football again. In addition, he says, his weekly sessions help him sleep. “I can arrive at class so stressed, but I leave feeling like a totally different person.” He also practises at home using DVDs, and does kriyas to warm up for his weekly football matches. He cites the yoga fanatic Ryan Giggs, who is still playing professionally at 39, as having changed perceptions among typical British blokes about the practice in general.
As for all the chanting: “I thought it was a bit strange at first. You’re either that kind of person or you’re not — and I wasn’t. But the benefits eventually sunk in.”