In my first Hatha Yoga class back in the day—way back in the day—the instructor was bent on cramming every possible pose into that eight-week $25 class. She knew all too well that her class was an outlier opportunity, part of a private Scottsdale consortium offering "continuing education" courses in local high schools. This was the mid-70's and the entirety of metropolitan Phoenix offered nothing in the way of yoga. Nary a studio.
And I know that as a certainty because I had already combed the yellow pages for any clues or traces. The only listing was a single East Indian offering private lessons for more money than I had to spend on a week's groceries. His voice was soft and kind when he said that he understood my situation but before we hung up, he added something else...
"Please don't give up the desire to learn yoga. And when that right time comes, be sure the teacher you choose can impart the spirituality of the discipline beyond the physical positions."
He spoke those words to me almost 45 years ago and I still remember them. So yes, I was delighted that our Hatha Yoga teacher was so intent on overwhelming us with the spirituality of this ancient system, including a variety of meditation focal points and techniques. It was all good until the evening she introduced a taste of something she called Kundalini Yoga by leading us in the Breath of Fire.
I vaguely remember starting to hate that experience before she even finished explaining it. I had no idea how anyone could hate just breathing that much, but it felt like one of the most unnatural and laborious things I had ever done. By the closing of those endless 60 seconds, the words Kundalini Yoga were burned into my brain as something to avoid for all my days. Seriously. Through the years, on the rare occasion that name would come up, I could feel a mini-shudder course through my entire body.
Fast-forward a few decades to the Internet Age and a Groupon to a place called The Mindfulness Center, also located in Scottsdale for a poetic twist. One of the classes had a tricky name that captured me with "...and Sound Healing." I want to blame misleading advertising for this one, because what came before the Nirvana of crystal bowls and gongs was...wait for it...
...the dreaded Kundalini Yoga. It's amazing how time can change our perspective, right?
Not this one. I still passionately and wholly HATED the entire 360 seconds of it. About half-way through I started taking comfort in a fantasy where I was rolling up my mat, grabbing my water bottle, and skulking out of the room. Unfortunately, that brand of rugged individualism is not in my DNA. I just hung in there, tried to follow her lead, and toughed my way through one grueling, miserable, wrenching kriya after another. I wasn't the only one struggling because at one point, she mentioned that a smile can make it easier.
A smile? I'll smile when this tortuous charade is over and I know with absolute certainty that I never have to endure anything like this ever again...EVER!
Finally, FINALLY, we were rolling out on our mats and relaxing and surrendering to the meditative trance of a Sound Healing—sinking into the energies flowing into and through our body. Every cell, every atom, every sub-atomic particle felt like it was in motion, dancing, radically alive. All the way home and throughout the rest of the evening, that explosive sensation of boundless energy just kept on and on and on. I love the endorphin rush of a good workout or a great hike, but this was light years beyond that. Maybe if I had completed a triathlon or a 100-mile marathon or climbed Everest, I wouldn't say that. But my endorphin rushes have all been garden variety. This felt like a total cosmic blowout, a Roman candle event.
Kundalini is labeled the Yoga of Awareness, and they teach that we have ten bodies of which the physical is just one. That evening, I swore they were right. Granted, you leave a Kundalini class so oxygenated that you could hang glide without a glider, but that energy went far beyond my body. It felt like my mind and emotions and motivations and sensations and perceptions had all converged in one big harmonic OM. They were integrated in such a calm yet powerful way—supercharged, glowing stardust with roots that plunged to the very heart of Mother Earth. My posture was better, I had a spring in my step, I felt clear in places I didn't even know I was murky, and I felt as if my electro-magnetic field was radiating at least five feet in all directions. And all I could think was "FUCK! Now I have to come back! I can't live without this feeling again no matter how much I hate what it takes to get here."
And so my love/hate affair with Kundalini Yoga began. I looked around for the right studio and laid down the big bucks for a package of classes. Now and then I still collapse into a silent mantra of "I hate this shit please let it be over" instead of smiling, but the hate is fading as I get stronger and the love just grows deeper and deeper. I might even be in danger of going completely around the bend one of these days and signing up for teacher's training. Not to teach but just for the intensity of the immersion. I do things like that sometimes.
Make no mistake. This is a world away from Hatha Yoga, at least the way it's marketed and promoted and practiced here in the U.S. with so many Barbie dolls decked out in Lululemon and after-yoga happy hours. Kundalini Yogis are a sublime and wondrous breed.
We're talking about guys with long beards and a room of both sexes decked out in white gauzy garbs and turbans, many of them sporting spiritual names that seem to end with or include Kaur. You can expect lots of chanting and endless breathing and "meditations" that combine chanting and breathing and repeated rituals like the Long Time Sunshine song at the end of every class. Unlike the Hatha Yoga crowd, this is a very vocal and melodic group with Sat Nam greetings and respectful bowing and exquisite crystal bowls and massive gongs and a deeply sacred atmosphere they call The Temple—not the yoga studio. Above all, this is a gentle and loving and inclusive community.
Not that most people in these classes are all decked out in Sikh-ish outfits. The rest of us "come as we are," which for me is a pair of worn-out capris and some outlandish t-shirt. I'm dragging in a body that's saggy and puckery and stiff and has trouble striking a few of the poses, much less keeping up with some of the exercises. I can remember doing the full Camel, I just can't get there anymore.
"Just do what you can, stay focused on the breath, and visualize yourself doing it perfectly."
"Okay, I can do that."
As I sit there breathing like I'm in the final stages of childbirth, not anywhere near the lotus position but in the ballpark of easy pose, surrounded by a mountain of props that I end up sliding under my butt or bracing my knees, I can still hear the gentle voice of that East Indian fellow I called back in 1974. If he could only see me now, he would smile and bow and give me a "Namaste" and I would bow and return a "Sat Nam."