Impressions of a Kundalini Yoga Class

I peered through the window into the cavernous room. It was the largest room in the yoga centre but despite the high ceilings and sheer size, it somehow managed to be calm and soothing. An altar stood in the back corner, and on it statues and busts sat side by side with green plants – succulents and creeping vines and other leaves– all bathed in a sunlit glow from the skylight above.

Another skylight shone down on the floor just inside the door, just beside the raised dais used by the instructors.

I had taken classes in this room many times, and I have practiced yoga on and off for about 20 years. I began my yoga experience with Iyengar at the age of 19 or so, have tried hot yoga, power yoga, hatha flows, prenatal yoga, yin yoga and, my favourite, yin/yang. I also once stumbled upon a Bikram class but that was an accident that I will never make again. Perhaps the teacher was rushed or out of her element, but it was enough to put me off.

This, however, was to be my first Kundalini class.

Why Kundalini?

Why not? I thought it might be time to branch out, to try another completely different type of yoga. I have all the time in the world right now. And on this particular day, Kundalini fit best among my other plans.

I had done some reading the night before, just to make sure that I knew what I was getting in to. And also because I hate being the new kid in class, unsure of what to do and moving about awkwardly in the room. I like walking in, knowing exactly where I want to set up my mat (always at the front, right corner for some reason), knowing which supports I will need, and feeling comfortable as I stretch and relax and settle myself before the start of class.

Of course, reading will only take you so far. Each class is different, matching the style of the instructor. For those instructors with particularly strong personalities, this is even more so the case.

So, thanks to my cursory research, I understood that this form of yoga was a bit more esoteric than the others, combining breath, movement, meditation and mantras, all of which were intended to work together holistically to produce…well, what? An overall effect that would be different than normal yoga, I supposed.

Wikipedia explains that Kundalini yoga is “influenced by the tantra and shakta schools of Hinduism” and that it was popularized in the 1960s by Harbhajan Singh (known as Yogi Bhajan), who stated that “Kundalini Yoga consists of active and passive asana-based kriyas, pranayama and meditations which target the whole body system (nervous system, glands, mental faculties, chakras) to develop awareness, consciousness and spiritual strength.”

Anyway, I was peering through the window into the room. Two women were laying their mats down near each other and chatting. Only two people so far in a very large room. All the other classes I had attended here had been packed.

I pushed open the door and crossed the room to settle on the right hand side in front of the altar. I liked being near the plants and under the soft sunlight.

As I set my things up, I could hear the two women talking. One, it seemed, usually attended this class. The other was accompanying her for the first time.

A young woman pushed open the door and walked into the middle of the room, laying out her mat front and centre. She had long blond hair, and wore a little cream-coloured macramé cap perched on the top of it. Her limbs were lean and tanned under her yoga wear. Her face wore and expression that was hard to read – I wasn’t sure whether she was ethereal and unconflicted or whether she was actually quite unsettled in her soul. Perhaps she was both.

We sat there, four of us in a big room, waiting for the instructor. After a minute or so, the door opened and in swept a tall, straight-backed woman, a palpable aura about her. This was our instructor.

I had never seen a yoga instructor, or indeed anyone, like this before. I took in her regal and commanding presence. She emanated a sense of unblinking sureness of being on the right path in life. In some ways she reminded me of a strict schoolteacher, instantly able to command respect and disciplined attention. I don’t mean to suggest that there was anything about her which was unkind or unfriendly, or even cold, she was simply so dedicated that she was unwavering, leaving no room for doubt.

Although, at that moment, I did doubt whether I should be there. But I took a deep breath and tried to exhale my fear of the unknown, of not belonging, of awkwardness.

I took in her appearance. Her attire contributed to the overall effect. She was barefoot, and dressed in flowing white cotton – pants, blouse and a turban, which was fixed with a stunning golden broach. I don’t believe that she wore a white cloak but her presence gave the impression that she did.

Clearly, I had not done enough research the night before. I have since come to understand that there is a particular type of attire for those practicing, or at the very least teaching, Kundalini yoga.

She very kindly provided an introductory explanation for the two of us who were new to the class, punctuated by almost Baptist-service-like vocal ejaculations from the young blond girl, who was clearly not new to this brand of yoga.

I fought my innate discomfort at anything approaching cultishness and willed myself to stay, to experience something new, to get something out of being there. I had nowhere else to be.

The breathing, the Om, the meditational elements, and some of the asanas were familiar from the other, more mainstream yoga I have practiced. The instructor led us through visualizations, which I also enjoyed.

However, interspersed with these comforting footholds, were completely foreign exercises. In one, we were asked to roll, arms straight and tight at our sides, as far to one side as we could go (I had to stop before I rolled over trailing vines), and then as far to the other side as we could go (before running into each other or a wall).

I don’t recall the intended effect of this exercise but I do recall the instructor observing that this is something we all do as children – though in that case we are often rolling down a hill. Children, she explained, know what to do, what a body needs, but we forget this ancient knowledge as we grow up and learn the “proper” way to act.

This may or may not be true but it is an intriguing perspective. Perhaps children are simply having fun, because they like feeling dizzy and rolling with freedom encouraged by the forces of gravity. But even that childlike wonder is an important instinct most of us sadly outgrow.

At the end of class, we chanted some beautiful chants that would have had a deep, soulful resonance had they been chanted by greater numbers in a hilltop temple. But they were beautiful nonetheless. We finished in savasana, meditating on the diminishing echo of a large, brass gong.

I emerged feeling pensive. I was less “in the zone” than I usually am after yoga, but I think that was my own fault for fighting against my internal discomfort and the unusualness of the experience.

Would I attend another Kundalini class? Probably not anytime soon. I think it was too esoteric for my current needs. I missed the full body stretch feeling, the deep relaxation, the sinking into the moment, that I get from the brands of yoga with which I am more familiar.

Perhaps I will be ready to move beyond and outside myself in another ten or twenty years. Until then, I will try to learn from this experience, to remember to keep a more open mind so that I don’t miss the important lessons hidden within the unfamiliar.

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