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In an effort to feel more radiant and inspired—trying to get my attitude to match the brilliant blue-sky perfectly springlike weather we’ve been having here in the Northeast recently—I’ve begun incorporating daily doses of kundalini yoga into my routine.
I became fascinated with kundalini several years ago, before Gabrielle Bernstein and all of her spirit junkies thrust it into the spotlight.
(Note: I am proud of this, very much the same way I am about having read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible before it popped up on Oprah’s Book Club. It’s like, Yeah, I knew this was something before it was actually something! I’m sure green smoothie people feel the same way about Kris Carr.)
Anyway, my relationship history with kundalini is described in detail here. After that class series in 2011 ended, however, I no longer kept up with a regular practice. I find it difficult to follow a solo kundalini practice, mainly because all of the kriyas are to be done for a specific amount of time and it’s a nuisance and interferes with my concentration to continually set/turn off a timer.
Also, some of the kriyas in kundalini are exhausting. If there isn’t someone at the front of the room or on an iPad screen, I will probably not commit to 3 minutes of frog squats while chanting something-or-other in Sanskrit and doing breath of fire.
It is amazing how far a simple “You’re almost there!” or “Keep up and you’ll be kept up” will go. I need that encouragement in kundalini.
I’ve had luck here and there finding decent full-length classes on YouTube. Here are my current go-tos (please share any of your recommendations!):
However, although I crave and enjoy a deep, long practice, I’m beginning to find that just a few simple kundalini warm-ups and meditations interspersed throughout my day offer just as much. I’ll do a few spinal flex exercises, Sufi grinds, neck rolls, and spinal twists, making sure to silently chant Sat on the inhale and Nam on the exhale.
This is one of the key elements of kundalini, the chanting of Sat Nam, along with keeping the eyes closed and focusing on the spot above and between the two eyes as an internal drishti (eye gaze). I find that sticking to this silent chant helps me greatly with concentration; otherwise, I feel like my mind is prone to wandering.
Sat Nam has several translations, but in essence it refers to acknowledging and being our inner truth.
My first kundalini teacher encouraged us to use Sat Nam when stuck in traffic: Vocalize a sharp “sat” (pronounced more like “sut”) that draws in the belly, followed by a relaxed and soft “nam” during which the belly relaxes. Repeat until traffic clears and you feel cool as a cucumber.
I’ve started using it while walking: left foot (Sat), right foot (Nam), left foot (Sat), right foot (Nam). And so on.
Yesterday, I found a great way to incorporate this simple kundalini mantra/meditation into my day: Swinging Sat Nam!
I am always so excited when I find a playground with adult-sized swings. As my coworker commented, “I find it’s impossible to feel sad on a swing.” Seriously!
As my legs pumped back and forth and my face greeted the sun with every boost upward, I realized that this back-and-forth motion felt very similar to spinal rocks along the floor, except now I was flying.
Soon I found myself inhaling Sat as I was propelled skyward, exhaling Nam as I swooshed backward.
I kept my eyes open for a bit then closed them, the outline of the trees illuminated behind my eyelids.
Sat… toes pointed upward. Nam… hair flying in my face.
Sat… heart center expanding. Nam… surrendering to the momentum.
Who knew kundalini would find a place on the playground? My hips ached a little afterward (turns out I no longer have the skeletal structure of a 5-year-old), but I had such calmness and clarity for the remainder of my walk around the park, a sensation I’ve been trying to re-attain for some time.
Give it a try sometime and let me know how you feel.
I feel like I should have a little check-in with myself every month to review where I am with my yoga practice; in short, Am I doing it?
I rarely go to studio classes anymore, for many reasons: (a) I feel like I know enough to guide myself through a practice; (b) sometimes class times don’t jive well with my work/commute schedule; (c) I’m annoyingly picky about studio temperature/teachers’ voices/teachers’ word choices (i.e., “goddess,” “divine,” and any talk of angels will have me squirming in my savasana); and (d) I’m self-conscious about my hip and the fact that sometimes I have to stop what I’m doing and jostle my leg around to snap it back into place…and sometimes that takes quite a few jostles.
The one exception I made, starting back in October, was to sign up for a 5-week kundalini yoga series. I knew the teacher from a tai chi series I took two years ago, and she is very accommodating to injuries/limitations/modifications, as she herself has faced several physical challenges. I told her straight off about my hip and how I’d be using blankets to prop me up and may have to stop every so often for the jostling, all of which she was totally cool with. I was so happy when she guided us through frog squats but made a point to demonstrate that one doesn’t have to go all the way down to the floor and can simply hold onto their calves.
I was glad that I had registered and paid for the class beforehand, which kept me from bailing out. The class didn’t start until 7:30 p.m., and at times I struggled leaving the house after it was dark outside and I felt settled in for the night. Fortunately, the studio is less than 10 minutes from home, so I never felt like it was a burden to drive to class. Another plus: I always, always, ALWAYS left class feeling a million times better than when I started. I’m sure my husband noticed that the cool-as-a-cucumber woman who entered the front door at 9 p.m. was not the same as the one who trudged out at 7:15.
We started every class with an aura-strengthening kriya, which the teacher recommended doing every day, not only to keep our physical self healthy but our energetic body as well. I took her words to heart and have started every morning with the set, especially because I find there is a lot of negative energy floating around this time of year, with harried holiday shoppers, disgruntled cashiers, and many meet-ups with friends and family who may be energy vampires. Also, on a physical level, ’tis the season for unwanted germs!
Over the course of the 5 weeks, we also practiced the “Sa Ta Na Ma” meditation for 12 minutes; the “Breath to do when you don’t know what to do” (inhale thru nose, exhale thru nose; inhale thru mouth, exhale thru mouth; inhale thru nose, exhale thru mouth; inhale thru mouth, exhale thru nose); a Celtic energy clearing (while standing, wave hands above head, over heart, over stomach, in front of knees, behind knees); and a gong meditation, first to a recording of a gong, then later to an actual gong. I found that the gong meditation really stirred up some stuff inside of me, because at times it was really, really loud, maddening, almost. It was chaos in my mind, and I found myself wanting to scream along with the jarring sounds, not because it bothered me but because it was just stirring up some residual emotions. But then when the gong slowed and became soft, so did I. It was interesting to fluctuate between the two very different sounds.
I loved everything about the series and only wished it were a permanent class. I was really bummed when the 5 weeks were over, but I try to do a little kundalini every morning after waking up.
During the process of writing about my Kripalu experience, I began to crave more Kripalu-based classes. I wrote about finding a Kripalu class on YouTube, and then shortly after that I found the actual Kripalu-at-Home website, which offers videos of 7 different, full-length yoga classes.
I had done Devarshi’s moderate/vigorous one previously, and I’ve since tried Megha’s gentle class (a little too introductory for me, but probably great for beginners; also just wonderful to hear Megha’s voice again!); Jurian’s moderate class (her theatrical voice is perfect for leading class; fun practice, but so glad I was in my living room because there was a lot of hip-jostling going on); and Coby’s moderate vinyasa flow (REALLY loved this one, especially her utkatasana series). Others available but that I haven’t tried yet are Sudha’s restorative class and two vigorous classes, one from Danny and the other by Jovinna. Coby’s class is my go-to video when I’ve looking for a flowing practice, and if I crave a little more power, I just throw in my own chaturangas in between the planks and downdogs.
In fact, I practiced with Coby this morning, when, after waking up late and doing some stretching in the living room, out of nowhere I felt the urge to do a full practice. I actually put off from drinking my morning coffee for an hour so I could take class! That says something!
As I wrote previously, November also marked a yoga workshop with Rudy Peirce. I’ll admit, it was nice to be in a studio setting and work with others, especially a workshop setting where things are more hands-on and instructive. Even better was meditating with others, because otherwise it’s so hard to sit still! I bought one of Rudy’s gentle yoga CDs so I could take home the experience, and I also bought a new yoga mat to replace the Gaiam one that I keep slipping and sliding on. Several months ago I had posted about the quest for a new mat, and several people commented about the wonders of Jade. This studio happened to specialize in them, so I picked out my favorite color (red) and brought the new guy home with me.
The studio owner warned me that it would need to “air out” for a while to get rid of the rubbery (not chemical) smell. Boy, was he right! I’ve been airing it out for about 3 weeks and it finally seems ready to use. Not that I couldn’t have used it earlier, but the thing made the entire living room smell like new tires.
Finally, although this type of yoga doesn’t require a mat, I spent two Thursdays in November participating in the final two practice teach classes of YogaDance teacher-in-training, Nikki (who actually is now a full-fledged Let Your Yoga Dance teacher; she graduated this past Friday!). Nikki deviated from her prescribed class outline during the final class and taught something she created herself instead, and the authenticity showed! I didn’t realize that her previous classes were not her own (the outline was chosen for her), because she did so well leading them. However, when she taught a class full of music and choreography that was her own, her true spirit emerged, and it was so fun to be a part of this creative awakening. She has plans to eventually teach a weekly YogaDance class at a nearby studio, and I hope I can be a part of it. YogaDance reminds us that yoga doesn’t always have to be about sun salutations and downdogs; it’s about taking time to connect body and breath, movement and spirit.
…That said, I do like the way that hatha yoga stretches and strengthens, and I would like to incorporate that a little more into my life. We’ll see during the next yoga update if I managed to do that in December!
Earlier this week, I re-connected with a dear old friend…kundalini yoga!
My relationship with kundalini has been a bit off and on, but my interest in this unique style of yoga began during my yoga teacher training at Kripalu, where we learned about the founder of Kripalu yoga, Swami Kripalu, referred to by his followers as Bapuji. Bapuji practiced kundalini yoga, the most ancient style of yoga (kind of how ballet is to the dance world), which incorporated very regimented sequences of breathing, movement, chanting, and meditation. The Kripalu style of yoga is derived from kundalini; hence, why Kripalu yoga is very heavy on the pranayama (breathwork)-asana (postures)-dhyana (meditation), and why I came home from yoga teacher training very interested in trying out this mysterious style.
The problem is that it’s pretty hard to find a kundalini teacher–let alone class–in Small Town, USA. Kundalini is totally different from “regular” yoga. There’s a ton of chanting, crazy-fast breathwork, and lots of repetitive movement, at times which can look very silly and feel somewhat awkward or weird (say, hopping on one foot with your eyes closed?). The objective is to unblock the energy from the base of the spine and allow it to rise through the chakras and all throughout the body.
Each session has a specific objective (e.g., heart opening, liver detox, mental clarity) with a prescribed set of “kriyas,” the postures/chants/movement. These kriyas are arranged in a specific order with designated time limits for each move or meditation; sometimes a set will call for the same move for 30 minutes; other times, the set will include several moves that last 2 or 3 minutes each.
I first started kundalini back in 2007, when a local studio offered an introduction series and then included it as a regular weekly class on the schedule. I was a kundalini junkie and experienced some pretty intense visualizations and post-class energy shifts. I was a regular student until the teacher stopped working at the studio, and then no more local kundalini classes existed. 😦
A different studio began offering the class last winter, and I immediately dove in. However, this teacher’s style was a bit different, and I felt like class was one third kundalini, one third the teacher talking about her life, and one third sitting (im)patiently on the floor post-start time, waiting for class to begin already. I couldn’t stand paying money for that and again had to depart from kundalini. 😦
But here we are in 2011, and to my delight, a teacher with whom I studied Tai Chi Chih last summer is offering a short kundalini series that began this past Tuesday. 🙂
I love this woman’s teaching style, with her soft, gentle voice; her attention to detail; and the way she can break down such a complex style of yoga to a hodge-podge group of students who are at all different levels and from different backgrounds. I mentally groaned to myself when she said that the first part of class would be more of a background of the practice but was surprised when I found myself eating up her words and really coming to understand the meaning of not just kundalini yoga, but yoga in general.
The physical practice that night was somewhat abbreviated but still powerful. We did all the basic warm-ups (lots of spinal rocking/twisting), the opening invocation, and worked our way into a short series for aura enhancement. I loved how she described our aura: the extension of our physical body, a kind of force-field surrounding our corporeal mass that we need to keep strong so we are able to block negative things (e.g., germs, bad energy) before they get to our physical bodies and cause sickness, disease, and mental negativity.
We ended with Sat Kriya, which is usually included in every kundalini class. It’s a very simple but intense kriya in which you sit in hero pose (or rock pose, as it’s called in kundalini), with your heels under your rear; hold your arms above your head with hands clasped, pointer fingers extended and touching; and vocalize a sharp “sat” (pronounced more like “sut”) that draws in the belly, followed by a relaxed and soft “nam” during which the belly relaxes.
Hold the pose and repeat the sat-nam sequence for 3 to 30 minutes. Like most kundalini movements, this feels a bit tiring at first but then out of nowhere shifts into a very strong gesture and meditation. I’ve added 3 minutes of Sat Kriya to my morning routine and already feel the benefits: more alert, focused, and confident throughout most of my day.
The thing about kundalini is that sometimes its effects are not immediately evident; like, I didn’t leave class on Tuesday night feeling like my aura was all shiny and clean. However, the next morning, during my morning walk around the park, everything felt illuminated. The oxygen I breathed in, the sights I saw, the people I passed…I wasn’t necessarily labeling them as “brilliant” or “beautiful”; I simply felt like I was really noticing everything I passed, like my awareness was heightened. Especially with it being fall and the leaves changing color, the landscape around me felt like an artist’s easel with various shades of autumn pulsing from the canvas.
Have you ever tried kundalini? If you ever have the chance, I recommend giving it a shot. It’s definitely different at times, but generally it makes me feel pretty darn good.
I had grand plans to make yesterday “Mudra Tuesday” and write about my fascination with the hands and the powers they possess, but blogging fell by the wayside. But wow, perhaps it was totally meant to work out that way, because today is May 4, and Internetland has seemed to declare it a pun-on-Star-Wars day. I mean, look at Obi Wan up there! An upside-down jnana mudra to convince Stormtroopers that those aren’t the droids they’re looking for?! The force is in your hands, baby!
I first became interested in hand mudras during some of my beginning yoga classes almost 10 years ago. The teacher, JoAnna, would start class with the same spiel every time: “Sit in a comfortable, cross-legged position with your hands on your knees: Palms up, palms down, or fingers in jnana mudra.” She explained that palms up allowed you to be more receptive to others around you, say, on days you were lethargic and needed more energy; palms down was for those days you felt like being a little more introspective and withdrawn, perhaps on days you had too much energy to begin with; and jnana mudra (the gesture of knowledge) was a way to keep the prana circulating through your system, to become more in touch with the energies around and within us. I really dug this mudra stuff, because I had always been extremely aware of the sensitivities in the hands and feet, which are packed with acupressure points, nerves, reflexology points, etc. Days on which I am especially in touch with my yoga practice, I’ll place my hands on the mat for downdog and feel like the ground is speaking to me, like every square inch of rubber is whispering to my palms. The sense of touch will feel as powerful as taste, and holding my hands in anjali mudra or holding onto the bottoms of my feet during Hero pose will pack as much punch as biting into a just-picked Jersey strawberry in late May.
My knowledge of mudras was very basic until I started taking a kundalini yoga class in 2006. Kundalini is heavy on meditation and chanting, usually accompanied by very specific mudras. During some classes, I felt like we used our hands and arms more than any other body part! I liked using different hand positions to channel different intentions, but most of all, I loved the way holding my fingers in a certain position grounded me for meditation. I’ve tried various methods to help me get into the zone–silently repeating “inhale”/”exhale,” focusing on my third eye–but one of my favorites is simply holding a mudra and drawing the focus to the fingers, giving slight pressure on the inhale, relaxing the muscles on the exhale.
My curiosity about mudras led me to buy this book a few years ago. It’s one of my favorite and most-referred yoga books:
It’s kind of an encyclopedia of mudras, including 52 hand mudras and their function as well as lesser-known mudras that involve certain gazes and arm or leg positions. I’d get on kicks where I’d tell myself I’d do a specific mudra for 3 days, document how I felt, and then move on to a new one. It has never lasted long, though.
However, I’m trying this again. Since starting the Chopra Center’s 21-Day Spring Meditation Challenge 3 weeks ago, I have meditated every morning. For 3 weeks! This is HUGE. (More on that to come.) To help me with my meditation, I decided to crack open the mudra manual again and really commit to a specific mudra for a full week. My back has been especially achy this week, so I started with the aptly named Back Mudra.
The mudra is supposed to help relieve back pain. A half hour after doing this on Monday, my hip got really wonky and I felt awful. I repeated the mudra yesterday and today and my hip and lower back are still sore and achy. So far, this little experiment is NOT going well. 😦 I’m wondering if maybe tomorrow morning I should give up on Mr. Back Mudra and try Joint Mudra instead (yes, there is one!).
Every so often I’ll bust out in a spontaneous mudra, usually when dancing or practicing yoga. I frequently find myself holding jnana mudra in side angle (the arm that’s propped up on the thigh) or during dancer pose (the arm that’s extended out in front). Sometimes I do it simply to focus my mind on a single point when holding a challenging pose, but sometimes my hands go into the position on their own, usually when I’m really feeling a pose, and perhaps my hands want to seal in the energy churning through me. During those moments, I really do feel like Obi Wan, like there’s so much power channeling through me that I could burn a hole in the wall in front of me if I angled my fingers the right way.
I use mudras a lot when I’m dancing too, especially during the Stillness of 5Rhythms. I have had several Stillness experiences in which nothing but my hands move, and to an outsider it probably looks like I am doing tai chi, classical Indian dance, or some form of sign language. These moves aren’t planned or choreographed; they just come, and they are strong. On days I am especially in tune with my body, I feel like brilliant light is radiating out of my palms and I have no choice but to spread my hands wide and spread the energy. It’s a bit like Spiderman, but instead of a silver web, I’m shooting out beams of light.
This morning, after my failed attempt at the Back Mudra, I did some yoga stretches. While seated upward in Dandasana, my hands unconsciously found their way into this mudra:
At the time, I had no idea what this gesture was called or what it meant. My hands just wanted to go there, and I let them stay there for a while. The top hand was very sensitive, and I felt as though it was pressing against something very light but very powerful, like a wall of electrons or something. It’s hard to explain, but it felt nice. I consulted my mudra book afterward: Turns out the top hand was in Abhaya Mudra, the gesture for promising protection, and the bottom was in Varada Mudra, gesture for granting wishes or mercy.
While sitting there with my hands lookin’ like Buddha’s, I was suddenly transported back to 2006, my trip to Tibet. We had visited monastery after monastery, all filled with giant, towering golden Buddha and Dalai Lama statues, each whose hands were poised in a specific mudra. So as I was thinking of this, my playlist switched over to a new-agey track that included the sounds of Tibetan drums and the chant Om Mani Padme Hum, which is the mantra Buddhists repeat to themselves as they make their pilgrimage to the holy sites of Lhasa. The mudras, the music, the memories…I was overcome by emotion and brought to tears. Indeed, the force was with me this morning.
So, I broke up with a yoga class.
I’m not sure of the proper protocol to follow (I never really made the split official with the teacher), but I do feel bad. But the fact of the matter is, every time I was with Kundalini I was daydreaming of Hot Vinyasa, and I hated not being able to devote my full attention to the one I was with.
Here’s the quick rundown: I take an awesome hot vinyasa class on Tuesday. Then a new yoga studio opened offering a kundalini class only on Thursday. I was all for it…until my hot vinyasa teacher began offering her class on Thursday nights as well. At first I was thrilled—I had the ability to take my two favorite classes each week! Vinyasa Tuesday, kundalini Thursday. The best of both worlds! That’s how it went. But the more and more I did hot vinyasa Tuesday, the more I wished I was there again on Thursday. Especially on colllllllld nights, when I’d go to the kundalini studio and the teacher would be arriving the same time as the students, so the heat wouldn’t officially kick in until the last 15 minutes of class. I’d sit there in sweatpants and a fleece jacket, thinking longingly of the hot yoga studio and its interminable tropical climate. And although I really dig the meditative quality of kundalini, some of the kriyas were just too hard on my hip and weren’t the most adaptable moves. Modifying poses in a hatha yoga class isn’t too difficult, but when you’re told to do 6 minutes of squats during kundalini, there’s really no easy alternative.
I felt so selfish for even considering breaking up with kundalini just to spend more time with vinyasa, but I just really like the way I feel after a hot yoga class. It’s one of the few forms of exercises I can do without hurting my hip; the heat is wonderful; and the class is 90 minutes long, as opposed to the 75-minute-really-60-minute-because-the-teacher-talks-for-the-first-15-minutes kundalini class. Back in the day, I used to take formal classes up to 5 times per week, so finally getting back into 2 solid days of studio vinyasa is an overdue accomplishment.
Next dilemma I foresee on the horizon: Being OK taking non-heated hatha classes. I’m afraid my body won’t know how to adjust when I step into a studio that doesn’t feel like Thailand in July. Perhaps my Under Armour Coldgear–once used for running outdoors in the winter–will have a second life as yoga attire for 72-degree studios.
Sometimes when I’m really deep in practice, I’ll have very intense COLOR experiences. Does anyone else have these?
I haven’t had them in a while, but then last night during my scrumptiously sweaty hot vinyasa class–out of nowhere–the color green smacked me between the eyes as I was lying on my back in a modified hip stretch. The color presented itself through very specific green images–the front of the old Clover store (a predecessor of Target) my mom used to drag me when I was a kid, and my dad’s work uniform. What’s so interesting about the experience is that I wasn’t thinking about either of these two things–or anything related–like, ever. And I was so focused on my movement and breath during the posture that I wasn’t expecting to have a “vision.” It totally just snuck up on me, and I could almost physically feel the experience hit me in my third eye and solar plexus. Without warning, I got kind of sad too. Was it just a color experience, or were the images representative of the relationship with my parents as well? This all occurred during a hip stretch, not a heart-opener, which I would expect to generate green images (heart chakra = green).
For example, one of my first experiences with color came in a kundalini class during spinal rocking, when we sit in “rock” position (vajrasana) with hands on thighs, rocking our spines back and forth while silently chanting Sat Nam. My upper back, the thoracic region, warmed up quickly, and the color green was very dominant. I saw green sludge ooze like ectoplasam behind my eyelids, a dark , almost forest green. Sludgy, slimy green. The other pose in which I witnessed vivid color was during a squat, with our arms wrapped around our legs from the inside out. We kept our heads up and did breath of fire. I saw aqua, the Genie from Aladdin aqua. In fact, I saw the Genie himself, too. Years ago, I saw yellow during hip openers, and then saw Tarzan‘s Jane (what’s with the cartoon characters?) float by in her pouffy yellow dress.
I’m still not entirely sure what last night’s flash of green meant, but I was excited to have the experience because it’s been a while since I’ve had such a vivid burst like that. I could go into the very vivid (and totally random) image of the Korean War Memorial that popped into my brain and made me cry during last week’s 5Rhythms class, but that’s a whole other post.