by Lynn Roulo
Leaving my first Kundalini Yoga class at a San Francisco ashram in 2007, I remember thinking “that was yoga?” At the time, my experience with yoga was limited to its more popular forms: hatha, vinyasa, ashtanga, and the other styles found in most San Francisco yoga studios during that era.
Kundalini Yoga is a completely different practice and as I went on to experience its profound and wide-ranging benefits, I became not only an enthusiast, but eventually, I became a Kundalini Yoga teacher myself. Kundalini Yoga is in a category unto itself and if you’ve ever wondered if there was a yoga style that goes beyond headstands and backbends, this is a form of yoga worth exploring.
What is Kundalini Yoga?
Called “the yoga of awareness,” Kundalini Yoga is a physical, mental, and spiritual discipline for developing strength, awareness, character, and consciousness. This style of yoga uses a series of asanas (physical exercises), meditations, active and passive movement sequences, and breathwork to empower personal change and improve physical and mental health.
A Kundalini Yoga class feels completely different than most other yoga classes with one of the biggest benefits being its accessibility. I call it “yoga for all” because this is a practice that doesn’t demand extreme fitness or flexibility. The starting position is always the breath, so you don’t need to stress about doing inversions or advanced arm balances. Instead, expect an emphasis on gentle repetitive movements coupled with specific breathing techniques. If you can breathe, you can do Kundalini Yoga.
Below are three key ways Kundalini Yoga differs from other forms of yoga and some suggested classes to get you started.
1) A large emphasis on the breath.
Expect to do a lot of conscious breathing in a Kundalini Yoga class. Kundalini Yoga recognizes that your breath is the steering wheel for your thoughts and managing your mind is a central goal of this practice.
Almost all the exercises have a synchronized breathing component, and in Kundalini Yoga, the breath is just as important as the physical movements. You can think of the breath like a muscle that needs to be worked out.
Most of us breathe shallowly and unconsciously, breathing between 15 to 20 breaths per minute. However, if you can add a focused element to your breathing, amazing things unfold. As you deepen and slow your breath, you can learn to redirect your thoughts, curtail your rumination about the past, and lower your anxious thinking about the future. Best of all, you can apply the principles you learn in a Kundalini Yoga class to your breathing outside of class and reap the benefits all day long.
Want to try it for yourself? Try this Kundalini Yoga meditation for insomnia and watch your body and mind relax.
2) Gentle, repetitive movements designed to build the nervous system.
The nervous system is a combination of your brain, your spine, and the nerve endings in your body. It isn’t a single location you can point to but rather a complete network that influences how you experience the world.
In a Kundalini Yoga class, it is not uncommon to repeat a single exercise for two or three minutes before moving on to the next exercise. Many of these movements gently work on spinal flexibility, and these opportunities to flex your spine serve a larger purpose: they strengthen your nervous system.
You can think of your nervous system as the container you have for the events of your day. If your container is a thin paper cup, the events of the day quickly overflow, and you feel overwhelmed and stressed. If your container is a thick metal pot, these same events flow in, but now you have space for them. With a strong nervous system, you feel less overwhelmed, and you can maintain your sense of balance even in the face of uncertainty. The events are exactly the same, but you experience them differently. A strong nervous system means you feel more relaxed and at ease in life.
Try this spinal flex exercise to experience some of these gentle yet powerful benefits.
3) A specific class structure and flow.
Kundalini Yoga classes follow a very specific structure, and one of the pleasant surprises is that you can travel the world and expect the same basic format wherever you go. The common structure is:
- Tune in
Class starts by chanting the mantra “Ong Namo Guru Dev Namo.” This mantra signifies the practice is starting, and it provides energetic protection and guidance for the practice.
Next, you’ll do a kriya, a series of exercises for a specific effect. Kundalini Yoga has literally hundreds of kriyas for all different purposes. From battling depression to trying to heal your liver, from cultivating willpower to beaming and creating your future, Kundalini Yoga likely has a kriya for whatever it is you want to do.
After the kriya, expect to take a deep relaxation. Kundalini Yoga recognizes the power of relaxation and offers you a chance to let your body repair and heal. In a typical class, the relaxation ranges from 3-11 minutes and is considered one of the most important parts of the practice.
The meditation at the end is the culmination of the class and it is the central focus of the class, the “meat” of the practice. The idea is that the kriya and the relaxation prepare your body for meditation and now you reap the benefits of your effort. Mediations range from 3-11 minutes and often include breathwork and sometimes chanting. Like the kriyas, each meditation is for a specific purpose.
Most classes end with a song or the mantra Sat Nam. This signifies the class is now completed.
Consistency and discipline are key elements in Kundalini Yoga, and the class structure is a reflection of that. While all the details of the kriyas and meditations may differ, the format remains the same.
Let’s Get Started
Ready to give it a try?
Practice this introductory kriya to get a taste of Kundalini Yoga.
You can feel benefits from Kundalini Yoga in your first class and each time you participate in this practice, you are strengthening your nervous system and training your breath. For maximum benefit, find a kriya or meditation you like and repeat it daily for 40 consecutive days. You can see a whole library of Kundalini Yoga videos to choose from here.