There´s a new kind of technology in town, and it’s subtle enough to walk past on the street, but strong enough to change your life. Or, at least, that’s what the people who practice kundalini yoga will tell you.
To be fair, kundalini yoga didn’t just arrive. But the Adi Shakti Kundalini Yoga Center did just open its doors this spring. And when it did, founder Rachel (Surinderjot) Zelaya says it was like people who had been waiting sprang up to welcome it.
The technology falls to a few simple tools: wear white, eat vegetarian, keep your head covered, practice early in the day and meditate. Zelaya opened the Adi Shakti Kundalini Yoga Center to be a place where people could come together to practice and to learn, buy all-white clothes and books packed with the thousands and thousands of kriyas — carefully crafted motions, chants, visualizations, eye movements and breathwork — to suit equally as many purposes.
None of it was ever supposed to come into the hands of Americans. Kundalini yoga was a carefully kept secret in India until a man named Yogi Bhajan had a vision in the ’60s to bring it to the states. The myth was, in fact, that if you taught people who weren’t ready to learn — like white Americans — you would die.
To the contrary, kundalini found footing in America in the late ’60s and early ’70s among
people willing to take the message in and then go out and teach it. In the early days after kundalini arrived in America, after just a few classes you could be sent out to teach what you knew. Now, the teaching goes to those who have participated in formal teacher trainings.
“He wasn’t a guru,” Zelaya says of Bhajan. “The underlying philosophy was that … we have the truth inside of ourselves. It’s a very empowering practice.”
The meditation, breathwork and exercises allow people to have their own experience.
When he came to the states, Yogi Bhajan said the yoga wasn’t for the people who first showed up to learn it, and it wasn’t for their children. He came for their children’s children. The yoga takes that long to take root, and to work.
But even first-generation kundalini practitioners claim benefits.
“From my very first class, it was like something shifted for me,” Zelaya says. But “you have to be open and ready, because you end up doing some really weird stuff.”
Stick your tongue out and pant like a dog? Sure. Clap your hands, stomp your feet, cross your eyes and chant in Sanskrit and then in English — you’re in for it all.
“My first experience of the practice was this huge assault on my ego,” says Trista Hollerbach, who now teaches at Adi Shakti. She was instructed to stick out her tongue and pant like a dog — in front of a mirror. “There’s no way!” was her first response, but she did it anyway.
“After three minutes, I felt something shift in my body that never had changed after years of asana,” she says.
"Kundalini practice works quickly because the kriyas, the carefully constructed movements in each class, work the body, breath and mind at the same time. We’re igniting all of the energy at the same time,” Hollerbach says.
The singing and the music incorporated into class have been transformative, she says — though there’s still a place for a fast-paced vinyasa, or flow yoga, class.
“You do start to have an authentic experience,” she says. “It was completely transformative for me from the very first time. … There’s a sense of being at home with who you are.”
Suddenly, the body isn’t a trap anymore.
“I’d done yoga for years and years and came to kundalini and was like, this is what yoga’s supposed to be,” says Patrice (HarInder Kaur) Klimo. (Kundalini yoga gives its practitioners the same middle and last names — Kaur, for women, means “lioness.”) Klimo says it was the blend of physical practice with spirituality that worked for her.
Don’t underestimate it, though. You’ll still feel the class in your abs and your shoulders the next day.
But great abs aren’t the secret kundalini practitioners will slip you if you brave one of their classes — and you don’t have to catch the 5 a.m. slot to get the goods, though it’s there for the taking. They claim greater focus, calm, and a sense of joy and belonging.
Licensed professional counselor Sat Tara Kaur Khalsa says getting up at 3:30 a.m. to practice kundalini for two and a half hours helped her have the focus to write her master’s thesis in a week.
“It makes the mind very clear and calm and focused,” she says. Khalsa has practiced yoga since 1972 and lived in Boulder since 1990, where she’s attended classes at the various locations around town that have offered kundalini from time to time.
“The center’s really given us a centralized location that has galvanized the community, and I’m really happy with the range of classes that are being offered,” she says. “It’s really a nice cross section of the ways that kundalini yoga and these teachings can be applied to various aspects of life.”
Khalsa, who studied with Yogi Bhajan directly, found kundalini yoga after five years of searching for a spiritual path and trying various options, including various yogas.
“There were some that were good for flexibility, some that were good for detoxing the physical body, and from my very first kundalini yoga class I could really feel how powerful it was and changing my energy, my psychological state, my mood, the depths of my breath, my self — from a yoga standpoint, the chakras,” she says. “When you move energy into the upper chakras or you balance the energy, there’s an immediate psychological effect from doing that. It changes your perspective. It changes your paradigm. It changes your respect for things. It changes your understanding, even if you’re dealing with a painful situation.”
Kundalini focuses attention on moving energy up the spine, increasing flexibility through the spinal column to allow blood flow and energy to move. As the energy moves, it passes through various chakras, each assigned to a different meaning — those at the bottom of the spine go to basal desires and survival instincts, like hunger correlating to the chakra at your stomach. Move higher up, and you access your heart, a center for compassion, and your head, the source of wisdom.
“That’s not to say that the lower chakras are bad, but most people walk around in the lower chakras most of the time,” Khalsa says. “With kundalini yoga and meditative practice you can operate the upper chakras more, so you have more choice and more balance.”
The theory goes that the easier energy can move from your sacrum, the bottom of your spine, to the top of your skull, the easier something like a hurtful comment, which might hit you in the gut, can be moved up to your heart, so you can respond from a place of compassion.
“For me, it was the most effective at shifting psychological states of any practice that I had tried,” Khalsa says.
As a psychotherapist, Khalsa says she’s seen some overlap and some complementary aspects between psychotherapy and spiritual work like what kundalini offers.
“If you think of yoga and meditation as working directly on consciousness, and consciousness as the filter through which we experience life and function, it’s going to affect a wide range of things,” she says.
Exactly how those effects work, and why, is a field as yet unplumbed by science. The technology to study the brain is still relatively new, Khalsa says, but there have been studies, dating back to the ’70s, indicating that claims like a certain kundalini yoga meditation synchronizing the brain are true.
“It’s interesting for me, having done this for so long, because I’ve seen it go more mainstream and be more accepted scientifically,” she says.
A study published earlier this year in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry on caregivers aged 45 to 91 in the high-stress situation of caring for someone with dementia showed that participants assigned just 12 minutes a day of kundalini yoga kirtan kriya meditation reported significant improvements in mental health and a decrease in depression. Of those practicing kundalini, 65 percent improved on a depression rating scale by 50 percent, and 53 percent improved on the mental health scale by 50 percent. Other participants in the study, who were given passive relaxation with instrumental music, improved by 31.2 percent for depression and 19 percent for mental health.
Zelaya says her plan with Adi Shakti is to make it open and accessible to a range of people. Some classes focus on prenatal care, some on recovering from addiction. The center is doing outreach to women’s shelters and in prisons. Zelaya herself has taught kundalini to civil war refugees in West Africa.
“My vision is to bring this technology to people who need it, whether they can pay or not,” Zelaya says. For that reason, some classes have flexible pricing.
“Come. Change — that’s the only danger,” says Hari-Mandir Kaur Khalsa, who teaches a stress relief class at Adi Shakti on Saturdays.
The doors are open. Even if you’re still in your usual black yoga pants.