Consider this a regular Tuesday afternoon at Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa‘s Los Angeles home: The buzz of hummingbirds feeding in the lush foliage of the patio entrance seems louder than the traffic off Wilshire Boulevard, not more than a block away. Numerous pairs of shoes form a kind of haphazard edge around the patio, a sure sign that one of her Kundalini Yoga classes is in session. The front door opens with a tinkle of chimes and there stands Gurmukh, dressed in pure white Indian clothing from her turbaned head on down. So radiant is her smile and so frothy are her clothes that she conjures an image of the Good Witch of the East. While Gurmukh’s house may not be Oz, you’re definitely not in Kansas, either.
Two women file past her with a hug on the way to locate their shoes. “Have you met Julie and Melissa?” she asks, presenting everyone to each other with ill-contained glee. Iit’s easy to tell that introductions are one of her favorite things. Hellos and So-nice-to-meet-yous are made, then it’s time for See-you-agains. As she shuts the door Gurmukh says off-handedly, “Melissa’s a singer. She’s really good! I guess she’s getting popular, too.”
That’s when it becomes clear that Gurmukh is either a master of understatement or has honestly missed the fact that a few million fans already think Melissa (as in Etheridge) is pretty good indeed, if her Grammys are any indication.
Gurmukh rolls her eyes. “I am so clueless,” she says. “When Courtney first called I thought she was that girl from the show Friends that everybody always talks about. Then I had to ask my husband, ‘Who’s Courtney Love?'”
The Most Popular Yogini in Hollywood?
This may seem odd coming from a woman who has been featured in no less than the New York Times, Vogue, W, InStyle, Spin, and Rolling Stone as Hollywood’s most celebrated yogi, who has taught Madonna, Cindy Crawford, Al Pacino, David Duchovny, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, R.E.M….Let’s just say it’s probably easier to name the Hollywood elite who haven’t walked through Gurmukh’s door at some time over the last decade.
It all began with a phone call 10 years ago from David Duchovny’s manager who’d heard about Kundalini Yoga and wanted a teacher. Gurmukh ended up teaching a group of actors from “Twin Peaks,” including Sherilynn Fenn. She soon had entrée into the homes of directors, stars, musicians, and even a few political pundits for private one-on-one classes. “One phone call led to another, then another, and another,” she says. “I didn’t seek it. It just happened.”
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This would seem like an ideal opportunity to influence the most famous trendsetters, who would then produce more enlightened work. Gurmukh says that’s what she thought too, but she realized no effect is ever that direct. “The students themselves weren’t getting all they could out of the experience by doing it alone. Too often I would come home and feel like I hadn’t done enough, because I didn’t insist on things I know in my heart would have really helped them,” she says. “I realized that if I teach 100 people in an hour and a half, I help the world more than if I teach just one, no matter who that one person is.”
So last year despite the money and the glossy magazines, Gurmukh stopped giving private sessions, telling each of her high-profile clients that in order to experience everything Kundalini Yoga has to offer, they would have to participate in class. “It was the end of a chapter in their lives, but they understood,” she says. “On a very deep level they knew it was the truth.”
The Back Story
Gurmukh’s name, which means “one who takes thousands across the world ocean,” was given to her by Yogi Bhajan, the Sikh master who introduced Kundalini Yoga to America. “I know the name describes my destiny,” she says. But for a girl from the Chicago suburb of Downer’s Grove, finding her destiny wasn’t easy.
“There was something missing that I was always searching for,” she says. Her quest for meaning led her first to Germany, then back to Chicago, and eventually to San Francisco to study acting. At age 22 she married and had a baby boy, only to have her child die at 7 months old of a congenital heart defect. “I had no tools to cope with my grief or anyone to turn to,” she remembers. So she set forth alone on a journey to heal.
Her first stop was Mexico where she lived among the Oaxacan Indians, then Hawaii where she was taken in at a zendo. What began as a brief stop-over became a year of deep reflection: She meditated for seven hours each day, grew and harvested her own food, and led a contemplative life. With the blessing of the roshi, she made plans to go to Japan to become a Zen nun. But, as the old joke goes, if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. Then 28, she returned for what she thought would be a quick visit to California before going to Japan. While there she met an old friend. He insisted she go with him to an ashram he had heard about in Tucson, Arizona, because he believed God had told him to take her there. “I said, ‘What’s an ashram?'” she recalls with a laugh. The two loaded his Volkswagen bug and drove to Arizona, where they walked into a yoga class in session. Her friend left after a week, paid her first month’s room and board, and she never saw him again.
“I’d found what I had always been searching for.”
“I’d found what I had always been searching for.” The year was 1971. Gurmukh remembers those as exciting days at the ashram; Yogi Bhajan had brought Kundalini Yoga to North America just two years before, so the pioneers were immersing themselves in the fundamentals of the practice: Although Kundalini uses the traditional asanas, it is a very gentle form of yoga that incorporates some form of Pranayama (breathwork), mantras (sacred words), and mudras (symbolic hand gestures) into every session. It is done with the eyes closed and focused on the pituitary gland, or “third eye,” to channel the kundalini, the “energy of consciousness.” “Without that constant flow of energy, you could not live,” Gurmukh says. More than an exercise, Kundalini Yoga is a comprehensive yogic system, incorporating a vegetarian lifestyle, healing techniques, and seva (selfless service to others).
For two years Gurmukh worked at the ashram and taught yoga at the University of Arizona and the state correctional facility, then she was called to work at the “mother center” in New Mexico. The five years she lived there were filled with personal turmoil, so Yogi Bhajan sent her to India where she stayed for four months praying, meditating, and doing yoga. Her spiritual turning point was a yatra (pilgrimage), where she trekked up 17,000 feet over three days to reach a mountain shrine. “It’s where Sikh scripture says Guru Gobin Singh was told by God to reincarnate to help the world,” she explains. “I took my wounds and healed them there.”
A Kundalini Star in Hollywood
Her return trip to America included a stop-over in Los Angeles which has lasted 22 years. “I’ve always been on my way back to New Mexico!” she adds. She opened the doors of Yoga West, the first Kundalini Yoga center in L.A., where she served as director for six years. There she met her husband, Gurushabad. Married for 16 years, the couple has a 14-year-old daughter. Gurmukh also serves as director of Seva Corps of Sikh Dharma, a nonprofit foundation that provides educational grants to children, and is a founding member of Khalsa Way, an organization dedicated to helping people deliver and raise healthy children.
“Khalsa means ‘pure ones,’ so the object is to bring purity back to families,” she says. “We help mothers even before they conceive to have a meditative mind so they can transfer that energy to their children.” The turnout for her pre- and postnatal classes is phenomenallocal obstetricians refer expectant mothers to Gurmukh both for exercise benefits and for the mental and emotional rewards yoga imparts. “I believe the soul of Shannon, the baby I lost, was sent to help me. He came as my teacher,” says Gurmukh. “If I’m considered a good teacher, it’s because age and life experience have made me that way. Also, I think it makes a difference that I am a householder and a mother. I have experienced what everybody else has experienced. But I have found a way out of the pain.”
At the end of any class, Gurmukh serves Yogi Tea and cookies. It gives people a chance to “come back to earth,” she explains, and also a chance to get to know each other. Friday night classes, however, are followed by a complete vegetarian feast. “This is true yoga union with yourself and with others,” says Gurmukh, who at the moment is doing several things at once, making sure everyone has a plate as well as introducing a single man to a single woman. (She confesses to a weakness for matchmaking: “I love it when couples meet at yoga class!”)
The standing-room-only crowd makes it obvious why she’s embarked on opening a new center, called “Golden Bridge: The Heart of Yoga,” just blocks from her midcity home: the need for more space. Her new studio is the latest addition to the 350 Kundalini Yoga centers around the world. “I am just one spoke in a great big wheel,” she says. “People have a longing to belong. They need places where they can love and heal together. So many people are searching, like I was, for something more, and they’re finding it in yoga and meditation.”
Gurmukh stands still for a moment to emphasize a point: “More than discovering yoga, I want my students to discover what Yogi Bhajan taught me: that we are spiritual beings here to have a human experience.” She smiles again, and says in a mothering tone, “Our birthright is happiness.”
See also an interview with Gurmukh The Gong Show.
Samantha Dunn is a freelance writer in Malibu, California, whose work appears in Shape, InStyle, Women’s Sports and Fitness, and Bikini. Her first novel, Failing Paris, was published by Toby Press.