Kundalini Yoga

As Kundalini’s Leader was Disgraced, I Fell in Love with The Practice Anyway

For one new practitioner, Kundalini yoga is more than the ugly sex scandal surrounding its most prominent teacher.

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In the 20 years I’ve been practicing yoga, I never learned much about Kundalini. “That’s the weird yoga, with the turbans and the chanting,” I thought until I randomly pushed play on a 12-minute Kirtan Kriya meditation on my meditation app in the fall of 2019. 

Kirtan Kriya is a foundational Kundalini practice that combines chanting a mantra (“sa ta na ma”) and using a mudra, or hand position. When the meditation ended, I felt still, quiet, grounded, connected. It was what I’d always wanted from meditation but never experienced before. 

Immediately afterwards, I googled “Kundalini yoga Philadelphia” and found a class around the corner from my home. A year later, I’m still practicing several times a week but so much has changed—and I’m not even talking about the pandemic.

In January, the memoir Premka: White Bird in a Golden Cage: My Life with Yogi Bhajan was published. It’s a disturbing account of abuse at the hands of the man who brought his own brand of Kundalini yoga to American in 1968. 

I’d been practicing Kundalini yoga for about a month when the book came out, and the controversy hung, spoken or unspoken, over every class. My teacher removed the photo of Yogi Bhajan she’d had in the practice space and stopped referencing him in her lessons. In August, an investigative report by An Olive Branch concluded that the allegations detailed in the book were likely true. 

As a Kundalini newbie, it was a lot to process. I wholeheartedly believe women who report sexual abuse, period. But my connection to the practice wasn’t through Yogi Bhajan, who died in 2004. It was through the practice itself. The kriyas (sets of asanas), meditations, and breathwork all dramatically affect me. Kundalini makes me lighter and calmer. The group chanting reminds me of singing hymns with my whole parish as a child in Catholic school. It was a spiritual ritual I didn’t know I missed. 

The other forms of meditation I’d studied are pointedly secular. For me, the magic of Kundalini lies in its overt spirituality. Sa ta na ma, the chant of Kirtan Kriya, translates loosely to: Universe, life, death, rebirth. There’s a cosmic, mystical aspect that keeps me coming back. 

By late summer, in the wake of the scandal, many people walked away from the practice in disgust, including my first instructor. Without her, I struggled to keep practicing on my own.

When I stopped doing Kundalini for a few weeks, I felt it. My sleep, mood and focus all deteriorated without it. It makes sense—research shows that Kundalini can help treat symptoms of anxiety, a lifelong issue for me. When another teacher in my city, Lori Hedrick, took her classes to Zoom, I started practicing again.

Lori says she’s no longer teaching Kundalini “as taught by Yogi Bhajan.” She reminds me that Kundalini likely existed long before him (though the provenance of the practice has been disputed by scholars). She’s now taking a second teacher training through an ashram in Rishikesh, India. “I’m going back to Kundalini’s roots,” she says. 

It’s easy to confuse a teacher with wisdom itself. But teachers are faucets; wisdom is water. Kundalini yoga isn’t the first yoga lineage to go through a reckoning like this and it won’t be the last. That’s a good thing—yoga has always evolved.

Coming to Kundalini in the middle of this crisis forced me to measure its value against the repugnant actions of its ambassador in the West. The experience also made me better understand the universal truth running through all the different yoga traditions I’ve ever practiced. I think the Adi Mantra, a Gurmukhi phrase chanted at the start of every Kundalini class, says it best.

Ong namo guru dev namo.

It means: I bow to the divine teacher inside myself.