Imagine a powerful serpent, coiled-up and asleep: in Kundalini Yoga, this is a symbol for the potential divine energy lying dormant in the human body, right at the base of the spine. The very word kundalini means "she who is coiled". Awakening and unleashing her tremendous power in order to achieve transformation is the main goal of this branch of yoga, which shares a common heritage and many concepts and practices with Tantra and Hatha Yoga.
For many centuries, yogis have been delving deep into studying the intricate anatomy of the energy body. While our physical bodies consist of gross matter such as skin, flesh, and bones, we can – especially through practices such as Kundalini Yoga – learn to become aware of a subtle counterpart made of a much finer substance, or energy, called prana, which can be translated as life force. It is the equivalent of what is known as qi in the Chinese tradition.
Yogic texts describe prana as flowing through a complex network of pathways (nadis) and gathering in a number of centres (chakras) throughout the body. As many as 72,000 nadis are mentioned, but three main pathways are recognised in all yoga traditions. The central one along the spine right up to the crown of the head is called sushumna. To its left lies ida, to its right pingala, and these two wind around the central axis, meeting at six of the seven main chakras.
Normally, prana is said to oscillate up and down ida and pingala. But by channelling prana into a consistent flow along the central axis, the yogi hopes to stimulate the latent kundalini at the base of the spine, so that she rushes up – like a serpent, or a volcanic eruption – until she reaches the seventh chakra at the crown and brings about blissful ecstasy and absolute liberation.
Whether a full transformation will ever happen or not – Kundalini Yoga sets out to prepare the practitioner's body and mind for the rising kundalini energy. Drawing from a centuries-old wealth of different yoga traditions, it employs an array of practices such as physical postures (asanas), breathing exercises (pranayama), chanting (mantra), visualisation and meditation.
Even though we may initially grapple with its terminology, concepts, or seemingly strange exercises, the Kundalini Yoga model of energy with its physiology of nadis and chakras can actually be likened to a map which we can use for inner exploration. Each chakra, for example, is closely linked to a certain aspect of our personality. By focusing on that particular quality and strengthening it through body-, breath- and mind-related practices, we learn to bring balance into our our own psychology – and correspondingly, into our everyday lives and relationships. This kind of transformation may then be more of an evolutionary than a revolutionary nature, especially when compared to traditional accounts of sudden kundalini awakenings.
The concept of a kundalini energy is not unique to Kundalini Yoga – to this day, it is explored in many yoga traditions. But one school has turned it into an actual brand name: the Sikh spiritual teacher Yogi Bhajan (1929-2004) introduced his own distinct style of Kundalini Yoga to the West in the Sixties, and it has been popular there ever since.
In Kundalini Yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan and his students, a class opens with the mantra "Ong namo guru dev namo" ("I bow to divine wisdom within"). Breath awareness and a warm-up may follow, leading to a central kriya, one of many specific sets of postures, breath, and sound. Deep relaxation, meditation, and a final mantra round up the practice.
A distinguishing feature of this style is coordination of mind, movement, and breath. Unless otherwise specified, breathing is done rhythmically through the nose. If the movement becomes rigorous and fast, the breath speeds up accordingly. Inhaling, one thinks the word "sat", and exhaling, "nam". Satnam is a mantra translated as "truth is my identity".