We’re seated on yoga mats in a softly lit room with a brightly colored wall: reds, oranges, yellows, greens, blues, purples and whites swirl around each other—all vibrant hues commonly associated with the chakras, the seven-part energy system first described in The Vedas, the oldest of Hinduism’s spiritual texts, compiled between 1500 and 1000 BCE after generations of oral tradition.
In a simplified sense, if you’re striving for inner peace and/or access to your “true self,” you want your chakras open—energy flowing freely and calmly between mind, body and spirit—and so, like any system with moving parts, a maintenance routine is in order. For centuries, cultures across Asia have relied on yogic practices for self and social care, engendering community harmony and balanced, spiritual lives.
Kundalini yoga, or the Yoga of Awareness, is a blend of breathwork, asanas (physical postures), mudras (hand gestures) and mantras (repetitive words and phrases) used to help cleanse or clear out energetic stores and tension held throughout the body—things that distract from or obstruct access to one’s true self. Think of the relief your mind feels once your sinuses drain after a cold-induced head-fog. Now, imagine that sensational exhale releasing from the entirety of your physical and emotional spheres.
With an emphasis on repetition and closed eyes, the invigorating practice stimulates the mind and shakes up the body in a contained and controlled way—important, considering such motions and movements “can bring up a lot of emotions,” explains Julia Dunbar, a Boulder-based Kundalini teacher and energy worker with warm eyes and nearly a decade of experience. “We carry a lot as humans,” so the releasing can be powerful.
“The body is so intelligent, and when we can clear what’s stuck in the body, then we can be clear,” says Dunbar, a student of Guru Singh, a third-generation Sikh yogi and master of the Kundalini arts who ultra-endurance athlete Rich Roll describes as “my treasured friend and favorite sparring partner when it comes to matters of heart and soul.”
Dunbar is leading our seated group in the room with the chakra-colored wall; she opens the Kundalini class (held Thursdays and Sundays at Longmont’s Sol19 Yoga Studio) with a seated meditation and mantra chant: Ong Namo Guru Dev Namo, translation: “I bow to the Creative Wisdom, I bow to the Divine Teacher.”
We then begin to activate the body, specifically our chakra spaces, by swirling our chests in clockwise and counterclockwise circles; then we sit upright and intensely shrug our shoulders up, down, up, down, up, down, and so on for a few minutes before spending another series of minutes quickly rotating our shoulders side to side, side to side, side to side, like sprinkler heads. We do other exercises like bending over halfway, placing our hands on the ground, and bending our knees repeatedly to lift and lower, lift and lower, lift and lower our hips. We exhale sharply and quickly as we swing our fists one at a time from our navel up overhead, arcing up and down, like “energetic windshield wipers” clearing gunk from our auras.
Prolonged for minutes at a time, the short, fast, repetitive movements, often paired with two- to four-syllable chanted phrases, create something of a trance, where the outer world falls away, leaving the inner world with undivided attention: each breath, each mantra, each Kundalini motion becomes an invitation to stay in or return to the present moment—a type of active meditation—a gift of relaxation for the nervous system, as past and future render themselves irrelevant.
While the benefits of yoga and meditation, and specifically of Kundalini, on the mind and body have been understood and taught to students for centuries (Sanskrit texts detailing Kundalini concepts date back to the 15th century), in many ways, western science and culture are just now catching up.
A 2013 study from UCLA shows that consistently engaging in the Kundalini practice of Kirtan Kriya (a 12-minute mantra meditation with a series of small, repetitive hand gestures) can increase levels of telomerase—an enzyme that protects our chromosome ends from shortening, thereby affecting how our cells age; higher levels of telomerase led to the study’s “meditation group” having lower levels of “stress-induced cellular aging” when compared to the control/“relaxation group.” Scientists are particularly excited about how this may help Alzheimer’s patients.
The Kirtan Kriya meditators also showed “significantly lower levels of depressive symptoms and greater improvement in mental health and cognitive functioning”—65.2% of practitioners registered a 50% improvement on the Hamilton Depression Rating scale, and 52% showed a 50% improvement on the Mental Health Composite Summary score of the Short Form-36 scale. (That’s compared with 31.2% and 19%, respectively, in the relaxation group.)
According to the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, other studies show practicing Kundalini improves blood flow to the brain, reverses memory loss, eases depression and decreases inflammatory genes while increasing healthy ones.
Dunbar herself stumbled upon Kundalini at one of the lowest points in her life. With a year-old child, she was processing a separation from the baby’s husband, facing life suddenly on her own. When she walked into a yoga studio in Atlanta, Georgia, where she lived at the time, she didn’t know what she was about to enter; let alone did she think Kundalini would change her life. “It was a therapy for me,” she says. “I felt like it brought me back home.”
Now more than ever, considering our digitally abstract world, we need ways to connect to ourselves, our inner homes. As Guru Singh told Rich Roll’s podcast, “If a person can learn a technique to go down inside themselves and evaluate themselves, they’ll find out that in fact they’re OK the way they are.” By quieting or disempowering the world’s distractions (never-ending material cravings, particular aesthetic desires, etc.), one creates an environment where real healing can take place: “A place where I can feel that I don’t have a hole: I am whole. I am complete,” Guru Singh said. It’s catharsis.
This inner work is contagious, in a good way, Dunbar and Singh argue. “When we take time for these practices, we’re doing it for the whole collective, you know?” Dunbar says. “Sometimes we want to do more, more, more for the global whole, but sometimes the best thing you can do is clear your own energy, so you can go around and look at everyone you meet with the light that they sometimes forget, because you access it frequently.”
The day Dunbar leads our session at Sol19, chinook winds are bellowing across the Front Range, flossing the trees, sweeping the streets, stirring the grasses. Lying in savasana pose after Dunbar leads us through the Kirtan Kriya, I feel the pressure of gravity differently; the new lightness is obvious, less intense, or like I’ve somehow shed a 50-pound weight from my chest; the winds have passed through me, too, dislodging and flushing what had built up in my joints and thoughts; I feel like, for once, I could be as simple, as proud, as content as a cloud, even, perhaps, the good sun herself.
Kundalini Yoga with Julia Dunbar at Sol19 Yoga Studio. Noon Thursdays; 12:45 p.m. Sundays; Sol19 Yoga Studio, 1350 Ken Pratt Blvd., Longmont, 720-600-4868, sol19yoga.com Pricing: $24 for a drop-in class.
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