By: Nancy Nekonejad
Nancy Nekonejad is a pharmacist with a doctorate degree from the University of Southern California. As an avid health advocate, her philosophy of wellness is to nourish not only the body, but also the mind and spirit so as to create an inner system of balance. Here, she writes about kundalini yoga.
Over the last hundred years, the ancient practice of yoga has become more mainstream in American culture than apple pie. While it is estimated that over 55 million people will be practicing it by 2020, there is still more to learn about this wellness game changer. For starters, all yoga is not created equal. There are different flavors to choose from. Hatha yoga is the most popular western type, focusing mainly on physical techniques. Bikram yoga shares the physical aspect of hatha, but also incorporates a heat system. Kundalini yoga encompasses a style of yoga with strong mental and spiritual components. Often referred to as the “mother of yoga,” this branch emphasizes enlightenment.
What is Kundalini Yoga?
The word kundalini is a Sanskrit term which means “circular” or “coiled.” To appreciate how kundalini yoga works, we are going to imagine a dormant, coiled snake at the base of your spine. Don’t panic just yet. The snake represents an accumulation of dormant divine and cosmic energy waiting to release power and consciousness. During the kundalini experience or “awakening, this energy is activated, rising through each chakra center of the body. Chakra centers are energy points of the body that begin at the base of the spine (root chakra) and move up towards the head (crown chakra). Each of the seven chakras corresponds to a gland in the body and is associated with different emotions. As the coiled energy progresses through the different chakras, different levels of awakening are experienced. With the ultimate awakening being activation of the crown chakra, this can lead to a profound transformation of consciousness and even spiritual liberation. The goal of kundalini yoga is to awaken and raise awareness into one’s inner self.
The Practice of Kundalini Yoga
As compared to other types of yoga, there are no levels or experience needed to begin kundalini practice. Rather than perfecting poses, the kundalini technique combines breath, hand gestures, eye-focus, mantras, body locks and posture to bring balance to the mind, body and soul.
The typical components of a Kundalini Yoga practice include:
1. Pranayama: The practice of breath control.
Prana is a flow of energy into the body. The breath contains “prana,” which is the life force. The mind follows the breath. As you breathe more deeply, slowly, steadily and calmly, you have more power over your mind. When breathing becomes rapid and irregular, the mind also becomes distressed. In kundalini practice, breath manipulation is used as a tool to achieve a change in consciousness and to activate the kundalini energy.
2. Asana: Specific body postures in yoga practice.
The postures or “asanas” practiced during kundalini yoga can be like those in hatha yoga such as, the downward dog or forward bends. However, there are many that are not so common. Each specific asana is considered an exercise that isolates specific muscles, increases circulation and manipulates specific points to improve organ function. As we practice various postures, we create various angles with our bodies. These angles then open energy pathways and re-direct energy flow. Lifting the arms to a 60-degree angle works on the heart and lungs, while lifting the legs up 0 to 6 inches affects the sex glands. During kundalini practice, asanas may be held for longer periods of time when compared to other yoga practices. Certain postures may not be comfortable for all individuals. It is important to remind yourself that the goal is not perfecting the posture but rather to experience the effects of it.
3. Mudra: The position of the hand.
Each area of the hand is linked to a certain area of the body. As the fingers arrange in different positions, curling, crossing and stretching, different messages can be sent to the body. Our hands have pressure points and are an energy map of our health.
4. Bandha: Muscular locks.
Body locks during kundalini yoga direct the flow of “prana” and “apana.” Prana is the energy coming into the body while apana is the energy leaving the body to be cleansed. Balancing the prana and apana forces allows the channel of energy along the spine to open, awakening the kundalini energy. Practicing bandhas cleanses the body and protects the alignment of the spine.
5. Drishti: A specific point of focus for the eyes.
Focusing the gaze is not only used to decrease distractions, but more importantly, it applies pressure to major glands as well as the brain. Staring at the tip of the nose for instance balances the nerve channels of the spine.
6. Mantra: A repeated sound, word, syllable or phrase used to affect consciousness.
Words have power. Sounds have power. Together the combination can be incredible! At the start of a kundalini class, the Adi Mantra, “Ong Namo Guru Dev Namo,” is chanted three times. The purpose of this chant is to remove the ego within us and to tune into our intuitive mind. Mantras used daily can be an effective way of centering and gaining peace.
7. Meditation: The practice of training awareness and attention.
Kundalini yoga meditations use a combination of breath, focus, mantra and mudra. There are many meditations to choose from with some specifically for reducing stress, balancing chakras and even helping with addictions.
The various combinations of these seven components during kundalini practice make up what is called a “kriya.” A kriya is a series of postures, breath and sound that work toward a specific outcome. Practicing a specific kriya initiates physical and mental changes that affect the body. There are over 5,000 different kriyas including ones that support the liver, stimulate the pituitary gland, increase spinal flexibility, etc. Each kriya has a different effect and is tailored to a desired result.
The Benefits of Kundalini Yoga
The flow of energy throughout our bodies affects how we feel, how we think and our overall health. Our energy channels can become blocked as a result of stress, injury, trauma or unhealthy living habits. It is believed that a lack of flow from a blockage can cause various imbalances, emotional instability and disease. As kundalini yoga aims to awaken and activate these energy channels, it can have a positive impact on health. Through various kriyas, kundalini yoga can balance the glandular system, strengthen the nervous system, expand lung capacity and purify the blood.
With respect to health benefits, kundalini practice may offer practitioners a bit more bang for their buck. In particular, glandular system balancing is key. Here’s why. Glands are organs in the body that produce and release vital chemical substances for specific functions. The glandular system acts as a gatekeeper to aging, metabolism, immunity, emotions and even beauty. Kundalini yoga can help stabilize glands responsible for these processes.
There are specific kundalini practices that directly stimulate the thyroid gland (responsible for hormone production) and the pituitary gland (the master gland that controls most other glands) so that they are functioning properly and optimally. In addition to our glandular system, our nervous system has a significant impact on our overall well-being. The nervous system has many tasks, some of which include regulating breathing, movement, digestion and body temperature. By strengthening our nervous system, we can manage stress better, sleep better, repair and regenerate cells and reach an overall healthier state of being.
Whether you decide to practice kundalini yoga or another form of yoga, practice what you love and what makes you feel good. Energy is real, so put out what you want to get back!