Kundalini Yoga at Karma Yoga Center
By: Carly Dresselhaus
My first experience, a couple years ago, at Karma Yoga Studio in Cambridge did not involve yoga. I was told by a friend that it was a great café for someone like me who is really interested in the traditional aspects and lifestyle of tea-drinking. Their tea is all loose-leaf and fair-trade, mostly organic. And their presentation and atmosphere is Zen-inspired. I had a great tea experience there in the sunny lounge and wanted to return anyway. So with the motivation of broadening my yoga experience, I figured since I had a good experience in their café that it would be safe to assume that their yoga studio classes would be just as satisfactory.
I knew what to expect atmosphere-wise, but I still explored the place a little before the class, saw the beautiful and impeccably clean bathroom and locker-room, the huge mirrors and the antique rugs, the lovely watercolor circle paintings on the walls. I don’t know what other yoga centers are like, but even though Karma has an earthy feel to it, I feel that more traditional centers would be a lot less concerned with interior design. Never-the-less it was an aesthetically pleasing place. The classroom itself had beautiful wood floors and thick glass windows that let the morning sunlight infuse the studio.
Karma Yoga offers so many varieties of yoga, some of which I had never heard of such as Forrest, Physioyoga, and Elemental Yoga, which seem to have been tailor-made here in the USA, more specifically at Karma Yoga. On their website they stated ”no assembly-line Mcyoga”. Though I trust that their variations would be OK to try, I wanted to try a more traditional and historically rooted form of yoga, and as a creative person and one who believes in compassion and that by emanating positive energy one can positively influence those around you even if just a little, I have always been drawn to the philosophy of Kundalini Yoga but knew very little about it.
A little history of Kundalini: It was popularized in western culture by yogi bhajhan, ph.d, who revealed it because of his belief that it is everyone’s birthright to be happy and healthy. Kundalini is a fairly comprehensive form of yoga, as it incorporates asanas, pranayama, meditation and prayer. The movements are not difficult postures but fluid repetitive movements that stimulate the circulatory system and loosen the spine. Though it is a more spiritual practice than other forms, it is not religious. Some reading I found online bordered on new age, and mentioned a “mother goddess” in relation to kundalini, but for the most part, it was spoken of as an ancient science.
The instructor, Shelly conducted the class very gently, without pushing on us any new age goddess theories, but spoke of beauty and love and internal energy.
I read up on Shelly on Karma’s informative and beautifully designed website.
“Shelley Loheed / Sahaj Kaur received her certification as a Kundalini Yoga Teacher in 2000. She brings a deep love of yoga and 17 years of experience in studying both Hatha and Kundalini yoga. She is currently assisting with the Kundalini Yoga Teacher training in Millis, MA. She has been teaching yoga classes in Cambridge and Boston for the last 8 years. Her classes are open to all, both beginners and advanced, and are powerful and dynamic.”
She has her own website (http://www.shelleyloheed.com), and I found it interesting that she was raised in Indiana where I was born and raised, and she teaches yoga and meditation to artists. She herself is an artist and does beautiful improvisational drawings and paintings. As an art student, I am now interested in speaking to her about this and wish I had known sooner.
Shelly was dressed in pale clothing and legwarmers and wore on her head a traditional white turban indicative of a kundalini devotee. There were about seven others in the room, two men, the others women, most seemingly early 30s to 50, white, as I noted. Everyone kept to themselves mostly, perhaps because it was early morning, but perhaps for the same reason as I: besides being new to the experience I was also in an introspective state of mind. Molina Indian blankets hand-woven in Mexico were offered. I bought one after class (typical American consumer that I am).
The class began with Shelly giving us a few moments to stretch on our own. The first thing she said was to make sure we took our socks off because of a certain sensitivity of the feet and the necessity of their connection to the ground. She then guided us through a few sun salutations and up-and downward facing dog, even though, as she said, that is not common in kundalini practice. She said herself that she practices vinyasa and other practices of yoga to support her primary focus of kundalini meditation. The practice (consisting mostly of Kriyas, mudras, pranayama and chanting) itself is very vigorous and she said practicing vinyasa yoga helps with that.
After the Asanas we started with a chant “ong, nomo, guru dev nomo” each word having its own tonality. She shared with us that the vibrations of the Sanskrit language elevate the mind to a higher state of consciousness. This answered my question of language. In America very few people understand Hindi or Sanskrit, but not knowing the translation does not seem to be detrimental if it is the vibrational tones of the words that are beneficial. She shared some of the meanings of certain mantras throughout class (sat meaning truth, etc.). She did talk about the importance of chanting in Kundalini yoga. We have to be aware of the things we say because they will manifest themselves. That is something I have always felt to be true and hearing her say it in context made me glad that I experienced kundalini.
Besides chanting, breath is an especially important aspect of Kundalini yoga. Almost every kriya we did involved breath of fire, panting through the nose from the diaphragm. The breath and chanting was incorporated into each movement, or kriya. It began with a series of repetitive, gentle but rapid spinal movements, breathing in one way and out the next powerfully creating a rhythm.
She expressed the importance of precision, maintaining the root lock (drawing in abdomen and sacrum) for stability and remaining grounded and connected to the earth. She kept suggesting we focus on the eyebrow center, keep the heart open, and listening to the body. Be aware whether it is your body or your mind (ego) telling you that a certain movement or activity is too much.
During frog pose my ego was definitely whining. Supposedly in kundalini it is considered that to do 100 of these squat-forward-bend routines while chanting means you are fully alive, 52, half-alive. We did 26, child’s pose, and 26 more. I definitely felt at least half alive, or at least my hips did and they were screaming.
My favorite part was a kriya which was a lifting of the arms and rolling back to a lying down position concentrating on the navel and keeping the feet activated while practicing breath of fire through a rolled tongue. She explained that the metallic taste in the mouth meant the body was detoxifying, which I found fascinating.
I did some researching on kundalini and kriya yoga (kundalini is the philosophy, kriya the act) online and in Hatha Yoga Pradipika. I found a lot on the “kundalini syndrome”, and it seems as if the rising of kundalini can be dangerous and negative symptomatic in some cases where the “subtle body” has blockages or is not strengthened. There are many stories of people experiencing psychosis, though it was when the ascending of kundalini was done unintentionally (near death experiences, birthing, meditation, drugs) or they were not properly prepared to handle the energy that was released. This reinforces the idea of the personal guru who is able to sense when one is ready and to guide one through the kundalini practice. It also made me think again about the necessity of the cleansing techniques to unobstruct the flow of energy through the nadis.
At the end we practiced what seemed like it was going to be yoga nidra only with music. The first time it was only music but this Saturday it was sounds of birds, water, shaken instruments and drums and I think I recall a flute, along with a chanting of lam, in an incredibly low bass voice, and I noticed the sounds to be more earthy and primitive, and as the chanting went on to repeat ram, vam, yam, etc. the tone got softer, the sounds less primitive, and ending with aum that sounded like the wind, with no tone at all. It wasn’t instructed but having done some research on the chakras and kundalini I was aware that each sound corresponded to a different chakra, beginning with the muladharra chakra and ascending. I let my awareness focus on the sound vibration as if I were feeling it in the energy center it corresponded to. I wish now that I had asked Shelley whether that was a good way to practice that meditation.
We ended with sitting in prayer position and listening to a song that went something like “may the long shining sun shine upon you may it guide your way Om…”. I wasn’t sure how to feel about it at first, but the second time I didn’t allow myself to analyze it and just concentrated on the beauty of it. I actually felt tears rising in me. We sat in silence and Shelley asked us to reflect and be grateful to ourselves for bringing ourselves there and to carry the love that we feel with us the rest of the day and throughout the weekend.
I am very glad that I experienced Kundalini and hope to practice it often (though Shelley explained that it was not necessary to practice Kundalini as frequently as other practices). I did feel more open and compassionate, and loving of complete strangers, and I feel like people reacted to me differently all day; I got more positive feedback and had more focused conversations.