Saturday, November 10, 2007

My love affair with kundalini yoga

A friend of mine wrote to me recently saying he’d just read my last entry and was terribly concerned about me. “Are you ok now?” he asks. Yes! I’m fine. At the time I wrote that entry I was already over my depression. Since then my emotional state has been gradually improving, and I think a lot of it has to do with kundalini yoga.

I’ve done many different types of exercise, but what sets yoga apart from all of them is that yoga goes so far beyond what you do on the mat. The mat is where you practice yoga, but the real yoga is life. Yoga gives you a way in, through your body, to dealing with your deepest human challenges.

At that bleak time in my life, yoga gave me just what I needed right from the beginning by giving me something to commit to. You will recall that I had recently recovered from a terrible addiction to cannabis, and I had been so directionless, so lazy and noncommittal toward everything in my life for so long that I thought that my power to commit to anything was lost. I hadn’t done any exercise for months because I couldn’t even commit to that. The one thing I had committed myself to—to teaching a semester at the university—had been sheer agony for me, and I had barely been able to complete it. But last spring something stirred inside of me that genuinely wanted to commit to a regular yoga practice. And as I fulfilled the modest commitments I made to the practice, I began to feel my power again. This, I have learned, is how yoga teaches us the virtue of commitment.

In my last entry I told you a bit about Caroline Myss and how inspired I was by her book Anatomy of the Spirit, where she describes the system of the chakras in a way that is so logical and convincing to me. I was fascinated and very eager to learn more about them as well as have an authentic experience of them. I started meditating on them as Caroline suggested, reminding myself of the truths the chakras contain and how they apply to my life:

7. Live in the present moment.

6. Seek only truth.

5. Surrender will to divine will.

4. Love is divine power.

3. Honor yourself.

2. Honor one another.

1. All is one.

Whether you believe in the existence of chakras or not, I can tell you that attaching these truths to the respective areas of the body is a marvelous tool for internalizing them.

Kundalini energy is discussed a bit in Anatomy of the Spirit, and the illustration Caroline uses for the chakras, the one below, is titled “The Seven Power Centers or Chakras of the Kundalini System.” I just loved this intriguing word, “kundalini”, and wanted to find out more about it.

One day while running errands I noticed that a new yoga studio had opened up just a couple blocks from where I lived. This was not really surprising, as my district of Berlin seems to have more yoga studios than studio apartments nowadays. What caught my attention was that the courses this particular studio was advertising were “Hatha Yoga” and “Kundalini Yoga”. If you think this was a remarkable coincidence, then read to the end. It gets much better.

This was a time in my life when I was leaving my apartment as seldom as possible, when I was very relieved to be working at home, protecting myself from crowds, groups, even the most simple interactions with strangers, all of which exhausted and stressed me, and so it took a while before I was able to get myself to a kundalini class at this studio. If it had been farther away, I may never have gone. When I finally went, the yoga we did surprised me. My previous experiences of yoga had been of holding poses for long periods of time. Instead, we did repetitive movements which brought up my heart rate and caused me to sweat. One exercise worked my shoulder muscles as hard as I had ever worked them before with weights. We were training much more than just flexibility. I wanted more of it.

I wanted more without having to attend classes (this is something I still battle with internally, which I’ll talk more about later). The teacher, though very nice, had explained precious little about kundalini theory and why we were doing the exercises. I went to You Tube to try and find some demonstrations of kundalini yoga which would be more enlightening. There weren’t very many at all, but there were two clips of a longer video with a teacher called Gurmukh. Her unbelievably exquisite and youthful voice had an American accent, yet she wore long, white, flowing fabrics and a big white turban in a style more evocative of India than America. She explained that she was a Sikh, but that you could come to kundalini yoga from any religion or from no religion and reap tremendous benefits. She was very sincere and I trusted her immediately.

When you grow up gay, there is something very interesting that happens to your intuition. On the one hand, you develop very sound judgment of character; it becomes a matter of survival recognizing immediately who you can be authentic with, who will abuse you, who will leave you alone, and I am able to say that I have not been conned or deceived often in my life. On the other hand, there is another very important aspect of your intuition that becomes suppressed. You get the message from society that what you really want isn’t good for you. You tell another little boy you love him and he tells you that it’s impossible. You tell your mother you want to be a hairdresser and she tells you “no, you don’t”. You start to believe that you’ll be better off if you deny your nature, if you ignore your intuition. So has it come to pass that I’ve always had goals that I thought I should have, done jobs that I thought I should do, and now at age 34 I am still struggling to figure out what my heart truly desires.

Many of the exercises and meditations you do in kundalini yoga are said to help you develop your intuition, to be able to hear the voice in your heart and be able to follow it. Oh, how I hope that this is really true! Kundalini, how my hopes are pinned on you!

I could only get kundalini yoga videos in the USA, so I ordered Gurmukh’s video as well as two others and had them sent to my parents’ where, it so happened, I planned to spend a couple weeks in April. Upon returning to Berlin, I began doing Gurmukh’s video every day.

Parts of the workout were easy and parts were very, very hard. There were some exercises, like the ones where you shake your arms over your head non-stop for several minutes, that in the first days I couldn’t do without resting in the middle. But after just a few days I knew what to expect and the mental effort wasn’t so exhausting and I was able to make it through the whole thing.

It was on about the third day that something very interesting happened: on a particularly fast-moving exercise I suddenly, completely without warning, burst into tears. I kept going, knowing instinctively that this was supposed to happen, that I was purging myself of something. The next day while doing the workout I cried at exactly the same spot again and continued crying all the way through to the end of the video. I now had first-hand evidence that there was something to this kundalini business.

I was more enchanted than ever with Gurmukh and I ordered her book The Eight Human Talents: Restoring the Balance and Serenity Within You with Kundalini Yoga. To my delight, the book was organized in such a way that each chapter dealt with one of the chakras, the intriguing centers of energy that had drawn me to kundalini yoga. In it she tells remarkable stories of triumph and healing from her life as well as from the lives of her countless students. Like with Caroline Myss, in Gurmukh I have found a teacher who seems so wise and who speaks so much truth to my mind and my heart.

In The Eight Human Talents, the talent Gurmukh focuses on in the naval chakra is that of commitment. She says that strengthening this center will strengthen your ability to commit and making a commitment to doing the yoga, whether intensively or moderately, is part of that strengthening. As an example, Kundalini yoga recommends a 40-day commitment to a practice. It was scary but I decided to make this commitment to doing her video.

As the weeks went by, the workout on Gurmukh’s video became a bit easier, and I was able to perform it with increasing proficiency. This period of time was not a walk in the park, however. I was sad and tired much of the time, and I was sleeping on average eleven hours a night! I was to find out that these seemingly negative consequences of doing the yoga, the crying, the sleeping, etc., were all to be expected as part of the “emotional cleansing” that takes place when negative emotions leave you in order to be replaced by divine energy. What could be more appealing to an idealist like myself than that? And the fact that this happened without me having the slightest knowledge that the phenomenon existed is to me very strong evidence that it does indeed exist.

14 days into my 40-day commitment I got sick and couldn’t do the video one day. The next day I started counting again and eventually I met my commitment to doing Gurmukh’s video for 40 days. This was very important to me because I judged myself as very lazy in other aspects of my life, and this seemed like the only thing I had been able to commit to all year.

Around about the time these forty days were coming to an end, I stumbled upon the website of a huge yoga festival that was going to be taking place in Berlin. I hadn’t been to any classes at all during this time but really wanted to go to this weekend-long event taking place in tents right in the middle of Berlin. It seemed like a great way to learn about other kinds of yoga and to get an idea of what the local yogis were like. There were also many people coming from as far away as India giving talks and workshops which really made my mouth water.

Yet when the day came, I had a hard time dragging myself there. Summer had long since begun but I was spending it mostly at home, happily so. I went feeling very vulnerable, unsure even if I was wearing the right clothes.

The first event I attended was an introductory demonstration of hatha yoga, which I learned a great deal from. It took place in the main tent, the demonstrators on the stage, the audience in folding chairs. I was very relieved not to have to do anything but watch, even able to sit in the dark. My cowardice embarrassed me at the time.

The kundalini yoga class I went to was the next day, conducted out on a lawn by a local teacher and about 40 participants. It was quite challenging but I felt good afterwards, like I was starting to become a part of the festival.

A couple hours later I saw the teacher sitting alone at her booth, not surrounded by questioning students as she had been after the class. I went up to her and told her that I had enjoyed the class and had felt good afterwards. I think maybe the first thing she said to me was, in English, “Where are you from?”

I got that awful feeling I always get, like a fight-or-flight response. You have to understand, I’ve been here in Germany for more than a fifth of my life now and there is really no reason for a native to just start speaking in English to me as if I couldn’t understand German… or as if I had moved my entire life here so that everyone could practice their English with me. Whenever this happens to me, which fortunately isn’t so often anymore, I always feel that my German will never be good enough and I will always be an outsider here.

I told myself that this conversation in English would be a gift from me to her, which is how I deal with this problem nowadays. She asked me where I was doing yoga and I said that I had been doing it mostly at home with Gurmukh’s video. She didn’t approve of this at all, told me I was going about it wrong and needed a teacher. She gave me her card. Then she said, “There’s my teacher standing right behind you.”

I looked over my shoulder and said “Oh, hello!” smiling. The portly man in the turquoise turban and matching chemise didn’t look at me, but said in a very American accent to his devotee:

“It’s like they said at the talk last night, ‘Pick a fucking guru.’”

They exchanged some sort of knowing, communal gaze. I said I had to go home to work and the German teacher asserted mild disbelief that I was obliged to work and said that I would miss the culmination of the whole festival, the 12-gong meditation. I went home, feeling like something of a failure.

The day after I finished doing Gurmukh’s video I started doing Ana Brett and Ravi Singh’s very fine beginners’ kundalini video, which was quite a bit easier than Gurmukh’s. I did the first yoga set for 40 days and then the second set for another 40 days. That was quite a while ago and I’m still practicing every day.

I’m not tired all the time anymore. I sometimes wake up a bit depressed in the morning, but after I’ve done my yoga the depression is gone. I’ve cut way back on eating meat, as Gurmukh describes in her book as a natural consequence of doing yoga. I had been vegetarian before but about ten years ago I became carnivorous again. My new understanding of energy tells me that, if an animal lives in a stressful environment, that stress will permeate all of its cells, all of its atoms, and that stress will be transferred to me when I eat it. I still eat free-range chicken eggs, for example, but I don’t eat any more of the Wurst (cold-cuts, sausages, salami, etc.) I used to consume daily with all its mysterious ingredients and origins. I also got the desire to adopt another yogic practice: getting up early and taking a cold shower before doing the yoga. When you do yoga, you just feel good doing these things.

There has been another development, a desire I have which has to do with the title and theme of this blog, something I think I might like to do with my life, but which I just don’t have the guts to write here. It’s a very fragile and precious hope I have—as precious as the hopes associated with yoga—that I think I may manifest someday. But should I lose interest in it or something, I don’t want to have written it here. It involves a huge commitment, much bigger than doing an hour of yoga every day, and I pray that I will one day be strong enough and sure enough to make it.

That German yoga teacher said one very important thing when I met her: Gurmukh was coming to Berlin!

For almost a whole month there was nothing on the internet about this, but then finally the announcement came that she would teach three classes (which one to take?!) in two days at City Yoga, Berlin. I registered for the second one, “Opening Your Heart to the Subtle Voice Within”, and looked forward to it with great excitement and not a little nervousness.

One day when I was on the internet quenching my thirst for knowledge about kundalini yoga, I came across something which came as something of a shock, yet which I somehow had always expected.

To do kundalini yoga, as I know it, is to put your faith in one certain man, namely one late Yogi Bhajan, who came from what is now Pakistan to the United States in 1968 with the personal mission to train kundalini yoga teachers for the coming Aquarian Age. He found many devotees among the spiritually seeking flower children in California, one of them being Gurmukh. Her book is rife with his quotations and she professes the deepest love and admiration for him. Yogi Bhajan said that kundalini yoga was the most ancient of all yogas and that he was breaking its tradition of secrecy by teaching it publicly because the world needed this super-effective yoga technology in this time when everything is moving faster and faster. Many of his students, like Gurmukh, adopted his Sikh religion. He founded the organization 3HO (Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization) which, with the number of kundalini yoga teachers, has grown and grown.

Yogi Bhajan meeting Pope John Paul

So you’re probably already able to guess what it was that I found in the internet. On a site about cults—a very large site which reports on a great number of cults including Scientology and whatnot—there was some disparaging information about Yogi Bhajan, about his “cult-like” organization 3HO and, most disturbingly for me, about kundalini yoga itself. Someone has written that certain movements are “ballistic”, that others grind the vertebrae, that others are anatomically impossible, and so on. I tried one they described and it did indeed feel awful.

I felt my heart breaking, my hopes dashed. I fell into a depression.

In anticipation of my class with Gurmukh, I considered asking her about this. Certainly she must have been confronted with this information, accusations that her master was a fake, that his yoga wasn’t “real” but a creation of his megalomaniacal mind. The website even had personal testimonies from the children of some devotees who had been sent to 3HO boarding schools in India and claimed that what went on there amounted to abuse, and I knew Gurmukh had sent her own daughter to one of those schools. I wanted to ask her how she was able to have such complete faith in it all. But I knew what she would answer; it was already in her book. She had seen time and time again in both obvious and subtle ways how kundalini yoga had changed the lives of herself and others.

And hadn’t it already changed my life? Hadn’t it given me so much hope?

But what if it was working on me only by the placebo effect?

So what if it was?

Then it only works as long as the illusion of its power stays intact! Now it’s been destroyed.

All at once my back started hurting for the first time since I’d started doing yoga. Sometimes the pain was like a stake straight through my heart center from my spine to my sternum. Pessimism. I knew it was caused by pessimism and an aching heart.

One morning the pain was so bad that I did a double program of yoga, hoping it would help. I was filled with doubt, but the pain went away.

Despite all my doubts, I never thought about giving up yoga or my 40-day commitment to the set I was doing. I took solace in the knowledge that I could always switch to hatha yoga.

My horoscope said that I would receive some information about a lover, and this news would be troubling but necessary, and by the next eclipse I would be able decide whether or not to leave him. Before this eclipse I was to have my class with Gurmukh.

On the day of the class I could hardly think about anything else. I ended up leaving the house early and killing time walking around in City Yoga’s neighborhood. When I finally went in 15 minutes before the class was to start, I was told I was in the wrong location! The class was to take place at the other City Yoga studio a mile away. I freaked at the thought of missing even a minute of the class, at walking in late all breathless and upset. It was Sunday and the tram wasn’t coming for another quarter hour. It took me five minutes to hail a taxi, the driver of which wanted me to tell her how to navigate the way, speaking in a weird German dialect about one-way streets and canals and blah blah blah. I barely kept my cool.

Luckily, Gurmukh was running later than I was, much later in fact, and I had time to fully calm down before she arrived with her husband and gave a talk which I guess lasted about an hour. It was really lovely, just as inspiring as her book had been.


The yoga set we did was, I think, quite advanced because it absolutely kicked my ass! The first exercise worked the back muscles behind the kidneys like I had never worked them before. There were lots of exercises which worked the arms. I had to let them fall a couple times. I couldn’t believe how hard it was. Gurmukh really knew how to motivate us, though, to keep us going. When I was already pouring sweat and my arms were aching like maybe they never had before, there came an exercise where we punched with both fists out to the sides while blowing air out through our mouths. She explained that with every punch we were blowing out our anger, getting rid of it (unfortunately, I can’t explain it as well as she did). After a few punches, entirely unexpectedly, I started to sob, just like in the first week of doing yoga months before. I got very excited about this because I knew it meant it was working. Finally Gurmukh told us to rest in Easy Pose with the backs of our hands on our knees. With my eyes closed, I could feel my hands trembling like mad, really as if someone had been shaking my arms!

Robin, my therapist, says that we tremble when we release traumas. Incidentally, she says that, as far as my whole internal conflict goes regarding the possible inauthenticity of kundalini yoga, that I should listen to my body and do it if it feels good.

After Gurmukh’s class I almost left without approaching her. There were at least 30 people who’d taken the class and many wanted to meet her. I’d brought her book with so that I would have something to say to her if all other words failed me, namely “Would you please autograph my copy?” I changed out of my sweat-saturated t-shirt and thought, no, I have to tell her that she’s been an inspiration to me. I went back into the classroom and waited my turn while she spoke to several admiring women. To one of them she gave some beads, I don’t know the name for them, and I couldn’t really hear what was being said, but the young student was clearly enchanted. So was I. She was just as charming as I’d ever imagined her, and didn’t seem to be the least bit jet-lagged or worried about anything.

Then, feeling totally awkward, I finally recognized that it was now or never to go up and speak to her.

“Can you deal with another admirer?” I said.

She looked genuinely touched by this, which surprised me a bit.

Almost immediately she asked me where I was from, me being probably the only non-German she’d met for days.

Chicago,” I said. “But I’ve been here for seven years.”

“What part of Chicago?” she asked.

Ha, I thought, nobody from Los Angeles has ever heard of it.

“A suburb called Downers Grove.”

Her eyes became huge, as mine soon would, as she exclaimed “I’m from Downers Grove!”

It sounds impossible, but it’s true. She grew up there, just a little over a mile from where I’d grown up, went to what is now North High—my South High hadn’t been built yet—and then performed theatre in Chicago, as I was later to do myself. Only later did she go to the west coast and become the Queen of Kundalini, yoga instructor to the stars.

I was already shaking from the yoga we’d done but after she told me this you could have knocked me over with one little puff of kundalini Breath of Fire.

I’m still trying to figure out what it means. It must mean something. My best guess is that it means I’m on the right track with my life, at least with the yoga. I’m certainly not going to stop doing it now! And if I ever move to LA, that will make four people I know there from back in Illinois.

Very special changes occurred for me in the 40 days before November 4, when I was doing two meditations that Gurmukh e-mailed to me later as part of her workshop. I asked for one to help me silence my inner-critic, the voice that tells me I’m lazy and spoiled and everything, and—should she not be able to find a meditation for that—one to help me find something to be passionate about. I was so happy to be sent one for each of these problems. They weren’t very long and I was able to do them concurrently for 40 days. This time I felt changes already on about day 10, actually. And at the same time the universe dished up great professional and academic challenges for me, which I accepted almost without any fear at all. A year ago I couldn’t commit to anything. Now I am getting up before dawn every morning to do yoga, and have not missed a day since I caught my last cold six months ago. I am working hard on the schoolbooks I’m developing for my publisher, and it’s not agony anymore. I am even taking an internet course in developmental psychology from a university in the U.S. I can’t remember when the last time was that I handled so many tasks. My reward for my work is coming in the most valuable currency of self-efficacy.


沈 一 傑 said...

I am very glad that you finally found something that makes you feel better. As far as yoga concerns, I have totally no idea how wonderful it can be. But one thing I know is that, if you enjoy the things you're doing, it will do you good. The feelings you described in the entry resemble alot to those which I had after I began with my fitness training. Somehow I come to the conclusion that it has something with physical exercises or sports. It can be jogging, aerobics, yogas, or fitness training. The most important thing is you enjoy doing those things. But I guess, yoga involves more spiritual aspects rather than the sports I'm doing. At least, I believe in the power of the minds. I think, if you believe in the things you want or will be, it will eventually happen as long as you believe in it. I can say that from my own experiences.

By the way, good luck with your projects. I look forward to reading your next posts.

Viele liebe Grüße aus Hagen

Dean Sirois said...

I am a friend of Joeseph's and saw your link while reading about his trip in asia and just wanted to say keep up the good work! You should be very proud of the work you have done. It is an inspiration to me to continue my own journey of exploration.