“Somewhere inside of me a creative genius is just dying to get out.” How many of us have thought this or a version of it? The ultimate desire may differ — you may want to be a master chef, sublime parent, compassionate healer or just a better person — but the essence is the same: many of us are halfway along the path to being the person we believe we are meant to be. Taking that last part of the journey, where we are able to unlock our full potential, however, can sometimes feel like a bewildering task.
Followers of kundalini yoga, which had its genesis in 1969 when Yogi Bhajan first introduced the concept to Western audiences, believe the secret can be found in the practice of a holistic form of yoga that encompasses a focus on breath, poses, chanting and meditation, ultimately leading the practitioner to their true self.
The word “kundalini” translates as “the curl of the lock of hair of the beloved”, which, if you visualise this curl sitting at the base of all the chakras, becomes a poetic metaphor to describe the flow of energy and unconsciousness that the practice unlocks within the practitioner.
Yogic breathing is also known as pranayama. Prana means breath or life force and yama means natural law. When we alter our breathing patterns, we can begin to release habitual patterns of emotion that become “coded” at a cellular level in the body and mind. Pranayam is the science of breath. It is all about controlling the movement of prana or breath through the use of breathing techniques. Kundalini yoga employs a wide range of pranayam, utilising the rhythm and depth of the breath to affect and manage different states of health, wellness, consciousness and emotion. We use our breath in a specific way, which mixes the prana and apana in the central channel through our breath and bandhas or locks to balance our mind and body.
Yogi Bhajan taught that the mind follows the breath. The key to controlling the mind is in controlling the breath. Some of the breathing techniques use in kundalini yoga include:
1. Breath of fire. This is a rapid two to three breaths per second through the nose, pumping from the navel point. With this breath, the inhalation and exhalation are equal and there is no pause between them. One of the best ways to get a sense of this breath is to think of a dog panting with an open mouth. You can practise it now.
Open your mouth and stick out your tongue and practise breathing in and out by pumping your navel centre. Now practise this same breath by breathing through your nose with your mouth closed. In most cases, unless otherwise taught, breath of fire is done with closed mouth, breathing through the nose. Start with one minute and build up slowly. While pregnant or menstruating, substitute long, deep breathing for breath of fire.
The breath of fire cleanses the blood, the mucous lining of the lungs and all the cells. It helps to expand the lung capacity. It warms and rejuvenates the body and increases oxygen delivery to the brain, thus rejuvenating the brain’s neurons.
2. Long, deep breathing. By taking deep yogic breaths you can expand your lungs to about eight times their normal size by breathing into your belly, diaphragm and upper lungs. Each part of the breath expansion is distinct. When all three areas are combined, you have a complete long, deep breath.
Sit straight and begin to inhale into your abdomen. The breath will expand each area. Then move the breath up to your diaphragm or chest area and then finish with your breath reaching up to your clavicle bones. Start your exhalation by relaxing the clavicle, then slowly releasing the breath in your chest and, finally, the abdomen goes in to force out any remaining air.
This breathing stimulates the brain chemicals known as endorphins that help fight depression. It helps you to feel calmer, helps to regulate the body’s pH balance and it energises and increases vitality.
3. Alternative nostril breathing. The simple mechanism of closing or opening one of the nostrils exercises the two sides of the brain. The left hemisphere is connected to the right nostril and the right hemisphere to the left nostril.
Sit with a straight spine and use the thumb of the right hand to close the right nostril and the index finger or ring finger of the right hand to close the left nostril. Close the right nostril and gently inhale fully through the left nostril. Then close the left nostril and exhale through the right nostril. Then inhale through the right nostril. Close the right nostril and exhale through the left, and continue repeating this pattern. Start at one minute then increase the time as it feels appropriate.
Blocking the right nostril and breathing out of the left nostril is associated with calmness, empathy, the moon energy and sensitivity. Blocking the left nostril and breathing through the right helps to create concentration, willpower and alertness and gives you a clear, focused mind. This breathing technique creates whole brain functioning by balancing both hemispheres. It is both integrating and grounding and leads to a deeper sense of wellbeing and harmony on all levels.
Everything in kundalini yoga is done in a specific order and time frame for optimum results. Your eyes are closed during the class and focused at the brow point, or Third Eye, unless otherwise instructed. This works directly on the pituitary gland (master gland) and intuitive centre or chakra.