Wondered why I’ve stopped the chanting during the Kundalini sessions? This will explain why.
Those of you that have practised Kundalini Yoga with me over the years know that traditionally the class starts and ends with chanting. Since moving online I haven’t been teaching like this and I know that a few of you have been missing it. Here is the reason why I’ve stayed away from it recently.
My path to Kundalini
I first took a yoga class in 1993 – it was Hatha yoga and I absolutely loved it. I would hound the teacher for books about yoga philosophy in a quest for deeper knowledge. I had been on the path for inner knowledge since university where I studied philosophy, Eastern philosophy in particular. By the time I took my first yoga class I was already practising Tantric meditation via the teachings of Swami Muktananda. These two disciplines combined introduced me to the idea of Kundalini energy.
But it took until 2009 for me to encounter Kundalini Yoga. Bizarrely it hadn’t come across my radar until then – I had studied Kundalini via Tantra but had not realised that there was a branch of yoga dedicated to it. From the first moment I was absolutely hooked. I was never interested in using yoga as acrobatics or even for relaxation – for me it was always about using the body to access deeper states of consciousness. Often Hatha practice frustrated me because it didn’t go far enough. Now here was a practice that did all of this and more, drawing in bioenergetics, psychology and philosophy. It took me about 6 months to realise I wanted to learn to teach it.
I came to Kundalini via Ravi Singh and Ana Brett – anyone who has come across them will know that they are pretty normal in their way of dressing and presenting Kundalini. However, that wasn’t the scenario that greeted me when I signed up for teacher training! Back when I trained, outside of India, the only way to qualify to teach Kundalini Yoga was to learn Kundalini as taught by Yogi Bhajan.
Yogi Bhajan, yoga master or fraud?
Yogi Bhajan was a civil servant from India who travelled to the USA in the 60s and started teaching Kundalini to the hippies, people whacked out on drugs and those looking for enlightenment. He quickly became a really popular teacher and established ashrams, training organisations (such as 3HO) and businesses such as Yogi Tea and Akal Security.
By the time I came to train In Kundalini as taught by Yogi Bhajan it was basically a cult. Yogi Bhajan was a Sikh and had tied in a lot of Sikh practice to the original Tantric yoga. People were expected to wear white robes and turbans to teach (and to practice in some cases). Yogi B was revered as almost a God-like figure – we were not allowed to question his wisdom despite some of it being absurd and not scientifically true. Those of you who know me will know that I’m not shy in pointing out discrepancies! Any questions I raised were quickly dismissed and I was referred to the manual, a large, rambling work that was pieced together from the lectures of Yogi Bhajan, clearly by someone who had no knowledge of yoga beyond what he’d been told by his guru.
I quickly became persona non grata on the training – everyone else seemed happy to wear white and took to turban wearing very quickly. I didn’t want to become a Sikh – I wanted to learn about Kundalini practices. I wore other colours. To pass the training I wore a white woolie hat in an act of defiance. I found it really weird how quickly my fellow trainees started dressing in this peculiar uniform and why they accepted all of this without question.
By the second weekend of the training I wanted to quit. It was quite clear that what I wanted so desperately to learn was being taught by people who didn’t understand it themselves and who, quite frankly, did not seem to be on the spiritual path at all. What I’ve always loved about yoga is self-enquiry – you go deep within yourself to discover what is true. You question everything. Yet on this training we weren’t to question anything. We were actually told at one point that if we messed with Kundalini Yoga we would be re-incarnated as a cockroach!
Alex, in his ever wonderfully practical way, talked me into staying the course on more that one occasion. He told me to put my head down, get the qualification and then do my own thing. I’m not sure I kept my head down but I stuck at it, did enough to avoid being kicked off the course, and mostly kept a lid on it. I had to sign a declaration on qualifying saying among other things that I would only teach with my head covered and I would never again drink coffee. I signed it with an espresso in hand.
Breaking the rules
I was never part of the Kundalini community. As soon as I qualified, other than a few White Tantric Yoga events, I distanced myself from them. I registered with Yoga Alliance which meant I could never be “struck off” as a teacher for refusing to cover my head etc. And I studied with a lot of other wonderful teachers who were nothing to do with the Yogi Bhajan world and qualified as a teacher in other styles of yoga.
I have always taught Kundalini as I wanted. I have never questioned the power of the practice – experience has shown me that it works. Through studying ancient Tantric, Buddhist, and Hatha texts I’ve started to understand where they come from. Through studying bioenergetics, anatomy and physiology, trauma therapy, breath, TCM and other styles of yoga, I’ve started to understand how they work.
But I kept the chants at the start and the end of the class – Ong Namo Guru Dev Namo, Aad Guray Namey… and Sat Nam. Now I’m not musical and I’m not big on chanting, other than japa (monotonous mantra repetition during meditation). But the chants for me provided a sense of ritual – it wasn’t what the words meant, more the act of chanting out loud. It was a way of delineating the class from the world outside. It was a way to harmonise the class, to breathe together. And I think that a lot of people attending the class found the familiarity of it comforting.
The Dark Side of Yogi Bhajan’s Kundalini World.
Rumours about Yogi Bhajan’s reputation had been circulating for a long time before I trained. I found them on the Internet -they would appear every now and then before being taken down by one of his organisations. Mostly allegations of sexual assault, there were also allegations of fraud and questions about the legitimacy of his yoga pedigree. Of course I asked about this on the teacher training. The tutor merely said that they were untrue and were being perpetuated by people with an agenda to stop the spread of Kundalini Yoga. They genuinely believed that their organisations were a threat to the Establishment and that the latter was seeking to discredit them.
In 2018 Alex and I travelled to Germany to build a gong. On the course we met two of the big names in the Kundalini world – Mehtab and Laura Benton. Mehtab had studied directly with Yogi Bhajan and was the first approachable person I had met in the Kundalini world so I was able to ask a lot of questions. Mehtab explained that he had left the ashram when it started to become very authoritarian and very Sikh in orientation. Marriages were arranged and the original spirit of the practice had been lost in a pile of rules and regulations. It also turned out that the turban wearing grew out of individuals hiding in the ashrams from the FBI! What better way to hide than to take a spiritual name, grow a big beard and start wearing robes and a turban.
In many ways meeting Mehtab was an absolute blessing, I started to understand and with that came huge freedom. It also prepared me for what was to follow. Turns out the allegation about Yogi Bhajan had all been true. Rather than a spiritual leader he was an egotistical sex pest.
Truth laid bare
At the start of this year a book was released – Premka: White Bird in a Golden Cage: My Life With Yogi Bhajan by Pamela Dyson. It laid it out there for all to see. It’s a touching book and is quite clearly an honest account. And this time the Kundalini machine was not able to hide it from view. Other people came forward. There was an investigation and even more skeletons came tumbling out of the closet. Sexual assault, fraud, child abuse, drug trafficking, the allegations were intense. The story about Yogi Bhajan’s yoga lineage was also called into question. Rather than being a child prodigy, it appears he stole a lot of his ideas from various sources, fusing Sikh practises (which actually a lot of Sikhs objected to) with tantric yoga. He also made a lot of stuff up.
I had many sleepless nights over this. When it first hit at the start of the year I wasn’t surprised but I was horrified to be associated with it in any way. The teacher that trained me, Shiv Charan Singh, actually dismissed the allegations and effectively gas-lighted the victims. As a minimum I like my spiritual teachers to show compassion and good judgement. He showed neither.
After months of wrangling with this, I’m now much more at peace. In many ways it has freed me completely to pursue my own path. Luckily I wasn’t part of Yogi Bhajan’s Kundalini world so this didn’t really impact me too much, unlike people I know who have built their entire teaching career on his reputation. The practices I teach have their roots in ancient traditions or modern psychology or science. They work and I’m happy to pass that on. I never wore all white or a turban, or extolled Yogi B as my guru. I thought his rules were stupid from the outset and barely stuck to them.
But I did use his chants. And I can’t bring myself to do that anymore. I have learned that Yogi Bhajan either made up a lot of the chants or he used Sikh chants. And most Sikhs appear to be uncomfortable with them being used in this way. So the chanting has gone from my classes and will not be returning in the form we used before.
In recent weeks we have used the odd Om to end the class. And that will continue and develop. Sound is a wonderful part of the practice – it is a great way to discharge, to stimulate the Vagus nerve, the boost the health of the throat and glandular system. But please bear with me as I find my way back to sound and find chants which I am comfortable teaching you.
Ironically the chant we used to use a lot – satnam – from the Sikh tradition, is all about Truth. Perhaps this is why students of Yogi Bhajan never saw him practise Kundalini Yoga, ultimately failing to practice what he preached, tripped up by his own sense of self-importance and unwilling to look at his own true self.
Like this post? You might also like my Substack blog, The Reluctant Yogi.
We offer a Teacher Training Foundation (220 hours YAPTA) in traditional Kundalini Yoga, not the Yogi Bhajan version. Click here for more information.