Can you take the Sikh religion out of Kundalini Yoga?

In the course of our Teachers Training sessions, I think one of the Sada Sats – either Kaur or Singh – mentioned that somebody had asked Yogi Bhajan if you could do Kundalini Yoga with other religions. My recollection is that he said yes, you could use any religion, but he’d used the Sikh religion because he thought it was the easiest fastest path to God.

I suspect he also chose it because it was what he’d known best. The research people have done suggests that he combined his Sikh meditation training with Maharaj Virsa Singh with his Yoga training with Swami Dhirendra Brahmachari. His Mahan Tantric training, legend tells us, came from Sant Hazara Singh. Trilochan Singh, while obviously confused about the substance of Yogi Bhajan’s teachings, claimed that the Sikh religion not only has no interest in any form of yoga, but Guru Nanaak actually said it wasn’t necessary, and discouraged it completely. I’ve frequently been told that Indian Sikhs are horrified at the idea of anyone practicing yoga in a Gurdwara, while it’s common among 3HO.

My experience has been that Indian Sikhs often seem less than interested in teaching Americans about their religion. They seem to look askance with bemused expressions when I tell them of my – to them elementary – interest, although sometimes they have said they appreciate how Yogi Bhajan has introduced their faith to westerners. The language barrier – and my difficulty sometimes even understanding their English accents – makes it hard to really know how much of what I’m practicing is authentic Sikh practice. Their morning banis are different from the Aquarian Sadhana mantras Yogi Bhajan prescribed.

While I’ve found solace and inspiration in my 3HO Sikh indoctrination, often feeling, believing, and experiencing that Sikh chants have a substantial positive impact upon my life, I’m also starkly aware that I have only a dim understanding of what I’m chanting. No matter how much of my life I spend deepening this knowledge, I doubt I will ever have a full experience of it.

A Google search for kundalini yoga combined with other religions reveals as much whackery as you could dream up; Christian fundamentalists who swear the bedevilment of those who practice any yoga, studios teaching Christian yoga, confusing tales of disruptive kundalini awakening, Iyengar’s dismissal of Kundalini yoga as unhealthy; the more links you read, the less clarity you end up with.

I remember talking with the Chaplain at Calvary Hospital while my dad was in hospice there. She was quite interested in my Sikh and Yoga morning sadhana practices, and wanted to know more about them. She made a remark about how she was often skeptical of religious practice in a language foreign to the practitioner, which I thought somewhat amusing coming from a Catholic, when so much of the liturgy there seems to be in Latin. But there’s a point of truth in the statement. The Sikh perspective I’ve heard is that by making the same sounds in Gurmukhi that Guru Nanaak made while chanting, we physically aspire to experience the same state of enlightenment he experienced while chanting Japji. I’m “on board” with that. For some reason I was drawn to Japji from the start.

Yet I’m left wondering if there’s a way to combine the Kundalini Yoga Yogi Bhajan taught with Christianity, Judiasm, Tibetan Buddhist, or Islamic doctrine or practice. Could the scriptures from each be incorporated into the yoga sets and meditations? How would you choose which to use or replace? Would this undertaking require the deep religious experience of a saint within that religion in order to make the right choices? If the more open-minded perspective that we’re all worshiping the same God using different practices is true, then it must be possible. But how would you go about it?

The ideal yoga manual

In my last post I complained a bit about the binding of the Sadhana Guidelines manual:

The more I practice, the more I realize I want things that most manuals just don’t offer.

Durability is one of the first issues that comes to mind; the Sadhana Guidelines manual isn’t the only one that falls apart quickly. You need to be able to leave your manual lying open while you follow it, and the plastic bindings also tend to fall apart, or the pages tear.

Set length: One of the first things I want to know is how long the set takes, and there’s never a total time duration given in any manuals I’ve seen. I’m sort of baffled that no one has addressed this.

Maybe it’s my virgo moon, but I really want to sort my sets by the things they’re supposed to target. That’s really hard to do in a manual that includes lots of different types of sets. Once I get a pile of manuals, it’s hard to remember which one had a certain set I liked. I deal with this by xeroxing the table of contents from all of them, and then I can look through those pages to find things more easily.

A lot of 3HO newsletters included sets in them, but it’s even more difficult to find sets among them, and you can’t really pull the set out of the newsletter. You could xerox each one and keep them in a folder, which I sometimes do, but that’s not terribly efficient either.

Music: Time and time again, a set will refer to a piece of music that was used when the set was taught. A lot of them are impossible to find, or collecting them is prohibitively expensive. I really wish the manuals would give you the option of buying a CD with the music used in the sets in the manual! Now, of course, this is where teachers really get to apply their creativity; frequently the music they choose instead is much more interesting, but I’d still like to know what the original selection was.

Shorthand for teaching: Once you learn a set, you don’t need to read all the instructions each time; you really just need a name for the pose if there is one, or an illustration, and a duration. The older teachers frequently used shorthand notation, like BOF or LDB (breath of fire, long deep breathing) for their personal notes, which makes a lot of sense.

Physical limitations or alternatives: some teachers have added alternative exercises for people with injuries, and this is a great practice.

What else do YOU think an ideal manual could offer?

7 Part Set for Addictions, Eating Disorders, and Compulsive Behavior

I came across this set  in a text that described the set but didn’t include instructions for people to do the exercises, so I collected previously published instructions for each exercise where possible, and added new photos and text where I couldn’t find the instructions.

Update, January 2015:
I received the following threat from the author of the book, so have removed it. I still have to run across anyone else who’s done the set. The book isn’t written as a manual, so that’s probably the real problem. My recollection was that it had more of a clinical orientation.

Mr. Arthur O. Kegerreis,
Today I noticed your link below and your post to your blog with my copyright-protected 7-part specific sequence using Kundalini yoga meditation (“Treating the Addictive, Impulse Control, and Eating Disorders). This is a strict violation of my copyrights, with the copyrights clearly stated in both of the W. W. Norton & Co., Inc. books where I have this published, and no doubt where you obtained the material. It does not matter if you use your own pictures and wording. You are still violating the copyright by republishing the sequence. I hope you are aware of that. I pursue all people with my attorney when my copyrights are violated. I am requesting that you take this down immediately. If you do not, I will pursue you legally for financial damages and the violation of my copyrights. 

David Shannahoff-Khalsa

Update, May 2014: A couple of people have asked what the exact title of the book this came from is. I first found it at Golden Bridge Yoga, but didn’t see it today when I returned to get the details. Golden Bridge has scaled down their bookstore significantly since their relocation. After a bit of web sleuthing, I’m pretty sure I originally found the set in “Kundalini Yoga Meditation: Techniques Specific for Psychiatric Disorders, Couples Therapy, and Personal Growth” (Hardcover) by David Shannahoff-Khalsa.

The book didn’t include diagrams for the set, so I put the pdf download together myself, as most of the postures, mudras, and short kriyas that comprise it are available in other manuals. I tried to match the typography style of other similar manuals as well. I’ll have to update the title page to credit the authors of the book and manuals.

Shakti Pad: The Stage of the Practitioner

From The Five Stages On The Path of Wisdom

in the older, now defunct, Teacher Training Notebook

The third stage of the practitioner is the most crucial, transitional, and challenging of all the stages. The choices made in this stage and the transformation of the student’s capacities that occurs determines whether the practitioner will progress toward mastery, stay at apprentice levels or quit the study altogether. It is a stage at which either a transformation or a discontinuity occurs. In the spiritual disciplines, shakti pad is known as the test of ego or the test of power.

At this stage the student has accumulated a lot of experience. He has tested the rules, stored up conscious and unconscious abilities and habits, and is overwhelmed by possibilities. What is required of the practitioner is the ability to choose a goal, fix on a motivation, and consciously commit to a set of values. The practitioner must also develop the ability to establish a hierarchy of choices. The practitioner must have a faculty to prioritize complex sets of tasks and decisions and to notice what is significant to the goal and what is not.

Imagine the driver who has learned the basic skill of guiding the car as a novice. He learned the art of driving and explored many different routes and types of vehicles as an apprentice. Now as a practitioner a new level of skill is demanded.

How do you choose between the many possibilities you are tactically qulified to execute? As a practitioner, you must choose a strategy. You must assume responsibility to choose between all the trails that take you along your journey. The driver may have 50 ways to drive into Boston. Putting all those choices in mind without a method to restrict and direct a decision would be confusing, overwhelming, and time consuming. The practitioner instead chooses the way into Boston based on a particular goal or value for the trip.

Each route satisfies a different value. Route 1 is the “quickest” and “saves time.” Route 2 is the “most beautiful.” Route 3 is the most “social” since it goes by friends’ houses. Route 4 is the most “historical” as it goes by monuments. Route 5 is the most “challenging” due to the varied landscapes and driving conditions.

The choice of value and of route must occur before leaving for the trip. If you start on the route of beauty, you can not change and still accomplish the least time.

As an apprentice each journey was assigned by the mentor. As a practitioner, the choice is now yours. You learned as an apprentice that there are many rules for different situations. As a practitioner you must now formulate rules about which set of rules to apply. The rules for beauty, speed, challenge, and newness are different.

This stage is similar to the developmental stage of adolescence. The novice is like the newborn. The apprentice is like the young child. The practitioner is like the adolescent who is ready to challenge the rules, to risk new combinations, and to act in patterns that are unlike the past. It is a creative and dangerous stage. Just as an adolescent wants the power of choice without the dangers of responsibility, the practitioner wants to make a choice without commitment. The practitioner that learns to command commitment, to overcome doubt and to discern the proper values, conquers this stage of learning.

The adolescent driver may decide that “speed” is the most important value. The driver then tailgates, risks high speed turns and darts between other car in traffic. If the practitioner becomes attached to that value, he will be insensitive to situations that do not fit it. He may spend time in court, kill himself or endanger other drivers.

If the practioner enjoyed sped and was willing to be a novice about that value, he might enroll in a speed driving course for cars in race tracks and begin professional training.

This is the test of power in shakti pad. The practitioner looks at the whole situation, at the panorama of facts and choices. He must then consciously act from the whole or from a part of the whole. This is a critical ability. The cognitive ability needed at this time is the capacity to perceieve the implications of the whole collection of choices and information. To act unconsciously or incorrectly from a small piece of the whole is a fatal error. A practitioner fails if he chooses the value or goal which he enjoys or which he finds most interesting or stimulating rather than the value that continues to serve the larger project, task or study that he entered training to attain.

The experience of this type of decision making is often unpleasant and frightful. It is beset with uncertainty and often fills the practitioner with doubt. It is a perilous and existential moment. It is as agonizing as the decision of a Hamlet – a question of identity and commitment. It is as grave as the decision of an Oedipus. The decision is made through deliberate effort to reach the correct perspective of the whole and to discern the true significance of the decision.

The ego or attachment of the student becomes the biggest block at this stage. Imagine the driver who so loves the feeling of the car as it moves that he refuses to study maps or make plans. The sensations of driving are so enthralling that the next capacity can not develop. This happens in games. I recall a video game player who couldn’t get above a certain score. I told him I knew how to do it, but he had to let the shooting of certain video demons become automatic. He said he knew that, but he enjoyed the feeling of confrontation too much to simply let it become automatic. His attachment to that sensation blocked him from moving to the highest level of performance. The love of confrontation was stronger than the commitment to increase speed. So the original goal, to win the greatest number of points, was not achieved. Neither was the experience of mastery which required him to surrender his own attachment to the requirements of the game.

At that point my friend redefined the game and found what he had done before to be false. This is equivalent to denying th guidance of the mentor who tells you to keep going and not to stop if you want to reach the end. A practitioner who does not pass the test of shakti pad denies the teacher or mentor. He is filled with doubt about the value of what he did before and he doubts the wisdom of the teacher.

The real test at this stage is the test to overcome doubt. To create an action where all the parts of your mind are behind the original path you chose. This sage requires commitment. It requires involvement in the sense that you are focally responsible for the choice. The results of the choice, for better or worse, are your responsibility. Success and failure become portentous and filled with consequence. It is similar to adolescence, when the smallest rejection or acceptance by others is met with enormous reactions of grief or ecstasy. Each action, since it is truly yours, is encased in amplified impacts and effects.

This choice of values cannot be done non-personally. It is always a personal choice that we make. It is not possible at this stage to take a cosmic perspective of detachment. The choice cannot be avoided without halting learning and growth. This is because the choice must be made first, before moving ahead.

In spiritual disciplines, this is the leap of faith. This is the moment where you choose to follow your own desires and limited perspective or you choose the higher values established by the path or teaching that you began to study. Up to this point the student is detached from the choice. As a novice you just follow the rules. As an apprentice you are busy learning new perceptions. As a practitioner you are competent to do most tasks related to the skills you are learning. You must choose where to use those skills and to what end.

On the path of yoga, many students leave the path at this point because they feel some part of themselves has been neglected or rejected by their own earlier efforts. Others gain spiritual ego and fancy themselves complete even though the teacher and teachings warn them against such a position. Others fade away slowly because they decide they are the exception to the rules and they need not follow the original disciplines any more.

Those students who can act with faith and wholeness do well at this stage. Students who can search for differences from the main goal and correct their direction pass through this stage the most easily. It is easy to forget yourself at this stage and become hypnotized by the satisfaction and power of the skills you have gained so far. If you surrender to the path and goal you began your study to fulfill, you will emerge with strength and empowered with an unshakable direction.