I consider myself a bad yogi much like I consider myself a bad Jew. I believe in it, but I certainly don’t practice it enough.
I consider myself a bad yogi much like I consider myself a bad Jew. I believe in it, but I certainly don’t practice it enough. How strongly I identify with it wavers based on whatever’s going on in my life. And while I admire people who are hardcore about this deeper connection, whether spiritual or religious, I often have a tough time relating to it myself.
I keep crystals on my nightstand, read my horoscope every day, and always try to put out my best energy, yet I’m still constantly on edge, in search of total self-acceptance and a greater meaning to life. Which is why when I received an invite to a Kundalini yoga class, considered the most esoteric, out-there, meditative branch of yoga as we know it—taught by none other than the face of the movement in the U.S. herself, Guru Jagat—I had to go.
Maybe Kundalini, the ancient art of blending mental and physical “exercises” to transform consciousness, would be my answer, I thought. After all, it was for Guru Jagat, and has been for her thousands of followers, including celebs like Kate Hudson and Alicia Keys.
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Guru Jagat discovered the practice in the early 2000s, right after 9/11. “After 20 seconds of some weird arm-pumping posture, I had a physical experience of elevation and clarity that no other spiritual modality had even come close to touching,” she writes in her new book, Invincible Living. She went on to learn from the late master Yogi Bhajan, the OG who brought Kundalini to America in the late 60s, and encouraged her to share her teachings with the Western world. She did just that, by founding the RA MA Institute for Applied Yogic Science and Technology in Venice, California. (There's also another location in Spain, and one opening soon in New York City.)
Walking into the class—a pile-up of 50-ish people, many outfitted in traditional Kundalini head-to-toe white, on the outdoor deck of NYC’s James Hotel—I couldn’t help but feel the sudden urge to bail. I arrived a few minutes late (admittedly, probably not the best way to start a meditative practice), and here was this woman talking about real versus fake news (so on trend, this Guru is!). She then segued into the difference between reality and non-reality. According to her, anything that gives you energy is the former and anything that drains you is the latter. That’s when she both engaged and lost me. The thought of treating anything that made me tired, stressed, or insecure as non-real was elating—I had the power over that?! But then the thought was so far-fetched, so unrealistic (ironic as it were), that it frustrated me. Deadlines are real; breakups are real. Someone pointing out your flaws? So very real.
I let that thought stream go as we transitioned into our first exercise: a chanting of some Sanskrit words I can’t remember. It was a repetitive chant, so I eventually figured it out, but I had no idea what I was saying or why. Everyone was so in sync, so focused, I half-expected a spirit to arise in response. My hippie sister’s warning that Kundalini classes (which she loved), can be "a little cultish" rang in my ear. A little? I thought to myself. Ha.
Then things got really weird. Staying in a seated position, we bounced from one bizarre movement to another. We bowed over our legs and shot back up, shook our hands violently up and down, and raised our arms above our heads then pulled them back down. I had to look around to see if I was doing the movements correctly; they felt unnatural, like nothing I’d ever done before, and I felt increasingly self-conscious. Not just silly, but also like I didn’t belong there. We performed each movement for minutes at a time—I have no idea exactly how long, because they seemed to go on for eternity. Sitting and doing the same movement over and over is much harder and more exhausting than it sounds. My lower back screamed in agony.
Super-stressed lately? This yoga pose can help:
When we got onto our backs, for the first time, I felt like I knew what I was doing. We laid there with our knees bent and pulsed our hips up and down, basically doing glute bridges, only faster. I fell into a meditative bliss with this one—I love glute bridges more than any other exercise in the world—but I didn’t get to stay there long enough. Before I knew it, we were back on our butts.
At that point, I started to feel completely and utterly ridiculous. My knees were so locked up and my neck and back ached so badly, I could hardly sit still. The physical pain prevented me from losing myself in what was supposed to be an irreplaceable, emotional experience. In fact, I laughed out loud at my own distress compared to everyone else’s apparent ease. Why was this so hard for me? I seemed to have developed sudden ADHD, and every subsequent minute on the mat was a fight for stillness and maturity.
Then we began an exercise that took my skepticism, of myself and of the practice, to a whole new level. It involved circling one finger around a “hole” we created with our other hand, moving our circling hand faster and faster every minute. “This will bring up feelings,” Guru Jagat said. I kept waiting for a mind-altering experience, one that would take me out of my body and jolt me with clarity, but the only thing I felt was pure annoyance and sheer doubt that I really was a yogi—or an open-minded person—at all.
When we finished the last part of class, an insanely long seated meditation, I waited in line to meet Guru Jagat. Surely talking to the Gandhi of the 21st century would solve my issue, surely then I’d have the “physical experience of elevation and clarity” that should have come with all my weird arm-pumping postures.
But that didn’t happen. Don’t get me wrong, Guru Jagat was an absolute pleasure to talk to. She’s gracious but not overly earnest; she jokes and laughs effortlessly, as if what she thinks and what she says are all of the same, with no moment of doubt scratching up one or the other. I immediately understood how she’s amassed such an impressive following: Unlike many New Age practitioners, who can come off as holier-than-thou, Guru Jagat is relatable, one of us. She’s more Cool Mom than Stiff Teacher. She sensed that I didn’t take to the class, yet encouraged me to stay for tea anyway (a Kundalini tradition).
When I thanked her but told her I had to head home, she followed with a soft, unsolicited explanation: “That was a special, extreme version for the eclipse. See how you feel later.” I rolled my eyes as I walked out.
At home, a wave of calmness and fatigue came over me. As I packed for a press trip, which usually gives me anxiety, I stopped overthinking every addition to my suitcase and just went with my gut. Of course, 20 minutes of meditation may have had the same effect, minus the growing back and neck pain, but I kept thinking about Guru Jagat’s early words.
Reality versus non-reality. I get her point now. Our reality is what we make of our experiences. Yes, deadlines are real, packing for a trip with strangers is real, a class that you struggle through is real. But I can choose to disregard any negative reactions to them. And if Kundalini can help me do that, perhaps I should give it another shot.
In the end, I think it’s my fault I didn’t connect so well to the class. I was trying too hard to get something out of it, forcing an organic experience that cannot be forced. It seems that the more we’re in our own heads, the more we need something like Kundalini, like a Guru Jagat, to drag us out of them.
Maybe I’ll try it again, maybe I won’t. Because my flickering spirituality, wanted or not, is my reality. And I'm okay with that—at least for now.