by Donna Quesada: Kundalini Yoga, like all Yogas, is a method to connect to the divine within…
As a technology, it focuses on the idea of awakening the life force that flows within our spinal channels, known as the nadis. Different schools of Yoga focus on different methods of moving this life force, with the goal of awakening our consciousness.
In Kundalini Yoga, the exercises done to effect this flow are called “kriyas.” Like the word karma, it comes from the ancient Sanskrit root kri, meaning “action.” A kriya may be composed of a single, stand-alone posture or a combination movements, which are done together with other key components of this comprehensive technology, such as breath-work and chanting.
Imagine the body as a divine instrument; if you work with it, using specific techniques, specific results will be achieved, such as clarity, inner strength or the capacity to forgive, all of which are facets of spiritual awakening. Thus, kriya is the process of working with the body to bring about certain results.
When I was doing intense trainings as a Yoga student, we were taught to choose one kriya to do for 40 days as a morning sadhana, or spiritual practice. The idea was to choose based on what we thought we needed. On any given morning, it’s easier to just get up and eat or check social media, but the decision to instead, get ourselves onto our mat to do our chosen sadhana as a daily discipline would do all sorts of wonderful things for us: “Because each time you get up when you don’t feel like it and sit on your cushion when you’d rather scroll through your phone, you consciously override your impulses… and when you do this again and again, day after day, you’ll find yourselves released from those old patterns,” our teachers said.
At that time, I was deep into a bad marriage. Letting go of old patterns sounded real good. Sign me up! The only problem was, I wasn’t sure which patterns were faulty. Perhaps we all needed to be more flexible in order to work out our differences, I reasoned.
Flexibility is something that is spoken about a lot in Yoga. When we’re young, we tend to think very simply about it… You stretch your calves before you run and off you go. But in this context, I began to reflect more deeply on the subtler idea of transforming rigidity into flexibility, and how our entire demeanor reveals this stiffness… not just in our physical bodies, but throughout our entire being. Our bodies and comportment reflect our state of mind.
Tension, anxiety and worry become embedded in our bodies through muscle stiffness, repetitive body language and shallow breathing. But, kriyas invite us into these deeper layers of our inner self, where, by virtue of following our awareness with our breath, in combination with movement, sound, mantra and deliberate focus, we are able to nurture a newfound softness and strength… even though these might seem like contradictory elements.
Kriyas allow us to get through to the mind by way of the body because the body is more accessible. And conversely, working with the body gets us “out of our heads”—where all of the fear-mongering lives. But it’s a funny thing because we get out of our heads and into our bodies, only to go beyond the physical, altogether. It is at the level of the crude body that we first begin to work with prana—the universal life force called chi, by the Chinese—the energy that gives life to all that is, the same force that scientists discovered via the atom less than a century ago… the force that Yogis have been working with, within the confines of the material body for thousands of years—they understood that it was the magic key to inner peace, which is all anybody has ever really wanted.
The Yogis understood that the accumulation of tension is the result of blocked energy in the body, which in turn causes stiffness. And so it is with life. When things don’t seem to be flowing well, you can feel it in the form of pressure and stress. The willingness to feel that tension and soften into it reveals where the blockages may lie, and by listening to what the body is telling you, this process also reveals new pathways and solutions. And with that softening, comes an inner strength that you didn’t know you had… as sometimes the right pathway is a totally new route, altogether. That was the case for me, when I found the inner strength to walk away from a 22 year marriage. Our willingness to open into spirit enables us to see new perspectives that didn’t even show up on the horizon before.
Kriya is at once therapeutic and deeply spiritual, since as that dormant force arises, it heals our hearts, strengthens our vitality and confidence, while expanding our consciousness into divine union—the ultimate goal of all Yogas. Our moods, attitudes and general outlook on life are related to the light that shines forth from within us.
Spotlight on Sat Kriya
“At first, I felt so funny about the movement of my body, but afterward, I started to feel the power moving through every inch of it. I never felt so awake.” ~Dana (student of Kundalini Yoga)
How to do it
What my student was describing was Sat Kriya, one of the most powerful exercises in Kundalini Yoga. It is also a fundamental kriya because it may be done as a stand-alone practice, whereas other kriyas generally include many other exercises that are done as a set.
1. Sit on your heels, Japanese style, making sure to keep your spine as straight as possible.
(*Note: As a modification, you may also sit in “easy pose,” with your ankles crossed in front of you. In this position, it helps to sit on a cushion.)
2. With arms stretched over the head, interlace all fingers except the index fingers.
(*Note: Men cross right thumb over left and women cross left thumb over right.)
3. Begin chanting “Sat Naam.”
(*Note: The “sat” is chanted powerfully from the navel point, with the belly pulled in. On the “naam,” release the belly and let the soft “aa” sound be relaxed. In this exercise, the breathing will regulate itself. To increase the effectiveness of this exercise, close your eyes and bring your focus up to that spot between your eyebrows—known as the third eye.)
4. Maintain a consistent rhythm for at least three minutes, eventually working up to 11 minutes.
5. To finish, inhale and gently squeeze the muscles from the perineum to the top of the spine. Hold the breath briefly, before exhaling completely. Repeat this breath retention exercise two more times.
(*Note: The squeezing action indicated in this exercise is known as “applying root lock.” The three locks, known as bandhas, give gentle pressure to the energy that is generated by this Kriya, aiding its journey up through the spine. This process is explained in greater detail, below.)
6. Relax on your back for a few minutes to allow the energy to assimilate.
In this ancient spiritual technology, known as Kundalini Yoga, the human body is likened to an intricately-made, musical instrument, composed of thousands of channels called nadis. Similar to the meridians in Chinese medicine, these channels transmit vital energy to all parts of the body. Of these super highways of energy, there are three that hold special significance: the ida, which flows along the left side of the spine, the pingala, which flows along the right side of the spine, and the sushmuna nadi, which is known as the central channel. Only when the positive and negative energies, which flow within these channels, integrate through Yogic techniques, such as those that are shown in this article, will the energy of consciousness rise up through that central channel. This upward passage through the sacred spinal centers popularly known as chakras, is known as the raising of the Kundalini— the aim of all Yogas.
In this powerhouse kriya, the “sat” is projected from the belly and the spine is straight, so that each repetition will create the pressure needed to nudge the flow of this cosmic energy, called Kundalini, up through that central channel. As this travels through these vortices, it clears the blocks and carries us on our journey.