Healing approaches

Kundalini Yoga: Awakening to a new truth

 

Woman meditating on a mountain
Meditation

By Sarah Stollery, kundalini yoga and meditation teacher.

In factual terms, Kundalini Yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan, who first revealed the formerly secret practice to the West in the late 1960s, may be defined as:

  • The yoga of awareness;
  • A practice that prepares the body to release Kundalini, or life force, energy, which is coiled at the base of the spine and holds your energy field in stasis. When activated, this energy travels up a number of primary energy channels and merges with the crown chakra, bringing your spirit into union with the infinite, eternal essence of the cosmos;
  • Incorporating pranayama (breathing exercises), kriya (a series of yoga postures that work towards a specific outcome), meditation and mantras (chanting);
  • A non-religious practice, although it does include elements of, and teachings from, Sikh and other major world religions;
  • Embracing seva or selfless service to others.
relaxation sitting reflection statue
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

What does Kundalini Yoga mean to me?

To me, Kundalini Yoga is the yoga of opportunity. It is an invitation to get to know yourself – both the light and shadow sides in equal measure. It is a chance to find healing and liberation from the traumas that all of us carry with us but often fail to integrate into our being.

But unlike some other modern day spiritual paths or self-help schemes, Kundalini Yoga does not promise a challenge-free path to freedom, which is why I believe it remains fairly niche. It is an approach that challenges and provokes as much as it elevates.

Above all, however, Kundalini Yoga is the yoga of connection: to ourselves, our families, our communities, all life on earth and finally to the universe’s truths.

My teacher Guru Dharam once described it as “a blueprint for an experience of you, but how you manifest that experience is entirely down to the individual. Embrace this challenging and unique path with commitment and heart, and the prize will be knowing yourself in this lifetime”.

Let me share with you a special experience I had half-way through my teacher training:

It is 5am on a Sunday morning in the middle of January. I, along with 40 other Kundalini Yoga teacher trainees are sitting, spines upright, eyes closed, waiting in silence for the recitation of Japji, one of the five daily Sikh prayers, to begin.

This morning, we find ourselves in a cavernous, converted barn, usually reserved for weddings, instead of the usual Elizabethan manor house where we live and practise as there are too many people to fit. The sub-zero temperatures outside mean it is not much warmer inside, and we can just about see our breath in the low lighting. My thin mat is proving poor protection against the freezing cold floor, and I find myself wishing I had a sheepskin mat like some of my friends.

But then the Japji begins and I become lost in the lyrical rhythm of its words. It is the start of the Aquarian Sadhana, a two-and-a-half hour practice that Yogi Bhajan gave us in 1992 to help with the transition into the Aquarian Age.

After Japji, we tune into the golden chain linking us to our teacher and to all the teachers that have come before by means of the Adi mantra, before launching into the kriya for this morning’s practice. By this time, I am grateful to have the chance to move. Heat begins to spread through my body as a combination of the stiffness from Saturday’s yoga, and the cold, starts to ease.

Illustration with mantra om sign surrounded by energy beams

A new truth

Following this yoga set, we relax in savasana (lying on our backs) for a few minutes – just long enough for the cold to seep back into my bones. But I don’t mind as my favourite part of the sadhana is just about to start: it is time for Long Morning Calls.

We chant the mantra seven times in seven minutes and, even though I have hardly moved in that time, the cosy feeling in my body and the space around me is like warm honey.

We now move our mats, blankets and sheepskins closer to the front of the room, where my teacher Benjahmin is setting up his harmonium and guitar. He starts to play the first six mantras that make up the playlist of the Aquarian Sadhana. As I hear each one, I am convinced each is my favourite.

But the penultimate mantra actually is. As we move into virasana (hero pose), I reaffirm to myself that this time I will remain in posture, sitting on my left foot with my hands held in prayer, for the whole 22 minutes.

Benjahmin plays the opening chords and my heart melts as the weight of what I am about to shed from my being starts to thaw, ready for release. I begin to sing and cry at the same time. As the music builds, so does an indescribable feeling in my heart. It feels as if all the love and pain that ever was and ever will be is exploding in waves of ever-increasing mass and energy, crashing into every thought, every cell and every breath.

Halfway through, I stop singing to allow myself to truly feel the intensity of the experience. I am of my body but not in it. The boundaries of my being have disappeared and I have merged with the space, the other souls around me and the essence of the sound or naad.

All thought has stopped. All I can do is feel. And now it comes – an awareness that has been lurking at the edge of my consciousness since I came to my mat two hours ago. I now know something, not with my mind, but with each of my 10 physical, mental and energy bodies. Because it’s not a thought so much as a truth firmly lodged in my being: “There is no suffering without purpose.”

What this actually means to me will be the subject of a separate blog but suffice to say, it is a knowing that continues to unfold daily and my absolute certainty in this truth is as strong now as it was on that icy morning three-and-a-half years ago.

sarah stollery headshot

Sarah Stollery is a kundalini yoga and meditation teacher and co-founder of The Cabin, a self-directed learning community for home-educated children. She is passionate about empowering people of all ages and stages of life with the tools to thrive in these challenging times by creating space to learn, explore and integrate a wide range of wellbeing practices.

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Inspiring spaces

Labyrinths: A pathway to healing

Turf maze in Saffron Walden
Turf maze in Saffron Walden

By Cath Everett, content editor for the Spirit of East Anglia community.

Saffron Walden, a pretty, little market town in North West Essex, prides itself on its mazes. So proud is it of them, in fact, that it holds a regular Maze Festival there, the last one of which took place in 2016.

While two of its mazes were only created a few years ago – one in the bandstand in the town’s Jubilee Garden and another at the entrance to Swan Meadow car park and a stone’s throw from the local duck pond – the others are a bit more special. This is because Saffron Walden is unique in the UK in having two historic mazes within its boundaries.

The first consists of a traditional Victorian yew-hedge-based creation on the north side of town. It was laid out in Italian Renaissance style during the 1840s in the lovely Bridge End Gardens – which, incidentally, were never attached to a house, something that is pretty unusual for formal gardens of this type.

Anyway, the second, although known locally as “The Maze”, is actually a circular turf labyrinth. Located on the east side of the town’s extensive Common, only a hop, skip and a jump from the centre of town, it is the largest Medieval turf maze of its kind in Europe at an impressive 35 metres in diameter.

Apparently built in 1699, this labyrinth is said to be based on an even older version that was located nearby. And its path, which is now inlaid with bricks rather than the original cut-away turf, curves backwards and forwards in 17 circuits. It visits four small, bulgy bits, otherwise known as bastions, to form the shape of a cross, before winding itself to a higher central mound that, in most similar cases, would take the form of a rosette.

Rosettes in those days were often shaped as six-petalled roses and symbolised love, both human and divine and, like the Lotus flower of the East, enlightenment. Indeed, in Medieval Christian thought, to reach the centre of a labyrinth was to come face-to-face with God and experience the radical transformation that would undoubtedly follow.

But interestingly, at the centre of Saffron Walden’s labyrinth, there was actually an ash tree. And ash trees, or Nuin as they are known in the Ogham or ancient Celtic Tree Alphabet, symbolised, in a somewhat similar vein, rebirth, regeneration, reawakening and new beginnings. Ashes were likewise the tree of Gwydion, hero, trickster and master enchanter of Britain.

But ash trees also pop up in other traditions too. According to Norse mythology, the great ash was Yggdrasil, the World Tree, which was sacred to the Allfather God, Odin.

Landscape Pic Of Mighty Ash Tree Roots Covering The Hill
Ash tree

Esoteric knowledge

In fact, he hung on the World Tree for nine days and nights without food to gain esoteric knowledge, after which time he perceived the runes, a magical, ancient Germanic alphabet said to contain many of the secrets of existence.

As to what the difference between a labyrinth and a maze actually is, this was revealed to me by keynote speaker, Dr Jan Sellers, during Saffron Walden’s Maze Festival in 2016. Although now retired, she used to lecture in education and guidance at the University of Kent at Canterbury, where she helped create the nearby medieval-style Canterbury Labyrinth in 2008.

Anyway, it turns out that mazes have high walls and many paths to their centre, which means that their walkers often get lost. This situation could, therefore, be said to represent the human experience as we struggle through life’s winding paths, dead-ends and detours, trying to make sense of it and not get too lost.

Labyrinths, on the other hand, have no walls at all and offer only one path that weaves, albeit circuitously, to the heart of the matter and then back again. The idea here, among other things, is that these twists and turns symbolise life’s journey but also require concentration to stay on the path.

As a result, they help the walker to stay focused and in the present, quieting the mind and generating a kind of meditative state within, which nurtures the spirit in the process.

Dr Donna Zucker, associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the US, has in fact recently researched and written a book called ‘Reducing Stress through Labyrinth Walking’ based on her work with clients, students and prison inmates, in which she harnessed the labyrinth’s power.

And I must say that labyrinth-walking certainly made an impact on me. Although I had never done it before, I thought I would give it a go when a canvas image of one was placed on the floor in the middle of the Town Hall’s Assembly Room for anyone showing an interest.

After taking a few deep breaths to let go of tension and try to forget feeling a bit foolish, I took my initial steps at the entrance point, putting one foot slowly in front of the other, heel to toe. And it was strange – as I travelled inwards towards the middle, it felt like I was leaving the everyday behind and moving inside myself.

LabyrinthLabyrinth

Symbols and archetypes

In fact, by the time I reached the centre, I could feel wells of deep emotion that I had not expected to surface. It was quite a revelation. But the journey back was no less symbolic as it represented (to me at least) the path back to the mundane. An interesting experience, definitely, and one that I would certainly like to try again.

Because I wonder if the labyrinth isn’t actually a Jungian-style archetype, or universal mythic character, found in the collective unconscious of people all over the world. They are certainly symbols seen in faiths, cultures, countries and communities across the globe ranging from Europe to India and from Indonesia to the American Southwest.

The earliest one discovered was actually chipped into a rock face 4,000 years ago as a petroglyph in Mogor, Spain. But the Romans also used the design in their mosaic flooring, and it likewise popped up in many a European Gothic cathedral, including perhaps the most famous of all at Chartres in France.

Then by the late medieval period (1300 to 1500), the trusty labyrinth found itself morphing into the puzzle maze so familiar to us all today. In more recent times though, its use has expanded still further. Because labyrinths are often found to be calming, they are increasingly being used for health and wellbeing purposes.

For example, labyrinth facilitator Kay Barrett and a team of helpers made a temporary structure of sand and LED tea lights for patients and staff to walk during Mental Health Resilience Week at Addenbrookes, my local hospital in Cambridge, in both 2013 and 2014.

Pilgrim’s Hospices in Canterbury, Kent, became the first such institution in the country to build a wheelchair-accessible, therapeutic labyrinth garden in order to benefit staff, carers and the terminally ill.

But for those without access to such facilities and who are unable to walk one themselves, there are now finger labyrinths for you to trace the pathways using your digits as a means of meditation, prayer or just to relax.

In fact, Cambridge-based charity and arts centre Rowan specialises in manufacturing them to fund its activities. Its students, who all have learning disabilities, work under the direction of various artists and craftspeople to create these portable labyrinths out of wood, building up their artistic skills, confidence and self-esteem in the process.

And if that isn’t a great way to nurture and heal the human spirit, then I don’t know what is.

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Cath Everett has been a journalist and editor since 1992. She has written for a wide range of publications ranging from The Times to The Guardian as well as various business websites and magazines on areas such as diversity and inclusion, leadership, skills and other workplace issues. Cath also explores the impact of technology on the workplace and wider society.

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Healing approaches

Six common meditation myths busted

ancient-architecture-art-161170

By Sarah Stollery, kundalini yoga and meditation teacher.

Meditation in general, and mindfulness in particular, are constantly in the media these days. It is now considered acceptable practice for dealing with everything from anxiety and depression to improving wellbeing in the office. This means it has truly moved into the mainstream.

Many of us would like to establish a regular meditation practice but may, unconsciously, have various misconceptions about it that prevent us from making it part of our regular self-care regime. Here are some of the barriers I faced and overcame during my own personal journey, which I know are not peculiar to me but common to many:

Myth 1: The goal of meditation is to reach a state of peaceful calm

This is goal, of course. Why would we do it otherwise? But making it our primary goal can mean we end up feeling cheated or a failure if we do not end our practice feeling blissed out and floating on a cloud.

Instead if we make our goal to stick with our practice no matter what arises, a zen state will often occur as a happy byproduct. In other words, feeling calm is a likely outcome of meditation, but if we make it our sole focus we may end up disappointed.

Sticking with the practice regardless of what arises means that, irrespective of any thoughts, emotions or physical sensations that occur, we bring our awareness back to meditating whenever it wanders. If we are focusing on our breath, we come back to the breath. If we are saying a mantra, we come back to the mantra. If the practice is about awareness itself, we come back to being aware of our awareness.

Whether the mind wanders 10 times or 100 times, it does not matter – we always endeavor to bring it back to our practice as soon as we notice what is happening. What really matters is choosing to bring our attention back rather than staying engaged our thoughts.

Myth 2: Meditation should always bring a deep sense of wellbeing

This myth is very much connected to the first one. While we would all love to have a deep sense of wellbeing, it does not always happen.

When Yogi Bhajan brought kundalini yoga to the west in 1968, he said meditation was like taking a mental shower. Our subconscious mind acts like a filtration system, trapping all the emotions, thoughts and feelings we fail to process in our daily lives, before storing them for us.

But our system eventually becomes full. Without a way to clean it, many of us find ourselves in a cycle of manage-cope-breakdown. We tread water until we are unable to do so any more, and mental and/or physical burnout results.

Sometimes when we meditate though, these stored thoughts and feelings are released from the unconscious into our conscious awareness. Put another way, our mind uses the practice of meditation to clean our filters.

This process may feel uncomfortable and leave us having to deal with the strong emotions that have arisen. Such a situation is normal and, although difficult, enables us to process our thoughts and feelings in a healthy way. The cumulative effective of “cleaning the filter” through regular practice is of great benefit to our wellbeing in the long-term and can help break the burnout cycle.

As a side note, meditation may sometimes feel uncomfortable because we have been running in fifth gear all day long, before suddenly asking our bodies to shift into first while our foot is still on the accelerator.

But that is where yoga comes in. The physical practice of yoga prepares the body for meditation. Even just a few minutes of simple stretching and exercise can help our bodies to ease off the accelerator and shift down through the gears slowly, so that we can get the most out of our meditation practice.

Myth 3: When I meditate, I will enter a space of no-thought

Again, this scenario can and does happen but should not become a way to judge the success of our meditation. In my personal experience, thought never stops. It just slows down and becomes quieter, much like turning down the volume of a radio.

Myth 4: I must meditate for at least 20 minutes to receive any benefits

It is true that the more you meditate, the more adept you become at it and the more positive effects you will notice. But as little as three minutes a day is enough to make a difference.

In reality, it is more about the consistency with which you practice than the duration of any given session. Three minutes every day will probably serve you better than 20 minutes once a week.

By meditating little and often, we make it a more achievable goal (most of us can find three minutes each day) and it feels like less of a chore (see Myth 5). It also helps establish our practice as a habit rather than an occasional exercise. So when you find yourself with more time, meditating for longer will be easy.

Myth 5: Meditation is good for me so I should always want to do it

Physical exercise is good for us but a lot of us do not want to do it and will find any excuse not to do so. Meditation could be described as simply exercise for the mind: it takes effort, it can feel boring and, as previously mentioned, it can release difficult emotions.

Humans are creatures of habit for a reason. Habits are efficient – they require a lot less energy output. When meditating, we change the way our brains are wired. While this is ultimately a good thing, we may resist such change because it generates more: changes in perspective, thoughts, attitudes, aspirations as well as in our concept of self and our relationships.

Meditation has the potential to change the way we relate to our entire experience of life, both internal and external, past, present and future. So it poses the ultimate threat for a creature of habit as change is exhausting and can be uncomfortable.

But whether you crave meditation or resist it, if you desire to live a life that is authentic for yourself and the world around you, there really is no better tool to support you in that endeavour.

Myth 6: Meditation is a luxury so I can only do it when everything else on my to-do list is completed

Self-care is not a luxury – it is a necessity. Our mental health and wellbeing should not be an afterthought as it is paramount to our survival.

Society teaches us that we must earn self-care through some mystical formula of paid work, caring for our family and friends, contributing to society and the like. This idea is deeply rooted in a dying patriarchy so please do not buy into it.

If you believe that meditation has the potential to improve your wellbeing, make it a priority by putting it at the top of your to-do list. Give yourself permission to take care of yourself – and, if you decide meditation is not for you, give yourself permission to take care of yourself in some other way.

In an aeroplane, you are always told to put your own oxygen mask on first before helping other people – and while the analogy may be used a lot these days, it is still valid. We cannot help others if our own energy is depleted. Or we can, but we end up being burnt out, which is not a sustainable way to live.

The above is by no means a definitive list though, and I would love to hear about any barriers you have experienced in establishing a regular meditation practice. Feel free to post comments and share your own experiences with myself and the rest of the community here.

sarah stollery headshot

Sarah Stollery is a kundalini yoga and meditation teacher and co-founder of The Cabin, a self-directed learning community for home-educated children. She is passionate about empowering people of all ages and stages of life with the tools to thrive in these challenging times by creating space to learn, explore and integrate a wide range of wellbeing practices.