he panic began to seep in a full 24 hours before. My primary concern? What the hell to wear to my first Kundalini yoga class. After consulting my partner-in-crime and supporter of my inquisitive nature (read: Google), I determined, with near 100 percent certainty, that I had nothing that could be deemed even remotely appropriate.
Though my yoga background could be very succinctly summarized in the following curriculum vitae: one fancy-pants Vinyasa class (think: expensive chain boutique yoga) and a random YouTube video or two, at least I knew my normal gym garb would be completely inoffensive in those settings. My cursory knowledge of Kundalini, coupled with my Google search of what people wear to such classes, led me to settle on a non-descript white t-shirt and what I lovingly refer to as my “Hammer pants”—a pair of elephant pants I bought at a Goodwill one year ago but had yet to wear, for fear of outside mockery or judgment.
Even the sidewalks in Haight-Ashbury were lined with love!
I spent most of the next day in an anxiety cloud. When I glanced at the clock and saw that my 7:00 p.m. class was still seven hours away, I opened the email from the director of the yoga center for the 12th time, and read the short response again. I guess I was hoping that by some miracle, new information would have crept onto the screen. Yes, I was welcome to record my experience. I just needed comfortable clothes and a light stomach, coupled with my own addition of first-timer anxiety. My only solace was that I had roped another Kundalini virgin and close friend, Savanna, into trying the class with me, so I knew I wouldn’t be entirely alone.
We arrived at The Kundalini Yoga Center 45 minutes before class was to begin. The beautiful, yet unassuming Victorian house was located in the heart of the Haight in San Francisco. My yoga mat clutched under my arm (“it’s like your security blanket,” Savanna remarked) and my inner-self coiled tightly like a spring, we began to walk around Haight-Ashbury, marveling at the colors in the stores and the pervasive smell of marijuana on the streets. The Haight, incubator of the hippie movement in the ‘60s, maintains that free love vibe even through the gentrification of the city.
As Savanna and I ambled around, the vibrancy and variety of life was undeniable. A dozen or so dreadlocked teens amassed near a gorgeous dragon mural. A few of them were trying to fit themselves in the trunk of a sedan. Yet another dreadlocked man was showing a passerby on the street the mechanical workings of the gauge in his nose. I saw a woman dressed in what I could only describe as the technicolor dream coat (of Joseph’s fame). She looked radiant. I felt totally inauthentic and judgmental when it was finally time to enter the yoga center.
I’m not sure I will ever forget, as long as I live, the feeling of calm that fell over me when we stepped into the foyer of the building. Dark, but inviting, the entrance was lit entirely by the presence of our instructor for the evening, Nacho. He radiated pure joy, and he set himself to work with the sole goal of helping us settle in and feel at home. After we had gotten blankets for what Nacho called “relaxation time,” and what I had decided would probably be my favorite part of the class, he began to give us a brief history of Yogi Bhajan, the Ashram, and Kundalini yoga.
Yogi Bhajan, the spiritual leader who brought Kundalini yoga to the masses after he witnessed the hippie counterculture’s reliance on drugs to access a higher consciousness.
Eventually the doorbell of the old Victorian rang, interrupting our lesson, and Nacho shuffled away to greet another student who was at the door. Our ranks soon grew to five strong, and we migrated to what must’ve been the living room of this old house, which was now decorated with a somber picture of Yogi Bhajan, a gong, and not much else. Even with the kindness of our fearless leader, my recurring insecurities and judgments crept back in. It didn’t help that two of the other students seemed like they were Kundalini valedictorians. This caused my inferiority complex to kick up.
I swear to all things holy, Nacho could read my mind. He opened the class with a clear and thorough explanation of the expectations of what would eventually morph into a two-hour class, and my vocabulary grew to include mudras and kriyas and some seriously vigorous chanting. He let us know, upfront, that even though some of these moves might remind us of our previous yoga experiences, we would be doing a lot of things we had never done before. We were all, in a sense, beginners.
Exploring the Haight, while trying to adjust to my voluptuous pants
First came the breathing. I was wholly unaware that I had been breathing incorrectly for three entire decades, but once Nacho began to have us focus on deep, even breaths, I felt my coiled tension begin to unwind instantly. Next came specific breath work to aid with anxiety. At first, it made me even more anxious—it felt almost like hyperventilation, and I was terrified I’d pass out and be carried out of the ashram in actual corpse pose. I discovered that after the first minute or two of anything, bodies have a miraculous way of adapting to what you are serving them. My breath felt like a tuning fork, and by the end of the sequence, my body was in perfect pitch. “Your mind cannot control your mind. Only your breath can control your mind.” Miraculously, Nacho came through with the perfect summary of what had just happened, and my love for this practice started to grow.
Then came the aforementioned chanting. Full and honest disclosure? My voice is total shit. I probably could have handled the singing and chanting if we were in a larger group, like a church choir, but since our numbers more resembled the Partridge family, I knew my voice would take center stage, whether I wanted it to or not. Couple this with the mantra being in an unfamiliar language, and my stage fright and ego were on a momentary ticker tape parade. After sitting out the first few rounds of chanting, I gave some humming a try, because I was certainly being moved by the sound of the words. Then, I picked up on the ones that I thought I could pronounce. By the end of it? Well, I was whisper-chanting with the best of them and feeling insanely proud of myself.
By the time we started the kriya, I felt ready for anything. Throughout the more difficult postures, held for what seemed like an eternity, Nacho continued to remind us to observe how our body was feeling, observe our emotions, and observe our minds. He called us to view our bodies as vessels for our higher selves, and continued to provide advice that was “drop the mic” good. My favorite gem came sometime after a particularly uncomfortable bout of poses, during which my Hammer pants were falling into my face, effectively smothering me, and another equally distressing shoulder stand. Nacho was demonstrating the next move, and as he did so, he let us know this:
“If you can touch your toes for this, you are awesome. If you can’t…you are still awesome. We are awesome.”
Awesome we were. We continued to tackle posture after posture, until finally, it was time to meditate on the mantra, “Sa Ta Na Ma,” which, as Nacho explained, signifies birth, life, death, and rebirth. By this time, night had fallen, and the room was considerably colder and much darker. We sat in child’s pose, focused on our third eye, chanting these words, when the most cacophonous sound filled the room. He had begun striking the gong. The sound was so smothering, I felt as though it had enveloped me. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any louder? It did. At that moment, the strangest thing happened—I burst into spontaneous laughter. It wasn’t a nervous laughter, either. Some kind of joyous cackle was escaping my lips from the middle of this magnificent meditation, an absurd joy that apparently needed to be awakened by one big-ass gong.
The Kundalini Yoga Center-1390 Waller St., San Francisco
At the end of class, it was time to deploy that blanket I was so excited about. Nacho served us all Yogi Tea, and we had a chance to sit and relax while he continued to share insights and stories with us, his students. By this time, I was enraptured. I had no idea what time it was, nor did I care. If Nacho would have told me to put down my tea, because it was time to do the entire class over again, I would have happily obliged. The blissed out feelings of happiness, unity, and joy that I had after that class were simply unmistakable. Like Nacho had told us would happen, my breath had controlled my mind, and that breathing allowed me to catch a glimpse of my higher self—a self that did not care what outfit she had on, or who knew more mantra words than her, or whether or not she sucked at the postures contained within the kriya. After that class, I felt like our small army of five had created something completely magical, and that the yogic technology I had tapped into was something incredibly special.
As I sit here and write this, just twenty-four hours after taking that class, I’m continuing to feel the residual effects of the joy we created in that room. On my drive to work this morning, I felt twinges of my creativity reignited. I’ve cried three times today, being moved by pure joy. I’ve appreciated the oneness of everyone I have come in contact with, and I’ve shifted from that inauthentic, judgmental girl I was wandering around the Haight yesterday into someone much more transparent and loving. I realize these changes are subtle, and that they might be transient, but I’m willing to take the risk to hang out in this state of grace. It’s safe to say, my friends, that I am a Kundalini convert.
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The Spiritual Virgin is Allie Becker’s monthly column in which she (hilariously) documents her adventures in spiritual exploration. Sign up for Spirit Guides’ newsletter to stay in the loop.