Kundalini Yoga beyond the form
Two stories. Here comes the first.
A couple of years ago, I visited Damanhur to attend a course in conscious community building. For those that don’t know, Damanhur is one of the oldest, most successful spiritual communities in the world, that despite many attempted government interventions, continues to exist today.
It’s an amazing, beautiful place with over a thousand members. They have their own money, their own laws. They even have their own organic supermarket and pizza restaurant (*****).
Temples of Humankind
One of the things that I will never forget were the so-called Temples of Humankind. Over many years the Damanhurians have worked to excavate spaces inside the mountain near which they live.
In secrecy, unbeknownst to anybody but them, they used picks, shovels, and buckets to scoop out the insides of the mountain, creating several large hallways with tunnels connecting them. Think Lord of the Rings’ dwarven halls in Moria, buried deep under the Misty Mountains.
But instead of dwarven gold, these halls held the spiritual treasures of humankind. Indeed, throughout the Temples were shrines and offerings to every conceivable spiritual path and religion, a genuinely universal dedication to everything that connects us as a humanity.
The sheer scale and beauty of it, the devotion, the splendor, it blew my heart right open and connected me with dreams that I thought that I would never dream again. Halls made of gold and blue, the intricate workmanship and details, the very elevated humanity of it all, it resonated with me so very very deeply.
Here was not just an idea of a better world, but an actual piece of it. A fragment of utopia, like a meteorite, landed somewhere in Italy and infused that naturally fertile land with a spirit of magnificent imagination.
Well, I am sure you get used to it when you live there for a bit. But I was awestruck.
The thing that impressed me most about Damanhur, however, was not its splendor, but how spirituality was presented to the outside world.
You see, when you wanted to gain entry to the Temples of Humankind, you would expect a beautifully adorned gate, made of gold maybe, with garlands of white and blue flowers perhaps. But it was nothing like that.
The door to wealth
The entry to the Temples was a small, unassuming door on the side of the mountain. You’d never guess that such an ordinary door could lead you to such enormous inner wealth. This was a common motif around there.
The Damanhurians themselves were like that. You would encounter highly spiritual people dressed like ornary folk. The only thing that was a bit odd about them was their names, which were based around fruits, vegetables, and animals.
The lady showing us around was called Pineapple, for example, and our course teacher was named after a certain species of crocodile. But apart from that, if you would meet these people in the city, you would never guess from their outward appearance that they lived such an alternative lifestyle. They sought to blend in and did not advertise their inner treasure to anyone that didn’t ask.
Their relations to the local people around them were good. They did not create discord, but instead were active in regional politics, or assisted the locals by offering their services as doctors or firemen. Theirs was a kind of practical spirituality that directly benefitted the people that they came in contact with, but it was never in your face. I found it entirely refreshing.
The Cargo Cults of Melanesia
Around the time of the second world war in Melanesia, a group of islands to the northwest of Australia suddenly saw an influx of military foreigners from America and other rich Western countries. Many local inhabitants had never seen outsiders before, or the marvelous flying machines that suddenly started to visit the islands, dropping parachutes with valuable cargo to the ground.
The planes brought canned meat, manufactured clothing, medicine, tents, and weapons. The locals were amazed by all the foreign riches that these strange metal birds brought to the islands, and they started to acquire an appetite for these goods themselves.
To procure these same goods as the white visitors regularly received, they started to behave just like them. So they cut down vast swathes of forest that could serve as an airstrip and then stood on that land, swinging about their arms, like ground air traffic controllers.
They assumed, wrongly of course, that if they just copied the white man’s behavior, that metal birds would appear in the sky and drop valuable cargo with parachutes onto their islands.
Because they did not understand where the goods came from, they mistakenly attributed their emergence to magic. And they believed that they, through magic of their own, could accrue the same riches as the white man. These became known as ‘cargo cults.’
Perhaps you can see where I am going with this.
Kundalini Yoga is still very much about form
There is a lot of arm flapping in Kundalini Yoga. And much showing of overt spirituality; the turban, the spiritual dresses, the veils.
But the inner is not the outer.
Does all that manifest display actually invite the goddess to ascend, or is it merely a colorful distraction that reinforces the illusion of spirituality? In other words, when we look at kundalini yoga today, with all its curious artifacts and practices, are we looking at a vacuous doctrine dressed up like royalty, or is there something valuable that we can recover from it beyond the form?
I will be honest. I have never liked the turban. And when I came to ask my first teacher, I said, look, I need a teacher, but if you are going to ask me to wear a turban, you can forget it. He said: I will never ask you to wear a turban.
This was enough for me. But there were several reasons for me to put it on anyway. And I did wear it for a while in Amsterdam, and in France. And then there were several reasons to take it off again.
Experimenting with form
Mostly I went through the whole thing as a yogic experiment. In India, some groups of yogis make obscene gestures and spit at other people to make themselves immune to the opinions of others. For me, the turban was like that. How to deal with judgments when you look like that as a white guy in western society?
Of course, there are also other aspects to it. Like how people will immediately see you as someone spiritual, or a guru. In that sense, the turban has excellent advertising value. It reminds me of something called ‘peacocking.’ I read about this many years ago in “The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists” by Neil Strauss (*****).
It’s a romance hack that involves wearing a feathered boa or a large hat that makes you stand out from other men when you are in Da Club. This is to signal to the ladies’ lizard brain that your manhood enjoys a particular elevated status among the other men.
A turban is a lot like that, too.
Form, Identity, Group
And then there is the identity aspect, of course. Not unlike adolescents donning ragged leather jackets, spray paint hair, and spikey belts calling themselves’ punk,’ there is the re-invention of the born again self that now ‘longs to belong’ to a particular group, naming themselves the pure ones.
It is an identity fixation, and an odd one at that, because it is presented as natural. Even when it is ‘scientifically’ underpinned. “The turban will compress the bones of the skull, creating a natural [my emphasis] cranial adjustment.” (There is nothing wrong with the bones in my skull, thank you very much.)
I remember once meeting a young Sikh Dharma man who told me that he did not cut the hair on his head, because ‘why would you interfere with something that God so obviously created?’ I hope he did not notice when I looked incredulously at this clipped fingernails.
There is a tendency among Sikh Dharmists, or at least this is the way that I have experienced it, to regard non-Sikh Dharma kundalini yogis as lesser brothers and sisters. But many of them are kind and patient.
They simply view each practitioner in terms of the distance they have to go between where they are now and being a ‘real Sikh.’ I spoke about this ‘there is something wrong with everyone’ attitude that is endemic to KY teaching at length in this earlier article.
Idealism, perfectionism, fundamentalism. These are the attributes that I often see traveling on the shoulders of those that regard the form as paramount. It is a group that I personally feel no more affiliation with.
Returning to the issue of the turban, when I kept it on, it was because of one main reason: my students. I believed, at the time, that as a teacher, I represented the students’ higher self. It made perfect sense, therefore, to present myself as impersonally as possible, with a turban, and mostly dressed in white.
Discovery of the Authentic Self
But one day in the mountains, during a tantric dance that moved me deeply, I was filled with the sense of “This is who I truly am.” And that did not include a turban. In fact, I then came to the insight that to best serve my students, I did not need to dress up in clothes that felt strange to me, from a culture that wasn’t my own. And I have abandoned the turban from that moment on.
We can only serve our students if we let go of the facade and become who we really are. I have been riffing on this theme for several articles now, but I really want to drive it home today.
It is time to let go of the form and return to the essence.
Of course, some would reply that form and essence go hand in hand. And in a way they do. But form is by its nature ambiguous. It can lead us astray as well as back home.
What form can teach us
In the best-case scenario, form teaches us about non-form, emptiness. So form does not, as we are apt to think, point to ‘something,’ but rather to ‘nothing.’ As all form is ultimately empty. This is the most important realization a practitioner can have.
Everything eventually will pass. That is not a philosophical conviction. Everything that you can touch will someday pass out of existence. Take a broom, for example. If you burn it, it no longer exists. Therefore its nature is essentially emptiness. This applies to all physical and mental phenomena. And that is the best lesson that form has in store for us.
Form of the teacher
When I speak about form, I talk about the teacher too. Because living teachers have form as well. And that this form is misleading is something everyone now understands about Yogi Bhajan.
One yogi friend told me that instead of trusting a fallible man, he now places his trust in the infallible word of the Siri Guru Granth Sahib, who is regarded as a living teacher as well, sans shortcomings of the flesh.
However, I have learned from fallible men for 13 years. I am one myself. And I still think there is something we can learn from them. The question is: Who inspires you? Who do you want to learn from? Can you overlook mistakes and admit someone can help you travel a bit further on the path, even if they are not perfect?
The four teachers
It is helpful to consider that there are four categories of teachers, and you do need all of them. The first is a living lineage teacher, like Yogi Bhajan was, but also every Kundalini Yoga teacher that is alive today. They are all living lineage teachers.
The second teacher is the body of words written by awakened beings. I can wholeheartedly recommend the Poetry of the Enlightenment: Poems by the Ancient Chan Masters by Sheng Yen.
The third teacher is the personal experience acquired by living in this world. If you don’t get caught by the first two, this one surely will. Ordinary life teaches us that it is unreliable and futile, if nothing else, and leads us naturally to the last and most ultimate teacher.
This fourth and ultimate teacher is the jewel that resides in each of us, our enlightened essence. This is not the fake, constructed teacher identity that I spoke about in another article, but the unconstructed unobscured luminosity that you are.
When you take off your turban and lay your personality and ambitions to rest, this is what remains. If you can somehow contact this, and stay stable in that contact, you are practicing yoga beyond the form. And this is one of the conclusions that I wanted to arrive at today.
For authentic yoga practice, there is no extra need for religion.
The riddle of religion
So why does it come bundled with Kundalini Yoga – as taught by Yogi Bhajan?
It is sometimes said that Yogi Bhajan introduced the hippies to Sikhism because he wanted to offer them a moral framework.
I am not sure about that, but I also think a moral framework can be helpful. The sense that everything is perfect as it is, sometimes called the pure view, can lead the practitioner to believe that ‘anything goes.’ But it doesn’t. We must still operate with an eye for the law of karma and act with kindness.
Spiritual vision vs. behavior
Padmasambhava, that old tantric grandmaster, talked about ‘losing the conduct in the view.’ That is precisely what happened to Yogi Bhajan. Because there is no ultimate right and wrong, he believed he could behave any way he liked. It turned out well in his case because his legacy is nullified (a good thing, despite how it sounds). Although it was less good for the ones on the receiving end of his wraths and desires.
The opposite of that is to ‘lose the view in the conduct.’ This is the mistake that many of Yogi Bhajan’s detractors are currently making. So obsessed with good and evil, that they have no chance to wake up from the prison of that dualistic state.
Padmasambhava said: Even if your view is as vast as the sky, keep your conduct as fine as barley flour.
In other words, even when you have sublime realization, on the level of behavior, it is still necessary to discriminate between good and bad deeds. On the level of personal action, it is needed to accept some things and reject others, even though the view takes them as one.
But not much of a code is needed. We certainly don’t need a whole religion. I believe it is just these three things:
Do no harm, be kind-hearted, and try to see clearly.
The legacy of a true teacher
Because Yogi Bhajan so obviously misbehaved, much of his legacy is now being called into question. And this allows us to better observe the essence of what was being transmitted to us.
One of my teachers once asked his master (who was a tantric yogini) if there was anything that he should leave behind. What was to be his legacy as a teacher?
She replied: if you leave anything but space, it is wrong teaching.
That is why the net effect of the current Yogi Bhajan explosion is so good. It leaves space.
We are all living lineage teachers
We, the teachers that came after, are all lineage holders, and we can ask ourselves, and this is the question that I wanted to raise in this article, what are we transmitting? Are we holding to a form that’s limiting ourselves or our students, or are we teaching from essence?
Do we dress up as monkeys like the master did, and speak the word that the master spake, or do we dare to connect within and let go of the garb, in every sense of that word, that is not us?
Become authentic, and take your place
Do we dare to stop hiding behind the masters mask and truly bring forth our light in the world?
Like Aragorn, who was long unwilling to accept his true form as king but gave in to it in the end, we can connect to our own inner king and queen, take the empty spot that has been reserved for us, and bring forth our inner riches that the world is waiting for.
Until it is our time to make space again.
Thanks for reading.
All that is gold does not glitter
Not all those who wander are lost
The old that is strong does not wither
Deep roots are not reached by the frost
From the ashes a fire shall be woken
A light from the shadows shall spring
Renewed shall the blade that was broken
The crownless again shall be king
— J.R.R. Tolkien, Fellowship of the Ring