By Alison Vincitore
Today The Three Magazine is excited to feature the second part in an essay series by guest contributor Alison.
To read Part 1, click here.
As I’m sure you can imagine if you read Part 1 of this series, I’ve always been a crier. Even in public. I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve cried in class at least once a year, from preschool through college. I mean, I took a Zoom Italian class at the beginning of quarantine and I had to turn off my video and mute myself at least twice because I was just absolutely breaking down.
A few years ago, as I was dealing with a series of physical and mental health ailments, I found a wonderful acupuncturist who accepted my insurance. I had gone on and off growing up as it’s pretty popular among my family. For the most part, it really doesn’t hurt. Except the toes. My god, do the toes hurt.
Anything on the ankle or below was just awful for me, especially the pinky toe. I have to imagine it undid quite a bit of the effect of the appointment. I would try to remember the purpose of those toe points and leave anything related out of my complaints at the next appointment, but each time she’d have a different reason to cover my feet in needles. So when she recommended Kundalini Yoga, which would apparently help clear blockages in my heart and throat chakras, I thought I might have a way out of the toe-poking.
As I did research, I couldn’t quite get the gist of what this specific type of yoga was all about. There were these websites that had a pretty strong cult vibe to them, with a hint of rehab wellness retreat. Now I’m not saying it is a cult, but check out those websites and you’ll see what I mean. I also had this sort of uneasiness about what it meant for me as a white 20-something with almost no money of my own to go to Kundalini Yoga after a recommendation in acupuncture.
Turns out, I was right to feel that way. There’s an article on The Juggernaut entitled “How a Cult-turned-Corporation Hijacked American Sikhism”, which states “a Punjabi conman created the ‘Kundalini Yoga’ brand and turned a 550-year-old religion into a commodity that centered whiteness”. This man—who is apparently the namesake of Yogi Tea—spent the 60s and 70s convincing white hippies that he was a prolific yogi.
Not unlike Bikram Choudhury, Harbhajan Singh Khalsa (also known as Yogi Bhajan and Siri Singh Sahib) created a cult-leader-style persona and bastardized a number of practices, beliefs, and mantras to package and sell especially to the white and wealthy—all while reportedly sexually, physically, and verbally abusing countless followers, including minors. He (and his followers) also appropriated the Sikh religion, for example with the wearing of turbans. As The Juggernaut examines, Sikhs who wear turbans face clear and often dangerous discrimination in daily life, and the practitioners of Kundalini wear them with no understanding of their impact, true meaning, religious relevance, or reality.
I certainly do not want to be a part of any of this and definitely wish I hadn’t so ignorantly participated. I didn’t wear a turban or any kind of head covering and I don’t particularly remember mentions of mantras or Sikhism. I truly thought I was just going to a yoga class like any other I had been to but maybe with less focus on strength and more focus on meditation. Despite my best efforts to research, clearly I hadn’t looked hard enough. I don’t have the knowledge to write an exposé or definitive look into the world of Kundalini Yoga. But since writing these essays are very much a reflection on myself, what I can say is that I have learned a lot since and I have a lot more to learn still.
Do I feel like a terrible person because I went to one yoga class? No, not really. Am I ashamed that I went to a class that has manipulative and appropriative roots? Absolutely. I think you’ll see throughout this essay just how many boxes of “Privileged White 20-Something in Brooklyn Who Thinks She’s Not Part of the Problem But Absolutely Is” I checked, and that’s certainly more vulnerable and embarrassing to admit than describing how I cried while cocooned in a piece of fabric two feet off the ground.
But if there’s any time to admit the dumb shit and tonedeaf missteps I’ve made and keep moving forward, it’s now. I could admit a ton from that year alone, but they don’t have anything to do with exercise so I won’t. I went at the recommendation of more than one person I felt knew what they were talking about—at least one of whom practiced Kundalini themselves—but also ignored the red flags and preemptive cringyness I felt because I wanted to try new things, have more health and wellness in my life, and I guess just figured, “gotta clear those chakras.”
I got a trial to ClassPass, and chose a class at the cutest warehouse-style yoga studio—the type of place anyone whose idea of Brooklyn was based on Girls and tampon commercials would imagine. Obviously, I used the rest of the trial’s free credits on a massage.
When I arrived at the class, the teacher was wearing all white and a head covering, just as I had read about. Except, the head covering was a beanie and his outfit—a linen button down and cargo pants. Immediately, I knew I wasn’t gonna like this guy. Los Angeles vibes radiated off of him, and I was in the Brooklyn Lena Dunham and NuvaRing had shown me. I was still hopeful I might enjoy my class because it had one of my favorite features: being virtually empty.
But then, just as the class was starting, a man came in with full confidence, whipped out his mat, and positioned it directly in front of me.
Without any care to check behind him.
He could have gone literally anywhere in the room. With only three other people in the studio, there must have been dozens of open spots. He could have found a nice corner or gone in the nonexistent front row and made sure he was creating stage-style widows for the people behind him to see. But he chose right in front of me. If he stuck his foot out backwards, it would have hit my nose. Whatever, just more material for my future masterpiece about white men taking up space. I decided to let it go, since being annoyed probably wasn’t conducive to chakra healing.
Turns out, my research gave me exactly zero information about what Kundalini actually is. To be fair, my primary focus was making sure it wasn’t a cult. During the introduction of the class, I learned the following things about Kundalini Yoga:
- You’re supposed to have your eyes closed the whole time.
- You’re supposed to do the yoga at the absolute fastest speed you are capable of. I mean like, risk whiplash.
- You are going to be doing “fire breathing” (controlled hyperventilation) the whole time.
- In this class, the teacher was going to play the loudest and least relaxing music known to man.
It was a true recipe for a sensory overload and an I-have-no-way-to-see-or-hear-the-instructions-induced anxiety attack. As you may imagine—or maybe not because it’s ridiculous—I started sobbing almost immediately. Bawling. So much for my wellness-based lifestyle change. At least this time no one could hear my cries.
As we whipped back and forth between cat and cow, I slunk into child’s pose. Maybe this is my heart chakra clearing, I thought. I don’t really know anything about chakras.
Every now and then I did some of the yoga at my normal pace, with my eyes open, and breathing how I wanted to. But mostly, I just shoved my face into the mat and cried like someone had just died.
I still couldn’t hear a thing he said over the music that in my memory was heavy metal, but I’m almost positive it wasn’t. I spent probably twenty minutes trying to talk myself into asking him to turn the music down. This is your chance to clear your throat chakra. Say what’s on your mind!
I thought through scenarios where I yelled, “Sorry, I can’t hear you! Can you turn down the music a bit?” But ultimately, what happened was I yelled “WHAT?!” once angrily and through tears, but no one heard me and I just kept doing whatever nonsense I was doing. At some point I started doing some defiant cat/cows, eyes open and relaxed.
I think I was annoyed when I left. I got some takeout on the way home, which made it all worth it. I probably called my mom. I’m pretty sure it was almost immediately funny to me. I mean, I was sobbing. Hard. For essentially no reason.
I’m blaming it on the beanie.
I reported back to my acupuncturist and she was stunned; she laughed and admitted, “Yeah, you’ve gotta pace yourself and work up to it. It’s a learning curve.”
Beanie Guy did not say I was allowed to pace myself.
Maybe it helped out my chakra situation even though I did it entirely wrong and maybe it didn’t. I took screaming “WHAT” as a step toward speaking up for myself. Not a very good step, but a step nonetheless. I knew I was not interested in trying it again. Reading this again in 2020, a few years after I experienced and first wrote about it, it’s definitely a reflection on a number of things about myself, what I have since learned, and what I still need to learn.
I was recommended something by people I trusted, so I did it regardless of my skepticism and total lack of understanding. It’s certainly embarrassing—and that’s really saying something since this is a four-part essay series about crying in beginner-level fitness-adjacent classes. Maybe writing about it is the true chakra clearing I supposedly needed. Like I said, I know nothing about chakras.
What I know for sure is there were three good things about that class: it was free, I hypothetically got a workout, and I got out a good cry.