Kundalini yoga came back into my life when I interviewed rock and roll photographer Mick Rock. Called “the man who shot the seventies” Mick is best known for his photos of David Bowie, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. He’s also a life-long yogi and a Kundalini practitioner.
Mick first discovered yoga around 1970, when he was taking LSD and “experimenting with fasting and sleep deprivation — systematically disorientating my senses à la Rimbaud, if you will”.
In 1996 Mick first tried Kundalini yoga, a year or so after he had a series of heart attacks and a quadruple bypass brought on by decades of taking coke, smoking and staying up for days on end. He was in his late 40s. Mick thinks Lou might been the first person to mention Kundalini yoga to him and may even taken a class with him. But it was other factors, not least Mick’s early grounding in the Hatha yoga practice taught by BSK Iyengar, that really connected him to Kundalini. Lou’s obsession was Tai Chi.
Kundalini was the first yoga I ever did, 10 years ago — immediately after I’d given up drinking. It put me in a thoroughly altered state. During Savasana, the relaxation at the end of the class, I saw pulsing, swirling orange, pink and purple colours behind my eyelids. When I stumbled out of my first class, everything was broken up and dancing. It felt like my eyeballs had been washed. After the stoned feeling wore off, ideas for my writing began to flow like I’d never experienced before.
I practiced Kundalini yoga for six months, usually saw the orange and purple colours and always walked out of classes high.
The Lou Reed connection was also serendipitous. When I was thirteen, as that Velvet Underground song goes, “My life was saved by rock and roll.” I heard I’m Waiting for the Man on pirate radio at 3 am one morning and it fascinated, repelled and terrified me in equal measure.
I painted the cover of Lou’s 1972 album Transformer, based on Mick’s photo, on my bedroom wall so large it covered the whole thing.
It was Lou who made the subterranean, decadent, excessive and transgressive so seductive for me. I felt like an alien in the small rural English town in which I grew up. Lou showed me a planet on which I could feel at home. Mostly, this manifested itself in me becoming a black-out drinker from my early teens. I drank until I was 46, when I went on a spiritual retreat and came out sober and certain in my heart that I’d never drink again.
I found it funny and neat that where once Lou had pointed the way to the wild side, he was now indirectly responsible for me returning to my quest for some sort of enlightenment. Not long after interviewing Mick, I began practicing Sat Kriya. I planned to do so for 40 days,
An entire yoga class in one posture
Sat Kriya is described by Kundalini yogis as “an entire class in one posture” that “works on all levels of your being — known and unknown”. I’d done it before in classes but only for a few minutes. It is, as yogis love to say, challenging.
To practice Sat Kriya, you sit on your heels and stretch your arms over your head with your elbows tight to your ears. Your fingers are interlocked except the index fingers which point straight up in the air. Men are meant to cross their right thumb over their left, but I always forgot to do that and crossed my thumbs the other, female way.
Sat Kriya involves chanting “Satnam” over and over, inhaling and sucking in your abdomen and drawing your stomach up under your ribs on the “Sat” and relaxing it on the “Naam”. “Satnam” means “whose name is truth”. Whose name exactly is truth, I’m not sure.
When you do Sat Kriya, your eyes are closed and you roll them up towards your third eye. This, apparently, puts pressure on your frontal lobe and is good for your brain.
The first morning I tried Sat Kriya, I managed five minutes. It was hard to keep my arms close to my ears all the time. Towards the end, they began to shake violently. My legs went to sleep. Looking up towards my third eye didn’t make doing Sat Kriya feel any more profound but it did make me push my arms up higher.
Afterwards I lay down, closed my eyes and breathed deeply. My chest hurt. I wasn’t sure whether anything had happened to my consciousness, but I was proud that I’d managed even five minutes.
Next morning, I decided to go for 11 minutes. This was the first step towards building up my practice of Sat Kriya. For some reason, Kundalini yoga recommends increasing 11 minutes at a time. I found a piece of music by Kundalini devotee Snatam Kaur called Jap Man Sat Nam that was 11.07 long and began.
Once again, although my arms started to sag several times and to shake even more violently towards the end, I was amazed and delighted when the music faded out and I was still Satnam-ing. I was trembling when I lay down, my lungs hurt and it took time to bring my breathing under control.
Yogi Bhajan believed that to permanently change your habits and realize the full effects of a kriya, you need to practice for blocks of days at a time. I decided to do Sat Kriya for 40 days. This would break any negative habits that would block the expansion Sat Kriya might give me. If I practiced for 1000 days, I would be able to master the new habit of consciousness that Sat Kriya promised. Whatever this might be — and I had no idea — I could call on it to serve me, no matter what the challenge. Beyond that, I didn’t know, but I began to think I’d practice Sat Kriya every morning for the rest of my life.
Beginning the morning after I first got to 11 minutes of Sat Kriya, my practice went like this:
Sing Ong Namo
Downward Dog for five minutes
Tree Pose for balance
Sat Kriya for 11 minutes
Savasana for 11 minutes
Seated leg stretches and twists
Chanting the prosperity chant “Har Har Har Har Gobinday” for 11 minutes, as well as “Gobinday Mukanday” which “eliminates karmic blocks and past errors, balances brain hemispheres, purifies the magnetic field and brings compassion and patience”.
Singing Long Time Sun with Snatam Kaur.
Long Time Sun is a sweet little hippy folk number from from the Incredible String Band’s 1968 album The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter and a favorite of Yogi Bhajan, who brought Kundalini yoga to the West.
I would practice in the morning while my partner was asleep. The sound of my “Satnams” and the music disturbed her, so I closed the door of the yoga room and was in my own world for an hour.
Why Sat Kriya?
There may well be subconscious or esoteric reasons why I began practicing Sat Kriya that may rise to the surface of my mind in time. Until then, this is what I know.
When I spoke to Mick Rock I was reminded of how much I’d loved Kundalini and what it had done for my creativity. Practicing Kundalini had never failed to turn on a tap somewhere in my consciousness that flooded me with ideas — inspired, insane or daft.
This usually happened before I drifted into deep meditation and as I was coming out. I thought of it as my ego, or monkey mind, trying to distract me away from complete surrender to egoless drifting in the orange and purple.
But now all I did was write for money. I had no energy. I rarely felt like sex. (I didn’t know then that Sat Kriya is believed to raise sexual energy.) I hauled myself through the days.
I felt alienated from my partner, who turned up her nose at my fascination with my inner world. She never tired of quoting Zoolander 2, the bit when Hansel appears on a rooftop and cries “Who am I?” and, on another nearby rooftop, Derek calls out the same thing. I laughed but it stung.
Most of all, though, I believe she thought I just wanted to escape reality and responsibility and, by implication, her. It was true that we used to practice yoga together before I started with Sat Kriya, but I would have loved her to do Kundalini yoga with me.
When I walked into our bedroom with her coffee after I’d done my morning practice, she’d say “You look crazy. Your eyes are red and all…” and she’d make motions with her hands as if my eyes were flying around in all directions.
I would say “I feel great. Energized.” I liked the way my neck, shoulder and arm muscles were becoming harder and more defined. But, apart from being spaced-out, I had no idea how I really felt. I assumed that after 40 days some sort of profound transformation would occur. I wanted to drive something in me to the point where it either changed or broke.
I ignored her.
Talking to Mick Rock also reminded me of how much Lou Reed meant to me. Even in his later years, when his music was often painfully earnest and ponderous, Lou had been some sort of touchstone. I would listen to an album and a lyric would jump out:
In the pocket of the heart, in the rushing of the blood
In the muscle of my sex, in the mindful mindless love
I accept the new-found man and set the twilight reeling.
And Lou was driven to work, to create. His 2011 album Lulu, made with metal band Metallica two years before he died, was painful listening but it was impossible not to admire his sheer self-belief or balls. I needed some of that.
Sat Kriya for my father
After I’d been practicing Sat Kriya every morning for 21 days, I went to Germany with my 80-year-old father and two younger brothers. My father, who has cancer caused by asbestos, wanted to go up the Brocken, a mountain near Bad Harzburg where witches gather on Walpurgis night.
He’d got close to it on a cycling trip in 1958 but had been turned back at the border with East Germany. Now it was the only thing in his bucket.
We chose the weekend before the Day of the Dead.
My brothers and father had flown from the UK to Bad Harzburg. I arrived later than them and had been assigned a bedroom with my father. Before we fell asleep, we sat talking, me on the bed we were to share, my father in a chair.
“I’ll be doing some yoga tomorrow morning at six,” I said. “Is that all right?”
“I don’t mind,” he said.
“It’s a bit strange, Dad. I grunt and sing along to mantras. If you wake up and think you’re in an Indian restaurant, I’m sorry.”
We talked about my father’s situation. Over the course of the evening, my brothers had become a little tearful talking about his chances of living longer than a few months. I found it impossible to feel anything. I was fatalistic and so was my father.
Sat in the armchair, sipping tea, he said, “I don’t see a future.”
I deliberately misunderstood him. “Nor do I, Dad,” I said. “There’s only the present and, anyway, it’s not over until it’s over. Anything might happen. You can do what you like right now.”
“I don’t want to be resuscitated.”
“I know where I’m going. I’ll see everyone in heaven — your grandad, all my friends, the dogs. I’ve already written the story of my own funeral.” I thought of the bit in Tom Sawyer, one of my father’s favourite books, where Tom watches his own funeral. “I’ve written 62 stories now,” he said.
He stood up and I saw how much he’d shrunk. His body had slumped into a question mark. His head looked larger, bean-shaped. He went into the bathroom and came back naked. I didn’t want to see my father with no clothes on. As a child I must have looked at his nakedness and been fascinated. I’m sure all sons do. I don’t know how long I will be a son. I will have no sons of my own, unless a miracle happens.
My father changed into his pyjamas and got into his side of the bed.
“Goodnight Dad,” I said.
As I waited for sleep, I thought about how unemotional we were about his death. He knew it was coming. I knew it was. He had made his wishes clear. There was nothing else to say. When his passing hit me, as it certainly would, there would be a reckoning to be had with myself but that would come later and perhaps never.
That night, my father got up to go to the bathroom four or five times. He panted like a dog that had been run hard.
At 6 am, I began my yoga practice by the light from the bathroom. I dedicated the practice to my father. Perhaps it would help him.
After I finished singing Long Time Sun, I bowed my head and gave thanks to my teachers. The bedroom was silent for a few moments until my father said “That was beautiful. Thank you. I tried to breathe along with you.”
It wasn’t what I expected him to say.
That morning, we went up the Brocken in a steam train. As we climbed up through forests that stretched for miles, in and out of valleys of trees damaged by acid rain, I wondered if my father was remembering all the journeys he’d taken to and from the Steiner boarding school he went to in the 1940s and 50s.
One of my father’s great pleasures was reading Rudolph Steiner in the original German. He was a lifelong socialist and claimed to be baffled by all of Steiner’s mysticism, but he was comforted by what he read. Even if it was only nostalgia.
It was only then that I realised how similar my father and I were. I didn’t really know if practising Sat Kriya and chanting for prosperity and so on would make any difference to my life. I just liked the effect it had on my body. And I loved being in the place of aware emptiness in my head that the practice took me to. I felt ridiculous singing, especially Long Time Sun, but it was comforting.
I wasn’t sure if my father had ever had what you’d call a mystical experience. If this involved feeling a sense of joyful oneness with something larger than myself — call it the universe or god as you wish — seeing things that couldn’t be explained rationally or drifting out of my body, I certainly had. But I couldn’t surrender all the way. I was always trying to find scientific, intellectual explanations for what had happened to me.
I hoped my father’s belief in heaven was real.
The train climbed higher to the summit of the Brocken and into thick mist. We could see a few feet either side of us but that was it. The train stopped, and we climbed down onto the platform into a howling wind and freezing mist. We joined the Germans in expensive hiking gear heading straight for the café.
My brothers ordered beer, wurst and rolls and my father goulash. He looked up from his steaming plate and said, “I had this idea that I’d get to the top of the Brocken, that there would be empty blue skies.”
* * *
Back at home, I continued practising Sat Kriya every morning. My partner said I was obsessed, that it made me crazy.
Ten days after I got back to Germany, I finished Sat Kriya and lay down. It was cold and I was sweating. I knew then that I was going to be chilled. I could feel it in my kidneys. But I made myself lie and relax for 11 minutes before putting my t-shirt back on and singing my mantras.
The next day I woke up sick. Over the couple of days that followed, I managed to walk to the shops twice but, both times, I could barely breathe — I was panting like my father — and had to keep stopping. I thought I had a virus. On a Friday night, my partner took me to a 24-hour clinic. The doctor asked me to breathe so she could smell my breath. “You need to go to hospital right now,” she said.
If she hadn’t said that, I may well not be alive to write this.
* * *
I was diagnosed with thrombosis in my right leg. My left leg was swollen with fluid. I had a pulmonary embolism connected to the thrombosis. My liver was infected with a virus soup so potent that the fruit juice I drank was fermenting inside it and becoming alcohol. The doctor didn’t believe I hadn’t had a drink for almost 10 years. Even now, he says “You can never drink again,” every time he sees me. The most serious problem was and is my heart, which is enlarged — I don’t know exactly why but I guess it became infected.
I spent 10 days in the hospital. I was feverish for the first few days. I’ve lived in this country for three years and still can’t understand more than a few words of its language. But I would wake in the small hours convinced that the nurses and other patients were speaking English. For some reason, they sounded like professors.
The nurses didn’t know quite what to make of me. Unlike the other patients, I was naked in the bed for the first few days. I had no idea that hospital protocol meant that I should be covered. I was shitting myself and the catheter would become disconnected. The nurses saw my tattoos and thought I was some kind of handyman.
I dreamed of Lou Reed. The elder Lou, not the snotty, stick insect of the seventies. Although I don’t recall him ever saying anything meaningful in my dreams, he felt like some kind of guru. He wore a dark blue sports coat.
Half-awake at night, I believed that that my body had been separated in two. I had another mouth that led to my heart. I was oddly calm. And I never felt like I was going to die.
My partner visited two or three times a day. I would hear the click-clack of her heels long before she came into my room, sit up straight and begin to smile. She handled the doctor and nurses with charm and cool diplomacy and brought me food and drink. She fed me. The hospital food was shockingly bad.
A couple of days after I’d been admitted, I called my mother and father to tell them what happened. The irony, or perhaps significance, of ending up in the hospital seriously ill when my father had terminal cancer didn’t escape me. My father answered the phone. When I told him I was in the hospital, he wailed “Oh God, David. Please look after yourself” and went to get my mother, who, whatever she felt, appeared to stay calm as I explained what had happened.
I shudder when I think about how much my call must have shocked my mother and father. They had been reconciling themselves to not knowing how long my father had to live, after almost as many years of marriage as I’d been alive. They’d had to get married when my mother fell pregnant with me. I am their firstborn son. And my father had often said that the thing he dreaded was one of his children dying before he did.
Now we were strangely connected, both seriously ill. But I was also even more removed from the messy duty of caring for him and supporting my mother. I was too ill to travel. Had I abdicated responsibility, even if unconsciously, found a way to be take some of the load off my father by giving something to worry about that wasn’t his own situation, and made myself the centre of attention at the same time?
Meanwhile, my partner didn’t hide her anger. She blamed “That fucking Satnam” for putting me in the hospital with a condition that I’d have for the rest of my life, however long that would be. “You’re so extreme,” she said. “You get obsessed, go too far.”
Later, when she told me she would come home from hospital and cry herself to sleep on the sofa, I felt ashamed for causing her so much pain. The thought made me cry.
I had to admit I was driving myself towards something as dark as it was light. I wanted to break through to a level of bliss I’d never reached before — for which read escape — but I wouldn’t accept that what I was really talking about was permanent escape from feeling weak and trapped.
I understood that loving her came with responsibility. Although we’d been together for three years, I’d somehow still believed I was still on my own and that I could do stupid, reckless things with the only person who suffered being me.
* * *
My partner had bought my notebook to the hospital. The first thing I wrote, in crabbed writing, was “Saved again. But what for?”
I now think I was saved to tell my story. Even if I wasn’t, it’s what I have to do. I know practicing Sat Kriya triggered a condition that already existed and that what made me ill was my need to chase bliss.
People who’ve done the Twelve Steps talk about a “dry alcoholic” — someone who’s stopped drinking but who is still dysfunctional. I don’t know if chasing bliss how I do could be described that way, but transcendence does, for me, mean escape. And, when I drank or did drugs, I wanted to escape by getting out of my mind.
I couldn’t tell you how much of this was about seeking enlightenment. But since I’ve come to believe that insights I’ve gained through meditation are no more profound than those I had when sliding into a bender or in the fizzy giddiness of a fine hangover, I think the only real difference is the kicking booze and drugs do give your body and brain.
Meditation also doesn’t make you do toe-curlingly embarrassing, stupid shit.
In my defence, I’d say that I was also genuinely trying to use the discipline of practicing a Kundalini kriya for 40 days to change something in my life.
I’m frightened that I can still do physical damage to myself when, after all those years of boozing, I thought I’d learned about my relationship to my body. I had no idea what was wrong with me. Which makes my belief that certain kriyas could massage my heart or clean my lymphatic system laughable. I’ve always known that much of what yogis say about the effect a kriya or posture has on their body comes down to believing it to be so. But what if a practice affects an underlying condition that you don’t know exists? Is that just bad luck?
Whether I was simply unlucky or not, practicing Sat Kriya certainly triggered whatever it was that made me so ill. We who practice yoga talk about how powerful it is, especially Kundalini. But I had no idea how powerful it could really be.
When I was back at home, recovering and researching this article, I came across a description of Sat Kriya that warned against pushing the physical body too much because “You may have an experience of higher consciousness, but not be able to integrate the experience into your psyche. Respect the inherent power of the technique.” I didn’t do that.
We also need to respect the people who we love and who love us. I was once in a retreat — it was where I somehow found whatever it was that made me stop drinking — and was asked what I really wanted. From the depths of my soul, I cried “To love and be loved.” This is a contract that I didn’t honour.
Right now, I’m recovering — I hope — slowly. I can walk a little further every day without being out of breath. I’ve lost over 10 kilos. I take walks around the block, feeling like a spy recovering from having been tortured. Each time I venture a little further I get nervous. I look like I have two black eyes. I’m even more forgetful than I was before.
I can’t do yoga yet but I will soon. I’m scared to start chanting again. I’m trying not to escape into bliss but it’s not easy.
My partner bought me a brain machine that works on alpha, beta and theta waves. I wear headphones and a pair of glasses with a screen in each lens onto which light pulses at the speed of healthy brainwaves. On the outside they’re like the mirror shades Lou Reed wore. The unit that contains all the different programs generates binaural tones and a heartbeat sound that play through the headphones. The strongest setting is theta. It’s meant for creative visualisation. This was the first one I tried. It sent me into a deep meditation where 40 minutes passed in what felt like five. When I took off the headphones and glasses, I was absolutely stoned. Just like after Kundalini yoga meditation.
I have a way to go yet.
This was written in February 2018. I’m now able to practice yoga, although nowhere near as vigorously as I used to. This has turned out to be a bonus as I focus far more intensely on the asanas I can do than I ever did before. My online course teaching yoga for writers and writing for yogis is the fruit of this new degree of depth.
I don’t know if I’ll ever practice Kundalini yoga again. My doctor has told me that I will need a replacement heart valve some time in the next 18 months.