Kundalini Yoga from the Himalayas: Tantrik Lessons on Inner Transmutation

Swami Rama, Path of Fire and Light, Volumes 1 and 2. The Himalayan Institute Press, 1988

Imagine sitting at the feet of an enlightened yogi and listening to this person’s teachings. Picture learning some of the esoteric practices that have been at the core of yoga for centuries. Envision having an experienced guru explain what it takes to safely awaken your kundalini. This is what Swami Rama, a yogi from the Himalayan tradition, does for you in the two volumes of his Path of Fire and Light.

Swami Rama’s work  is an introduction to what it takes to prepare for a kundalini awakening—a process that, he argues, is even more important than the awakening itself. Unfortunately, as Swami Rama notices, in today’s world yoga has been emptied out of its original meaning, and the asanas (postures) Westerners practice in gyms and fancy studios are but a secondary, if unduly glorified, component of hatha yoga. Derived from Tantrik teachings, the original hatha yoga goes above and beyond the current emphasis on asanas to span purification and breathwork practices along with meditation, and behavioral prescriptions. Just as importantly, hatha yoga entails a cosmology whose ultimate goal is to encourage the practitioner’s merging with the Higher Self. In his work, Swami Rama discusses all of these elements.

Much of Volume 1 is devoted to the understanding of breathwork. After providing his readers with a few dietary suggestions, Swami Rama delves into the description of pranayama techniques: kapalabhati, nadi shodhana, ujjay, and several more. He also describes the bandhas as the “locks” that help move prana into the spine—the ultimate goal of hatha yoga–and presents the teachings of svarodaya as the science of breath. Svarodaya practitioners develop awareness of how prana alternates between ida and pingala, the lunar and solar canals on either side of the spine; as they do so, they learn how to harmonize their daily activities with subtle energy cycles. True yogis must familiarize themselves with the five vayus as types of pranas that flow inside the body; their education also entails an understanding of the correspondences between chakras and tattvas (the elemental forces of earth, water, fire, air, and ether). Volume 1 includes an introduction to meditation techniques, which Swami Rama classifies as “gross” (focusing on an external object); “subtle” (breath awareness); and “luminous” (centering on a point of light or an image inside the practitioner). These entail, among others, visualizing one’s chosen deity in the heart center, gazing at a candle without blinking, and visualizing oneself as a void to be filled by divine light.

The last two chapters of this volume are devoted to the awakening of kundalini, the energy of manifestation that, in the human body, lies dormant in the muladhara chakra. Whether we recognize it or not, any human endeavor worthy of attention involves a trickle of kundalini towards higher energy centers. A conscious awakening requires not only letting kundalini rise from the muladhara chakra, but it also entails leading her all the way up to the fontanel. This is an endeavor for which there are no shortcuts, Swami Rama argues; he also dismisses Westerners’ habit of having their kundalini awakened by a guru rather than through their own efforts. Such teachers, he surmises, often mislead their students by encouraging wrong interpretations of experiences that are purely emotional rather than spiritual. Instead of having a teacher do the work for them at a weekend workshop, yoga students need to fully prepare for the awakening. Once they are ready, their guru’s role will be to identify the appropriate approach to moving the energy upward through sushumna, the central canal in the spine.

Presented as a Practical Companion to Volume 1, Volume 2 contains essential information on the kind of emotional hygiene that is necessary for hatha yoga practitioners: as Swami Rama rightly observes, meditation—and the power of kundalini—amplify whatever emotional energy the individual may be grappling with, and an untamed mind is a recipe for disaster. Swami Rama’s teachings range from healthy principles for emotional management to the awareness of the process of dying, and from the transmutation of negative thoughts to the understanding of the mind.

Though presented in a somewhat meandering style that resembles the stream-of-consciousness of Indian spiritual discourse, Swami Rama’s lessons contain an abundance of invaluable advice. Such is, for example, the suggestion to let time filter our reactions, or the exhortation to practice what he calls “love without object” (p. 75). Along these lines, Swami Rama also encourages his readers not to use their loved ones as a “crutch” (p. 83). Nobody can give you happiness if you are unable to find it within you, he rightly observes.

Volume 2 illustrates the steps for a successful self-transformation. Of particular interest is Swami Rama’s suggestion to treat the mind as a “friend” (p. 98) rather than a foe, enlisting its help in the internal dialogue through which we explore our emotional processes. The role of the mind on the path to a kundalini awakening is the pursuit of discernment—a healthy reminder for spiritual practitioners who are easily swayed by false teachers, both in the inner and the outer realms.

Establishing a steady posture for meditation and allowing one’s breath to become calm are also requirements for the yoga practitioner. If, during a sitting, disturbances arise, it is because of the emotions we have bottled up. As Swami Rama suggests, introspection is key to spiritual success and so is the ability to release—rather than suppress—distracting or disturbing thoughts. By observing emotional and mental processes without grasping them, seekers will make steady progress on the spiritual path.

Of particular interest are Swami Rama’s teachings on the science of sound. Consistent with the Tantrik tradition from which his yoga hails, Swami Rama suggests that when a teacher “imparts a sound to you… [the guru] is giving an angel to you” (p.128). One mantra is all you will need, because your mantra is your teacher and its sound will lead you to a deeper silence. According to Swami Rama, there is one mantra that awakens kundalini, and it is so-ham: “I am That.”

The pursuit of a kundalini awakening requires an understanding of subtle physiology, and Chapter Ten is devoted to this purpose.  Interestingly enough, Swami Rama encourages his readers to regard common yogic depictions of chakras as symbols that are not to be taken literally. However, Swami Rama’s descriptions of the chakras’ functions and the associated bija mantras are mostly consistent with what we find in much the Anglophone literature—except for the colors, which in this work have a distinctive Hindu flavor.

The last chapter of Volume 2 is devoted to the practice of yoga nidra as a type of yogic sleep during which, by concentrating on their forehead, throat, and heart chakra, practitioners remains fully conscious. Suspended between sleep and samadhi (deep meditation), yoga nidra allows them to obtain knowledge that is inaccessible to the waking mind.

Both volumes of The Path of Light and Fire are replete with essential teachings; Volume 1 is somewhat more technical, and Volume 2 dispenses advice on the kind of emotional healing that is instrumental to a safe awakening process. Informed by Tantrik doctrines, both volumes contain a wealth of information on a variety of yoga techniques that are unknown to most Western practitioners. As such, they are highly recommended for all those who are curious about yoga, its true purposes, and its methods. The Path of Light and Fire is also a treat to students of kundalini and all those who are keen on exploring subtle energy dynamics.

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