The lesser known history of Yogi Bhajan part 1: Kundalini Yoga is not what he taught

Since this blog is dedicated to one specific exercise taught by Yogi Bhajan;
yet nowhere else any of his exercises were taught, it is imperative to research into the history and sources, in order to be clear of the angle where his teachings came from.
In the first 5 minutes of following video scholar Christopher Wallis explains that Kundalini Yoga historically is not at all what Yogi Bhajan (who did claim the term) taught.

This series of articles will send the kundalini yoga practitioner into unkown territory.
For a start: it is explained in this video that Kundalini Yoga is not older then 1400 years.

So here is the first part of his recommended article:

From Maharaj to Mahan Tantric:
The Construction of Yogi Bhajan’s Kundalini Yoga Philip Deslippe
which you can read in full here: https://escholarship.org/uc/item/6r63q6qn

Introduction:
On October 6 , 2004 the man born as Harbhajan Singh Puri and popularly known as Yogi Bhajan died of complications from heart failure at his home in Espanola, New Mexico. The obituary that ran in the New York Times a few days later called him the “’Boss of Worlds Spiritual and Capitalistic,” a fitting title for someone who in the course of three and a half decades had built up numerous large businesses, counted politicians and dignitaries as close friends, and was held as spiritual leader. Despite its size or its many facets, Yogi Bhajan’s legacy and empire was decidedly built upon the practice of Kundalini Yoga. Wherever his students located themselves, as primarily Sikhs, employees of the businesses, healers, yoga teachers, yoga practitioners, or a combination thereof, virtually every single person was introduced to Yogi Bhajan and his Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization (3HO) through the practice of Kundalini Yoga.

Previously untaught to the public and presented as distinct from other forms of hatha yoga being taught, Yogi Bhajan’s Kundalini Yoga was a vigorous and intense combination of postures or asana, rhythmic movement, chanting, meditation, and intense breathing exercises orpranayama. Within the framework of an ancient, sacred, and [369] previously secret yogic tradition that uniquely claimed ties to Sikhism and its ten human Gurus, Kundalini Yoga offered its practitioners powerful experiences and a lifestyle that went well beyond yoga and meditation to encompass everything from diet and sleep to dress and relationships.(2)(3) If it is difficult to conceive of Yogi Bhajan’s legacy without Kundalini Yoga, then it is just as easy to see how many of its practitioners placed it at the very center of their lives.

A few months after newspapers and wire services ran their obituaries of Yogi Bhajan, Aquarian Times, the official magazine of 3HO, ran an obituary of their own in the form of a tribute issue to honor their spiritual guide. Nestled between the personal memories, tales from 3HO’s early years, and dozens of old photographs, was an article written by Shanti Kaur Khalsa, one of Yogi Bhajan’s senior students, titled “My Teacher’s Teacher”(Khalsa 2005). Crafting a smooth narrative from fragments of Yogi Bhajan’s lectures that had been retold and passed on by his students for decades, Shanti Kaur’s piece told of Yogi Bhajan’s training in Kundalini Yoga from his teacher Sant Hazara Singh. While just a young boy, the privileged and spirited Yogi Bhajan was sent to study under his teacher, a Sikh sant and mystic who had memorized the 1430-page Siri Guru Granth Sahib and was a master of the martial art of Gatka, White Tantric Yoga, and Kundalini Yoga. Sant Hazara Singh was a strict disciplinarian and brutally demanding, often putting his young student through exhaustive trials and yogic training that molded his character. At the age of sixteen, and just before Partition would tear India apart, Sant Hazara Singh declared Yogi Bhajan a master of Kundalini Yoga, ended his own role as his teacher, and told him that the two were never to see each other again.

For students of Yogi Bhajan the history of Sant Hazara Singh is more than a matter of simple genealogy or lineage. Yogi Bhajan taught that that in Kundalini Yoga the link that stretched back to antiquity from student to teacher formed the “Golden Chain.” Every time Kundalini Yoga is practiced, whether privately or in a public class, the mantra “Ong Namo Guru Dev Namo” is intoned three times to “tune in” to this Golden Chain and to be guided and protected by it (Khalsa 1996, 14). Sant Hazara Singh is the only tangible person offered that precedes Yogi Bhajan in the lineage of Kundalini Yoga. The idea of The Golden Chain also helps to bolster the accepted belief in 3HO that Kundalini Yoga was an ancient practice that was forced into secrecy for centuries until Yogi Bhajan taught it openly in the West. The secrecy explains why nothing predating Yogi Bhajan seems to mention the specific details of Kundalini Yoga’s practice in the same context, while The Golden Chain of masters and their students explains how such a practice could be passed down and remain intact until the late-1960s.

But when the Golden Chain of Kundalini Yoga is investigated rather than invoked, it unravels. Within the first two years of 3HO is a hidden and vigorously revised history that stands in stark contrast to the accepted understanding of what Yogi Bhajan’s Kundalini Yoga is and where it originated. A three-month trip Yogi Bhajan took to India with eighty-four of his students in December 1970 can be seen as the dramatic, demarcating pivot that ended the initial understanding of Yogi Bhajan’s Kundalini Yoga and birthed its current, popularly understood mythology. Instead of a single unaltered lineage, there lies a progression of forgotten and abandoned teachers, figures invented and introduced, and a process of narration and mythologizing born out of cultural context, temporal events, and pragmatic necessity.[370]

The Sant and The Swami

When Yogi Bhajan first began teaching his Kundalini Yoga in Los Angeles, he did not mention Sant Hazara Singh as his teacher and guide, rather he deferred to a Sikh sant named Virsa Singh. Born in present-day Pakistan about eight years after Yogi Bhajan, Virsa Singh moved with his family to the Indian-controlled section of the Punjab during the Partition of 1947. Soon after the move and near the age of ten, the young Virsa Singh became quiet and introspective, detaching from worldly life and meditating for twelve hours a day. He then had a vision of Baba Siri Chand, the son of the Guru Nanak, who appeared to him in physical form. Baba Siri Chand instructed the young Virsa Singh to repeat the Naam of Ek Onkar Sat Nam Siri Wahe Guru, and later, Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh also appeared to Virsa Singh (Fisher 1992, ch. 20). Virsa Singh became itinerant and miracles and healings were done through him. As the renown of his spiritual power spread he was referred to as “Maharaj.” By the late-1960s, Maharaj Virsa Singh was living in New Delhi at 9 Teen Murti Street, a house given to his student and member of Parliament, Nirlep Kaur, and by 1968 a farm and spiritual center to be known as Gobind Sadan was being constructed on the outskirts of the city, inspired by the models of Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh and with the Siri Guru Granth Sahib at its center.

Yogi Bhajan was living in New Delhi at this time, but it was his wife, born Inderjit Kaur Uppal and popularly known today as BibiJi, who was the initial devotee of Maharaj Virsa Singh. A student of Maharaj Virsa Singh was told by Maharaj himself how BibiJi would carry bricks and dirt on her head to help the construction at Gobind Sadan, and before there were buildings on the land, would sleep on the ground after a day of service there.(4) It was BibiJi who told Yogi Bhajan to go to Maharaj Virsa Singh and receive darshan from him (Khalsa 1970b, 2). In time, Yogi Bhajan himself would bring others to Maharaj Virsa Singh, including Major Sahib, the man who gave Gobind Sadan its name (Singh 2010). During his first years in the United States Yogi Bhajan would often repeat a story of how he would visit Maharaj Virsa Singh after he finished his day’s work as a customs officer at Delhi’s Palam airport. Still in his uniform, Yogi Bhajan would dutifully clean the toilets at Gobind Sadan until one day Maharaj Virsa Singh was emotionally touched by his student’s devotion and then physically touched Yogi Bhajan at his third-eye point between his eyebrows, inducing an ecstatic and enlightening state of “cosmic consciousness.” This story was written up, printed, and offered as one of the few pieces of 3HO literature available to students and guests in the early days in Los Angeles.(5)(6)

While there is no secondary confirmation of Yogi Bhajan’s story of being touched on the forehead and becoming enlightened, Maharaj Virsa Singh himself stated that he gave Yogi Bhajan the Naam of Ek Ong Kar Sat Nam Siri Wahe Guru in 1968, something that Yogi Bhajan himself recounted in an early lecture he give in Los Angeles and was often repeated within 3HO (Yogi Bhajan 1969; Anonymous 1970a). According to devotees of Maharaj Virsa Singh, theNaam of Ek Ong Kar Sat Nam Siri Wahe Guru can be traced back at to Guru Gobind Singh and a Janamsakhi from Bhai Ram Koer, a Sikh from the Court of the Tenth Guru (Singh 2008, 115). Maharaj Virsa Singh would give Naam openly and publically, often to large crowds of people, but at times he would give it directly to individuals. Outwardly, the process of giving Naam is simple: the Master recites the mantra [371] Ek Ong Kar- Sat Nam- Siri Wahe Guru, to the student in three parts, the student repeats each section back to the Master in turn, and the whole mantra is repeated back and forth in this way for three rounds. Inwardly, the giving ofNaam is described as a much deeper and powerful mystical experience. A former student of Yogi Bhajan who went on to study with Maharaj Virsa Singh after Yogi Bhajan’s death, Bhai Himat Singh, described the experience of receiving Naam from Maharaj Virsa Singh as something encompassing blessing and a transmission of spiritual power. Just before Bhai Himat Singh was given Naam, Maharaj Virsa Singh told him, “I am going to give you the same Naam I gave your teacher before he went to America!”(B.H. Singh 2009). It was the chanting of thisNaam of Ek Ong Kar Sat Nam Siri Wahe Guru that was at the center of the practice of Yogi Bhajan’s Kundalini Yogi during its first two years, and constantly reprinted posters of this mantra would claim that chanting it for two and a half hours a day for forty consecutive days would liberate the practitioner.

Yogi Bhajan also claimed that he was sent to the West by Virsa Singh and that shortly before departing, he was presented with his master’s sandals in a ceremony. In his earliest days in the United States, as a matter of deep respect, Yogi Bhajan would place those sandals on his altar, and a photograph of these sandals was included on a brochure printed to promote a celebration of Maharaj Virsa Singh’s birthday.(7) Warren Stagg, Yogi Bhajan’s second host in Los Angeles after Doctor Amarjit Singh Marwah, remembers that Yogi Bhajan would place sandals on the bed he was given and sleep on the floor.(8) While, again, there is no secondary confirmation of the narrative involving the giving of sandals, the term which Yogi Bhajan repeatedly used to describe Maharaj Virsa Singh was clear: Master (Khalsa 1970a; Yogi Bhajan 1969).

Maharaj Virsa Sing.png

Beyond the term “Master,” there is a wealth of further evidence documenting the relationship Yogi Bhajan claimed with Virsa Singh. A photograph taken by Lisa Law in 1969 of the New Buffalo Commune in Arroyo Hondo, New Mexico, clearly shows an image of Virsa Singh placed on an altar of one of Yogi Bhajan’s students, above a photograph of Yogi Bhajan and below a poster of the “Code Mantra” of Ek Ong Kar Sat Nam Siri Wahe Guru.(9) The 3HO ashram in Tucson, Arizona was named the “Maharaj Virsa Singh Ashram” in honor of Yogi Bhajan’s teacher.(10) One of Yogi Bhajan’s senior teachers during this time, “Baba” Don Conreaux claimed that in helping 3HO’s rapid expansion during its earliest years, he was helping to fulfill “the Hookum (Holy Order) given to him by Yogi Bhajan from Maharaj Ji, to train 108 teachers to open 108 Ashrams” (Khalsa 1970c, 11). The birthday of Maharaj Virsa Singh was celebrated by Yogi Bhajan’s students in February of 1970 as a holiday with a week of around-the-clock chanting of Naam in two-and-a-half hour shifts leading up to the day itself (Khalsa 1970a, 2).

While chanting the Naam of Ek Ong Kar Sat Nam Siri Wahe Guru was essential to the students of Yogi Bhajan’s Kundalini Yoga, the physical elements of the practice did not come from Maharaj Virsa Singh, but rather from a Hindu yogi named Swami Dhirendra Brahmachari, five years the elder of Yogi Bhajan. When he was just an adolescent, Dhirendra met his guru, Maharishi Kartikeya, in Bihar and began to study yoga and related subjects under him (Bhramachari 1973, xiii). By the time he was in his forties, Swami Dhirendra Brahmachari was a teacher in his own right and based out of his Vishwayatan Yogashram in New Delhi. In addition to growing acclaim, he counted Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi among his students. It was at this center in the early 1960s where Yogi Bhajan began to study with Swami Dhirendra Brahmachari. The former director of the ashram, Mrs. Vanmala Vachani, described Yogi Bhajan as a frequent visitor to Dhirendra’s classes, but not a very close student or acolyte.(11)

While Swami Dhirendra Bramachari was viewed as a teacher of hatha yoga, the essence of his teaching was Sūkṣma Vyāyāma, described as “a subtle practice aiming at cleansing the nervous- , nadi-, and glandular-systems in order to achieve higher awareness in the body.”(12) It is within the Sūkṣma Vyāyāma and Swami Dhirendra’s unique teachings that the defining physical characteristics of Yogi Bhajan’s Kundalini Yoga can be found.(13) The most significant of the numerous similarities between the two include: the use of the rapid diaphramic breath through the nose known as Bhastrikā Prāṇāyāma (renamed as “Breath of Fire” by Yogi Bhajan) while holding postures, the frequent use of the posture Uttānapādāsana in which the buttocks rest on the floor and the head and feet are raised off the ground (renamed by Yogi Bhajan as “Stretch Pose”), the holding of postures for extended periods of time which Dhirendra would teach “to enter a state of trance and meditation,” and the retention of the breath and the application of internal bodily locks known as bandhas at the conclusion of an exercise or pose.(14)

Dhirendra’s Sūkṣma Vyāyāma was also the source for several of the unusual and numerous rhythmic, callisthenic “back and forth” exercises Yogi Bhajan taught as Kundalini Yoga including: turning the head left and right, rotating the head and neck in circles, extending the arms straight out in front of the body in punching, jerky motions, rotating the arms in circles forward and backwards, standing and stretching the arms up and back while stretching the body backwards and inhaling (renamed by Yogi Bhajan as “Miracle Bend”), alternately kicking the buttocks with the heels of the feet to stimulate the kundalini energy, and squats with the arms extended straight out in front of the body (renamed by Yogi Bhajan as “Crow Squats”).(15)[373]

The influence of Swami Dhirendra Brahmachari was not only absorbed through Yogi Bhajan’s time at the Vishwayatan Ashram, it was also taken literally by the book. The two English- language titles of Swami Dhrirendra’s teachings were included in the bibliography of a 2003 book of photographs and poetry dedicated to Yogi Bhajan’s hatha yoga practice and claimed expertise in the late 1960s (Khalsa 2003, 204). In 1975, the 3HO magazine K.R.I. Journal of Science & Consciousness published their special Summer Solstice issue which would later be reprinted as an instructional manual titled Kundalini Yoga for Intermediate Practitioners. Both printings included a section written by Gurucharan Singh Khalsa, a student of Yogi Bhajan and director of the Kundalini Research Institute, titled “The Navel Point” that was a crude and unaccredited reworking of the chapter “Nabhi Cakra” from Dhirendra’s earlier work YogicSūkṣma Vyāyāma. The 3HO publications included a four-part “Navel Adjustment Kriya” that was presumably offered as a Kundalini Yoga exercise, but was taken directly and in the same sequence as Dhirendra’s four-step “Self-Treatment of the Navel” exercises.(16)

Next: > Yogi Bhajans religious Janus-face

Notes:
(1) Followers of Yogi Bhajan will commonly refer to him by the title “Siri Singh Sahib” as a matter of deference to a title he claims he received in early 1971 at the Golden Temple that made him the Sikh authority of the Western Hemisphere. Critics of Yogi Bhajan will often refer to him by his birth name, Harbhajan Singh Puri, as a way of consciously stripping him of titles they consider fraudulent. He is referred to as “Yogi Bhajan” in this article to primarily reflect the way he was most popularly known and to also stand distinct from both views. The figure of Virsa Singh was referred to as Maharaj in his earlier years and Baba Virsa Singh in his later years. While both “Maharaj” and “Baba” are respectful titles, in this article he will be referred to as Maharaj Virsa Singh, in keeping with references made to him both within 3HO and at Gobind Sadan during the time period focused on. The phrase “Kundalini Yoga” will be capitalized to denote the specific practice that Yogi Bhajan taught and to keep references distinct from other practices that were referred to as kundalini yoga. Finally, the term “3HO” will be used as an umbrella term to encompass the various organizations created by Yogi Bhajan and his followers, since this was the first organization and it, along the variation “3HO Family,” has been used in a similar way within internal literature.
(2) While Kundalini Yoga has simply been described as “ancient” by 3HO for the last several decades, through the 1970s an approximate date of its birth was given by 3HO as 26,000 B.C. See “Yoga: The Origins and Development of Yoga and the Science of Kundalini Yoga as Taught by Yogi Bhajan” by Rama Kirn Singh and Gurucharan Singh Khalsa in Kundalini Quarterly, Summer 1976, 2-8, and a mention of Yogi Bhajan in the November 28, 1970 issue of the Arizona Republic.
(3) Some of the many instances in which Yogi Bhajan asserted that the historical Sikh Gurus practiced the same Kundalini Yoga that he taught include classes on June 10, 1971 and January 12, 1976, and undated Kundalini Yoga exercises such as “Indra Nittra Meditation” and “Ong In Virasan (For Negativity).” In the summer of 1976, an article was written in Kundalini Quarterly by Gurucharan Singh Khalsa and Rama Kirn Singh that claimed that not only did the Sikh Gurus practice Kundalini Yoga, but that very yogic practice predated them and “gave rise to a group of practitioners known as Sikhs.”
(4) Interview with Bhai Himat Singh, telephone, 16 June 2011. Bhai Himat Singh was a practitioner of Kundalini Yoga and a direct student of Yogi Bhajan’s for approximately two decades, beginning in 1983. After Yogi Bhajan’s death, Bhai Himat went to Gobind Sadan where he spent time with Maharaj Virsa Singh and was given Naam by him.
(5) Interview with Ron Brent, telephone, 6 January 2011. Brent was an early student of Yogi Bhajan’s in Los Angeles. In late-1970 he left to become a student of Swami Muktananda and travelled to India to spend time with him. By coincidence he was staying at Gobind Sadan when Yogi Bhajan and his students arrived in late-1970. He not only saw the group at Gobind Sadan, but during that time was one of five people in a small meeting between Yogi Bhajan and Maharaj Virsa Singh, and at Maharaj Virsa Singh’s insistence, had the Punjabi conversation translated into English for his comprehension.
(6) Interview with Antion Vic Briggs, telephone, 5 July 2011. Also known as Vikram Singh Khalsa, Briggs was in 3HO for approximately two decades starting in January of 1970, and was a Mukhia Singh Sahib (or senior minister) within the group.
(7) Interview with Antion Vic Briggs, telephone, 5 July 2011.
(8) Interview with Warren Stagg, telephone, 8 June 2011. In the mid-1960s Stagg owned and operated H.E.L.P. on Third and Fairfax, one of the first health food restaurants in the city, which quickly became a meeting place for New Age people, teachers arriving from the East, and “everyone on a health trip.” Stagg described himself during this time as “the guru greeter of Los Angeles.”
(9) Available to view on the online “Communal Living” exhibit on the website of the Smithsonian: http://americanhistory.si.edu/lisalaw/6.htm#h05
(10) Interview with Andrew Ungerleider, telephone, 23 June 23 2011. Ungerleider began practicing Kundalini Yoga in the fall of 1969 in Arizona and then later in the spring of 1970 in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He was present on the 1970-71 trip to India and left 3HO in the mid- 1970s after 3HO made its turn towards strict discipline and the reorientation towards Sikhism. (11) Correspondence with Reinhard Gammenthaler, 21 September 2011. Gammenthaler was a close and the final student of Swami Dhirendra Brahmachari. His tutelage is described at length in an interview with Schweizer Yoga-Journal from 2003 that is available at http://asianyogaholidays.com/interview-gammenthaler-DB_en.html.
(12) Correspondence with Reinhard Gammenthaler, 21 September 2011
(13) Descriptions of Swami Dhirendra Brahmachari’s yogic teachings are based on his two booksthat were translated into English, Sūkṣma Vyāyāma (1973 edition) and Yogāsana Vijñāna (1970edition), and correspondence with his student Reinhard Gammenthaler.
(14) Correspondence with Reinhard Gammenthaler, 23 and 21 September 2011
(15) Parallels to these rhythmic exercises can be found in Swami Dhirendra Brahmachari’sSūkṣma Vyāyāma (1973 edition) as exercises #9, 10, 13, 16, 22, 41, and 43.
(16) Compare images #5-10 from Kundalini Meditation Manual For Intermediate Students with images #105-108 in Sūkṣma Vyāyāma (1973 edition).

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