Kundalini Yoga: Ravi Singh's "True" History
“I believe kundalini yoga predates history as we know it.” I’ll reveal the author of that absurd statement soon. But first I want to remind readers of the topic at hand: Are Yogi Bhajan’s kundalini yoga sets permanently connected with him? If so, is it possible to experience his yoga without also experiencing his character? If not, why not? There is no consensus around those questions, but there are still many people doing the practice and offering teacher training programs, so we must continue to ask them.
Few have seriously explored the question of the practice’s impact on people, both physically and emotionally. I’d love to see that kind of work.
But over the past few years there have been several efforts to answer the lineage question once and for all, including Zabel’s recent article. Here’s that general argument: the now-disgraced Bhajan left behind a masterful West-friendly combination of esoteric Sikh and Hindu tantric hatha yoga. The yoga he gave us is a direct extension of a fascinating past rather than a flawed human. Plus, all yoga masters combine innovation with ancient lineages. Plus, if we were to avoid everything of value simply because of the moral failings of its originator, this argument goes, we could never drive Volkswagens (a Hitler success story) or visit Washington D.C. (founded by slaveholders).
The teacher, we’re told, is not the teachings. Yoga students today and far into the future will benefit from kundalini yoga because of its lineage. We know it’s true because many students find that the yoga “really works!” Go get those old Master’s Touch books and Snatam Kaur CDs, and rev up as many new kundalini yoga teacher trainings as the market will allow. Kundalini yoga is back!
Hm. Not so fast. “In 2020, several people who’d previously practiced under Bhajan or worked closely with him,” writes Crystal Raypole in HealthLine, “came forward with allegations of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse against him. While many practitioners still believe in the benefits of Kundalini yoga, there are questions about what the future of kundalini yoga should look like.”
Great question: What should the future of kundalini yoga look like? My answer is that there should be no future for kundalini yoga, but that’s just me.
Ravi Singh, who has studied and taught the practice for half a century, strongly disagrees. In fact, he was one of the first to present a post-Premka history of the practice, and I had the privilege of sitting in on the presentation. Inspired by Zabel’s article, I’ve recently reviewed my notes.
The presentation took place in May 2020, and Singh’s students and teachers came ready to believe. For them it didn’t need to be a solid presentation; it just needed to seem solid and scholarly. That would allow them to go on with their own kundalini yoga practices and businesses.
The promo was that Singh would present a “true history of kundalini yoga,” a history that wouldn’t even include Bhajan, whom Singh had cited glowingly no fewer than 150 times in his 2018 book, The Kundalini Yoga Book: Life in the Vast Lane.
During my two decades of practicing, teacher training, and teaching, we were taught that Bhajan was central to the practice. And as Singh wrote, “The great sweep of Yogi Bhajan’s mastery and wisdom transcended the sum of his influences. We feel it can only be explained as the work of lifetimes” (p. 26). How was Singh going to convince his audience, fresh off new revelations of the master’s criminal behavior, that the teacher was not the teachings?
Somehow, he succeeded. Reading dryly from a script for two full hours, quoting from several sources without ever crediting the authors, he repeatedly asserted that his yoga, which is also Bhajan’s yoga, was not a recent invention. Instead of exploring Bhajan’s claims of an ancient lineage, a golden chain, and a Khalsa Sikh foundation, and instead of investigating Bhajan’s actual yoga sets, Singh took a grab-bag approach. If anything occurred in the past that had any possible connection with Bhajan’s teachings, Singh would offer it as proof that Bhajan’s yoga is ancient and timeless. Certain mudras predated Bhajan, so Bhajan’s yoga was legitimate. Certain mantras predated Bhajan, so Bhajan’s yoga was legitimate. Guru Nanak did mantras, so Bhajan’s yoga was legitimate. Tibetans and Sufis and Naths and Hindus had all done yoga, so Bhajan’s yoga was legitimate. In fact, according to Singh, Bhajan’s yoga predates mankind. “I believe,” he said during the presentation, “kundalini yoga predates history as we know it.”
Singh presented three mantra meditations during the presentation, and two of those were created specifically by Bhajan. That wasn’t mentioned, though, probably because we were told in advance that it would be a talk about the history of kundalini yoga without ever mentioning Bhajan’s name.
And Singh's audience ate it up. More than 100 people attended the Zoom presentation, paying $20 each. The topic was a yoga practice created and trademarked by someone who the entire audience now knew had bullied, abused and even raped some of his students. Yet there were no questions about how Bhajan’s yoga sets, the ones that Singh has taught live, through his videos, and through his books, might be unique to Bhajan. It was enough, apparently, that the words “kundalini” and “yoga” had indeed predated Bhajan. No questions were asked about what Singh, who started studying with Bhajan 50 years earlier, might know about Bhajan’s process of creating the yoga sets. Nothing was even asked about the sources of Singh’s “true history of kundalini yoga,” other than requests for one of the songs he played during the meditation.
Instead there were these comments, according to notes I took at the time:
"Dang each moment of this talk is a pearl dropped into my lap!”
“Thank you so much! Beautiful expression of Spirit!”
“So thankful for you, Ravi, and sharing of your body of knowledge. Sat Nam Ji.”
“Love all the information Ravi! Thank you!!”
“Thank you Ravi, this was amazing!”
The larger point of this workshop, and of the work of others to backfill a legacy and lineage to Bhajan’s yoga, is that if anything resembles the teachings that Bhajan introduced to Westerners, then the practice has a lineage. Anything that can be recognized as a near or distant relative to the yoga sets created by Bhajan exist as proof that Bhajan was teaching an ancient practice, not the fraudulent cultlike practice that he is now being accused of. According to Singh, kundalini yoga emerged from a combination of Sufism, Tantra, Classical Yoga, and both traditional and esoteric Sikhism. If he says something from other time periods or traditions is “very similar” to Bhajan’s yoga, he has proven that the yoga that he teaches has a pre-Bhajan history.
Indeed, the purpose of the presentation, it seems in retrospect, was to give Singh, as a teacher, more authority in the eyes of his students. If he knows all these facts about history, yoga, India, and other exotic places, then he must be a master teacher. The problem is that this “true history” was presented with one argument only: that what Ravi Singh is teaching, and by extension what other kundalini yoga teachers are teaching, is both perfect and legitimate.