Updated: Jul 13, 2020
Besides the yoga element of my Nia Technique training (a synthesis of dance, martial arts, yoga & somatic awareness practices), the first time I remember taking a yoga class, was when I was 36 and pregnant back in 2001.
It was a pregnancy, then mother and baby class taught by a warm-hearted, gentle female teacher.
And it was a wonderful, nurturing experience to progress right the way through my pregnancy with the same group of women and then continue on together with our newborns.
I loved it most especially for the sharing of our stories and states as women.
Though I do also recall finding the practice itself just a little dry, slow and static, sometimes even boring.
As my Nia Technique teaching took off (6 classes a week at its peak), my yoga practice naturally fell away, even as I continued to study aspects of yogic & meditation philosophy and Nia itself included a distinct element called Floorplay.
Fast forward 7 years – to 2008 - and somehow I got word of a practice called Kundalini Yoga being taught at a fabulous new yoga centre in the heart of Camden – one of London’s trendiest hubs. I knew instantly I had to go and try it.
My fellow Nia teachers had frequently commented on my high energy or “lots of kundalini” and I’d never understood what they meant. Now I had the opportunity to find out.
The very first class blew me away. Something in my soul was deeply touched. I found myself lying on the floor weeping, with no idea why. And when the class was over, I walked up to the teacher and asked how I might train.
He advised me to keep coming to classes for a year and then to begin my teaching training. And so I did.
The KRI Kundalini Yoga & Meditation Level 1 Teacher Training was a revelation. Somehow, even though I was a hard-up single Mum, I managed to find the money and the childcare to make it through the year.
And in my fellow students, I found the most wonderful group of souls I had ever come across. It felt like a home-coming.
The training and practice was demanding; asking me to make commitments to daily meditations and sadhana in a way I’d never done before!
Somehow, I completed meditation practices that were initially so challenging I never thought I’d master them and found a self-discipline quite new to me.
The vigorous kriyas appealed to my inner athlete and the morning chanting set my soul on fire.
I was itching to teach, and so, even before qualifying, I volunteered to teach addicts in recovery at a local rehab centre in Camden, as well as breast cancer patients and survivors at The Royal Free Hospital.
Not long after that, I was teaching a weekly class in Crouch End, which continued for the next 10 years!
Over the course of that decade, I taught further classes and multiple workshops in central London, as well as every summer at Festivals & overseas Retreats, developing a special focus on the Teachings for Women, as well as on conscious relating and the intersection between sexuality and spirituality.
I advanced my studies and practice by taking the KRI Level 2 Trainings in Authentic Relationship and Mind & Meditation: participating in further intense meditation practices, shadow hunting and self-enquiry.
The Kundalini Yoga teachings and practice, as well as the soul family I became a part of, have undoubtedly played a huge part in my personal and spiritual growth. Nor do I doubt the value my classes provided for my students.
That said, there were some aspects of the teachings I baulked at from the start, but gradually adopted, most notably the wearing of a turban.
If I’m honest, I didn’t ever understand the reasoning given for this in my teacher training, but I submitted to what I felt to be an unspoken pressure to do so.
There was certainly a Kundalini Yoga teacher “look”: all white clothing, turban and sheepskin over the yoga mat, that all of us gradually took on, without anyone ever explicitly insisting that we did. (Though I do remember being shouted at for leaving my socks on in class once! LOL!)
This didn't do me or anybody else any harm. I actually loved wearing white. Still do. And indeed, many students swore by the difference it made to the containment of their energy. But still, it was a point of conformity around something that, as I look at it now, doesn't really affect the power of ones practice.
As someone with a deep love of music and gift for creating play-lists, I felt resistance to the guideline that we could only use music with Sikh mantras in our classes - beautiful though though they are.
And I began to feel increasingly restricted by, yet afraid to deviate from, the strict template for warm-ups and kriyas, which did not offer any adaptations for students, who were less strong or flexible.
There was a lot of wisdom in the teachings, but what also didn't sit well with me was the way they incorporated Sikh doctrine as if it were a part of yogic philosophy.
And then there was the whole issue of our lead male teacher (the one who’d introduced me to this practice) being reported for inappropriate behaviour with several female students.
I didn’t like the slow response to this issue being raised, nor the fact that he was allowed to continue teaching for quite some time after it had been reported.
But I felt powerless to do anything and conflicted around the fact that he had been such a gifted teacher, who had introduced me to this life-changing practice.
Several years later, in 2017, I attended the Bali Spirit Festival to conduct a series of interviews with the lead teachers there. One of them was the incredible feminist yogi, Katchie Ananda. (You can watch my interview with her here).
She opened my eyes big time to the patriarchal structures, prejudices and abuse endemic right across all the big yoga schools and traditions. I’d had no idea!
Of course, by this time, I was already a bodyworker, energy healer, Facilitator of Sexual Awakening for Women and Priestess of Rhiannon teaching my own Dancing the Goddess practice (more on that next time). Ironically though, at the time of those interviews, I was also entangled in an abusive relationship.
The following year, revelations began to come out in the world of neo-tantra about ongoing sexual abuse on the part of many of the leading teachers and gurus, including Shantam Nityama, whom I had also interviewed back in 2017. (You can watch this interview here).
One by one, the stories came out, until, it seemed hardly one male teacher was left standing in integrity. This affirmed for me my instinctive pulling away from that world to focus on the more subtle tantric meditation practices of the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra and their translation into The Radiance Sutras.
And then earlier this year – March 2020 – I heard about and immediately read a book published by Pamela Dyson called “Premka: White Bird in a Golden Cage”, exposing Yogi Bhajan, the founder of Kundalini Yoga and 3HO – the international world headquarters for the practice – for his ongoing sexual, emotional and mental abuse from the earliest years of his teaching in the west. Not only that, she revealed his fraudulent, nepotistic business practices.
This, it turns out, was just the tip of the iceberg.
The accounts that I subsequently read on a Facebook group for those affected were sickening.
What was also revealed, was that Yogi Bhajan was not actually the yogi from a long lineage and neither was the practice of Kundalini Yoga the coherent ancient “technology” he had claimed it to be. (If you are curious about this, you can read Philip Deslippe’s academic article: “From Maharaj to Mahan Tantric”).
As a result of these revelations, I could no longer, in good faith, continue to teach Kundalini Yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan. Even the mantras I had once loved stuck in my throat.
Not wanting to leave my loyal and long-standing students in the lurch, I told them this and continued to teach, feeling a little lost, processing anger, disgust and sadness, and praying for guidance.
And even though some of those interim classes felt clunky and a little hesitant to me, it wasn’t long before something new began to take shape. Without me really having to think about it.
I had the realisation that Kundalini is Shakti energy after all: the Divine Feminine force that creates and sustains all life. And that the techniques and teachings for activating kundalini energy are not exclusive to the “Kundalini Yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan” practice I’d learned. In fact, I was already intimately acquainted with other approaches.
I did not need this particular form of Kundalini Yoga to be able to teach the embodiment and awakening of Shakti! I was already doing that.
As for the yoga element, its ultimate goal is self-realisation, not a bendy legs competition. And the physical asanas are just one part of it. Yoga is the sustained cultivation of awareness and inner union: God and Ego, masculine and feminine, body and mind, sex and spirit.
In fact, if you read Uma Dinsmore-Tuli’s Yoni Shakti, she’ll tell you that physical yoga may have been created by men trying to re-create the experiences and spiritual gifts of Shakti that come so naturally to women.
With this in mind, I resolved to teach a series of classes on the Mahavidyas (The Ten Wisdom Goddesses from Tantra Yoga), incorporating all that I had learned from Uma Dinsmore-Tuli, Sally Kempton (author of Awakening Shakti), Kavitha Chinnaiyan (author of Shakti Rising) and my previous engagement with these archetypes in my Dancing the Goddess practice.
Each week I read, chanted, meditated, reflected and took to my mat to invoke and practice with a different aspect of the Divine Feminine.
Once I stopped worrying so much about what and how I was going to teach, I discovered that after 17 years of teaching Dance, Yoga, Embodied Awareness, Tantra, Meditation and Awakening for Women, the synthesis of all of this, combined with my capacity to channel Goddess energies, was quite naturally creating an easefully flowing, somatically aware and student-centred practice that is alive, powerful, womb-honouring and sacred.
And I could – finally – incorporate all the amazing music I have. Oh, and wear pink too !
SHAKTI YOGA was born.
With this shift, my enthusiasm for my daily practice sky-rocketed. Suddenly, I was eager to get on my mat every day (I’d become pretty disenchanted with straight Kundalini Yoga for some time), tune in and allow my body to teach me. Yoga was, once again, a JOY !!
Now no longer restricted and regimented by the strict form of Kundalini Yoga, I could integrate my love of graceful, fluid, experimental, playful, rhythmic and expressive movement and gestures, that held meaning and moved energy from a softer place of loving the body and taking delight both in dynamic practice that builds strength and flexibility, as well as the bliss of stillness and deep meditation.
And I could confidently incorporate ALL the wisdom I've accumulated as a result of so many years' teaching women about embodiment and spirituality, thereby offering my students a richer experience and a more inclusive, empowering approach to adaptations and self-care.
To be honest with you, once I overcame the birthing pangs (and admittedly, this was a fast labour, though, if you think about it, I’ve spent a very long time nourishing the roots and seedlings of this baby) my only thought has been “why didn’t I do this sooner!”.
It took a friend to point out to me the interesting symmetry: I taught The Nia Technique for 10 years before birthing my own practice: Dancing the Goddess. And now the same pattern has repeated itself for the creation of Shakti Yoga.
As with all things, a practice such as this isn’t fixed, nor do I now consider myself at the end of a long journey. My hunger to learn, grow and deepen as a teacher of Yoga and Awakening Shakti is ever-present, and I am actively seeking out reliable female or womb-honouring sources in tantra and yoga, alongside trusting my own experience and inner wisdom.
I typically devote 2-3 hours a day to meditation, reading and physical practice, as well as sitting in meditation and satsang with my two favourite teachers (Ananta Kranti & Fleur Inanna) of deep awareness and inner unification as often as I can. (Both of whom, you’ll notice, are women).
It would take at least another two blogs to address the huge issue of the patriarchal mindset embedded within yogic philosophy and teaching, as well as the traumatic aftermath for those women, who have been abused in the fields of yoga and tantra.
But as one, who gave her power away in an abusive relationship and also as a yogi, who stopped questioning aspects of a practice I did not feel aligned with, both in order to fit in and because I thought my voice was less important and less “spiritual” than those of my peers and teachers, I have taken 7 key lessons from this, that I hope to pass on to all who grace my classes:
1) The only Guru lies within
2) Do not assume, that just because someone is a teacher, "successful", wears white or uses spiritual language, that they know more than you, have embodied those truths or are superior to you. Me included ! Ask questions if anything doesn't make sense to you. Trust your gut.
3) Your voice and wisdom are valuable and important. Speak up (even if your voice shakes). Listen to your knowing. Honour what you know to be true for you. Always. Use your "No!" if something doesn't feel right. Even if everybody else is doing it.
4) Never put gaining favour with another before honouring your truth.
5) Don’t spiritually gas-light yourself (or allow anyone else to) ie. don’t be told or allow yourself to believe you are “less spiritual” for having the thoughts or doing the things you do.
6) Don’t wait for anybody else’s permission to do what makes your heart and body sing
7) Never unwillingly endure or submit to pain or suffering - physically, emotionally or mentally - in the belief that it is supporting your spiritual growth or yogic prowess. Bullshit.
Shakti Yoga, which represents a dynamic union between the structure and freedom, creativity and form, energy and consciousness of masculine and feminine, is rooted in these foundational beliefs of individual sovereignty and dignity, as much as universal equality, and will always seek to support you in discovering the inner riches of your own power and awakened magnificence.