As a Kundalini Yoga teacher, and a transpersonal counsellor who uses meditation as a therapeutic intervention, I am continually amazed by how profoundly this range of interventions can bring about deep, lasting change. I find it exciting that Western science has caught up with what yogic texts have been teaching for thousands of years. I would like to share with you my understanding of the science of meditation, most specifically in the Kundalini tradition, but also drawing parallels to other branches of altered state technologies, such as shamanic practice and transpersonal psychology.
Meditation often involves turning attention to a single point of reference. Different meditative disciplines encompass a wide range of spiritual or psychophysical practices that may emphasise different goals—from achievement of a higher state of consciousness, to greater focus, creativity or self-awareness, or simply a more relaxed and peaceful frame of mind. Eastern meditation techniques have been adapted and increasingly practiced in Western culture.
One of the pioneers of the transpersonal psychology movement, Charles Tart, was the first to coin the term ‘altered state of consciousness’ (ASC), for ‘any state different from our ordinary waking state (OWS)’, or beta state. In transpersonal theory, ASCs are either ergotropic (arousing or stimulating) or trophotropic (relaxing and quietening), and have a positive and negative expression. The word ‘transpersonal’ means ‘beyond the mask’, and in plain English it means to work with someone in a therapeutic way, beyond their ‘public face’ or the mask of their ego with the intention of ascribing greater meaning and purpose to the client’s experiences. As I mentioned earlier, I get really excited because in my view, there is a great deal of crossover between the transpersonal and the Kundalini Yoga models. Another one of my heroes, Carl Jung, gave a lecture in 1932 called The Psychology of Kundalini Yoga, and in it he explains how Kundalini Yoga gave him a model for the development of consciousness. In it, he said, ‘comprehension of Eastern thought is essential if Western psychology is to develop’.
Yogi Bhajan describes meditation as “the art of breaking habits, to purify the mind and to take care of the day-to-day things”. In his lecture, ‘Meditation: a simple process’ he states the following: “Meditation is a process. When the dawn comes, the sun power, the ray energy, is more scattered and the mind is not controllable. At any time which is peaceful—the best is early morning time, before the dawn—you’ll be surprised, that in a couple of minutes, a lot of thoughts will start coming to you—those thoughts which you do not want to touch—the x-rated thoughts, the ugly, angry thoughts, all those kind of thoughts. If you let those thoughts pass by, this is meditation. All those thoughts that can pass at that moment of your life can never enter your subconscious mind, and they will not bother you again. This procedure of cleansing the mind of not dumping a lot of thoughts into your subconscious mind is called meditation. It takes about three minutes to get those kinds of thoughts. And sometimes they continue to bug you for about half an hour. But if you physically don’t move, the mind becomes still.”
My definition of meditation is thus: a means of returning to one’s true nature—the space that resides behind our behaviours, behind our beliefs, behind the chatter and the noise. It is our birthright. The key here is that it is the process involved with reaching these outcomes, rather than the outcomes themselves. There is a widespread perception that meditation is sitting in lotus, hands in gyan mudra, eyes closed, and the mind is still. Oh, that it were so easy! Kundalini Yoga meditation utilises a range of technologies for entering into the neutral mind space quickly and efficiently. Most of us don’t have the time to go into retreat for years, months, or even weeks to explore and uncover the self, meaning that practices such as those taught by Yogi Bhajan are precious in this time.
It could be said that meditation is the most important aspect of Kundalini Yoga, given that all other aspects of the practice (asana, mudra and mantra) are leading to the ‘silence’, point of balance, or entry point to the neutral mind. Kundalini Yoga is an exact science, meaning that specific meditations can be ‘prescribed’ for specific outcomes ie relief for addictions.
The mantra, ‘ong namo guru dev namo’ is an incantation; the Kundalini Yoga equivalent of shamanic induction of an ASC by calling in the assistance of the Golden Chain, or the lineage from which Kundalini Yoga is derived. It has the effect of elevating us to the frequency or vibration of the teachings.
Altered state technology has been used since the dawning of time to bring about healing. Shamans go into an ASC using a technology such as drumming, and induce altered state of consciousness in the ‘patient’ for a healing outcome’. Fast forward to today, where we can treat the cause of a malaise by going to its source and using altered state technology, such as sound, for a healing outcome. I do this with my own clients with energy healing and even some transpersonal counselling interventions, such as focusing. Focusing uses vocal repetition and encouragement to guide a client to go within, getting them to move into a theta state, they are able to locate a ‘felt sense’ which is a physical manifestation of the issue. The difference between working with altered states in a therapeutic, investigative sense and in an experiential, ‘yogic’ sense, is that the latter is more about clearing and releasing such phenomena, while the therapeutic means involves interaction with the phenomena for meaning making and possibly, integration.
When speaking about ASC, it is important to first identify what a ‘state’ is. We can speak about a ‘consensual reality’, or OWS. This is the state of consciousness (SOC) that the largest percentage of society functions within most of the time. It should also be noted that this wide frequency bandwidth takes into it those intoxicants such as caffeine.
It could be said that scientifically quantifying profoundly personal, elevated and spiritual experiences is reductionist. It is my belief that by explaining something like meditation from a scientific, evidence-based way, the message is more effectively spread to a wider audience, who would become disengaged by the prospect of embarking on any practice that could be termed ‘spiritual’. Ironically, humans have always sought ASCs via use of medicine plants such as tobacco and ayahuasca, which were used to access SOCs for the wisdom and insight that the plant’s spirit afforded them. Fast forward to 2009, when on any given evening, a huge proportion of the human population uses alcohol and other recreational drugs to ‘wind down’, ‘switch off’ or to ‘connect’ with others. It is my belief that all of these descriptions point to a yearning for elevation and connection to an authenticity and depth not accessible in the OWS. It is also pertinent to mention that any elevation in consciousness in a vibrational sense will also have a corresponding effect on that person’s psychospiritual development; however, this is a thesis topic in and of itself!
SOCs are categorised or identified in a neuroscientific manner by measuring brainwaves in hertz (Hz), or cycles per second. Most of the early brainwave research was concerned with sleep studies. There are five distinct brain wave frequency ranges, or SOCs: beta, alpha, theta, delta and the lesser-known gamma. The higher the frequency, (which, confusingly, will equate to a lower number of cycles per second) the more subtle, or elevated the SOC is.
Beta (14-40Hz): Beta brain waves are associated with the OWS and a heightened state of alertness, logic and critical reasoning. As one goes about one’s daily activities, one is in beta. Although important for effectively functioning in everyday life, higher beta levels translate into stress and anxiety. The voice of beta is the voice of one’s inner critic, which becomes louder and more relentless the higher you go in the range. Internal chatter stops one from being in this moment, creating a filter through which one’s view of the world must pass. This causes a perception of ‘separateness’.
Alpha (7.5-14Hz): Alpha brain waves are present in deep relaxation with the eyes usually closed and while daydreaming. The relaxed, detached awareness achieved during the first three minutes of meditation is characteristic of alpha and is optimal for programming the mind for success. Alpha heightens the imagination, visualisation, memory, learning and concentration. It lies at the base of one’s conscious awareness and is the gateway to the subconscious mind. The voice of alpha is intuition, which becomes clearer and more profound the closer one gets to 7.5Hz.
Theta (4-7.5Hz): Theta brain waves are present during deep meditation and light sleep, including the REM dream state. Theta is the realm of the subconscious. It is also known as the twilight state as it is normally only briefly experienced as one drifts off to sleep (from alpha) and arise from deep sleep (from delta). A sense of deep spiritual connection and oneness with the Infinite can be experienced at theta. These theta states are also associated with shamanic “journeying” experiences, and could be used to quantify the state of aradhana. Vivid visualisations, great inspiration, profound creativity, insight as well as the mind’s most deep-seated programs and patterns are all at theta. The voice of Theta is silence.
Delta (0.5-4Hz): The delta frequency is the slowest and is present in deep, dreamless sleep and in very deep, transcendental meditation where awareness is completely detached. Delta is the realm of your unconscious mind. It is the gateway to the Universal mind and the collective unconscious whereby information received is otherwise unavailable at the conscious level. Delta is associated with deep healing and regeneration, underlining the importance of deep sleep to the healing process. I believe it is possible that this is the state reached during group sadhana, in those moments of chanting that feel so sweet and unified.
The Alpha-Theta border, from 7 to 8Hz, is the optimal range for visualization, mind programming and using the creative power of one’s mind. It is the mental state at which one consciously creates one’s reality. At this frequency of mind control there is consciousness of one’s surroundings but the body is in deep relaxation. This is the state range most commonly experienced during Kundalini Yoga practice, when one’s SOC has been elevated by tuning into the Golden Chain.
Gamma (above 40Hz): The most recently discovered range is gamma, which is the fastest in frequency at above 40Hz (some researchers do not distinguish beta from gamma waves). Although little is known about this state of mind, initial research shows gamma waves are associated with bursts of insight and high-level information processing.
Research has also shown clear and repeated evidence of brainwave frequency patterns below the traditionally accepted lowest delta rhythms of 0.5 Hz. This would be brainwave activity as slow as one quarter cycle per second, one frequency per 10 seconds, per one minute, or even longer. Indications of ultra-slow frequencies are evident on the EEG traces of certain patients experiencing extraordinary SOCs. These states seem to be associated with very high states of meditation, ecstatic states of consciousness, high-level inspiration states, spiritual insight and out-of-body experiences (OOBEs). Some of the higher yogic states of suspended animation associated with deepest delta brain states actually continue deeper into these below-delta brainwave states, which could be described as epsilon (called epsilon, since it is the next Greek letter of the alphabet after delta), and could be used to quantify the yogic state of prabhupati.
Now, having identified the SOC when discussing meditation, or the ‘what’, it is time for the ‘how’. Yogi Bhajan brought techniques to elevate us via group consciousness in preparation for the coming of the Aquarian Age. A quiet mind is our birthright, as is movement from fear-based consciousness to our highest (or deepest) truths—beta to theta. Kundalini Yoga meditation is not a passive, enjoyable activity. Unlike some meditative traditions, Kundalini yoga and meditation help us become aware of our wounds to provide strength and perspective to consciously and compassionately release them.
The technologies that we use in Kundalini Yoga to induce a meditative SOC can be mantra or sound, breath (pranayam), mudra, dhristis (focal points for the eyes) or mental focus (usually used with silence or with a silent use of mantra). Yoga exercises and pranayam are used to prepare the mind and body for meditation by balancing the nervous system and stimulating the subtle energies of the chakras and nadis. Arguably, the most potent branch of any meditative traditions is that which uses sound, otherwise known as Naad Yoga. Everything in the material universe is made up of sounds of differing frequencies—the higher the frequency, the less dense the matter. The range of sound technologies, or mantras, used in Kundalini Yoga, is known as the Shabd Guru (or Sha, ‘ego’, bd ‘shut off’ Gu, ‘darkness’, ru ‘light’). Use of mantra has a physical, as well as etheric vibration. This vibration, or sound current resounds the pressure points in the upper palate of the mouth, which, in turn, activates the hypothalamic-pituitary axis (HPA), or the place in the centre of the brain between the pituitary and the hypothalamus. A meditation that utilises this technology is Kirtan Kriya. The hypothalamus activates the pituitary, and the pituitary governs the function of the entire endocrine system, which produces hormones and neuropeptides that regulate energy levels, moods, one’s sexuality and the immune system.
The length of time one has to devote to meditation also has a varied affect. Western science doesn’t have a great deal to say on this topic, so we will look at some yogic theories. Three minutes affects the electromagnetic field and the circulation, potentially moving the practitioner into theta state. Eleven minutes changes the nerves and glands. Twenty-two minutes balances the three minds (positive, negative and neutral), meaning they can work in harmony. Thirty-one minutes ‘allows the glands, breath, and concentration to affect all the cells and rhythms of the body, and is said to affect the three gunas, 31 tattvas and all layers of the mind’s projections’. Sixty-two minutes integrates the subconscious and the outer projection. ‘Two-and-half-hours changes the psyche in its correlation with the surrounding magnetic field so that the subconscious mind is held firmly in the new pattern by the surrounding Universal mind’. There is also the use of sadhana with meditation (ie the use of a forty-day practice to train the subconscious to release thoughts or habits that do not serve the practitioner any longer. Forty days changes the habit, ninety days confirms the new habit, one hundred and twenty days integrates the new habit into one’s being, and one thousand days masters the habit.
As follows is a snapshot of the physical and psychological benefits of meditation, as identified via a range of scientific research methods. Use of Kundalini Yoga meditation technologies can affect the body/mind in four major ways:
• Autonomic nervous system branches (sympathetic and parasympathetic). “Positive, calming thoughts can heighten immunity, by causing the nervous system to shift into its healing, rest-and-repair branch (the parasympathetic branch)’
• The endocrine system, which regulates hormone secretion and other chemicals such as cortisol, serotonin and norepinephrine that cause our moods and the experience of vitality and being energised
• Enhances our immune response (due to the above two effects)
• ‘Tunes’ the central nervous system and recalibrates senses (sight, smell, touch, hearing, taste and more)
Other proven facts about the effects of meditation, thanks to the research of Dr Herbert Benson:
• The calming hormones of melatonin (released by the pineal gland) and serotonin are increased by meditation, and stress hormone cortisol is reduced. Melatonin affects the sleep-wake cycle
• 34 percent of chronic pain sufferers were able to reduce their medication when they began meditating
• Mediators secrete more of the youth-related hormone DHEA, which helps to decrease stress, heighten memory, preserve sexual function and control weight
• Meditation has a profound effect upon three key indicators of ageing: hearing, close-range vision and blood pressure
Meditation has been found to be useful in the treatment of the following:
• Addictions, the full spectrum of ‘mood disorders’ including depression, anxiety, and bipolar
• It has been found to lessen the suffering caused by schizophrenia, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
• Neurological conditions such as epilepsy and multiple sclerosis
• Migraines, inflammatory afflictions such as arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome, menstrual irregularity—given that there are a range of meditations centred around each chakra, and that most physical malaise can be attributed to either a deficiency or an excess in one or more of these centres, there seems to be a meditation to work on most incidences of dis-ease!
On the effect of sound:
• Lowered heart rate, blood pressure, stress hormones, lymphatic circulation, enhanced release of endorphins, increased immune system function
Gaining knowledge of ASCs and utilising these SOCs via meditation enhances one’s ability to make use of the gifts that each state provides. Thus, one can benefit from being mentally productive in a wide range of activities such as intense focus, relaxation, creativity and restful and rejuvenating sleep. Having found meditation as a teaching and healing tool fills me with gratitude and confidence alike, and it is a joy to witness the profound changes in those with whom I have shared Kundalini Yoga meditations. Without having discovered meditative practice, I feel that I would be rather lost and alienated from my true essence. Instead, with daily sadhana involving meditation, no matter where I am, I will always be home.
‘Meditation as Medicine’ by Dharma Singh Khalsa, MD & Cameron Stauth
‘Kundalini Yoga Meditation’ by David S Shannahoff-Khalsa
‘The Aquarian Teacher’ by Yogi Bhajan
‘The Psychology of Kundalini Yoga: Notes of the Seminar given in 1932 by CG Jung’ CG Jung
Whole Body Meditations by Lorin Roche
Altered States of Consciousness by Charles Tart