I have an ex-boyfriend who is an ex-Marine. I remember him telling me about the brutality of their bootcamp, the physical limits they crossed and the sheer cruelty of their punishments. I had expected punishment would be something physically demanding, especially gruelling, scary and definitely ultra important. But punishments weren’t like that at all. They were completely useless – which is what made them most effective.

In a schedule that allowed virtually no free time, punishment would be exacted for the smallest infringements – like not putting the cap back on the toothpaste during your two minute “shit, shower, shave”. The offender would be sentenced to a task that was both menial and meaningless, like digging a hole and filling it up again. Raking leaves to scatter them again. Copying every third ‘e’ in a book and burning the pages. For hours.

This is kind of what Kundalini yoga is like. Demoralizing, incredibly cruel, and seemingly futile . However – probably similar to the Marine-style punishment – through performing a set of postures/asanas (called a kriya) that are physically punishing while at the same time seemingly utterly, despairingly useless, you reduce your sense of ‘I’, gaining perspective, toughness, and – dare I say it – you get a glimpse of enlightenment (though I wouldn’t apply the term ‘enlightened’ to that ex of mine).

Take the first asana of the day: raise your arms above your head, fingers closed in a fist except for your thumb which sticks up in the air. Close your eyes. Now start breathing in and out of your belly, using your abdominal muscles to both expand and contract the abdomen. Contraction expels the air out of your nose. Quick, short, deep breaths are the point here. Sounds easy, right? Try it. For 5 unending, hell-fire-in-you-arms, dry-arid-nostril minutes.

Somehow you survived? Great, let’s go on to the next asana. Extend your arms in front of you inline with your shoulders. Again, hands are in tight fists (thumb touches the inside of your first pinky knuckle on the palm). Circle your wrists in opposite directions. After minute 3 try to keep breathing even though you would prefer to let the black relief of unconsciousness wash over you instead.

One more? Again, raise clenched fists above the shoulders, not in defiance but in divine surrender to your evil Kundalini teacher who is dressed completely in white with a puritan headscarf but is really the devil incarnate. Elbows are straight, arms at a 60 degree angle above the head. Now all you have to do is release the fist and stretch your fingers wide. Close fist. Repeat. 6,000 times or until Death finally finds you and you cry out of sheer relief and joy that the pain is finally going to be over.

Can a Marine do this? I really would love to know.

For me, it’s incredibly similar to Vipassana meditation (one day I’ll write a post about that as it was one of the most important and formative experiences of my life, but for a good introduction check out this blog here). The process  followed in Vipassana and Kundalini is full of completely self-inflicted pain and suffering. However, a moment comes – if you’ve really committed to it – where you transcend the agony and you stop hearing the screams of the million dying neurons in your crossed legs, and you instead feel your body as an entity that is not exactly you. You’re still there, still inflicting torture on yourself, and you’re in complete control. However you have this deep understanding that your body isn’t what you are. You discover this sense of separateness from the basic physical and mental form and realize there’s this wondrous power of observation, of seeing yourself with a body instead of just integrated with all of the physical world. It’s magic.

(Or maybe just masochism and delusion.)